More Questions Than Answers at Gay Marriage Equality Summit


It’s like the set-up to a bad joke: “How many marriage equality activists does it take to get gay marriage?” That’s just one of the many unanswered questions raised by this weekend’s Equality Summit, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The 400-ish attendees came looking for answers as to why the No On 8 campaign failed to preserve gay marriage, and what the next steps towards marriage equality should be. Anyone expecting a definitive answer would have been setting unrealistic expectations, but with so many committed marriage equality leaders in one room, it was surprising to see just how far we have to go.

The leaders of No on 8 are not — and never were — a unified group.

The biggest and most obvious truth on display is that the leaders of the No On 8 campaign are not a monolithic block. At one point, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean (who we’ll get to in a moment) angrily told one questioner that the No On 8 campaign “is not just [Equality California’s] Geoff [Kors] and Lori! We’re just the only ones sitting here right now.” The difference between Kors’ well-publicized conciliatory tone stood in pointed contrast with Lorri Jean’s, who said in a conversation with pollster David Binder, “Looking around, I don’t think we made that many mistakes.”

the No On 8 campaign did not have a gay person in the room during political strategy sessions for the campaign

It’s hard to understate just how defensive Lorri Jean was at the summit. At one point, in a discussion about fundraising, I mentioned to her that it’s not just about raising money, but how it’s spent. I pointed out that Binder’s survey showed “the vast majority” of people did not find phone banking effective — and this was a major thrust of the campaign. She shot back, “Not our phone bank!”

I’m not alone in this impression. Later, she confessed that she did not know what to do differently, saying, “Either we listen to our consultants or we don’t.”

Kors, on the other hand, has had his come-to-Jesus moment. He mentioned many mistakes and repeatedly said he regretted that the No On 8 campaign did not have a gay person in the room during political strategy sessions for the campaign. “We should have been in the strategy room and part of those conversations — and that was a huge mistake.”

Three people involved with campaign spoke with me anonymously and laid the blame for Prop 8’s passage at the feet of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign, both of which ran the field operations for the campaign. These leaders are increasingly Balkanized and its clear that many of them blame each other.

At the morning plenary, one attendee became fed up with listening to the No On 8 leaders artfully dodge moderator Karen Ocambs’ questions and demanded they commit to answer all the questions posed by attendees (which Ocamb held in a three inch stack of note cards). Watch what happened:

It’s time to retire the phrase “gay civil rights movement.”

One of the things we hear a lot at Queerty is, “Who are these self-professed leaders? We didn’t elect them!” Well, here’s the plain truth: They are whoever shows up. Lorri Jean explained that the reason the No On 8 campaign had no openly gay political strategists running the campaign was that nobody offered. The gay civil rights movement is neither unified in purpose or strategy. It’s made up of multiple groups, each with their own agendas.

This might all sound really obvious, but nobody has a clue what to do. A gay rights movement implies motion, but in its current state, these gay leaders are not a ship without a captain, they’re a bunch of shipwrights without timber or blueprints with which to build a boat. I heard a lot of frustration from both attendees and leaders concerning how nobody ever seems to talk to each other about their plans. On this front, the Equality Summit scored its only win: It allowed people who care about marriage equality to get in a room and network.

Everyone has good intentions.

There was a lot, I mean a lot, of applause for the effort and commitment in the room. This was universal, for both No On 8 leaders and new activists. In fact, Jason Howe of Lamda Legal confessed at one point, “I expected more fireworks.” I’m actually happy there wasn’t. There’s enough maturity in the gay community to recognize that everyone’s on the same team and that the real problem is that we lack focus. The criticism aimed at No On 8 was always couched in terms of needing to know what mistakes were made so that they aren’t repeated.

Eva Paterson, a black civil rights activist who spoke at length about why blacks voted for Prop 8, also warned that the gay community must avoid circular firing squads. But for the most part, the focus was on holding people accountable and moving forward as opposed to recriminations.

Gays need to get real.

Paterson was the day’s keynote speaker and, as mentioned, she spoke mainly about why blacks voted for Prop 8. She was refreshingly candid, explaining that when your pastor tells you that gay people are going to hell (and so will their friends), you’re not going to support marriage equality. The crowd ate up the honesty. Look, gay people are, for the most part, exceedingly nice and accommodating folks. We like to think the world is fair, just and good. It’s not. Rather than allowing reality to make us bitter, we just need to accept that the waters we swim in are muddy and adapt.

Watch Eva Paterson talk turkey here:

She continues:

We have no strategy. We have no resources.

Well, that’s not really fair. It would be better to say that we have conflicting strategies and very limited resources. David Binder, who worked on Barack Obama‘s campaign, pointed out that their grassroots strategy was effective because they started off with $600 million to build a network. And I’d say it’s a lot easier to elect Barack Obama than it is to make gay marriage legal in the U.S. This is the glum reality which hung over the convention hall all day.

Attendees were split on how to move forward. Many wish to progress with an immediate ballot initiative to repeal Prop 8 (mainly younger people and members of the Courage campaign), while others think that a “Yes” campaign would lose.

In a breakout session on the netroots/Web 2.0, I was struck by how small bore some of the issues were. Folks talked about Facebook groups and how to connect different groups together, but there was little talk of what to do with all the names and emails they collect. One of the benefits of Obama’s netroots campaign was that it empowered people to go out and do actual actionable things — door-to-door campaigning, house meetings and the like. We’re not having those discussions yet.

What’s really needed – and this may seem stunningly obvious – is a meta-organization that would be dedicated to creating a multi-pronged strategy for marriage equality in all fifty states, that would include legal maneuvering, public outreach and community building. It would not be responsible for implementing the strategy, but would direct existing and yet-to-be created organizations on what they need to be doing and where to allocate their time and energy.

The big problem with this is that it would take a lot of money to do this. Anybody have $600 million to spare? Interestingly, the one group that claims this title, the Human Rights Campaign, was asleep at the wheel during the Prop 8 campaign. An anonymous No on 8 insider was furious that the group “only spent $6 million on No on 8 while much smaller groups were raising $60 million. Don’t they understand that what happened in California set the whole country back?”

Here, the No on 8 leaders talk about what should happen next:

I walked away from the Equality Summit with a sense of the enormity of the challenges facing the gay community. The battle for marriage equality will require a new kind of thinking; it will also require each and every person who cares about gay and lesbian civil rights to do something about it. The problem is that nobody knows just what that “something” is yet. Yes, go talk to your friends and neighbors. Yes, be visible. But at this moment in time, we are a community without a way forward. We’re relying on the hope that courts will do the heavy lifting for us — and they may, but despite all our progress, the steepest route is the one directly ahead of us.

We may have lost a battle, but what we need to do is figure out what it will take to win the war.