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In the end it wasn’t even close. While late polling said Maine’s Question #1 was a dead heat, the “Bradley effect” – likely voters wanting to appear to pollsters to be more liberal than they actually were in the voting booth – meant that the pro-gay side lost by a more than five point spread.
Chalk up Maine as failure #31 of attempts to win (or defend) equal marriage rights for same sex couples via statewide referenda. Unlike many of the previous defeats, Maine was SO winnable. This was about as far away from the Bible Belt as you could get. Nearby Massachusetts with its influential media market had for years shown that equal marriage rights didn’t make the sky fall. And for once, pro-gay forces had a huge fundraising advantage over our opponents.
Yet we lost.
Three decades after a much younger and less secure Lesbian and Gay movement soundly defeated California’s anti-gay Briggs Amendment in far more difficult circumstances, you would have thought we’d learned something by now.
The contrast between the movement in the streets of the late 1970s and today’s Madison Avenue media campaigns couldn’t be more stark. The movement three decades ago targeted and successfully labeled its leading opponents as narrow-minded bigots, driving a wedge between them and many voters. It drove home the message that no matter how much Anita Bryant, et al tried to dress up their beliefs in religion, the fact that they opposed equal rights for a whole group of people made them bigots. Pro-gay rallies and marches were held in towns big and small, generating free media and emboldening the rank and file on our side to more aggressively spread our message.
Contrast this to Maine, where the Portland Archdiocese put up 1/5 of the cash for the anti-gay side, yet most pro-gay forces refused to call out church leaders for their support of bigotry, let alone blatant violation of their non-profit status. Pro-gay marches and rallies? From what we could see they didn’t happen – except in distant Washington, DC.
Several Super Bowls ago a small firm that made rubber liners for pick-up truck beds sank its entire ad budget into one short, very effective ad during half time. The firm rocketed to #1 in market share on the basis of that one ad. Despite a tiny budget, effective messaging cut through and trumped the advertising clutter of everyone else.
This year, pro-gay forces far outspent the antis in media buys, but replayed the same ineffective messaging used in the dozens of previous failed campaigns – “gays are people too, please support our rights.”
And the messaging from anti-forces?
They didn’t pull their punches. Gays hurt kids, defend your kids from them. The same effective “save our children” theme that Anita Bryant used a generation ago. Effective messaging trumped volume.
It didn’t have to be. We too can have effective messaging if we’re willing to take the gloves off.
One of the most important legacies of the African American Civil Rights Movement was that it delegitimized forthright bigots in the eyes of many Americans. While certainly a large number of Americans still hold racist and other bigoted views, in many quarters far outside liberal salons, the open adherence to racist views is frowned upon.
Even sections of the far-right try to insulate themselves from criticism by pretending how diverse they are. They’ve seen the career trajectories of Anita Bryant, David Duke and Dr. Laura Schlessinger and know that if they are successfully labeled as bigots, they will have much more difficulty getting or retaining a mass audience.
A generation ago we were able to rapidly dethrone Anita Bryant and roll back her “Save Our Children” campaign through an aggressive campaign based upon protests in the streets that successfully marked her as a hater. On a smaller scale we were able to do the same thing against hate radio hostess “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger with our Stop Dr. Laura campaign a couple decades later. Today we need to do the same thing vs. the local and national proponents of these anti-equal rights ballot initiatives.
No article about the Question 1 debacle would be complete without commenting about the AWOL status of President “I’ll be a fierce advocate” for gay rights Obama. A few days ago when asked President Obama’s position on Question 1, a spokesman said the White House had “no position” on the initiative.
This is actually a step backwards from the convoluted position that candidate Obama had prior to November, when he quietly told gay audiences that he opposed anti-gay initiatives while at the same time not being in favor of our right to marry.
So while the fierce advocate made multiple trips to New Jersey attempting to give life to a corrupt sitting Governor’s reelection campaign, he wasn’t willing to spend a dime’s worth of political capital on the rights of LGBT people. “Fierce advocate” my ass.