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.
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.
Altstaetter found himself volunteering nearly by accident. He received a call one day telling him he had signed up to work a phone bank in Silver Lake; he had been recruited during a night of barhopping in Los Angeles—a night he doesn’t remember.
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.
“These are not the glory days,” Gorman says. “We’re taking the hard lessons we learned in 2008 and—in a very meaningful, deliberate manner—putting together the infrastructure for a campaign that can win Orange County and California. And it’s not glamorous.”
Courage Campaign isn’t the only statewide group that has stepped up its presence in OC in the wake of Prop. 8. Equality California (EQCA) has hired Aversa, 26, and Shad, 24, as full-time field managers. It’s these statewide groups that have headed up the political fieldwork in the past year. OCEC, though, often provides the volunteers for knocking on doors; organizing phone banks; and recruiting at piers, parks and parties. Instead of focusing on electoral politics, the coalition has emphasized communications, advocacy and community-building.
And that’s exactly what they should be doing, says Cal State Fullerton political science professor Stephen Stambough, who studies elections, campaigns and “culture wars.” The No. 1 challenge for the gay-rights movement, he says, is infrastructure. “A lot of the groups that were against [gay marriage] were organized through churches, which, when the proposition campaign is over with, will still go back to their normal duties,” he says. “So people weren’t just joining to be in favor of Proposition 8. Unless the people who are in favor of gay marriage can counter with something that exists independently of a campaign structure, they’re at a disadvantage.”
More than a hundred people can show up at monthly OCEC meetings. Sometimes, there’s a speaker—such as Tustin-raised Dan Choi, the Army lieutenant who earlier this year was kicked out of the military for being gay—and sometimes there’s an event to plan. The group’s e-mail list is nearly a thousand strong; its social-networking website (ocequality.ning.com) has more than 440 members.
In May, OCEC organized a 500-person rally and march in response to the California Supreme Court’s upholding of Prop. 8. Altstaetter, who coordinated the event with police, says the event was not only meant to make a statement, but also to provide a “safe space” for anyone feeling “suicidal, homicidal, whatever” after the court’s decision. August saw OCEC revive the county’s gay-pride festival, which had been put on hiatus in 2002 because of dwindling attendance. The inaugural festival in 1989 in Santa Ana made headlines thanks to the bags of urine lobbed at attendants by outsiders wielding banners reading, “Sodomites out of Santa Ana! No AIDS in OC!” The 2009 event only made headlines for being a peaceful, family-friendly picnic.
The past year has also seen OCEC develop into an advocacy group, combating discrimination, insensitivity and hate speech. Its members showed up to a meeting of the Orange County Board of Education meeting after president Alexandria Coronado made contemptuous remarks about “that lifestyle.” In another instance, a Santa Ana resident who posted a rainbow flag outside his house came to OCEC when he got this anonymous voice-mail message: “If you don’t take down that flag, we’re going to wrap you in it and burn your house down.” Altstaetter says the police only investigated after being pressured by OCEC and other organizations.
OCEC’s most public act of outreach came amid controversy at Corona del Mar High School. In February, a student sent an e-mail to Altstaetter and a number of news organizations detailing how drama teacher Ron Martin alleged that the school’s administration was canceling a planned performance of Rent merely because it portrayed gay people. Altstaetter forwarded the e-mail to OCEC’s board of directors, the dispute was written up in The New York Times, and the administration let the show go on.
Karyl Ketchum, mother of Hail Ketchum, one of the play’s lead actresses, says OCEC played an integral role in publicizing Rent’s cancellation and providing moral support to the cast. “I don’t know that that show would have gone on without OCEC,” Ketchum says. “I really don’t.”
The production brought the attention of the Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church, whose congregants travel around the county waving signs that are mostly variations on “GOD HATES FAGS” and “JEWS KILLED JESUS.” Pastor Fred Phelps announced his intention to picket the school on the play’s opening night. OCEC organized a counterprotest; for each of the three Westboro Baptists out front, there were roughly 100 Rent supporters shouting slogans from the other side of the street.
But some at Corona del Mar High say the Rent flap only hinted at the levels of latent homophobia and misogyny at the school. In March, the Ketchum-Wiggins family and OCEC, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against school administrators and the Newport-Mesa School District. Three seniors had posted a video on Facebook in which they called other students “faggots” and talked about raping and murdering Hail Ketchum-Wiggins. The Ketchum-Wiggins family and OCEC said the administration’s lack of action on the matter fostered an environment hostile to females and LGBT students. Within six months, the school settled the lawsuit and agreed to put teachers, students and administrators through harassment training.
OCEC has also had success in reaching out to religious institutions. On Nov. 2, OCEC organized a church service, titled “Keeping the Faith for Equality,” at the Church of the Foothills in Santa Ana. More than a dozen speakers preached in succession—Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Unitarians and Jews, pagans and atheists—about their constituencies’ commitment to gay rights. Many talked about the upcoming vote in Maine, saying they prayed for equality to prevail and that they knew that people in Orange County were working to see that it would.
“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.”
“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.”
Others insist that storytelling and conversation remain the best ways to shift societal attitudes. Courage Campaign’s canvassers are encouraged to come up with a “story of self” to tell at doorsteps, putting in personal terms their beliefs about why same-sex marriage should be legal.
OCEC has its own “storytelling committee.” “It’s really the power of emotion, the power of expression, that can change someone’s mind,” Davis says.
On the Friday after the Maine vote, OCEC sponsored an event at Chapman University reflecting on the year since Prop. 8. Eight of the OCEC storytellers stood in front of a lecture hall, each seat filled. One by one, they spoke.
The first, now engaged to another man, remembered wanting to die after being taunted in junior high for walking “like a girl.” The second described why he spent years pretending to be straight—“I want to be normal; I want to be like everybody else. I want to have a girlfriend.” The third recounted her daughter crying, “Mami, no one will love me again,” when she realized she was a lesbian. On down the line they went. When the eight were finished, the audience answered with a standing ovation.
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After the storytellers, a few high-profile LGBT-rights lawyers spoke. Katherine Darmer, a Chapman law professor and chair of OCEC’s legal committee, gave the closing speech.
“I’m pretty open about my views on these issues, and my issues are not the same as everyone at Chapman or here in Orange County,” Darmer said. “People often say to me, ‘Why are you in Orange County? Why are you at Chapman?’ And in all honesty, what I want to say to you is this is where there’s work to be done.”
“It is here, in Orange County, that we have to change hearts and minds,” she said. “Think of it as a challenge. Here, you can make a difference—and we have made a difference.”