10 April 2012

Asking permission

"Hi, I'd like to ask ... Image from the ad "Sinead's Hand", by Marriage Equality.
"Hi, is this Eileen? My name is Jeremy, and I'm a volunteer with Minnesotans United for All Families. We're calling voters this evening to ask about their opinions on marriage for gay and lesbian people."

Last May, the Republican-controlled state legislature voted to amend the Minnesota Constitution, adding a thirteenth section to the "Miscellaneous Items" of the Constitution's Article XIII to declare, "Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota." The Democratic governor's veto was purely symbolic; in Minnesota, the fate of constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature is determined by statewide ballot.

So seven months later, I started calling total strangers and asking them to vote against the amendment.

"As you may know, the Minnesota legislature has proposed an amendment to our state constitution that would ban marriage for gay people, and we'll be voting on that in November."

Minnesotans United for All Families operates out of storefront offices in a building on University Avenue, in the long swathe of industrial buildings, converted condominium lofts, and highly assorted retail where Minneapolis shades into Saint Paul the way riverside woodland shades into tallgrass prairie. My first night there, a clutch of MNUnited staffers—the only staff on the campaign so far—divvied us into small groups to do introductions, and tell each other why we'd come. My fellow volunteers skewed straighter than I expected: many who came in support of gay or lesbian sons, daughters, nephews, neices, and grandchildren; or on behalf of close friends.

"So, how do you feel on this issue? Do you think that gay and lesbian couples should (1) be allowed full marriage rights; (2) have some legal recognition like domestic partnerships or civil unions; or (3) no legal recognition?"

The staffers started out with an explanation of the campaign strategy: We can expect about 2.9 million Minnesotans to vote in the November election. Figure 1.5 million votes against the amendment as a solid win; but round that down to 1.4 million, since ballots cast with the amendment question left unanswered count as "no" votes. Polling suggests we're behind even that goal, by about 160,000 votes. Another 250,000 voters are thought to be favorably disposed towards same-sex marriage, but prone to persuasion by the scare tactics we can expect in pro-amendment campaigning: changing tradition! redefining marriage! priests forced to perform weddings they abhore! schoolchildren indoctrinated into the homosexual lifestyle!

(It is worth noting that Minnesota already has a law on the books defining marriage in the terms proposed for the amendment, so a vote against the amendment is far from a vote for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. But the average citizen will probably not be thinking with such legalistic specificity, alone in the voting booth.)

This presents a rather large number of voters to either persuade or reassure. And that, the staffers told us, is why volunteers are needed—to talk to all those 400,000-some voters.

"Okay, I see. So what concerns do you have about marriage for gay and lesbian folks?"

On checking into the office, we'd all recieved a packet—mostly a small sheaf of phone numbers with names, ages, genders, addresses: at the MNUnited office, phone banking means dialing your own calls, either on a chunky office landline or a tiny pay-as-you-go cellphone. Topmost in the packet is a sheet of text that serves as something more than a list of talking points but less than a script. It is framed like a straightforward voter survey, begining with an introduction and a general question about the voter's feelings on same-sex marriage, and concluding with a question about the voter's specific plans to vote for or against the amendment. But in between, things get messy.

Depending on the initial answer, there are suggested responses to religious objections: cite the Golden Rule, note that some churches support and bless same-sex relationships. There are cues to discuss the meaning and importance of marriage: "I don't know anyone who would trade their marriage for a civil union." And there is a prompt for sharing one's personal experience.

"Do you know any gay or lesbian folks, ma'am?"

The strategy, informed by an intense—possibly somewhat frantic—burst of messaging research in the wake of 29 consecutive defeats at the ballot box, represents a significant change from those previous, unsuccessful campaigns. In the past, campaigns for same-sex marriage have emphasized the abstract values of equality and fairness; this time around, the plan is to get personal. Ask about specific people the voter knows who will be affected by the amendment. Ask her how she'd feel if that person could get married. Tell this stranger on the other end of the phone line about yourself.

"Well, ma'am, I'm making calls tonight because I'm gay, and this amendment would affect me personally. I'd like to get married some day. To find someone to settle down with and build a life together. And to stand up in front of friends and family and make that commitment to each other."

* * *

There's a television ad that made the blogospheric rounds a couple years ago, in which a young man sets out to ask for permission to marry. It develops that he's not just asking a single parental authority; he's going door to door to ask the entire population of Ireland, in person, and one at a time.

This is, of course, impossible and ridiculous.



However, as the text that appears at the end of the ad explains, it's essentially what faces gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks in countries where (as in Ireland) our relationships are denied equal standing before the government. The point intended is that this actual, real situation is ridiculous, if clearly not impossible; that it is absurd and unjust that any couple's right to marry should be subject to a majority vote.

And yet here I am, spending one night a week from now until November, asking strangers all over the state of Minnesota for permission to get married.

I moved to Minnesota last spring in a generally optimistic mood. After six years of graduate school in a (perfectly lovely, I should note) small college town in northern Idaho, I was starting my first "professional" science job in a major metropolitan area with a reputation for queer friendliness, in a state I've long associated with pragmatic progressivism—some of my earliest political memories are of Garrison Keillor skewering the essential selfishness of Reaganomics and the absurdities of Newt Gingrich's Republican House of Representatives.

Of course, Minnesota is also known on the national scale for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann—the polar opposite of both pragmatism and progressivism—and the teenage "suicide cluster" fostered by the Anoka-Hennepin school district's official refusal to protect its queer students from homophobic bullying on the grounds that such protection constituted "promotion" of minority sexual orientations. (This policy is to be dramatically reversed under the terms of a recent settlement with the Justice Department.)

So it wouldn't be fair to say the passage of the proposed amendment—right about the time I signed a lease on an apartment in Northeast Minneapolis—came as a surprise. But that's not the Minnesota I moved halfway across the country for.

And so, given the opportunity at (I think it was) a booth at Minneapolis Pride, I did my gay civic duty and filled out a form saying I'd help out the campaign to make sure the amendment is voted down. I'm not sure what I thought that would entail. Initially, it entailed a phone call in mid-December from someone enthusiastically reading from a script to remind me that I'd said I would help, and did I think I could try joining a phone bank effort to contact voters about the amendment? Sure, I guessed.

* * *

My first evening of phone-banking was more than three months ago, now—Minnesotans United got underway in January, ten months ahead of the election and earlier than any previous similar effort. Even with the conversation guide and a good deal of preparation, I fully expected that I was signing up for an evening of having, over and over, the kind of conversation I've successfully avoided having with a good half of my extended family.

In practice, it hasn't been like that, exactly. Minnesotans are generally too polite, for one thing. For another, it's funny how much easier it is to let absurd and offensive statements wash over you when the only thought in your head is "be polite," and you can always jump ahead to the closing question, hang up, and never talk to that asshole again.

But Minnesotan voters are entirely able to be astonishingly, densely homophobic, even when they're being Minnesota nice.

There was the lady who said she had lots of gay and lesbian friends, but she wasn't quite ready to support full marriage equality yet, because she thought that if we could get married, "it might become cool," and then too many attractive, intelligent folks might never reproduce!

There was the gentleman who told me that the Bible had "ordained" me to be a eunuch, and who noted his concerns about a (completely fictitious, do I need to say?) proposed bill to legalize bestiality.

There was the woman who agreed with me on every point from the basic unfairness of the question to my own desire for a wedded commitment, but said she'd probably vote for the amendment because her church told her to.

There was the lady who responded to my telephonic coming-out by asking if I didn't want to have children? And when I said that I might, but that lots of same-sex couples have kids, and I'd rather adopt anyway as there are plenty of children in the world who need parents, she noted that—in the hypothetical straight marriage she was planning for me—I could always adopt after I'd made a few biological kids. To which I asked how many children did she want to saddle me with, here? —and she laughed.

I don't know how she'll vote, but somehow her laughter was encouraging.

Good progress, on the phone bank, is to dial about thirty numbers in an hour. Of those, maybe half a dozen result in actual complete conversations. Most voters aren't home, or answering the phone, at 8:30 on a Monday night. And a lot of folks cut things off midway through the first question with the declaration that they don't care to talk about this kind of thing on the phone.

Neither do I, I want to holler into the dial-toning handset. But I'm not the one who decided the whole damn state was going to put my civil rights up for a vote.

* * *

This strategy of calling strangers and asking them for permission to get married is intended to appeal to voters on an emotional level. The focus groups and voter surveys all suggest, we're told, that this is the way to nudge people closer to our side: Don't get bogged down debating legal niceities or scriptural details. Put a human face on the consequences of the vote.

So it's good evening, sir; thank you for talking with me, ma'am. Respond to concerns (however ridiculous), present alternatives (but gently), and keep it polite the whole time. You can turn to your neighbor and complain about the raging homophobe you've had to talk to—but keep it polite till you hang up. If nothing else, we want to leave a positive impression.

It's hardly the kind of activism that kicked the gay rights movement into national prominence, drag queens and homeless hustlers throwing rocks and beer cans at the police who came to harass the patrons of an obscure dive bar. Nor is it the gentle-to-the-point-of-passive back-room wrangling associated with politically connected groups like the Human Rights Campaign. (Although HRC is a partner organization with MNUnited.) It's not the simple demand for justice embodied in court cases against unjust laws, like the lawsuit that overturned state sodomy laws or the ongoing case against California's Proposition 8. It's not even the vodka-sponsored activism enacted in Pride parades, decades after Stonewall: we're here, we're queer, get over it.

It is, instead, polite to the point of meekness: Hi there. You don't know me, but you're about to cast a vote that affects me personally. Could I maybe persuade you not to vote away my rights? If it's not too much trouble.

But the funny thing is, this approach manages to be more confrontational than the most outrageous Pride march. Speaking directly to a retiree in suburban Duluth, I'm not a faceless protestor on television; I'm an actual person on the other end of a phone line.

In a day and age where even Rick Santorum claims to have gay friends, voters who say they don't know any gays or lesbians are as rare as teetotalers at a wine tasting. As often as not, people are apologetic as they tell me they'll vote for the amendment. On some level, I think, almost everyone I've talked to knows that the amendment would be unjust. Opposition to treating queer folks as full and equal citizens has become so socially repugnant that the National Organization for Marriage is fighting tooth and nail to prevent disclosure of its donors as required by Minnesota's state election laws.

And I have to think that's a hopeful sign.

* * *

There are months to go until the election in November. The campaigns for and against the amendment are raising boatloads of money, rallying volunteers and staff, and building statewide organizations. When I started making calls for MNUnited in January, I knew every staff member by name; now familiar faces are scarcer every time I come to the office. Regional offices are opening across the state, and the campaign is building a cohort of volunteers to fill rolls that were once once for staff only. A few weeks ago, I took the training to start running phone banks myself, teaming up with another volunteer to brief new callers, coach them through the conversation guide, and stand by for assistance as they start talking to total strangers.

Meanwhile, we have every reason to expect the same shitstorm of misinformation and scare-messaging that helped push through Proposition 8—NOM will be using its old reliable playbook.

How will it work this time? In twenty-nine states so far, the majority has happily voted away the rights of the queer minority. If the current polling holds steady, equality will lose again in Minnesota. At its heart, the campaign against the amendment is an attempt to change those poll numbers one voter at a time.

And outside the storefront office, spring has come early. Now that the weather permits it, I may soon be going door to door, talking to my fellow Minnesotans in person.◼

Although I'm a volunteer for Minnesotans United for All Families, this post was written without official solicitation, sanction, or input from that organization—what is written here reflects my thoughts and views, not those of MNUnited, its partner organizations, or its supporters.

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