How Prop. 8 Woke Up a Sleeping Gay Giant

Supporters of same-sex marriage huddle outside of the federal courthouse in San Francisco.
Supporters of same-sex marriage huddle outside of the federal courthouse in San Francisco.

The 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California was a devastating setback, the first time that state-sanctioned gay marriage rights were reversed. But it also had an immediate catalyzing effect that drew in and mobilized far more than dejected movement activists. Building on the momentum created by 2004’s “winter of love,” a fresh wave of gays and lesbians who had never before considered themselves activists, who had barely tuned in to the battles and debates swirling around them for decades, were awakened by the outrage they felt that millions of California voters had decided to summarily eliminate their rights and try to erase their dignity. “When do I get to vote on your marriage?” said a popular placard in the ensuing protest rallies across the country, capturing the sentiment of many who previously viewed gay marriage as an impossibility or a fringe luxury.

The protests were, in fact, a continuation of rallies begun before the Proposition 8 vote. In San Diego, more than 7,000 people gathered in the Hillcrest neighborhood the Saturday before the election to urge the measure’s defeat. On Sunday, a hundred people gathered on the side of a canyon in Vallejo County, forming the phrase “no 8” with their bodies. Protests were not confined to California. Pro-gay Mormons held a rally Sunday night that drew 600 people to a rainy candlelight vigil in Salt Lake City, Utah. Referencing “mother bears who defend their cubs,” the event was spearheaded by Mormons with gay children. “This is what happens when people in California say mean things about our gay kids,” said Millie Watts, the chief organizer. “The mothers come out of the closet.” Opponents of same-sex marriage were similarly inspired, as 15,000 religious conservatives met that weekend in an area stadium for a prayer service to support passage of Proposition 8.

All this happened before the election. But the vote itself shocked tens of thousands into action, with a groundswell of street action primarily engaged in by gay rights supporters. In California, daily protests began filling the streets directly following the election. By the following weekend, a new breed of organizers had gotten word out across the country and in several foreign countries that solidarity marches would be held in all fifty states and abroad. As a result, tens of thousands took to the streets. Ten thousand marched in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, a straight supporter of gay rights, arrived by helicopter to rally a similar-sized crowd. Despite the anger shared by so many as a result of Proposition 8’s passage, Villaraigosa struck a positive note, reflecting a new wave of excitement the defeat had galvanized among not just gays but straights. “I’ve come here from the fires because I feel the wind at my back as well,” he said, referring to a string of wild fires then threatening parts of the city. “It’s the wind of change that has swept the nation. It is the wind of optimism and hope.” Four thousand marched in New York City and a thousand in Las Vegas, where the comedian Wanda Sykes was so angered by the vote, saying she felt “personally attacked,” that she made a surprise appearance and came out publicly for the first time. Nearly 1,000 demonstrated in Washington, D.C., despite a tornado watch. Similar protests occurred in hundreds of cities and towns across the country.

The genesis and scope of the protests reflected an important development in the battle for marriage equality and activism generally, as the impetus behind much of the popular participation was not the urging or organizing of major national gay rights groups. Instead, the near-spontaneous rallies were sparked largely by online networks: emails, Facebook, Twitter, and text chains. Major LGBT groups did, of course, use online networks to help mobilize troops against Proposition 8, both before and after the vote. At the postelection Los Angeles press conference chastising Mormons for their involvement in the Proposition 8 battle, Lorri Jean, head of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, announced the creation of a new website, www.InvalidateProp8.org, that would allow people to donate to legal or ballot efforts to reverse the ban while sending postcards to the Mormon church expressing anger at its support of the measure.

But many of the key efforts in the weeks after the vote came from gays and lesbians (and some straight supporters) who were not longtime movement participants but who were angered by the elimination of marriage rights. “We’re doing an end run around the mainstream organizations that run our causes,” said one protest organizer. “While we knew we’d been discriminated against in the past,” said Matt Palazzolo, a twenty-three-year-old newly minted activist who founded the grassroots Equal Roots Coalition, “we’d never felt it until now.” The passage of Proposition 8, he said, “woke me up.” Kate Kendell acknowledged missteps by the mainstream organizations in their effort to fight off Proposition 8, citing a “wish list of things I would have done differently.” She said it was “totally legitimate to say that the normal way of doing things did not get us to the finish line,” but she also noted that the setback had stirred gay people “out of our stupor” and made way for new energy and leadership. Some of the established groups, she said, “need to move over a couple of lanes to make room.”

The day after the vote, Willow Witte, an Ohio activist struggling to turn out supporters for a protest against the measure in Cleveland, called her friend Amy Balliett, a young Seattle Internet entrepreneur who had developed expertise in search-engine marketing. Tapping contacts with Web companies, in a matter of days the pair created a group called Join the Impact, which harnessed the power of social media platforms such as Facebook to spread the word about rallies nationwide. “Why are we going to wait for the organizations to have a protest?” Balliett asked herself. “Why don’t we just do it?” By the end of the weekend, the site was getting 50,000 visits per hour. Deployment of the Internet at this astonishing level became a media story in itself, further increasing visibility and making the organizing tool into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even before the huge rallies held in all fifty states eleven days after the Proposition 8 vote, major news outlets wrote about them in anticipation, often citing the online organizing tools as the focus of the story.

LGBT writers and bloggers immediately noted the outsider status of those organizing the protests. “Stonewall 2.0. Is that what Saturday might be?” asked veteran gay journalist Rex Wockner, noting that the “über-establishment” San Diego LGBT Community Center had nothing on its website about the events, but did have an enormous ad for the department store Nordstrom. (The center did organize a rally of several thousand the weekend before the vote.) “Totally grassroots. Totally fascinating,” he continued, singing the praises of the new tools of the people’s power: “You don’t have to listen to the gay ‘leaders’ who failed you anymore, you don’t have to give them any more money, you just have to figure out what you want to do next with the power that now is yours—to get what you want: Full equality.” The activist and writer Wayne Besen wrote that “the leaders of what is being billed as Stonewall 2.0 are not coming from large, established organizations, but Internet-savvy activists who can use a mouse to mobilize the masses.” He spoke of a “paradigm shift in the movement” following the passage of Proposition 8. “We are not the same movement we were prior to Nov. 4,” he commented, observing a “wide-eyed sea of fresh new faces” among the street protests, where he found “an injection of raw energy and an infusion of new inspiration that has eluded our movement for more than a decade.”

To some extent the new, outside energy of the marriage equality movement was spurred by a widespread sense, as noted by the bloggers, that established gay rights groups had failed to lead and were relying on a tired strategy that wasn’t working. Yet in truth, the existing strategies of gay legal advocates were yielding enormous fruit. Movement groups had brought civil unions to Vermont and marriage to Massachusetts with successful lawsuits by GLAD and fieldwork by other activists. Those successes had rippled instantly across the country and helped inspire both the backlash of social conservatives, including President Bush’s support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s push for marriage equality. NCLR had joined and helped win the litigation for gay marriage in California that had prompted Proposition 8. And movement lawsuits and legislative campaigns that were in progress were about to secure marriage equality in several more states in October 2008 and the first half of 2009. Meanwhile, public opinion polls showed that support for marriage equality had been rising since 2004 and ticking dramatically upward starting just after Proposition 8 passed.

Still, the experience of losing rights in California, precisely because it occurred in a context where expectations of equality had grown so high, had an enormous mobilizing effect on grassroots activists, bloggers, ordinary same-sex couples, and increasing numbers of straight allies. Besen contended that the Prop 8 vote and ensuing protests “marked the end of the Passive Era of gay politics.” Echoing the sentiment of Wockner, who extended “a gigantic thank you to the Yes on Prop 8 folks,” Besen declared the Prop 8 loss a triumph for the same-sex marriage movement. With it, he claimed, “anti-gay forces unleashed a ferocious storm with powerful winds of change that will only end with the sound of wedding bells.” Fred Karger, a California gay activist and long-shot presidential contender, called the Prop 8 vote “the greatest thing that could have happened” because it mobilized gay activism. “This narrow loss has awakened Godzilla,” he said. “It lit a fire under the gay community and our allies.” The vote, he said presciently, would “change history forever and speed up our civil rights movement by probably a generation.”

An edited excerpt from Awakening: How Gay and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America by Nathaniel Frank, published by Harvard University Press, $35. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. 

NATHANIEL FRANK is an author, historian, commentator, and LGBTQ strategist whose latest book, Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America (Harvard University Press), is the first full-scale history of the marriage equality movement in the United States. Currently a frequent contributor to Slate and the director of Columbia Law School's What We Know Project, a research initiative that collects scholarship on LGBTQ public policy, he is best known for his work helping to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after writing the critically acclaimed Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (St. Martin’s Press), which won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction.

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