Thursday, November 5, 2009

Confessions of a Californian in Maine

So we lost. And there will be much hand-wringing about the gay rights groups like HRC and NGLTF who poured in amazing organizing resources into the campaign. I have no complaints. As someone involved in the fights against Prop 8 and Maine's Question 1, I can tell you there is no comparison between the two elections aside from the slow, creeping feeling that we lost around midnight after ballots came in. We had a smarter campaign, but it wasn't enough to change people's minds against hate.

There was no complacency among equality supporters: everyone knew the entire time that the vote was going to be stupidly close (news flash: 5 percent is close). And we would have been perfectly happy winning by one vote. Protect Maine Equality (No on 1) made a point of incorporating actual gay people in their television ads (a complete revolution, from my perspective) and keeping their message positive: take a stand, support equality, don't discriminate. Stand for Marriage Maine (Yes on 1) was sneaky and ended up angering many of their supporters, including large numbers of devoted Catholics, who expressed non-stop disappointment in their campaign. For many of them, what they understood to be a virtuous message – maintain traditional marriage as the Church sees it – ended up being quite hate-driven. In those frequent open discussions with people of faith who supported the measure, these Yes on 1 supporters confessed that they wished their church were not involved because it sullied their message of faith. It ended up galvanizing many Catholics to support No on 1. Wow! This was nothing like what happened in California with the LDS.

One thing I do know is that the analysts attempting to explain why a relatively secular and libertarian state went against gay marriage do not really understand Maine. Nate Silver thinks that the vote came down to an urban-rural divide. Queerty blames the ubiquitous "soccer moms." Those theories, while catchy, only partially explains it. Two larger urban areas – Lewiston and Augusta - voted yes by large margins and many rural towns and small coastal islands voted no. After some analysis, I think it's more indicative of the huge cultural differences between southern and northern Maine. If you look at a map, most tourists never go north of Augusta, let alone Waterville, where I live. The rest of the state is huge. Once you get north of Bangor, you run out of coastline. The towns up there are extremely quaint and traditional. Many of the people who live in the north have never been south of Bangor let alone outside of the state and have no desire to leave. While they may be regular church-goers, religion is not the driving force of their lives. Yet, from what I understand, they have no desire to change. One of the full-time volunteers for the campaign described anti-gay harassment in one of those towns on par with levels that I haven't heard about for 15 years. This is the part of Maine where even if you have lived there your entire life since you were 2 years old, you are not a real Mainer and are thus "from away." It is nothing like the Maine that most visitors to Portland, Freeport and the Boothbay harbor experience.

And then there is the question of the ads. In the last week of the campaign, the Yes on 1 side released ads that basically gave people who were borderline supporters of marriage equality an easy out. The message said, in essence, "voting Yes doesn't mean you hate gay people and want to deny them their happiness; it just means you want to keep marriage 'traditional.' We can extend domestic partnership rights later. Vote Yes now." This, coupled with the classic "what about the children" ads gave anyone with creeping discomfort about gay people an excuse to tell a portion of their society that they are not worthy. According to what I heard, the group of people who were most moved by the last round of ads were non-republican women – a designation far more liberal than "soccer moms."

As someone who got married in California when I could, marriage rights represent the brass ring, something the movement should build up to. Unfortunately, I don't think we've done a good job building up the rest of the basic human rights, like being able to work where you want (hello, armed forces?) and protection against housing discrimination based on gender presentation. And while we are at it, what about accepting and promoting the more radical elements of queer people. If that is what comes from this most recent setback, then it isn't a setback at all.


chris said...

Hey K, This is the first time I've visited your blog. I wanted to congratulate you on your writing! All the best, Chris

e.k. said...

well said. I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance of Maine politics, but it is so valuable to examine various group behaviors in different places. know thy enemy, right? - Jen