California marriage equality groups risk rights for petty rivalry

A rivalry between California’s two largest marriage equality organizations to publicly define the timeline of repealing Proposition 8 has become a bitter spat that threatens to cripple the effort.

On August 12, Equality California (EQCA) announced their decision to put an initiative to repeal anti-marriage Proposition 8 on the 2012, rather than the 2010 ballot. As the self-described largest queer rights advocacy group in California, EQCA deciding to wait until 2012 received statewide coverage and was perceived as representative of the LGBT activism community as a whole.

EQCA was the defendant not only in the original 2008 California Supreme Court case in which same-sex marriage was first allowed, but also in the 2009 case to challenge Proposition 8 after its passage. EQCA has traditionally set the agenda for marriage equality in California, even passing a bill in the state legislature Wednesday night to recognize same sex marriages from other states.

Still, several organizations who were fighting for 2010 before the announcement have not backed down. EQCA’s primary competitor for funds and political clout in the California marriage equality fight is the Courage Campaign, which works on myriad political issues unrelated to equality.

After meeting a $100,000 fundraising goal for the 2010 initiative and announcing intentions to move forward, Courage Campaign sent out emails campaigning for lobbying reform, health insurance reform, farmworker deaths, and fighting Maine’s similarly egregious Proposition 1.

The Courage Campaign’s varied public activities do not match their commendable equality agenda. Meriting no comparable newspaper headline to EQCA, Courage Campaign has quietly continued to subvert EQCA’s efforts and fundraising for a 2010 campaign.

One such smaller marriage advocacy group, Love Honor Cherish, openly plans to move forward with the 2010 initiative. It could not be more obvious that Love Honor Cherish intends to fundraise, gather signatures, and put an initiative on the 2010 ballot for marriage equality. They wrote a blueprint describing exactly how it will hypothetically happen. Furthermore, the California Coalition for Marriage Equality, which includes the Courage Campaign, met in late August to strategize. Lawyers are currently vetting the language for the proposed initiative.

Equality California’s hegemony over marriage equality organizations should be challenged from time to time. But, as two leaders from a San Francisco LGBT Democratic club argue:

The current situation is untenable. Both factions are working with one hand tied behind their backs. The 2010 proponents are moving ahead with an undeveloped, piecemeal strategy with very little fundraising support or infrastructure. While we commend their energy and commitment, this is an overly risky way of running a campaign when so much is at stake.

A March 2009 Field Poll showed that a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage would receive 48% support, and 47% opposition among Californians. Same-sex marriage advocacy groups still have much ground to gain. Still, the lesson to be learned is that whether 2010, 2012, or both, the year that we push for equality does not matter.

Repealing 8 in 2012 has many advantages; four more years of elderly voters will be removed from the rolls and four more years of young voters will be added, two more years of Californians will come out to their families and friends, volunteers have two more years to regroup after post-2008 burnout, and the 2012 presidential voter turnout will be significantly greater than the 2010 turnout for the gubernatorial election. Yet by bringing the issue of marriage equality back into the public eye sooner, in 2010, the repeated messaging will allow for greater visibility and acceptance of queer California culture.

This conflict between organizations is why we will fail, if we fail, in 2010. EQCA and Courage Campaign both recognize why we lost in 2008, but overlook their obvious failure to collaborate now. The No on 8 support from the San Francisco Bay Area was channeled into ineffective campaign methods– to borrow a phrase from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, California’s queer community lacked “unit cohesion.” Bigotry was codified because its opponents ran a bad campaign, preaching mainly to supporters of same sex marriage. Visibility, or holding signs with slogans on a street corner, was considered effective campaigning. It’s not.

Fortunately, both Equality California and Courage Campaign have demonstrated their commitment to a statewide ground campaign to win allies where there were none in 2008. Unfortunately, completely failing to communicate, the two have separately set up dozens of competing field offices in California counties from which to run their equality campaigns.

In college in California, I don’t feel the urgency of marriage, but I do feel the urgency of my rights. Assuming the coalition pushing for 2010 is successful, there are thirteen months left before 40 million Californians vote on marriage again. If they intend to win, the Courage Campaign must stop closeting their direct involvement in the 2010 ballot measure, and sit down with EQCA to strategize. Neither organization can succeed without the other. Do it right, or don’t waste the time and hopes of queer Californians.

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