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Howdy, partners

Howdy, partners


You can't go it alone. Gay activists in Texas, Maine, and elsewhere are partnering with straight leaders and civil rights groups as they fight antigay ballot initiatives this year and next

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."

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Christopher Lisotta