Three weeks later, the pain is evident. There’s anger. There’s also alarm, verging on panic for some, that after the Great Leap Forward for gay equality that began in the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago and spread over in the last year to Massachusetts, San Francisco and everywhere in the country, the 2004 elections could mark the start of an Enormous Backward Fall.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law, which made it illegal for gays and lesbians to engage in sex acts that were perfectly legal for straights. The Court’s reason: “The liberty protected by the Constitution” did not differ because of your sexual orientation. It was a clear, landmark ruling.

Then a year ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, drawing on the High Court’s opinion, declared that same-sex couples in the Bay State must enjoy the same marriage rights as hetero-couples. By spring, gays and lesbians were marrying in Massachusetts–John Kerry’s home state. And they were marrying, quasi-officially, in San Francisco.

You know the rest. Kerry lost the presidential election. The day after, pundits pointed to the 11-state referenda on same-sex marriage–all of which went heavily against gays–as the key to Bush’s victory. More voters said in the nationwide exit poll that “moral issues” were their top concern than chose terrorism, or the war in Iraq, or the economy.

Most of the ballot questions were in “red states” destined to go Republican anyway. Two, in the battleground states of Michigan and Oregon, failed to make the difference as Kerry prevailed. But in the pivotal state of Ohio, where the Bush-Kerry race was finally decided, Bush won by just 3 percentage points, and Issue 1–the same-sex marriage ban–was approved by 62-38 percent. Citizens for Community Values, which put Issue 1 on the ballot, claimed to have contacted 3 million voters in their homes and their churches. “This was the issue that delivered Ohio for President Bush,” its spokesman claimed.

“The image of Republicans as the Daddy party, and Democrats as the Mommy party, came roaring back in 2004,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “with a chesty President Bush and Dick Cheney making the case that they could protect America from vicious terrorists and uxorious gays better than the Brahmin (Kerry) they painted as a sissy.”

Even Democratic Congressman Barney Franks, who is gay, said the gay-marriage issue had hurt the Kerry cause.

Gay activists don’t think so. They’ve studied the Ohio turnout numbers, and find that Kerry came closer to beating Bush in Ohio than Al Gore did in 2000–when there was no Issue 1 on the ballot. Nonetheless, they feel like they’ve had, as one put it the other night in Durham, “a walloping” in the press and among their fellow activists.

A dozen of them, when they gathered around a table, agreed about the hurt, but not about the next steps to take, except for one–the need to reach out to African Americans. Just a single African-American woman had answered the call to this private meeting, and when it was over, she declined to talk with the Independent on the record.

Black men and women are not much represented in the ranks of gay and lesbian activists, and they need to be, all agreed. Beyond that, however, there was no unanimity about where the gay-marriage issue should go, or if–right now–it should go at all. Opinions about that ranged from “full speed ahead” to folks wanting to step back and try only to get legislative enactment next year of Durham legislator Paul Luebke’s bill that would prohibit discrimination against state employees who are gay.

Not employees in the state who are gay, mind you. Only state employees. But that, some said, is all that’s possible in North Carolina today–if, indeed, anything is.

The next day, we talked to four of them.

Chantelle Fisher-Borne:
“It’s our responsibility to hold up our higher truth.”
Public health researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-coordinator of the Triangle Freedom to Marry Coalition, Fisher-Borne was stunned by the election results, especially the success of all 11 of the state anti-gay marriage referenda. She’d hoped the one in Oregon would go the other way. Despite it all, though, she’s still pro-gay marriage, and not for backing down.

Oregon was our best chance to win, and the strategy there was different. They didn’t just say it’s wrong to write discrimination into the constitution. They said same-sex couples deserve the same rights as everybody else. That really was inspiring to me, and I was bummed that they lost.

Like a lot of other people I talked to, I was feeling attacked, like a large percentage of the American population had voted against me personally. I know that’s not what pulling the lever means, but that’s how it felt.

I was busy with work, and it was about five days later, but I just broke down and cried for a couple of hours. Just feeling this overwhelming sort of grief and despair, that–I can’t believe that people voted for someone who was so against me, and my values, and so homophobic.

If we deny that it’s painful and deny the hurt, I think we could become very reactionary and angry very quickly out of the pain. So, to be able to say that, wow, that really broke my heart, and feel that, and share it with other people, is probably the most important thing we can do right now.

Part B was people blaming gay folks for winning the election for Bush. It definitely felt like a case of blaming the victim, and like people not feeling the heartache, and going right to the anger piece, which is “Who can we blame?” That’s what I felt, a real quick, reactionary pointing the finger, pulling the trigger–it’s those gay folk.

And to the degree that we have acceptable homophobia and oppression of gays, it was real easy for people to go there.

What now?

On a grassroots level, it’s continuing what we’ve started already, continuing to build people’s individual and group capacities to advocate for themselves, and building a true statewide network of LGBT–lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender–organizations that are going to stand up and fight injustices. It’s continuing to build on what we’ve started with the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.

The overall answer is that we need to continually ask people when we’re challenged, “Why shouldn’t same-sex couples have the freedom to marry?” We have to pull off the hood of the “I’m defending the sanctity of marriage” argument and show it to be hateful and homophobic. It’s our responsibility to hold up our higher truth and not to compromise our truth, that the issue is about love, and it’s about equal rights, and not to give in to the “Oh, you’re right, people aren’t ready for gay marriage” impulse.

Civil unions won’t do it. That’s not our truth. And we have to have some faith in our leaders that eventually they will come up to meet us.

Tanya Olson
“Our family members [are] voting against us.”
A poet and teacher at Vance-Granville Community College, Olson organized readings, which she called “The Politics of Poetry,” to bring political activists and artists together in the months leading up to November. “To share ideas, to share energies and inspire each other,” she says. Election night, she took champagne with her to a party. The corks were never popped. In the aftermath, she argues that marriage equality is the wrong battle at the wrong time. However, she’s not sure there’s a right battle any more.

I teach as my primary occupation. I truly believe that–it may take awhile–but if you present people with good information that they’ll make good decisions. That people are teachable, they want to learn, and they want to make good decisions. This election has really made me struggle with that, because I don’t understand how you make that decision to vote for Bush. I understand people who have a lot of money, and want to watch out for their money, and keep more of it; but other than that. …

And now, I don’t know what we say to them, beyond what’s already apparent. The people who vote for an anti-gay marriage amendment, I don’t know what to say to them (either). I suspect that they know queer people, and I don’t know if they like them personally or not, but they know some and I suspect a lot of them like somebody who is gay or lesbian, and maybe even care about them and love them–I mean, these are our family members who are voting against us, you know? So, I don’t know what you say to them to make them see that the worst thing that’s going to happen (if gay marriage becomes legal) is that two people are going to love each other, and maybe one of them is going to get health insurance or else they’re not going to pay as much to join the Y. Those don’t seem like horrible consequences.

I think we have to go forward. We have to be on the offensive. And that is our problem in so many situations–in the gay marriage situation and just in general in the Democratic Party, that we have let ourselves be positioned and forced into definitions that maybe we don’t really want, into fighting for things we don’t really want.

Is gay marriage–and marriage equality–really what we want? Do we want to sign onto what is really a sinking ship? There are a lot of people I talk to who say, well no, marriage really isn’t a great institution, and maybe we should deal with things in a different way. Maybe we shouldn’t decide who gets health insurance by who’s married to whom, or by where you work. Maybe we shouldn’t decide whether you can raise a child depending on who you sleep with. Maybe we should fight on (the issue) that everyone deserves health care, or that loving a child and wanting to raise it isn’t a horrible crime.

Go forward how?

I don’t know. I’ve really been rocked, and I don’t know what to do next or how to talk about these issues. Even last night, in a group of like-minded people, there was a pretty wide variety of opinions (about marriage equality as an issue). I really do believe, as a teacher, that, well, everybody’s not going to get it on the same day, but if you just keep saying it and working on it and showing them things, people eventually will get it.

But I guess I’m not entirely convinced that that’s all it takes any more.

The thing that’s helped me are the people whose attitude is, all right, we’ve got a fight to make now. We’ve got to fight. And I don’t like those metaphors, but they’re probably not the worst ones right now–we’ve got a fight, and we’re gonna have to work at it to win.

Tracy Hollister
“The true question is: Should committed gay couples have equal rights?”
A product manager for an R&D firm in Chapel Hill and a member at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, Hollister remembers the tense confrontation last spring at a community meeting between gay activists and a contingent of anti-gay men from a conservative black church as a turning point. When she asked one of them to stop shouting, he responded: “Get out of my face, lesbian.” After that, “I made it my calling” to speak out forcefully for gay equality, she says. But on the marriage issue, she thinks it’s time to separate the civil issues from religious cant.

I don’t take the election results personally. First of all, the gay issue was a contributing factor, but not the factor in the outcome. I’m very disappointed in the 11 states that passed the antigay amendments. But I view the cause as fear. And fear is a very powerful manipulator, whether it be fear of terrorism or fear of a different lifestyle.

However, I do think there is a lot of work to be done with people understanding that there is no such thing as a homosexual agenda to destroy marriage. I know hundreds of gay people, and I don’t know one of them who sits around scheming about how to destroy the family. If anything, we just want to be a part of it–I don’t understand how expanding an institution to include more people in it would in any way destroy it.

One of the things I’m aware of now (because I am speaking on the issue) is the use of language. I’m less inclined to use the term gay marriage, and more inclined to use terms like freedom to marry and civil marriage.

I think that we need to separate the discussion of civil marriage from any religion’s right to determine who can and can’t be married in their churches. In my churches, gays get married. In a lot of religions, that’s perfectly acceptable. And–we’re a country of religious pluralism, we shouldn’t have one specific religious idea dictate what rights people can and can’t have from a civil perspective.

You’re planning more dinner parties. Why?

I think a lot of progress can be made in the moveable middle, around what it is that gay people who are in stable, committed relationships don’t have. And get real about it (with straight friends). We can’t visit our partners in the hospital. We can’t inherit property. There are 1,039 rights in federal and state law to draw on in this discussion. But the true question is: Should committed gay couples have equal rights, or only a small subset of the rights that straight couples have? I think when you frame the issue that way, fair-minded people can see that (the status quo) is simply not right.

Gary Post
“I’d like to pick some fights we can win.”
A lawyer and Durham County coordinator for the Triangle Stonewall Democrats, Post came to Election Day absolutely stressed out from the work and tension of the long campaign and the prospect that the Kerry-Edwards ticket might just win. He doesn’t think the gay marriage issue lost it for the Democrats. On the other hand, he thinks Kerry and Edwards would have been better served by standing up for gay equality and not equivocating. And now? It’s time to win a battle or two, he thinks.

The last two weeks–for everyone who was active in the campaign–we were kind of numb and dazed by the pressure that was building up. Winning North Carolina, even with Edwards on the ticket, was always a long shot. But we thought Kerry had the ability to win Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and I thought we were going to win it.

I don’t think the gay-marriage issue decided this campaign. It was used by the Republicans to turn out their base in high numbers. Watching the Republicans talk about gay marriage, what they really seemed like they wanted to say was that gay people are awful, and we hate them. They were talking in code.

But Kerry and Edwards, when they were talking about it, they weren’t saying that we think gay people are just average, normal people like everybody else, and they deserve equal rights. They didn’t really stand up for gay rights at all. And a lot of people are second-guessing the election, and feeling that maybe a little more honesty, and some better respect for the electorate–not to mention respect for gays and lesbians–would have done better than this cagey–“Oh, we’re against gay marriage … but we think gay people are OK, too”–approach.

It is certainly a matter of debate in the gay community now how to go forward. No one is saying that we need to push for gay marriage right now and we expect to win. However, a lot of activists are saying that it’s only by pushing for full equal rights–for full marriage rights, not civil unions–that we’re ever going to get there. They’re saying that if we tone it down and tell the country, “Well, if you’ll please just not kick us, that won’t be so bad,” we’ll only be lowering the level of respect and engagement we get from other people.

On the other hand, I like the idea of winning some battles. I’d like to pick some fights we can win. Not that those who’ve been in the forefront on the gay-marriage issue haven’t done some positive things. I just look at what I’m hearing from fellow Democrats, and it’s more along the lines of “Let’s try to push for legislation that’s proactive on civil unions as a middle step right now.” And avoid–well, I can go to a church and be married today, but it won’t be recognized by the state.

And let’s concentrate more on telling our stories, in the press and to each other, that we’re people, we have families, we have health-care issues, and we want to have the same rights as everybody else has.

Is the Democratic party the right vehicle?

What I like about the Democrats is that we’re a coalition of people trying to advance our interests as a team. That means we must work in coalition.

Because (gays) are a distinct minority, we absolutely have to be attuned to what everybody else in the party is thinking and concerned about, which is first and foremost economic justice. In the African-American community, and in all of Durham, there is still absolutely the feeling that the social agenda for equal opportunity for African-Americans is not yet met, either. Being mindful of such other concerns, and trying to fully participate in the party and advance the concerns that other people have, we feel that our concerns will be listened to also, and we’ll move forward together.