Op-ed: To Get Ready for November, Look Back to Maine
In Washington state, another round in the same-sex marriage battle began last week. It’s called R-74, in which those opposed to us gay and lesbian folk being allowed to wed collected enough signatures to put our right to say “I do” up for a majority vote.
In 2009 in Maine, it was called “Question One,” a marriage referendum campaign that I lived, breathed and covered as we made our documentary – Question One. For three months, I gained incredible access to both sides of the campaign. My camera was embedded from the moment signatures were gathered all the way through to the days after our defeat.
What happened during those three months and what we were able to capture offers valuable lessons not only for Washington, but also for the four other states that will hold marriage referendums in November. And what we learned informs the bigger picture on whether gays and lesbians can achieve full equality in this country. But the lessons didn’t come easy.
Personally, filming “Question One” was a twisted journey that forced me back into the closet. Then as a filmmaker I was stumped by how to tell the story of the opponents. Before I could learn anything about what happened and share it with audiences, I would have to understand the opponents. Eventually a realization made that possible.
For the first month or so in Maine, things pretty much played out as expected. The leaders spouted their party lines. The foot soldiers echoed. And the playbook used by professional marriage opponents Schubert and Flint in the Prop. 8 campaign in California was once again trotted out to create fear and raise doubts. They once again diverted the conversation from marriage to schools and kids.
No big surprises — until the campaign chairman of “Yes On One,” Marc Mutty, started talking. And talking. And talking.
“I fear I will be remembered for the work I did on this campaign,” lamented Mutty during the first of many interviews I had with him at his home. The interviews, as the campaign went on, became part therapy and many part confessional. “I’m not particularly fond of being remembered as the star bigot in Maine,” he said, “the one who led the charge to deny gays and lesbians of their fundamental civil rights, which is how it will be painted I fear.”
Not exactly what I expected to hear admitted by a loyal soldier true to his cause. Mutty, a few years away from getting his pension, was approached by Portland Archbishop Richard Malone to run the “Yes On One” campaign. According to Mutty, same-sex marriage was not an issue that he felt particularly strongly about – one way or another. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Mutty agreed to running “yes.”
“If the Bishop gave you a choice?” I asked him, “would you have done it?”
“No!” he said, with eyes widening and a voice firm. “No! This was not of my choosing.”
When I interviewed Mutty at the start of his campaign, he described himself as being, “the chief cook and bottle washer.” But as the campaign went on, and layers started to be peeled off of the veneer, it became clear that Mutty was no chief cook. He never even came close to the kitchen.
What I soon discovered was that nothing was being run by Mutty — or run by anyone in Maine. The shotswere all being fired from the other side of the country, in downtown Sacramento, California – where the offices of political strategy firm Schubert and Flint Public Affairs were located.
Mutty was merely a local figurehead put into place by the bishop and the National Organization of Marriage to create the façade that the campaign was being run by Mainers for Marriage. Thinking he could make a Faustian pact with the devil and beat the odds, Mutty genuinely felt at the start that he could run this campaign “in a way that wouldn’t offend.”
Clearly he underestimated the emotions and passions and what this issue deeply means to us. He also underestimated the likes of Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint, who quickly sidelined and steamrolled him, eventually leaving Mutty with no meaningful leadership role other than being the public, local face of a campaign in which he became the vilified target and focus of ridicule and scorn.
On the eve of the election, eyes swollen and red, a distraught Mutty through whiskey-slurred speech looked straight into the camera and bleated: “This has been a fucking son of a bitch. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it."
As Mutty was experiencing his personal conundrums, I was undergoing a few of my own.
I did not disclose to the “yes” folk that I was gay. And while I should never need to disclose my sexuality (to them or anyone else), there was still a part of me left feeling a bit guilty that I might be seen as pulling a fast one.
More and more as I entered the opponents’s world, their guard got lowered and they freely shared their thoughts and feelings about “those” people – people like me. From the preposterous to the patronizing, the pious to the predictable, I heard it all.
I would sit face to face with these people or in meetings not daring to show the slightest emotion. The tone of my questions was overly cautious for fear that I might tip my hat if someone detected a twinge of aggression, hostility or challenge in my voice. It made me sick forcing myself to concentrate so intently on the words people were saying versus the rage I was feeling. My innards could not take it any longer, and I needed to excuse myself, find a bathroom in a hurry and throw up.
By going back into the closet again, I needed not only to hide who I was but also I became paranoid that at any moment I would be “discovered.” I tried with all my might to suppress any sort of flamboyancy and tried to tap into “straight” behavior (whatever the hell that was) that I would parse and analyze each word, sentence or gesture to determine if I sounded “gay.” Too Gay. Or very, very gay.
“In that interview,” I would frantically ask my co-director, Jay Nubile, “when I laughed after the second question, did that come off as sounding gay?”
“You always sound gay,” he responded.
But ask they never did. And tell I certainly didn’t. And the one thing I said when I woke up each morning was the same thing I said when I went to bed: “Please dear God, just let me make it to the finish line.”
I yearned to connect to their side — and be a hero to ours. I needed to find a way to understand “those” people. Someone really needed to get into their hearts and souls and truthfully tell their stories. And for the life of me I just couldn’t do it.
I have always prided myself in being able to see and argue both sides of any argument, no matter how vehemently opposed I was to the other side. But this was one side in which I was struggling to find the portal that would lead me to that “aha” moment of connection. I never thought, “OK, I might not agree with you, but I could understand where you are coming from.”
“This referendum campaign isn’t about us hating gays,” Pastor Bob Emmerich would say over and over again as part of the campaign stump speech or in scores of television interviews and public debates. “It’s about defending marriage.”
But then when the cameras weren’t rolling – except ours — Emmerich, the co-chairman for the Yes campaign, would add: “The big question that’s behind all of this really has to be answered and asked by individuals: are we as a society ready to give complete approval to homosexuality? Are we prepared to say as a society that it’s normal or healthy or OK? I don’t like being forced into that question, but that’s what it comes down to.”
So, strip down all the political messaging and you end up with: “They’re not healthy. They’re not normal.”
I listened syllable by syllable to their words, punctuated by pauses and long silences and repetition until I realized what drove them and who they really were as people. I would catch campaign volunteer Linda Seavey stopping in mid-sentence, her eyes darting around frantically, unsure of where to go next. “If this issue, if this issue,” said Seavey, “does not go the way, the way that I want to it to…”
“I just… I… I… I…”
A longer pause.
“Because people, people, people just don’t... they don’t…”
Seavey was now silent. For what seemed to be several minutes, she just stared out the window. “Stop there,” she finally concluded.
What was behind Seavey’s stops and starts? Her pauses, I surmised, disguised a feeling of being so overwhelmed by a world that in her view had gone mad. It left her at times unable to talk. Gays being allowed to marry?Seavey was fueled by outrage and a sense of injustice. Things were terribly wrong, and she was powerless to do anything about it.
It was Seavey who now felt like the outsider. And that realization turned out to be my “aha” moment.
Seavey felt trapped on the margins as the world was passing her by. Laws were being approved and her leaders didn’t seem to care what she had to say. My connection with Seavey and others ironically and surprisingly came from my own sense of alienation, not just as someone who is gay but also as someone who was adopted and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. (My dad was a rabbi.)
As I child and onward to adulthood, I have always felt like I was looking in from the periphery, wanting to be accepted but never quite fitting in. Those feelings proved to be my portal to imagining what their world is like. And now I could tell their complex and heartfelt stories in their own weird and wonderful way.
For the duration of the campaign, the “No” side was a true powerhouse. Operationally, they were organized and strategic, running a field campaign that had figured out with military precision (down to the number of knocks on doors needed per day) how to successfully hit their targets.
Quite a different picture emerged on the “Yes” side, where 10 days before the election, the local staff was gathered around a conference table still not knowing what their game plan was for the upcoming critical “get out the vote” phase.
Polls had us up. And even Marc Mutty in the last week proclaimed, “If we win this, it will be a miracle.” But something that happened during the last days told me a win wasn’t in our cards.
Sacramento felt that the public was tiring of the school issue and decided to shift gears. A new ad was developed in which voters were basically given permission to vote “yes” with a clear conscious.
“It’s possible to support the civil rights of all,” implored the warm and friendly voice of the ad, “without redefining traditional marriage.” The ad then went on to list all the benefits that gays and lesbians could get under existing laws like civil unions. It was a stroke of genius, I thought, and one that I imagined could be a game-changer – especially to those few still left in the movable middle.
No one saw it coming. Our side was a little stumped when trying to imagine what Schubert’s “silver bullet” would be in the final days. But what I found even more disturbing was a creeping complacency and over-confidence. The attitude was buoyed by the polling, the huge amount of money raised and the constant stream of national media attention the campaign was getting. While not affecting the operational intensity of the campaign, it might have dulled the sharpness from their overall strategic thinking.
Should I break my pledge and tell them what was coming? Could I even hint a little bit?
I didn’t. I soldiered on, dying to say what I knew but self-assured that when the ad ran, my team would know what to do.
The ad ran. And to my surprise there was no direct counter. No ad hit back to say, civil unions are not the same as marriage. Nothing takes the place of marriage. Here are the consequences of not being allowed to marry.
But it was actually the telephone calls that told me we were doomed. As the “Yes” folk made their phone calls during the final days, they would allow me to listen in by putting the calls on speaker. One call after another, the person on the other end started off leaning toward voting “no.”
“I just want to do the right thing,” said one woman. “I just believe in giving my gay and lesbian neighbors equal rights.”
“Of course you do,” responded the Yes phone banker. “We all do. But you know they have their civil rights. They have all their rights.”
And wouldn’t you know it, seven minutes later, the woman hung up pledging to vote “yes.”
This was an argument that seemed to work. When presented with the “facts” as to how many protections gays and lesbians had and that we really didn’t need marriage to be treated fairly and equally, they were stumped. And in my gut there was a sickening feeling that this could be their silver bullet.
We lost by a seven-point margin, which would suggest there was more than just one factor at play. As I travel around the country showing my film, I am often asked about the lessons Maine can offer, especially this fall when four states (including Maine) are set for marriage referendum battles. And the honest truth is I just don’t know. Or rather, who am I to say?
So, here’s what I do know. Frank Schubert was recently appointed the political director for NOM. His California playbook, imported to Maine then used to his repeated success in North Carolina last May, will likely be employed in every upcoming campaign.
What we can learn from a loss is to see how the other side won. And they won by channeling anger and frustration into something tangible. Aside from that playbook, there’s no magic. Working harder and longer will help gain what is rightfully ours. That’s what I learned from traveling the terrain of Maine and marriage.