Last weekend I traveled to Santa Monica to see the new film Milk because I couldn’t wait until this Friday when it opens here in Santa Ana.
It’s a powerful film well put together and even though the ending is known and revealed at the beginning, it still comes as a shock. I actually forgot I was watching Sean Penn. Playing a prominent role in the latter part of the film is the Briggs Initiative, 1978’s Proposition 6 and it got me to thinking about this year’s Proposition 8.
Beginning with Prop 6, there have been several ballot initiatives of concern to or targeted at the LGBT community. In order, they are, as best I can recollect, Propositions 6, 64, 69, 96, 98, 102, 22, and 8. Remember that about 10 years ago, the number designation mechanism changed which is why these numbers appear out of sequence.
Prop 6, courtesy of Orange County’s very own State Senator John Briggs and promoted heavily by singer Anita Bryant, would have banned gays and lesbians as well as those who support them from teaching. It was defeated.
Prop 64 (1986) was sponsored by Lyndon LaRouche. He wanted HIV/AIDS restored to communicable disease status. If passed, it was widely thought to lead to anyone with or perceived to have HIV or AIDS being quarantined. Orange County has a special association with Prop 64. One of the most vocal and visible proponents of the initiative was William Dannemeyer who preceded Dana Rohrabacher in Congress. It was defeated.
Prop 69 was a rerun in 1988 of Prop 64. It failed.
Prop 96 was passed in 1988. It mandated HIV testing of certain arrestees.
Prop 22 in 2000 said “Only marriage between a man an a woman is valid or recognized in California.” It passed.
During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, HIV/AIDS was portrayed as a “gay” disease though the evidence at the time clearly indicated it never was confined to gay men. Indeed, the first official name for it was GRID, gay-related immune deficiency, having already been unofficially called the gay cancer. Consequently, the ballot initiatives targeting HIV/AIDS were reasonably thought to be targeting gay people and gay men in particular. At the time, there was absolutely no doubt about that, despite or because of the denials of the proponents.
So here we are in 2008. And we narrowly lost Prop 8. Prop 22 prevented rights and was effectively, though not specifically, overturned by the California Supreme Court this past May. Unlike the other propositions, Props 6 and 8 take away existing rights (Prop 8), or would have (Prop 6).
In 1978, the people who ran the No campaign against Prop 6 were not the wizened “professionals” like those who “ran” the No on 8 campaign this year and failed utterly.
It saddens me to say this because, though I didn’t know it during the campaign, some of them are known to me for having worked together when we were younger. To be clear, I was never an A-list activist. At best, I was a B- or C-Lister, very active and involved over a period of about 25 years. I “retired” in the mid-90’s for three reasons. I was in a relationship, I’d served my shift, and, most importantly, it was time to make way for younger people with fresh perspectives, new ideas, and more energy. And it is painfully obvious now that they are the people who should have run the No on 8 campaign.
My first thought about dinosaurs like me was that they should have stepped aside but I was reminded that some of us dinosaurs are wise enough to recognize a good idea even when it isn’t ours. Those dinos should have been consulted.
Many of the people who ran the No on 6 campaign are still around. Someone should seek them out and ask questions. Same with No on 64. Ask all the who, what and how questions. Learn from them but don’t ask them to do the heavy lifting. They served their shift. And brilliantly. The times were very different in 1978 and it was no minor miracle that Prop 6 was defeated on with a very comfortable margin. Those campaign folks demonstrated a mind-set we didn’t see this time. With all the progress and changes in attitude about LGBT people since then, it is staggering that Prop 8 passed.
There has been a ground swell of anger and involvement since the passage of Prop 8. Town hall meetings sprang up all over the state and country. It’s been amazing and reassuring to read about. It is the sort of effort that led to the defeat of 6, 64, 69, and 102. Sad to note that there was no such meeting here in Orange County, though I hear rumors one is being planned for some time in the future.
The last time there was this kind of emotion was in the mid-80’s with 64, 96, and 102. Perhaps the campaign from then that is most relevant to this discussion was the LaRouche Initiative, Prop 64. There was a groundswell of interest and activity within the LGBT community and it was mostly driven by fear. It was, in part, fear of the new disease, to be sure, but mostly it was fear about how those who tested positive for the AIDS antibody or were perceived to be at risk would be treated. Among the No crowd, there were many people who said, just hang on, we can get our arms around this — there’s no need to panic. Cooler heads prevailed.
The No campaign evolved simultaneously on two levels. The wealthy, entrenched A-List Gays (women and men) wanted a high-profile campaign. The grassroots gays (again, women and men) thought a grassroots campaign would be more effective. Well, after some delicate (read: loud) discussions, it was determined that a successful campaign would require both. Some would say that a detente was reached between the two schools of thought.
Now, I should say before going farther, that the grassroots people came together by happenstance based on a shared goal. Many of them had been involved in starting the agencies and organizations we now take for granted — ASF, APLA, Being Alive, Shanti, AIDS Hospice Foundation, and many, many more. Some, like Ivy Bottini (NOW) and Bob Craig (Frontiers Newsmagazine), had longer rÃ©sumÃ©s. A few, Eric Rofes among them, came from long-established organizations (LA Gay and Lesbian Center). They took it upon themselves, sought each other out; nobody anointed them.
In 1978, we had a leader, Harvey Milk, who with others was able to channel energies and effort. In the mid-80s, there was no single leader. It was a community effort, diverse and broadly based. As with No on 6, many of those involved were young and energetic and they brought a deep well of talent and resourcefulness.
Initially, the perception among many of the grassroots was that the A-Listers felt entitled to operate the campaign. More than one A-Lister expressed less than complimentary thoughts about the blue jeans crowd. From one person to another and on both sides, there were varying degrees of each resenting the other. And miracle of miracles, a solid working relationship developed! The two groups shared office space on Wilshire Boulevard and figured out how to divide the work. Both raised money. Both worked at what they were best suited for. And what I’m talking about here is only the Southern California component. There was a Northern component, too. It was rather like the recent town halls. Ultimately there was a solid measure of respect, each for the other.
As best as I can tell, some of the people with senior positions in the No on 8 campaign were active in the No on LaRouche campaign. Yet somehow, they seem to have forgotten the lessons of that one. Or perhaps they thought those lessons were now irrelevant. Whatever their thinking, they were obviously very wrong.Â Apart from that, they completely lacked organization and ran a fatally flawed campaign. For details about that aspect, check out Aurelio Rojas’s piece in the Sacramento Bee, Karen Ocamb’s in IN Magazine and Tim Dickenson’s in Rolling Stone.
The real challenge is to consider this: what are we missing this time around? Do we have someone who can step into the role of a unifying leader who, like Harvey Milk, is willing to risk nearly everything for the common good? Do we lack common goals, a willingness to work together, proper planning, or community involvement? In 1978 and 1986 people took enormous risks. This time it was safe. Too safe by half. And it failed. Apparently no one risked anything; no one took chances. The aphorism, nothing ventured; nothing gained takes on a new dimension.
Although no one has asked, here’s my prescription for future initiatives, whether it’s to repeal Prop 8, or any other such effort. Don’t forget the lessons of fighting the Briggs and LaRouche Initiatives. Take a page from the Obama campaign. Get out front and early. Understand and focus the message. Get meaningful grassroots involvement. Build coalitions. Set the core values of the campaign, provide some tools for implementation and then get out of the way of the front line people. Harness the tools of today. Direct voter contact and visibility are as important as glamorous Beverly Hills fundraisers and TV commercials with impeccable production values. Take risks.
Meanwhile, don’t scapegoat any group of voters; doing so will make it more difficult to win them over next time. The failure wasn’t the the people who voted yes. Voters are notoriously under-informed on ballot initiatives (and judges and…and…etc.). It’s not their fault that the little information they got was distorted or untrue. The failure was the No on 8 campaign. The future of the LGBT community and the aftermath of Prop 8 cannot be entrusted to Equality California or the Human Rights Campaign, who should go back to Washington to do what they do best, whatever that is.
The LGBT community has come too far since Stonewall, Harvey Milk, and the Briggs Initiative to permit the incompetence of the No on 8 campaign to happen again. The old guard needs to step somewhat to the side in favor of younger people who bring the talent and resourcefulness – and a far greater understanding of the mechanisms for organizing and communicating in today’s world.
And by the way, go see Milk this weekend. It’s really a good film.