Marriage equality: Losing forward

Even if every antigay statewide ballot initiative wins approval on Election Day, argues the country’s leading same-sex marriage activist, the discussion surrounding them will have moved us closer to equality in the long run. After all, we have the truth on our side.

BY Advocate.com Editors

October 27 2004 11:00 PM ET

Wins trump lossesLesson number 1: Wins trump lossesWhile we stand to lose several battles this year, we must remember that wins trump losses.Wins trump losses because each state that ends marriage discrimination gives fair-minded Americans to see and absorb the reality of families helped and no one hurt when the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage ends. Nothing is more transformative, nothing moves the middle more, than making it real, making it personal—and seeing other states join Canada and Massachusetts will be the engine of our victory.Losing forward

Lesson number 2: Ever where we cannot win a given battle, we can still engage and fight so as to at least lose forward, putting us in a better place for the inevitable next battle.Now let me say a little more about this idea of “losing forward.” After all, as someone most famous for the cases I lost, I’ve built an entire career on it.Losing forward is a way that all of us can be part of this national campaign, no matter what our state. Even the more challenged states, the states with the greater uphill climb, the states where we are most outgunned and under attack—even those of us in the so-called red states still have a pivotal part in this national movement and can make a vital contribution.In every state—even those where we cannot win the present battle, but fight so as to lose forward—we have the opportunity to enlist more support, build more coalitions, and make it possible for more candidates and nongay opinion-leaders to move toward fairness. All this contributes to the creation of the national climate of receptivity in which some states may cross the finish line before others but everyone can be better positioned to catch the wave that will come back to every state in this national campaign.Work on the ground in Georgia, for example, can get us a Bob Barr speaking out against the constitutional amendment or make districts safe for African-American leaders or “surprising” voices to speak out in support of marriage equality. Work in Michigan—while perhaps not enough to win this round—can still help enlist prominent labor or corporate leaders to our cause.And working together, this national chorus will indeed swell, with some states further along and all participating, until all are free.Wins trump losses. As long as we repel a federal constitutional amendment and continue to see some states move toward equality, beating back as many attacks as possible and enlisting more diverse voices in this conversation, we will win.Tell the truthsLesson number 3: Tell the truths.Now, the principal reason we are going to take hits this year and lose many, if not all of the state attacks in November is because our opponents are cherry-picking their best targets and depriving the reachable middle of the chance to be reached. They have more of a head start, more money, and more infrastructure through their megachurches and right-wing partners…and fear-mongering at a time of anxiety is easy to do. And of course, historically, it is difficult to win civil rights votes at the early stage of a struggle.But to be honest, there is another reason too that we will not do well in most of these votes this year. Quite simply, our engagement, our campaigns in almost all of these states—are “too little, too late.” We are starting too late to have enough time to sway people to fairness…and we are giving them too little to think about to guide them there. We have to avoid that error in the next wave of battles we face next year, which means, from California to Minnesota, from Wisconsin to Maine, starting not too late, but now, and by saying the word truly on people’s minds, doing it right.Put another way, the country right now is divided roughly in thirds. One third supports equality for gay people, including the freedom to marry. Another third is not just adamantly against marriage for same-sex couples, but, indeed, opposes gay people and homosexuality, period. This group is against any measure of protection or recognition for lesbians and gay men, whether it be marriage or anything else.And then there is the “middle” third—the reachable but not yet reached middle. These Americans are genuinely wrestling with this civil rights question and have divided impulses and feelings to sort through. How they frame the question for themselves brings them to different outcomes; their thinking is evolving as they grapple with the need for change to end discrimination in America.What moves that middle?To appeal to the better angels of their nature, we owe it to these friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens to help them understand the question of marriage equality through two truths:Truth 1: Ending marriage discrimination is first and foremost about couples in love who have made a personal commitment to each other, who are doing the hard work of marriage in their lives, caring for one another and their kids, if any. (Think couples like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who’ve been together more than 50 years.) Now these people, having in truth made a personal commitment to each other, want and deserve a legal commitment.Once the discussion has a human story, face, and voice, fair-minded people are ready to see through a second frame:Truth 2: The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is discrimination; it is wrong, it is unfair, to deny these couples and families marriage and its important tangible and intangible protections and responsibilities. America has had to make changes before to end discrimination and unfair treatment, and government should not be denying any American equality under the law.When we see lopsided margins in these votes, it means that under the gun in the first wave of electoral attacks, we have not as yet reached this middle. We can’t be surprised not to win when in so many campaigns, and over so many opportunities to date (electoral campaigns and just month-to-month conversations), we have failed to give this middle third what they need to come out right.When in the name of “practicality” or advice from pollsters or political operatives we fail to put forward compelling stories and explain the realities of what marriage equality does and does not mean, it costs us the one chance we have to do the heavy lifting that moves people. We wind up not just not winning but not even losing forward.By contrast, consider how we lost forward in California.In 2000 we took a hit when the right wing pushed the so-called Knight initiative and forced an early vote on marriage. We lost the vote, but because there had been some, though not enough, education about our families and the wrong and costs of discrimination, polls showed that support for marriage equality actually rose after the election. And the very next year, activists pressed the legislature to enact a partnership law far broader than had been on the table in California before then. Our engagement over marriage continued, and within a couple years, legislators voted again, this time in support of an “all but marriage” bill, which takes effect this coming January. And California organizations and the national legal groups continue to engage for what we fully deserve—pursuing litigation in the California courts and legislation that would end marriage discrimination.If we do our work right, making room for luck, we may see marriage in California, our largest state, as soon as next year.To go from a defeat in 2000 to partnership and all but marriage in 2004 with the possibility of marriage itself in 2005—that’s called winning.

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