Recollections from Georgia’s gay marriage ban fight ten years later

Ten years ago, Georgia residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It was a dark day in the LGBT community’s history and in our state’s history.

TimelineTo make matters worse, 10 other states passed similar bans as part of a nationwide effort to block out LGBT equality as part of a Republican effort to get voters to the polls.

Today, a federal lawsuit is challenging that Georgia ban as federal judges across the nation are striking down same-sex marriage bans left and right. Could that happen in Georgia, just a decade later, whether through a court ruling in Georgia or an eventual U.S. Supreme Court decision?

We talked to some of the key players in the Amendment 1 battle to discuss how things have changed since 2004 as part of coverage of this historic time.

What the Amendment Says

(a) This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman. Marriages between persons of the same sex are prohibited in this state.

(b) No union between persons of the same sex shall be recognized by this state as entitled to the benefits of marriage. This state shall not give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other state or jurisdiction respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other state or jurisdiction. The courts of this state shall have no jurisdiction to grant a divorce or separate maintenance with respect to any such relationship or otherwise to consider or rule on any of the parties’ respective rights arising as a result of or in connection with such relationship.

Former state Sen. Mike Crotts, who sponsored the amendment. (file photo)
Former state Sen. Mike Crotts, who sponsored the amendment. (file photo)

Former state Sen. Mike Crotts

Crotts, a Republican from Conyers, sponsored Amendment 1. He served in the legislature from 1993 to 2004.

Why did you introduce the bill?

[Amendment 1] was brought to the forefront by the people of Georgia. In other words, it wasn’t something I was out looking to do. The state of Massachusetts … they were the first state to implement that [same-sex marriage]. What bothered me more than anything about that situation in Massachusetts was that you had activist judges making a decision over the separation of powers of the legislative and executive process.

When I saw that’s what happened in Massachusetts I began to research Georgia law to see as to what our situation was in comparison to Massachusetts law and I determined our laws in Georgia were almost identical to the laws of Massachusetts so I made the attempt then to try to change Georgia law … to where activist judges could not do some of those type things from the bench. The people of Georgia said they would like an opportunity to vote on this.

When the gay community came to me and asked why are you doing this, I told them this was nothing personal. I don’t care how you live your life. It’s not for me to judge you. It doesn’t matter to me how you live your life. I’m a heterosexual and I believe in the heterosexual life. I’m just saying I live my life and I don’t try to push it out there to make people know who I am. All it does is create turmoil and confusion and it’s not healthy for our society.

What do you think about how judges are ruling across the nation on these kinds of constitutional amendments?

In our case a lower court judge [in 2006] … ruled it was unconstitutional and said 85 percent of people [Ed. Note: actually 76 percent] went to the polls didn’t know what they were voting for. I had a problem with that. That little judge was saying the people are stupid and don’t know what they are voting for and was stepping on the people.

Rather than get an activist judge to step on the people they should introduce a new bill, pass it, and put it to the will of the people.

You got judges throwing these cases out and overturning them … it needs to be done right like it was put in place the right way with a referendum.

How would a similar referendum do today?

I would still vote the same way I did and the reason I say that is it’s not that I’m opposed to what they do, that’s their business. But it’s based on my religious beliefs. That’s all. Even with my religious beliefs I’m not judging those people. It’s what I believe. It’s my feelings. But it don’t make ‘em wrong. I could not support it.

I never wanted people to think I was out and out bad guy because i was trying to do what the people were saying. I’m really not sure if a referendum today, if it would pass. I probably think you would be surprised, be a lot; It would be a lot different than 10 years ago.

Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham (file photo)
Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham (file photo)

Jeff Graham, executive director at Georgia Equality

Those of us who had worked on the campaign were at the Red Chair and we were there for the LGBT community election night watch party. Karla Drenner did a great job of leading us under incredibly difficult circumstances when other people didn’t want to get involved. I think you always have to think that you can win just to give you the energy to keep going. We realized we weren’t going to win and then when the numbers came in and we realized how bad we lost…it was so freaking depressing.

It’s really hard to put so much effort into a six month period in a campaign, working every weekend and several nights for months and months going door-to-door only to have the feeling that three-quarters of your friends and neighbors don’t like you. It was definitely a low point.

But being able to look back, a good that came out of it was teaching people who had never engaged in this kind of campaign work before how to engage in it. The importance of engaging voters one-by-one, doing the canvassing, raising the money, doing the hard intensive work of reaching voters one at a time. There’s a lot of good skills I learned from that campaign. Being on the first wave of the movement, people learned what worked and didn’t work for us here in Georgia. So those are all positive things that came out of it, as well as that sense of camaraderie.

I have carried one particular conversation I had with me to this day. It’s one of those things that whenever I’m feeling this work is overwhelming and hopeless, I remember this conversation. It was in an East Atlanta neighborhood where I was canvassing. My then partner and now husband went up on the porch of an elderly African-American woman and I started talking to her about the amendment and she spoke with such commitment. She talked about how she has three granddaughters—two were straight and one was a lesbian and she was so angry that she felt that people were trying to treat her lesbian granddaughter differently than the other two. She wanted us to know that in no uncertain terms that she loved all three granddaughters the same and wished for each of them to find someone to love for the rest of their lives. I’ve carried that conversation with me because it shows you can have really good allies in areas where you least expect to find them.

That night [of the vote] Karla gave each of us on the steering committee the gift of a butterfly to remind us that change does happen and to keep our spirits up. Many of those people I still work with on a regular basis all this time later.

It’s not about making legal arguments, it’s about expressing that we’re not trying to redefine marriage. We’re trying to make sure people realize that marriage is and always has been about two people making a commitment to each other. Once we made it about that is when we started winning hearts and minds at the ballot box.

State Representative Karla Drenner. (file photo)
State Representative Karla Drenner. (file photo)

State House Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates).

Drenner became a prominent figure in the fight as the only openly gay legislator. She was first elected to office in 2000.

I participated in it in two ways. I did it through the legislature, then got out and got involved in the campaign across the state. So I have a different perspective than a lot of other people because I saw it from the inside as a legislator and then across a very conservative state afterward

It was a very emotional experience for me. I can still remember the rallies and what it was like to win that day when we beat the amendment. There was a rally at the Capitol where the LGBT community was on the Presbyterian church side of the street and all of the church bus people were on the Capitol side. I was on the church bus side standing there looking at all these rotten signs they have and all of a sudden somebody recognized me and said, ‘There she is!’ I was afraid at that moment and the Capitol Police came up and escorted me back into the building.

There was so much media coverage everywhere I went and I knew that people were watching me. It wasn’t until I got home that I cried. On day 38 when we lost the last vote, I missed day 39 and stayed home all day and hand-wrote letters to every single person in the chamber. For those that voted against it, I wrote that I hope one day you’ll be able to realize my family is just as important as yours.

I really learned from that experience how and why to respect other peoples’ religious beliefs. I could accept that a lot easier than saying, ‘Well, my district says I should vote this way.’ If you honestly believe in your heart that morally this is offensive, I’m okay with that.

Rep. Karla Drenner reads letters and emails she has saved from the 2004 same-sex marriage ban fight. (photo by Patrick Saunders)
Rep. Karla Drenner reads letters and emails she has saved from the 2004 same-sex marriage ban fight. (photo by Patrick Saunders)

So many thousands of people were engaged in the political process and were willing to come out and talk to people and come to the Capitol and not protest in a graphic way, but protest in a way that’s like, ‘Hey I’m just like you, I want the same things you want, I want a family.’ My colleagues who have been in the legislature as long as I have were impacted by that because they saw so many gay people. Back then, legislators were saying they didn’t have gay people in their district. I used to say that my job was to find every gay person in Georgia, but every gay person in Georgia found them. They showed up. And showing up is what’s important in our movement.

I have every single email in a hard copy from every single person that wrote me asking me to vote for the amendment. People telling me God didn’t love me. And I have every email from the gay community thanking me, all the personal stories people shared.

That night at the Red Chair, we knew in advance that we probably were not going to win. But for me, winning was not numerical, winning was fighting. Part of my speech that evening was that we were not going to go back into the closet. We were now stepping out into the light and were going to continue this fight.

I don’t think many of us were really surprised by how lopsided it was. Considering the resources we had to work with I think we did really well. I don’t look at it as a losing proposition. All those who got involved in the legislative fight and in the campaign were charged up. It just propelled us further into where we are today, which is on the precipice of legalizing same-sex marriage in our state.

You know how a butterfly starts as a larvae and transmutes into a butterfly? I thought symbolically that’s what we had done as a community. We had transmuted who we were as individuals into a beautiful monarch butterfly. It makes me very emotional just talking about it.

Mayor Kasim Reed (file photo)
Mayor Kasim Reed (file photo)

Mayor Kasim Reed (then a state Senator)

During that time, Republicans had only recently gotten control of the governor’s office and the majority, so they were still finding their way and they were using marriage equality as a tool to drive voter turnout. We were having robust conversations during that time because everybody knew what that was designed to do. This was happening all across the United States of America. It was being driven by ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] and Karl Rove and George W. Bush’s White House.

I felt that we were wrong to insert discrimination into the constitution of the state of Georgia. I thought it was a horrible decision. I had already developed very strong relationships with the GLBT community. We spent an enormous amount of time to stop efforts to ban gay adoptions. All of the issues around the LGBT community were being used to punish the Democratic Party.

If you were a Democrat and voting against the ban, you were told to walk off the floor because it was said it was a career-ending vote. That came from Democratic and Republican leadership. I think I was one of 10 to vote against the ban rather than walk off the floor.

It was a difficult decision because at that time the environment was much different than what it is today. But when I went home, I had a very good night’s sleep. I knew that I could live with myself because I had made the decision not to place discrimination in the constitution of the state of Georgia.

We still have a great deal of work to do. We’ve made extraordinary progress on behalf of the GLBT community. We need to be far more aggressive in our actions to remove the constitutional ban. I look forward to the day when that 2004 vote is permanently reversed so that everyone can have the right to marry who they love in the state of Georgia.