Proposition 8 Is Keeping Same-Sex Couples From Marrying, But It Has United OC's Gay Community

All Together Now
Proposition 8 is keeping same-sex couples from marrying, but it has succeeded in uniting at least one family: OC’s gay community

At the base of a bumpy green slide, Felicity Figueroa sat and grinned. A cell phone pressed to her ear, her legs folded crisscross-applesauce (like those of the students who normally fill Miss Jodi’s Learning Garden, the Old Town Irvine warehouse-turned-preschool in which she sat), the 54-year-old mother of two finished her call with a “thank you” and leaped to her feet.

She had to tell someone about May.

Play pals: OCEC board members (front) Cas Gregory, Archer Altstaetter and Felicity Figueroa with (back) Equality California's Elizabeth Aversa and Daniel shad
Jennie Warren
Play pals: OCEC board members (front) Cas Gregory, Archer Altstaetter and Felicity Figueroa with (back) Equality California's Elizabeth Aversa and Daniel shad
Altstaetter, in his dance studio
Jennie Warren
Altstaetter, in his dance studio

May is in her 80s. She lives in Maine. She told Figueroa she was thrilled to talk with her. “It’s so important what you guys are doing,” May had said. She promised that on Election Day, she would carpool with her sister to her local poll site, where both of them would proudly vote “no” on Question 1.

That meant two more votes for same-sex marriage.

“She was so sweet and excited,” Figueroa told Elizabeth Aversa and Daniel Shad, the organizers of the day’s phone bank. “That was really heartening.”

Around the big, colorful space, about 10 other volunteers worked. Some hunched in tiny chairs over toddler-sized tables while making calls. Others stood on the wooden porch outside, overlooking a parking lot in the shadow of the 5 freeway.

With each call, the volunteers read from scripts provided by Equality California. The voters in favor of same-sex marriage were offered rides to the polls. The voters who weren’t got a polite “thank you.”

“It’s important to smile all the time,” Figueroa says, “because it shows in your voice.”

For Figueroa and Aversa, it was a flashback to the final days in last year’s campaign to defeat Proposition 8, California’s version of Maine’s Question 1. Volunteers had transformed the same space—shared by Miss Jodi’s Learning Garden and Dance Emotion, a kids’ dance studio run by nightclub promoter/activist Archer Altstaetter—into the headquarters for a last-minute campaign blitz. Laptop cables snaked off the tiny tables; 4-year-olds swiped sloganeering stickers because they like stickers; and volunteers pored over maps of the county while standing next to walls lined with tutus.

For Election Day 2009, the action at the studio was less frantic. The volunteers were working against a ballot measure that would directly affect lives 3,000 miles away—not their own. But there was a sense that things might turn out differently this time. Things in Orange County certainly were different from a year before.

Both longtime gay-rights advocates and newcomers describe the Orange County lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) activism scene before Election Day 2008 in similar terms: disconnected, scattered and, in many cases, dormant. But the battle over Prop. 8 minted new activists, and its passage shocked people across the nation into action.

On Nov. 21, the Orange County Equality Coalition (OCEC) will celebrate its first birthday. At Tia Juana’s, the nightclub and restaurant next door to the preschool/dance studio where it formed, members and friends will commemorate a movement that they say is unprecedented in Orange County.

“I have met more gay people in Orange County in the past year and half than I have in the past 10 years,” says Zoe Nicholson, 61, a Newport Beach activist for women’s and LGBT rights since the 1970s. “They’re meeting in churches, having dinners, having events; they’re putting on fund-raisers, phone banks. They’re creating a sense of community.”

*     *     * 

By most accounts, Equality for All, the organization running the statewide No On 8 Campaign, had initially written off Orange County as unwinnable. After all, it’s home to 43.75 percent Republican registration, gay-bashing fundamentalists such as Howard Ahmanson and Chuck Smith, and nationally known homophobe legislators Bob Dornan and Bill Dannemeyer. Before Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2000—and before the State Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2008­—many say the biggest threat to LGBT rights came from Fullerton’s then-state Senator John Briggs in 1978. His Proposition 6, defeated by a 17-point margin after a tough campaign, would have removed gays and lesbians from employment in public schools.

For the No On 8 campaign, “we went to the areas that were comfortable,” says Alex Gorman, a 27-year-old Laguna Hills resident who now helps to lead a local division of the statewide progressive organizing group Courage Campaign. “We didn’t have the tough conversations you need to actually change people’s minds and switch voters. There was going door-to-door in West Hollywood—what’s the point of that? [We should have been] going to Mission Viejo or Riverside.”

For most of the 2008 election season, Orange County was left without even one staffer from the statewide campaign. While front yards and roadside parks were dotted with blue-and-yellow “Yes On 8” signs, opponents of the measure say many of their own weren’t even sure where to get bumper stickers.

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