By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
In Silver Lake, Altstaetter found himself excited by the training provided by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It was very empowering,” he says. “Like, it’s official: I am a gay trooper.” But when he asked where he could volunteer closer to home, he was told that the campaign didn’t have anything going on in Orange County. So, Altstaetter says, he pleaded for the materials to start a phone bank and organized one in his Santa Ana home.
“But the only way to get my friends out is to offer champagne,” Altstaetter says. With the lure of bubbly, brunch and a chocolate fountain, he persuaded 40 people—including the strippers, go-go dancers and drag queens from his nightclub network, plus the moms, dads and kids who came into his studio every day—to campaign by phone for marriage equality. To the surprise of organizers, Altstaetter says, his group dialed more than 1,600 numbers that day.
Altstaetter and his friends weren’t the only ones in Orange County fighting the passage of Prop. 8. Progressive-minded faith groups such as the Irvine United Congregationalist Church and a few local political groups organized their own door-knocking and phone-calling operations. But the groups weren’t working together.
A little more than a month and a half before Election Day, the state No On 8 campaign assigned to Orange County field organizer B.J. Davis, a former Human Rights Campaign worker who had just moved from Philadelphia to Newport Coast.
She began marshaling resources already available in the county. “I was watching people making connections,” the 33-year-old says. “Whether it’s a community group making a connection with a church group making a connection with the Democratic Party, they’re all sort of like, ‘Why aren’t we working together? Why haven’t we done this before?’”
Two days before the election, a core group of volunteers crammed into the Santa Ana offices of venerable LGBT-advocacy PAC the Elections Committee of the County of Orange (ECCO) before moving to Altstaetter’s studio. From there, they organized 800 volunteers to fan out to polling places to hand voters cards reminding them that a no vote meant yes for same-sex marriage.
But their efforts weren’t enough. Prop. 8 passed; in Orange County, the vote was 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent. Volunteers gathered in Altstaetter’s living room to watch the returns. They cheered when Barack Obama was elected president, and then started to guzzle sparkling wine as the prospects for Prop. 8’s defeat faded. “My election-night party was much like that first night I signed up,” Altstaetter jokes. “I don’t quite remember it.”
Altstaetter trudged into work the next day. His students acted appropriately somber and consoling. His phone didn’t ring; no one wanted to talk about what had happened.
But the day after that, Altstaetter says, his phone “exploded” with calls, texts, e-mails—everyone who had worked on the campaign had moved from being shocked to angry. Altstaetter and others sent out e-mails asking anyone who wanted to keep working for marriage equality to show up at his studio Saturday afternoon.
More than 150 people sat on chairs in the upstairs loft. In front of them, Davis called on people to vent their feelings about Prop. 8 and asked them what they wanted to do about it. Altstaetter wrote each suggestion with a dry-erase marker on the studio’s mirrored wall until it was filled. They broke into committees and wrote their names down on clipboards. The Orange County Equality Coalition was formed.
“I didn’t want this community to lose the connections it had started to build,” Davis says. “They had started to connect the dots on how to build a powerful movement, an underground movement, a progressive movement in Orange County. And that was my thought: We can’t lose this. We’ve got a momentum because of No On 8; we can really just plow through and keep going.”
By that night, OCEC members were passing out fliers at a rally in Laguna Beach. “It was amazing to see the rapidity with which we were able to accomplish things,” says founding member Laura Kanter.
* * *
On a warm Saturday afternoon in a South County park, Gorman—a big guy with a short, red beard—slips on a nun’s habit. “This is how I get them to open the door,” he says.
“You do know we’re in Laguna Niguel, right?” asks Paola Schenkelberg, one of the volunteers Gorman rounded up to go soliciting for marriage equality on Halloween, costumes and all. Gorman included, there are four “team leaders” and five first-time volunteers. They split into groups and thread through the track-home-lined streets, ringing doorbells and asking people how they feel about same-sex marriage.
Gorman is an OCEC member and a leader of Team Courage OC, a chapter of the statewide Courage Campaign, which supports progressive causes. Like OCEC, Team Courage OC only got started after the passage of Prop. 8. He says that events like the Halloween canvass aren’t just about convincing voters at doorsteps and gathering data on where supporters live. At this point—in the electoral “off-season”—what matters most is building an experienced, trained volunteer base.