Friday, May 11, 2012

Fire on the Mountain

It has been a frustrating few days for the LGBT community in North Carolina following the approval of Amendment One in North Carolina. The count was 61 percent for, 39 percent against with just over a million people voting for it. As usual with amendments involving gay marriage, the polls were a few percentage points too optimistic. While the number was overwhelmingly for the amendment, it is not the worst defeat involving gay marriage amendments, not by a long shot. That does give some hope for the future.

So what went wrong? The first thing to understand is that the pro-amendment forces in North Carolina have been planning for this vote for several years. They literally prayed for the opportunity, and it was gift wrapped to them in the 2010 election when the Republicans took over the state legislature after 140 years of Democrat control. They also have the experience of 30 state victories to draw from nationally. In fact, most of their funding came from non-profit groups outside the state.

The pro-amendment group also had the numbers from day one. They only had to protect the lead which any coach in sports will tell you is easier to do than coming from behind. It's like running out the clock in football or having a one goal lead in the World Cup. The polls showed some movement in January and February from a 40 point difference to at times under 20. However the poll numbers did not change much in the final month. The final 20 percent just did not budge.

Also, the pro-amendment forces had more collective passion. I'll get in trouble for saying this. Those who voted for the amendment felt like they were voting to defend their personal beliefs. It was a holy task in their mind to hold the line against the liberals, the press, and the LGBT community. They felt quite motivated and justified in making their vote. There was plenty of passion within the LGBT community, but it is difficult to carry over to an otherwise apathetic non-voting population. This primary had an even larger turnout than in 2008. Yet about four million (almost 2/3rds of registered voters) chose not to have their voice heard. Voter apathy may be an even greater battle that every campaign fights. For the anti-amendment forces, the problem was in making people who rarely vote change their habits and care enough to vote against the amendment.

The pro-amendment campaign also countered with some well-timed and simple messages. That is the nature of politics. Keep your message simple, and repeat it often. In the final weeks, it was enough to keep their people in line by saying the harms of the amendment were “lies.” Also don't underestimate the importance of Billy Graham's statements the weekend before the vote. His voice carries much weight in this state. With his announcement in support of the amendment, his association sponsored some last minute ads. So it wasn't just an opinion. It was an “all-in” from his organization.

With the above, my analytical side tells me we in the LGBT community were fighting a losing battle all the way. Having observed many campaigns dispassionately over the years, I knew the numbers not moving in the final weeks was a bad sign. We had reached the threshold of support in the short term. The pro-amendment groups kept the conversation about gay marriage and religion. It's a battle that cannot be won over the space of a few months especially with the vote during a primary.

It is wonderful that we against the amendment initiated a conversation in North Carolina to make people think more deeply about the amendment, and by extension, the LGBT community. However, when a vote is involved, discussions rarely end well. The talk has turned nasty and divisive in every state where a vote concerning gay marriage has been taken. Since the same side has won every time, they cannot understand the fuss. Meanwhile the gay community is hurt and frustrated because rights are taken away for no good reason. Politicians know how to use this as a wedge issue, and we fall for it.

While my head can fathom the reasons for the vote, my heart can't. It seems simple to ask people to look beyond their own personal beliefs. Gay marriage doesn't ask anyone in the non-gay community to give up anything. Yet they have no qualms about denying it to others despite the non-gay community's failure with marriage in recent decades (high divorce rate, adultery, etc.). I think of the John Edwards trial in particular. That man is the scum of the earth. Yet he can remarry. Shouldn't I be able to vote on his suitability for marriage?

Also the pro-amendment groups wouldn't even acknowledge the issue with the language of the amendment. They claimed they weren't aware of issues in other states with similar language, and they had no desire to find out. The phrase “domestic legal union” is clearly problematic, and the state will spend years in court determining everything from domestic partner benefits to child custody rights to domestic violence laws. This could have been easily avoided, but the pro-amendment forces knew they could be greedy and use North Carolina as a test case for that language.

I'm left with conflicting thoughts regarding my home state. I still have no desire to move, but my strength of conviction on that thought has been greatly weakened. I wrote on Facebook the opening line from the wonderful Marshall Tucker Band song, “Fire on the Mountain:”

Took my family away from my Carolina home...

The song fools you with one of the most beautiful instrumental openings in popular music and then segues to the lyrics which tell of a man's quest for gold and riches which eventually leads to his death. He left his home to look for something better and instead found greater hardship. That is the nature of life. We risk much for something better even when what we have is pretty good. Also there is the idea of the grass is greener elsewhere. After all in my case, there are 30 other states with gay marriage bans in their constitution. There aren't many choices.

The easy path is to dismiss North Carolina as a bigoted and backwards state and use that as an excuse to move. Reality is always more complicated even for folks who favored the amendment. My life is full of examples of people looking past their pre-conceived notions and giving me a chance. Some of them have become best friends. It wouldn't have happened if I stayed home in a closet, if I worried too much about offending others, if I thought I didn't present well enough. I have plenty of excuses to not be out there and live life as the real me. I could use the amendment results as one more.

However the benefits of being out are so numerous. I have spoken often of the friendships and life experiences. I grow more with each one. I wrote two days after the amendment on Facebook:

Enough of the pity party. It's on to the next thing which is to keep on being out and visible in a positive way. Just know that I am happy to have so many good people in my life. I feel very loved, and no amendment vote is needed to prove that.

I have plenty of reasons to stay and build on the progress that has been made. The amendment vote is quite the setback to be sure. It is a long journey, and we'll find better things down the road even in North Carolina. The Marshall Tucker Band song comes from the album, “Searchin' for a Rainbow.” Seems appropriate, doesn't it?

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