Guest editorial: Ten years after Georgia’s gay marriage amendment

Houses in Massachusetts are really expensive, and more than three-fourths of my fellow Georgians hate me.

Those were the parallel thoughts running through my head 10 years ago on election night, as I lay in bed watching vote tallies roll in, each update showing even more votes for an amendment to Georgia’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Earlier in 2004, Massachusetts had become the first and only U.S. state to allow gay marriage; on that depressing Tuesday night, Georgia was one of 11 states to pass constitutional amendments to ban such marriages.

It’s not that I was surprised by the vote. A native Georgian who began working in the LGBT press in 1997, I knew the political reality for LGBT people as well as anyone. After covering everything from hate crimes to the state legislature, I had come to view Georgia’s homophobia as a part of the landscape for me, just as much as the dogwoods and azaleas that bloom every spring.

Still, the landslide 76 percent approval brought tears to my eyes. As my partner slept beside me and our three-year-old daughter snuggled in her bed across the hall, I perched my laptop on my pregnant belly and searched real estate websites in Massachusetts, wondering whether it was simply time to go. Why should I even consider continuing to raise my family in a state where we might never be more than political pawns.

But alas, selling my small Atlanta home would not have allowed me to buy even the tiniest house I found that night, and looking back, I’m glad.
Just a decade after those first couples said “I do” in Massachusetts, 32 states now extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples. And while Georgia still lags behind, my soon-to-be 10-year- old daughter, born a few months after that sad election, makes cards for both of her moms in class; her sister, now 13, recently dashed away from us at Atlanta Pride to hang out with her friends and plan how they would wear their gay rights t-shirts to school. Middle school.

If an amendment to allow same-sex couples to marry had been on this Tuesday’s ballot, it would still struggle to win the votes of a majority of Georgia voters. Yet those numbers are changing — a poll commissioned by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year showed 48 percent of Georgians support gay marriage — in large part due to how we are framing our message.

Back in 2004, the fight against Georgia’s gay marriage amendment was led by an ad-hoc group of community leaders under the banner of Georgians Against Discrimination. Now Georgia Equality’s website proudly touts the Why Marriage Matters Georgia Campaign, “a grassroots public education campaign to build support for and ultimately win the freedom to marry in Georgia.”

It’s not enough to tell people what we stand against; we’ve learned we must tell them what we stand for.

The heroic activists who led Georgia’s doomed effort to defeat the marriage amendment modeled their strategies on those being used in similar battles around the country. Believing voters would be unwilling to proactively support marriage rights for gay couples, they built their campaigns around an argument that it was unnecessarily harsh to further codify such bans.

Georgia’s constitutional amendment, the argument went, was both redundant (as a 1996 state law already banned gay marriage) and deceptive, since only a question about banning gay marriage appeared on the ballot, while a second section hidden from voters also banned civil unions or any other recognition for same-sex couples.

“It is one thing to oppose gay marriage. It is quite another to institutionalize this degree of discrimination,” state Rep. Karla Drenner, (D-Avondale Estates), said at the time Georgia’s only openly gay state legislator, said at a rally against the amendment featuring a performance by Indigo Girls, according to press re- ports from the time.

But is it? If it is OK to deny loving gay couples the right to marry, why isn’t it OK to write those bans into state laws, state constitutions, or anywhere else? From Hawaii in 1998 to Georgia in 2004 to California in 2008, and in each state in between, the strategy lost every time.

In Georgia, the outcome of the vote was determined from the moment the amendment was placed on the ballot. Drenner had bravely stepped up to the plate to lead the coalition against the amendment, and she and the other members of Georgians Against Discrimination deserve nothing but our gratitude for enduring an unfair fight.

Making a proactive argument in favor of marriage rights would not have changed the result of that 2004 vote, but using that media spotlight to tell our stories might have helped build a foundation for future advocacy earlier.

When we as a national movement stopped trying to give cover to people who oppose gay marriage and started explaining why our love is every bit as deserving of legal rights as that of straight couples, we started winning.

It’s those stories — told through lawsuits, public education campaigns, and in count- less conversations with friends, family members and coworkers — that enabled victories for marriage rights in 32 other states, and it’s those stories, now being told in Georgia, that will inevitably secure our marriage rights here.

Laura Douglas-Brown is a founder and former editor of the GA Voice.