Before returning to the ballot, the LGBT community and its allies must gain insight into how we can effectively rebut the appeal to anti-gay prejudice embedded in Yes on 8’s false argument that kids are in danger. When we discover an effective rebuttal or, even better, a way to preempt the kids argument entirely, we will be much closer to being able to repeal Prop 8.
Given the effectiveness of “Princes” and similar anti-gay ads in Maine, and given the victories of the anti-gay side in California, Maine, and many of the past ballot measure fights where they have relied on the kids argument, there is every reason to believe that our opposition will make the same kind of appeal for votes in the future. It would therefore be smart for the LGBT community to test a variety of messages to counter the pernicious appeal of the kids message. We must learn how to stop or at least reduce our opposition’s ability to win votes based on anti-gay prejudice. Otherwise, the pro-LGBT side will have difficulty winning ballot measures on same-sex marriage even if we have achieved majority support for our position. Recommendation 3 (below) describes an experiment, still in its preliminary stages, which may help provide that necessary insight. There is room for many groups to undertake a wide variety of experiments; we all benefit from extensive message experimentation.
Specifically, the data show that “Princes” and its message severely damaged the pro-LGBT side’s ability to compete for the votes of parents. The data also show that the “O’Connell” rebuttal helped No on 8 regain a portion of what was lost, though not all of it. What the data collected to date cannot definitively say is whether a different rebuttal argument, or a rebuttal argument made earlier, could have blunted “Princes” so substantially as to remove the kids argument as a major factor in the outcome. Testing the power of rebuttal arguments is therefore an extraordinarily high priority.
Use the time between campaigns to learn what it takes for voters to become less prejudiced toward LGBT people.
The final phase of a campaign, roughly from Labor Day through Election Day in a general election, is the time when the greatest number of voters are paying attention. In theory, those eight weeks are a great time to learn because voters are tuned in. But in practice, it’s a difficult time to learn for two reasons. First, the time period is brief. Second, the stakes are very high; trying out a new idea at this time can cost you the entire campaign.
That’s why when we have a lot to learn—which is our situation on ballot measures on same-sex marriage—our best bet is to start right away, to test new ideas when we have time to try many of them and the stakes are much lower. If one of the new ideas fails now, so what? We have plenty of time to recover.
The pro-LGBT side lost ground among many groups of voters in the final six weeks of the Prop 8 campaign, but we lost much more ground among some than others. The groups that proved most vulnerable to Yes on 8’s appeal to prejudice were parents and voters of parenting age, white Democrats and Independents; Latinas; and voters in the Greater Bay Area. It makes sense to prioritize experiments among these groups to see if we can do better holding onto these portions of our base. For example, to reach out to parents we could try educational outreach to PTAs and the wide range of parents’ networks and groups; canvassing neighborhoods that have a disproportionately high number of parents and people of parenting age; meeting with opinion leaders whose views matter to parents; encouraging LGBT parents to interact with a wide range of other parents; encouraging LGBT grandparents to interact with a wide range of parents; developing spokespeople among PFLAG parents (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), among grown COLAGE children (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), and among heterosexual parents who are strong allies on LGBT issues. This list barely begins to suggest the hundreds of experiments worth considering.
I recommend that LGBT and allied organizations that want to reverse Prop 8 brainstorm much more comprehensive lists of ideas for each of the groups where we lost ground, and then try out the ideas that strike them as most promising. Of course, the organizations don’t have to limit themselves only to these groups. See the chart in Appendix H for the wide range of voter groups where we lost ground.
Explore whether we can reduce prejudice among other groups of voters. African-Americans in particular deserve our attention.
Even though African-Americans voted Yes on 8 by a wide margin, many of us have high hopes that the African-American community has the potential to become an ally of ours on the issue of same-sex marriage. The basis for this hope includes:
· African-Americans’ deeply felt antipathy to discrimination in any form, based in part on their own historical and lived experience;
· Past strong support among African-Americans for laws that ban discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, and public accommodations;
· The common cause made between African-Americans and LGBT people on a wide range of progressive issues;
· The overlap of membership between the two communities;
· The courageous actions taken by some opinion leaders in the African-American community, particularly in California where the local NAACP took a strong and nationally unpopular stance to support No on 8;
· The electoral importance of African-Americans nationally, not only because they make up 12% of the popular vote but also because they frequently make the difference between winning and losing in swing states ((http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/the-importance-of-the-bla_b_98776.html);
· The electoral importance of African-Americans in California, where they often constitute 6% of the voters and in 2008 were 10% of the popular vote; the ballot measures on same-sex marriage are close enough that greater African-American support can help make the difference between winning and losing.
The principal reason not to focus on African-American voters is the belief by some that they are too prejudiced against LGBT people to win over. It is beyond the scope of this report to summarize all of the different ways in which this concern has been articulated. It’s a mistake to ignore the fear.
It is also a mistake, however, to assume that the fear is fact. It is reasonable to consider instead whether the LGBT community has fully explored the range of options available to us to create more and stronger cross-racial relationships and to seek out a common cause with the African-American community.
The limited data available from the current canvassing experiments underway at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s Vote for Equality project and Equality California (described below in Recommendation 3) suggest that we have much more opportunity to build strong, positive relationships with African-American voters than is widely recognized. African-American voters have thus far turned out to be more similar to us than different from other voters when we take the time to talk with them one-on-one. On average, VFE canvassers move 26% of those who oppose same-sex marriage or are undecided to reconsider. In South LA in neighborhoods that are over 70% African-American, the average movement rate is slightly higher, 29%. The experience is only preliminary, but it is encouraging. It may indicate either (a) there is less homophobia in the African-American community than some believe, or (b) that even in the face of homophobia, other common aspects of the African-American and LGBT experience make it possible for us to stimulate rethinking and reconsideration among some on same-sex marriage. The latter could be an especially important discovery for those of us who hope that experiments in voter persuasion carried out in California may produce information valuable in ballot measure contests nationwide.
Above and beyond all of the strategic considerations weighed above, one final reason to invest in the African-American community is a moral one. The current LGBT movement would not exist without the inspiration and example of the Civil Rights Movement.
This is not to equate the two struggles or to suggest that the discrimination suffered by LGBT people is identical to that inflicted on African-Americans. LGBT people have experienced nothing like slavery, and most LGBT people are not exposed 100 percent of the time; we often (though not always) get to choose the times and places to be out of the closet.
That said, discrimination is a rotten experience, being stigmatized is life-changing, and experiencing or witnessing the scalding unfairness and unkindness of prejudice is unforgettable. For all of us who care about ending prejudice in our lifetimes, African-Americans and their allies led the way, most publicly in the 1960s but also before and after that time. Though it is beyond the scope of this report to examine the example set for us by the Civil Rights Movement, I recommend to readers two beautifully written, scrupulously documented histories, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch and The Children by David Halberstam. They are among the most inspirational books I know. In my opinion, it is important for the LGBT community and all progressives to acknowledge our remarkable debt to the African-American community. Making an effort to understand African-Americans’ views and finding our way to mutual respect and alliance seems like a reasonable way for LGBT people of all races to begin to acknowledge and possibly repay part of that debt.
Start by educating voters on the issue of kids. The facts are on our side.
We know that our opposition will raise the issue of kids in the future because it’s worked for them in the past. Let’s start now to educate voters about the reality, which is that learning that LGBT people exist and are a normal part of society does not change children’s sexual orientation.
As we seek to prevent our opposition from instigating future voter panic, we have one very important advantage: the anti-gay argument has no evidence to support it. All available evidence is that children who are taught to respect LGBT people are no more likely to grow up to be gay. No studies specifically examine the spectacularly improbable notion that singular or episodic mention of gay people in the course of ordinary classroom instruction will result in more students identifying as gay; but there are many research studies of children raised by same-sex couples, who are much more likely to get sustained exposure to the idea that LGBT people are decent and normal than they would ever receive in a classroom. Across the board, studies find that children of same-sex couples are no more likely to identify as gay than the average child and no more likely to experience concerns about gender identity. The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have officially concurred with these findings. In February 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed this conclusion. Both of these medical groups, along with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and nine other national organizations are currently leading a joint effort to educate school administrators about the need to engage LGBT issues in a positive way. The American Psychological Association has also debunked an additional falsehood, declaring that “despite a common myth, homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.” For more information, go to www.apa.org/pubs/info/brochures/sex-abuse.aspx.
On the other hand, the longevity of the homophobic kids argument in American culture should sober us. It has had power to create a sensation at least since 1934, when Lillian Hellman wrote her hit Broadway play, “The Children’s Hour.” In Act II, Mrs. Tilford destroys the lives of two female teachers accused of being lesbians and justifies her actions by saying: “What they are may possibly be their own business. It becomes a great deal more than that when children are involved.” Two acts later, she’s remorseful, making her a considerably more enlightened figure than anti-gay bigots but perhaps not so different from the parent voters today who too readily accept anti-gay propaganda.
When the LGBT community and our allies start talking about kids to parent voters, we will inevitably raise the profile of the issue in the process of debunking it. When we first elevate public consciousness, we will have to live with the inevitable back-and-forth as anti-gay zealots gladly accept the chance to spew; it’s possible that some voters’ first reactions may be heightened anti-gay prejudice. But if we have to take a hit by facing the issue and educating voters, we’re better off dealing with this right now rather than close to Election Day. Raising the issue now gives voters time to consider and integrate the new (to them) information we’re providing. In the future, when we get close to Election Day our opposition will still attack and recycle the same canard. But if we’ve done our education work well, fewer voters will succumb because some will have realized that this is a phony issue.
Conversely, the longer we wait to confront the issue of kids, the more power it will still have at election time.
Even if we have massive success educating voters on the kids issue, we can’t assume that all our work is done. Once we start making headway defusing and debunking the kids argument, our opposition is likely to try out other arguments to arouse anti-gay prejudice. Looking at past campaign communications makes it easy to anticipate some of what’s coming. We need to anticipate those attacks and prepare to beat them back.
In my opinion, the apt analogy is this: in these ballot measure campaigns, LGBT people are the equivalent of a candidate for public office. The same way that a candidate considers and prepares to refute all possible attacks, particularly attacks on character both fair and unfair, the LGBT community needs to anticipate all of the potential attacks on our character, fair and unfair. Perhaps kids is the only character attack exploiting anti-gay prejudice that will have a big impact on voters. But let’s not make that assumption. Instead, let’s prepare thoroughly. Then, if our opposition tests other messages in an attempt to stimulate anti-gay prejudice, we’ll be ready to fight back effectively.