Before November 2008, Tanner Efinger was just another 24-year-old working at a bar in the city of West Hollywood, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) center of Los Angeles. “I was really not a political person, even a little bit,” he says. “I didn’t even know who Nancy Pelosi was and didn’t really understand what a senator was.”
But that all changed after the election of Barack Obama and the passage of Proposition 8, the voter referendum that banned same-sex marriage in California. At a postelection Prop 8 rally, it hit Efinger that despite all the cultural assimilation he has witnessed in his young life, gay people were still second-class citizens when it came to legal rights. “It is totally unfair,” he says. “I thought, ‘I know nothing about politics, but what can I do? I don’t even have activist friends.’ So I started Postcards to the President.”
Using his workplace as a catalyst, Efinger encouraged people to write postcards to Obama encouraging him to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal legislation signed by Bill Clinton that defines marriage as something only between one man and one woman. “I like to joke he created a monster, and now he has to be prepared to feed it,” Efinger says, touting Obama’s call for supporters to be the change they believe in. Events at bars in New York and San Francisco followed, along with a website and Facebook page. According to Efinger, more than 15,000 postcards have been sent from thirty states, with his most recent Postcards to the President event taking place in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “It all happened so quickly,” he says. “My life has changed completely.”
Efinger is not alone. Until late last year, LGBT activism had been dominated for more than a decade by a handful of established national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, along with a network of statewide groups. These gay organizations saw scattered progress in the waning days of the Clinton administration and then fought vainly against a tide of state referendums banning gay marriage. But with Obama’s election and the anger that grew out of Prop 8’s unexpected passage, a host of twentysomethings have jumped into the fray with a new set of national strategies, often starting or joining new grassroots organizations that bypass the old guard.
Arisha Michelle Hatch is a 27-year-old attorney in San Francisco who quit her job early last year and began phone-banking for Obama. “I haven’t gone back to the law firm yet,” Hatch explains, noting that in March she joined up with Courage Campaign, a California-based group that is pushing for gay equality. Hatch is now the Southern California field manager for the organization’s equality program. But most recently she was on loan to Maine, fighting Question 1, the statewide same-sex-marriage ban. Hatch was stunned last November when California, which went heavily for Obama, also passed Prop 8. She was even more shocked when news reports connected Prop 8’s passage to majority support from African-Americans. “I don’t want to believe that of my people,” she says. “It is important as a straight African-American woman brought up in a Baptist church to say, This is about equality, and it’s not OK.”