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“We are not just with you,” said Lee Marie Sanchez of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim. “We are you. Equality means all of us.”

*     *     * 

Kanter likens it to post-traumatic-stress disorder. Two weeks before Election Day this year, the 45-year-old flew to Portland, Maine, and rented a car to visit New Hampshire. She felt herself tense up as drove along the freeway and saw the signs: yellow and blue, with stick-figure families holding hands. The only difference between these signs and the ones she had seen a year ago were that these said “Yes On Question 1” and “Maine” instead of “Yes On Proposition 8” and “California.”

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

“You just get this horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach,” she says, “and you just know that people are going through this . . . ballot-box terrorism. I had so much anxiety.”

Kanter had been on the front lines of the last-ditch fight against Prop. 8 in Orange County. Married to her girlfriend in August 2008, she returned from her honeymoon—a “lesbian cruise” to Mexico—and saw a distressing sight on an Irvine street corner, just blocks from her home: a gaggle of smiling, yellow-vested activists, holding signs. Next to them stood a college-aged girl with a piece of cardboard on which she had scrawled, “No On Proposition 8.” Kanter stopped her car, rolled down the window, and told the girl she’d be back in a minute with a sign of her own.

That was the start of Kanter’s near-full-time fight for same-sex marriage. She was present for the founding of OCEC; she served for a while as its communications director. In October, she flew to Maine to try to make sure things would turn out differently from how they had with Prop. 8.

Thing were different there, Kanter says. The pro-gay-marriage campaign had learned from the mistakes made in California: The organization, fund-raising and advertising, by Kanter’s account, were “amazing.” The TV spots featured gay couples instead of hiding them, as the California ads had done. The campaign’s leadership tapped into the state’s unique values. Kanter says her two weeks in Maine were light on sleep, heavy on door-knocking.

And the campaign in Maine had the support of LGBT-activist networks across the country that had flourished in the wake of Prop. 8. Aversa and Shad had been mobilizing EQCA’s volunteers and OCEC’s members for multiple phone banks each week. The two of them had even spent time working in Maine before Kanter arrived.

Kanter went to the campaign’s election-night celebration worn out but with high hopes. One poll had shown Question 1 losing by 11 points. The precinct reports toward the beginning of the night were favorable. But then Kanter saw the core group of campaign leaders emerge from the “boiler room,” their faces sunken. She grabbed a friend who had come out of the room.

“What’s going on?” Kanter asked.

“Come on,” the friend said, gesturing at the hotel ballroom.

“Is it bad?” Kanter asked.

Kanter’s friend looked her in the eyes. “It’s over.”

In Huntington Beach, Aversa and Shad huddled with their laptops in the corner of Metro Q bar, watching the results roll in. Both of them expected Question 1 to go down. They sat silently in their booth when The New York Times called the election for the “yes” side. But their work had to gone on. A phone bank was scheduled for the next day, Aversa was to speak on a panel on Thursday, and on Friday there would be another OCEC event.

*     *     *

If the result in Maine has done anything to the LGBT-rights movement nationally and locally, it has intensified debates about strategy. Months ago, prominent activist organizations started sparring about whether to try to repeal Prop. 8 in 2010 or 2012. For some, Maine serves as evidence that the movement should wait a little before another election fight; others say there’s a moral imperative to fight for equality at every chance, 2010 included. But many believe that, eventually, no matter the setbacks, change will come.

“Go back in time 30 years, 20 years,” Gorman says the day after the Maine vote. “If you had said that in 2009, 47 percent of Mainers would say it’s all right for same-sex couples to get married, they would have said you are out of your mind. It was politically inconceivable. So to say that last night was a loss for us, it’s kind of a very narrow picture. It’s a snapshot. This is not a snapshot. This is a movie. This is a Ken Burns documentary.”

In every recent race, the opposition has run ads claiming that gay marriage would be “taught” in schools—in Maine, they even implied that gay sex would be explicitly described to kindergartners. The strategy has been effective. Voters have opposed same-sex marriage in 31 separate state elections, starting in 1992. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, Focus On the Family and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have sunk millions of dollars into the races. To some, this is a war that can only be won in Congress or in the courts.

“The fact that we’re okay with people voting on our rights this way is kind of identifying ourselves as second-class citizens,” says Chelsea Salem, a San Clemente native who helped organize September’s National Equality March on Washington, D.C. “There’s been this idea that if we just tell our stories and be honest, and that we say we are just citizens and we are living the same lives as everyone else, then that message has to get through. . . . But I think Maine shows us we have to do more.”

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