Brown’s explanation of this difference, of course, is not the same as Karger’s. Brown says the fact that NOM has just a couple of major donors whose gifts dominate the group’s budget “doesn’t mean anything, other than that we’re a new organization heavily reliant on major donors.” NOM wasn’t chartered until 2007, and in 2011, the most recent year for which tax documents were available, its income was $7.2 million and expenses $6.7 million. Freedom to Marry, which was founded in 2003, had 2011 revenues of about $2.7 million and spent roughly the same amount. Still, Brown contends that he’s overmatched by the LGBT side and likes to compare NOM with HRC, which was founded in 1980 and had a budget of over $30 million in its 2011 fiscal year. HRC’s actual counterparts are the Family Research Council, founded in 1983, with a 2011 budget of $13 million, and the American Family Association, founded in 1977, which spent $20 million in 2011.
As a result of NOM’s youth, Brown explains, it is still trying to grow its circle of donors — and is proud of its success in doing so in just six years. “I think we’re up to nearly 50,000 small donors,” he said. “So while in a given year we may have raised 10 million, and one and a half million has come from small donors, that keeps growing…so we’re very proud of our grassroots support.”
As noted above, Brown says that by raising money for NOM’s general purpose and spending it in state campaigns, NOM is doing exactly what Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign are doing: raising money for a larger goal and then spending that money wherever the most critical marriage fights might be. While he sits on state campaign executive committees, HRC and FTM also have representatives on the counterpart state executive committees. “Obviously, like the Human Rights Campaign or Freedom to Marry, we’re going to make a substantial investment from our funds,” he said, “and given the successes we’ve had, and the knowledge we’ve had, I’m going to ask to serve on the executive committee and partner with state groups.” The reason Brown is always the one who sits on those committees, he explains, is that NOM is outmatched: it’s younger, has a smaller staff, and less money than does the LGBT side, so the duties fall to him. This view requires ignoring FRC and the AFA, which have not gotten directly involved with the marriage fights. HRC came to the marriage issue later but is now fully signed on.
“Of course [donors] know that we give to state campaigns,” Brown says. But raising money for a larger goal and then spending it in the states violates neither the letter nor the spirit of any law. “Just because donors know that Freedom to Marry is going to contribute to or has contributed to these state campaigns, do you now say that Freedom to Marry should be treated in the same way you’re asking NOM to be treated? No!”
Seeking to Change Disclosure Laws
And yet NOM isn’t merely abiding by campaign finance laws in keeping its donors to itself; it actively challenges disclosure laws in state after state. James Bopp, the lawyer who brought the Citizens United lawsuit that hollowed out campaign finance laws in this country, has brought a series of lawsuits on NOM’s behalf challenging the laws that regulate political action groups and require them to report on their finances, donors, petition-signers, or anything at all, really; Bopp’s lawsuits allege that any regulation at all is an unconstitutional burden on the fundamental right to free speech. What he advocates, however, is not the right to free speech but the right to opaque speech, analogous to the ability to comment anonymously online. NOM has launched lawsuits against campaign finance disclosure laws in California, Florida, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Washington — even though those challenges have been slapped back by federal district court judges and upheld by appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
When asked why so many more people were willing to be listed as donors to the marriage equality campaigns than to the other side, Brown was impatient and exploded with anger at how LGBT extremists — condoned, in his view, by the marriage equality movement at large — attacked his side with “a campaign of intimidation, hatred, and attacking donors.” Gay extremists, he said, are attempting to “punish people…for exercising their First Amendment rights to speak up and stand for what they believe in, to donate to what they believe in…. They want to hurt people. They want to hurt people! Put that in the article! They want to hurt people!”
When questioned on this, Brown became ever more emphatic. “I don’t think you understand the reality that donors on our side get death threats, I don’t think you understand the reality that it’s not a joke when a guy [Floyd Lee Corkins] comes into the Family Research Council with a gun, I don’t think you understand that creating an environment in which it’s OK to demean human beings because of their views is wrong. I can respect people and I support their constitutional right to give and to support their position to advance gay marriage. What we are asking for is the same respect. And at this point we are not getting it.”
But is NOM as respectful as it says it is? It certainly touts itself as neutral about gayness (which is in itself a win). On its website, it enjoins supporters to remember that its best-polling talking point is this:
“Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.” This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage. Some modify it to “People have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.”
The head of NOM’s nonprofit educational arm, the Ruth Institute, Jennifer Roback Morse, promotes her stance with a prominent article headlined “Why Opposing the Gay Lobby Is Not Antigay.”
However, since Maggie Gallagher ceased being NOM’s board chair, the Ruth Institute has skated over the edge of being actively antigay. Last year Carlos Maza of Equality Matters attended the Ruth Institute’s annual training program for “emerging leaders” in how to talk about marriage and LGBT issues. He writes, “What I saw at the conference — selling a book that labels gay people as pedophiles worthy of death, distributing Bible quotes to college students similarly calling for gays to be killed, hosting entire speeches devoted to condemning gays and lesbians as deviant sinners — represented a brand of antigay extremism that I assumed even NOM would have shied away from.” He listened to a lecture from antigay author Robert A.J. Gagnon announcing that homosexuality was “self-degrading,” inflicts “measurable harm,” is unhealthy, emotionally dangerous, unacceptable to God, and leads to depression, substance abuse, and disease. The weekend, Maza writes, taught “that gays and lesbians — including me — are unstable, dangerous, and unworthy of raising their own families.” The reading list included materials saying that lesbians and gay men are in a “rebellion against God,” that our relationships are inherently “unstable, unhealthy, and promiscuous,” and relying on such discredited authors as George Gilder and Paul Cameron.
Is that what NOM’s donors endorse? Campaign donations may be protected as First Amendment speech, according to the Supreme Court — so long as people will stand by their “words.”
Brian Brown believes that he and NOM are David to HRC’s Goliath, and that they are bravely battling an overwhelming enemy in standing up “for what is true and right about marriage.” He believes as well that when people on his side “attack gay people, we condemn it, immediately,” while LGBT forces irresponsibly ignore our own extremists. LGBT forces, of course, believe precisely the opposite.
In much the same way, it’s possible to look at the campaign finance evidence above and conclude that NOM is a sinister cabal, funded by fewer than a handful of wealthy people who refuse to stand by their beliefs publicly. This view argues that NOM centrally controls all the anti–marriage equality efforts in the country; its donors know exactly what they’re getting for their investment, since Mission Public Affairs runs precisely the same campaign in every state. From this point of view, by allowing its donors to fail to register in particular state fights, NOM is knowingly evading the law, structuring its fund-raising to avoid campaign finance requirements.
But you could look at the same information and conclude, rather, that NOM has few donors because equality is winning. Public opinion has shifted so strongly to our side that those on NOM’s side are embarrassed. For many of us who grew up with our lives and sense of self in danger, this is hard to grasp. Between the lines, Brian Brown is saying that very few Americans are left who care enough about stopping our freedom to marry to give their money, time, or reputation to the fight. It’s possible that standing up against us is now harder than standing up for us.
Just 30 years ago, much of the nation was content to let gay men die, stigmatized, of a disease the president couldn’t be bothered to name. Just 20 years ago, LGBT lives were in danger during fights over ballot measures that tried to prevent us from teaching in public schools, passing nondiscrimination ordinances, and the like. That time has passed. There may be 30-plus states yet to go, but we are gaining supporters and momentum at a rate very few of us could ever have imagined.
We are winning. And like the temperance movement allies to whom it is attached, NOM will fade into history. At the end of February, NOM pledged “to spend $500,000 against any Republican legislator who votes in favor of redefining marriage in Minnesota.” Doesn’t NOM deserve as much luck as it had in the 2012 election?