Howdy, partners

By Christopher Lisotta

Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2005 11:00 PM ET

When it comes to
getting voters to pass an antigay ballot initiative,
Texas may seem like a lock. Its governor and many of its
lawmakers are overtly antigay and its citizens have a
long record of rejecting gay equality.

But that’s
because the gay rights movement in Texas has been largely a
gays-versus-straights affair, says gay former state
legislator Glen Maxey. And he is working to change
that. Maxey’s No Nonsense in November campaign
is building strong coalitions with straight allies and
organizations to defeat a state constitutional same-sex
marriage ban on the November ballot. And their
partnership has been throwing some antigay leaders for
a loop. “Most people who think about this say
‘Oh, you can’t
win,’ ” Maxey says. “But most
people are coming from a frame of reference from last
year.”

Indeed, voters in
13 states from Oregon to Georgia in 2004 passed
statewide ballot initiatives to amend their constitutions to
ban marriage for same-sex couples. This November,
Texas will be the only state with a marriage ban on
its ballot, and a proposed repeal of a gay-inclusive
nondiscrimination law in Maine is the only other antigay
state initiative.

Unlike the
high-profile presidential and congressional cycle of 2004,
the 2005 election in Texas is a pretty minor affair,
with no statewide offices on the ballot. Maxey
estimates that less than 10% of voters are likely to
vote on Proposition 2, which would ban same-sex marriage as
well as domestic-partnerships. If turnout is that low, an
organized campaign to get progressive voters to the
polls can make the difference between a win and a
loss, Maxey argues. “We are not trying to change the
minds of a million Texans,” he says.

Maxey
isn’t taking a cautious approach or relying on phone
banks to defeat the antigay bill. His No Nonsense
campaign has the support of Democracy for Texas, the
outgrowth organization of Howard Dean’s
presidential bid, which galvanized thousands of young and
progressive voters in the state. “All of us
just came to the consensus it is much too important
not to take a stand,” says Nick Lawrie, a steering
committee member for the 50,000-person organization,
which until now has not endorsed issue campaigns.
Democracy for Texas members are hosting house parties
and organizing “meetups” in at least 20 cities
and regions. Maxey’s unapologetic “We
deserve full equality” message is one of the
things that attracted Lawrie, who was disappointed with the
cautious and sometimes muddled messages
marriage-equality activists used in 2004. “I
don’t see that as a way to win a campaign,” he
says.

Toni Broaddus,
director of Equality Federation, a national organization
of state gay rights groups, agrees with Lawrie, noting that
groups who employed a “We already have a
defense-of-marriage statute” strategy lost
miserably. “We’ve learned some important
things about how we cannot avoid the topic of
marriage,” she says.

Texas lawyer
Anne Wynne wants to talk about marriage. A transportation
commissioner for former governor Ann Richards, Wynne founded
the nonprofit Atticus Circle, a group for straight
allies of marriage equality and gay rights, after the
2004 election. “I thought, Where are the rest
of the people who think like me?” she says.
“Did they not get to the polls?”

Maxey and Wynne
are working together, something that has surprised
marriage-equality opponents. Wynne recently debated
Proposition 2 with one of its chief legislative
sponsors, who was expecting to face someone gay.
“For years nobody has been going up against these
guys except gay people,” Wynne says, noting
that progressive voters are a natural constituency for
marriage-equality issues. “It’s an easy sell.
There are lots of people out there, but we
haven’t gotten on their radar yet.”

In Maine, a
recent poll showed strong voter support in favor of
retaining the threatened antidiscrimination law. But
Jesse Connolly, the straight campaign manager for the
group Maine Won’t Discriminate, isn’t assuming
his side will coast to victory. “We’re doing
things a little differently,” he explains,
noting that in 2000 Maine voters narrowly defeated a
gay rights law. In the past, gay activists focused on the
southern, relatively urban part of the state. Connolly, the
former Kerry-Edwards campaign director for Maine, says
his group has a statewide presence. In addition, the
campaign has gone bipartisan, picking up a former
chair of the Maine Republican Party as one of its senior
leaders. Its leaders have built a larger business
coalition and increased the number of events where
supporters can have face-to-face contact with
undecided voters. “You haven’t seen that in
past campaigns,” Connolly says.

This new way of
thinking has been working its way into statewide
campaigns gearing up for another big round of antigay
initiatives in 2006. Alabama, South Carolina, South
Dakota, and Tennessee are all set to vote on
constitutional same-sex marriage bans. Arizona, Florida,
California, and Wisconsin—the latter having no
existing statute against same-sex marriage—may
also see such initiatives in 2006. “We have the
advantage this year of time,” says Seth Kilbourn,
vice president of the Human Rights Campaign’s
Marriage Project. “We have more time to talk
about same-sex couples and their families, and that’s
going to be key to succeeding in those places.”

Although it is
not certain that California will be on the list of states
with anti–gay marriage initiatives, three separate
ballot measures are gathering signatures. One,
intended for the June 2006 ballot, would not only
constitutionally ban same-sex marriage but repeal most of
the rights and protections already extended to
registered domestic partners. Geoffrey Kors, executive
director for the gay rights group Equality California,
sees Maxey’s No Nonsense campaign as an important new
approach. “This is about coalitions,” Kors
says, noting that his organization has gained support
from religious organizations, business groups, and the
powerful United Farm Workers union. In addition,
California’s chapter of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People became the first to
come out for marriage equality.

Unlike most other
states, where the question of whether to recognize
same-sex couples is hypothetical, the proposed referenda in
California threaten the state’s very real
domestic-partner registry, which over the past four
years has been vastly expanded. Kors thinks this gives his
group more to work with when it comes to winning over
voters. “This will be the first measure that
will roll back existing rights,” Kors explains.

Despite all the
optimism, organizing, and strategizing, Broaddus knows
there are plenty of losses ahead for marriage-equality
advocates. But she takes a wider view: “Even if
we lose a constitutional amendment in the short term,
we have to fight this as a long-term battle,” she
says. “We need to be thinking about full
equality over the next 15 to 20 years.”