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Yes Takes No: The
Firestorm Over Prop 8

Yes Takes No: The
Firestorm Over Prop 8

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We thought we were winning. Until a few days ago, California's proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment, Proposition 8, was lagging in the polls. Now they're ahead. What happened? Money, an effective ad campaign, and a passionate voter base willing to stop at nothing to get their point across: In their minds, gay marriage is simply wrong.

We thought we were winning. But no.

Until a few days ago, California's proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment, Proposition 8, was lagging in the polls. Now we're the underdog. What happened?

No on 8 campaign leaders convened an emergency conference call with LGBT reporters on Tuesday to get the word out: Prop 8 is now ahead by four points, and if we want to win on election day, we need to flood the No on 8 campaign with money.

"We're being very badly outspent," said pollster Celinda Lake, who joined campaign consultant Steve Smith and Equality California's Geoff Kors on the call. Lake attributed Prop 8's new hot streak to a biting TV ad that premiered last week -- and to the massive media buy for that ad made possible in part by the deep pockets of the Mormon Church. "Polling tells us that their ad is really breaking through... it's not just a base ad. It's convincing to voters across the broad spectrum," she said.

"It's gonna happen, whether you like it or not!" rasps San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom like a leering carnival barker in the pro-8 television spot. After that, a Prop 8 spokesman ticks off a list of dire consequences that California will suffer if Prop 8 goes down to defeat: "People sued over personal beliefs! Churches could lose their tax exemptions! Gay marriage taught in public schools!"

The ad's histrionics would be funny. Except that so many voters seem to agree.

Talk with Prop 8 supporters and their anger is startling, even shocking.

All that emotion was front and center at a joint informational hearing held October 2 in Los Angeles by the state senate judiciary committee. Among the 200-odd attendees, the Yes on 8 contingent was slightly outnumbered. But they exemplified the outrage fueling the pro-8 campaign.

This Prop 8 hearing was routine. Every California ballot initiative must go through a similar public hearing on its way to election day. The panel, chaired by Sen. Ellen Corbett, comprised several senators and assembly members quizzing witnesses on both sides of the issue.

Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu drew smiles as he addressed the accusation that, by deciding in favor of marriage equality, California's supreme court justices crossed the line and became activist judges.

"Judicial activism," Liu pointed out, "is used by all sides as shorthand for any decision they don't like." Asked if the court overturned the will of the people, Liu thought not, arguing that -- thanks to huge progress since anti-gay Prop 22 became law in 2000 -- the decision to overturn Prop 22 could be described as "majoritatian."

Pro-gay speaker Sam Thoron is already known to TV watchers as the dad-of-a-lesbian who appears with wife Julia in No on 8's currently airing TV spot. Just as the tone of the Thorons' calm TV presence points up the opposition's hysteria, Thoron himself won high marks for graciousness: "In 46 years, a great deal of love has flowed between [my wife] Julia and me," he told the legislators. "It shouldn't be any different for my daughter."

The heat rose with Dr. Jennifer Robeck Morse, whose voice shook as she described gay marriage as a dire threat to children.

"Same-sex marriage separates a child from at least one of its parents," declared Morse, eliciting vigorous nods and mmm-hmms from Pro-8 supporters in the audience, some of whom had begun their day by waving Yes on 8 placards at the traffic outside on Spring St.

As speaker followed speaker, Prop 8 supporters labored to paint themselves as tolerant of gays. "They've got their civil unions," one picketer told me. "They'll be fine." Yet homophobia was the elephant in the room. Without it, the arguments against marriage equality fell flat.

Insisting that her objection to same-sex marriage was all about the children, Morse parried a series of reductio ad absurdum questions by Assembly members Paul Krikorian and Mike Feuer. Under Morse's criteria, should elderly heterosexual couples only be allowed to register as domestic partners? What about infertile young couples? What about divorce -- for the sake of the children, should that heterosexual institution be outlawed as well?

"I'd rather be working on divorce, honest," said Morse, while yielding the validity of all the hypotheticals.

Assemblyman Mike Jones wasn't having it, calling Morse's save-our-children stance "utterly a pretext, given all the other situations you're willing to accept." Prop 8's real intention was clear, Jones argued -- to render gay marriage, and only gay marriage, illegal.

In his testimony, Anthony Pugno, general counsel of Protect Marriage, was surely one of the first legal minds to conflate gay marriage with capital punishment. Openly gay senator Sheila Kuehl had asked whether California law contained a precedent depriving citizens of an already established right. Pugno argued that voters reinstated California's death penalty after the court outlawed it.

Anti-8 witness John Perez, an openly gay union organizer, likened the measure's "less-than" message to that of the lullaby his mother heard each night as a child at boarding school: "God made me/ He made me in the night/ He made me in such a hurry/ He forgot to paint me white.

Apparently nothing that was said all morning changed minds. During the hearing's final hour, when members of the public rose to speak for and against Prop 8, patience frayed and tempers exploded.

A self-described mom and grandmom accused the legislators of extreme liberal bias. "You will hear our voices! We voted you into office and we can vote you out!"

Corbett responded mildly that her conservative colleagues had been invited to the hearing but that none had chosen to attend.

That distaste for gays occasionally broke through. One man took the podium to declare: "If I joined the Girl Scouts organization, I would pollute it. Gays should not be allowed into the marriage organization for the same reason."

The word "pollute" drew a reproachful groan from No on 8 supporters in the audience. As the hearing broke up a few minutes later, I found the man and asked him to amplify his point. He agreed but refused to give his name or say where he lives, saying he was physically attacked while speaking at an event similar to this one.

"I'm not allowed to enter the Girl Scouts because who I am is fundamentally at odds with who they are," he said. "I'm just in no way like them, namely, I'm too old, I'm the wrong gender, and if I was to enter into their lifestyle, into any of their meetings, I would completely disrupt who they are, who they always have been, what they stand for, and what they do. Analagously, gays who attempt to enter the marriage institution are the same as me, because gays are -- how do I say this?-- gay marriage is an oxymoron."

Why an oxymoron?

"Let's say I am a gay man who wants to marry a gay man. And I go through the ceremony and I get a piece of paper, and they say that me and this other guy are now married. But am I really? In what sense am I functionally married compared to a real, traditional marriage? We can't produce any children. If we import somebody else's biology into our relationship and thereby have some quote children, quote, then it's an extreme systemic disadvantage for children to be in that environment.

"So, functionally, me being married to a gay man is not at all similar to me being married to my actual wife... It changes the meaning of marriage."

This man wasn't crazy or ill-educated or, in his view, homophobic. As Proposition 8 hits the home stretch, that's the challenge. Whatever he said out loud, the man's objection to same-sex marriage came down to this: Just because. Because I said so. Because it's how I feel.

For him and others, the anger is volcanic -- all the more combustible because it has to be suppressed. After all, one slip of the tongue could puncture that tolerant and reasonable air the Yes on 8 folks know they must project if they want to win. Given the conservative track record of discipline and cohesion, that's unlikely.

Celinda Lake, the No on 8 pollster, observed on Tuesday that 20% of California voters are still undecided on Prop 8. "That's more than enough to provide a resounding victory for either side," she said.

Gays and their allies had better unleash their A game.

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Anne Stockwell