To describe the election results of November 2 as a setback for LGBT rights is an understatement. For months supporters of marriage equality, sympathetic media outlets and many Democratic operatives convinced themselves that Iraq and the economy would trump social concerns. With exit polls showing that 22 percent of voters held “moral values” to be most important, it’s no wonder the eleven states from Utah to Georgia that faced anti-gay marriage amendments saw them enacted by overwhelming margins. An 86-14 split for the amendment in Mississippi isn’t all that surprising, but a 57-43 approval in Oregon–the one state where marriage equality activists felt they had a chance to win–left social conservatives giddy. “This is just the beginning of the revolution for people of faith and conservatives,” said a gleeful Phil Burress, president of Ohio’s Citizens for Community Values.
The blame game has already started, with more than a few Democrats wondering out loud if those uppity gays cost them the presidential election because the issue of marriage lured social conservatives to the polls in record numbers. But such a rush to judgment should not pre-empt a proper postmortem, aimed at finding out why marriage-equality activists lost and how to prevent it from happening again.
Some LGBT activists emphasize that the decks were stacked against them from the beginning. “We expected to lose most if not all of these early votes,” said Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, “because no civil rights movement in its early stages can expect to win an up-or-down vote, especially in states that have never really been at the forefront of civil rights advances in American history.”
November 2 also proved that marriage-equality supporters needed more cash to fight what amounted to the country’s first de facto national referendum, where one in five US voters decided the issue of marriage. Pro-marriage activists in Oregon raised the most–nearly $3 million–but were still outmatched by their opponents. “Oregon shows that when we have closer to the money we need, but not fully the time we need, we are able to come closer to winning,” Wolfson said. “The key to winning the marriage discussion with Americans is for fair-minded people to have enough time to take a deep breath, not just have their hot buttons pushed; see the faces and hear the stories of real families; and get over their anxiety about change.”
Although there is now much talk about what the gay agenda cost Kerry in terms of his presidential bid, some marriage-equality activists pointed out that retaliation didn’t surface at the local level. Chris Swope, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Michigan Equality, noted that even though his state’s amendment (written so broadly that it may prohibit not just gay marriage but civil unions and domestic partner benefits) was passed by an eighteen-point spread, local races showed that voters weren’t punishing progay politicians. Of the twenty-eight candidates Michigan Equality endorsed in Statehouse races, twenty-four ended up winning. “We have a net pickup of two LGBT-supportive legislators that will be in the Michigan House of Representatives,” Swope explained.
The amendment losses overshadowed the one bright spot for LGBT equality on election day, the defeat of Article 12 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Passed in a citywide referendum in 1993, Article 12 changed Cincinnati’s charter to ban any “minority or protected status” of its gay and lesbians citizens, making it one of the most virulently antigay laws in the country. In 2004, a year in which Ohio voters approved a gay marriage ban by twenty-four points and Cincinnati voters turned out for Bush, Article 12 was repealed by more than 10,000 votes. For Justin Turner, campaign manager for Citizens to Restore Fairness, overturning Article 12 meant spending the time and money the state-initiative opponents only dreamed of having. “This campaign was about two years in the making, of going door to door, talking to people and educating people on the issue,” he said, noting that his group had 3,000 volunteers building coalitions with communities across the city. Compare that with the campaign in nearby Kentucky, which had only 2,000-2,500 volunteers working less than a year to defeat the marriage amendment in the entire state.
“We were outspent three to one on the airwaves in the closing weeks of this campaign,” Turner said, “and what we showed was, people can overcome money when people are willing to set aside their differences and have open and honest conversations.”