For many years, the debate over same-sex marriage was designed to have little to do with marriage, and even less to do with gay people.
When California voters were deliberating the Knight Initiative, a 2000 ballot measure that declared, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” LGBT activists strategically avoided making the case for why gay and lesbian couples deserved the same rights as heterosexuals. Instead, the “No on Knight” campaign centered its message on legislative redundancy: voters should reject the proposition because state law already forbade same-sex marriage.
In almost every battle against state ballot initiatives up to early 2012, LGBT activists were determined to make the votes not about marriage, but about how the proposals would also outlaw civil unions and domestic partnerships. The conversation in Georgia in 2004 was not about LGBT people, but nebulous “discrimination” and “human rights;” it was about how the anti-gay laws would inadvertently punish unmarried seniors in Ohio, or strip domestic violence protections from single mothers in North Carolina.
These were valiant (if creative) campaigns against insurmountable challenges, no matter the message. However, our decision to “Hide the Gay” during these debates helps explain why, despite the exponential progress LGBT people have achieved in courtrooms and across pop culture, our electoral influence is static.
When Democrat Michelle Nunn announced her bid for the U.S. Senate, no one expected LGBT rights to be a centerpiece of her campaign. I was encouraged that she was at least willing to state her personal support for same-sex marriage.
However, once a leaked memo revealed that Nunn’s campaign saw “a huge opportunity for mobilizing [the LGBT] community and their substantial resources … Projected Goal: $300,000,” it began to feel like the candidate was exploiting a group with which she otherwise couldn’t be bothered. Targeting us as a vital source of campaign funding, while offering the most mumbled support for our issues, and staking out a position that ultimately leaves same-sex marriage unconstitutional in Georgia.
Like the debates about gay marriage referenda, the current discussion about Nunn has little to do with marriage, and even less to do with Nunn, who is a likeable progressive that I and most other LGBT Georgians will be voting for in November. Rather, it’s about some LGBT Georgians’ willingness—almost eagerness—to cling to the notion that it is better for everyone involved if we and our issues are out of sight, and out of voters’ minds.
If a candidate spoke to a Jewish gathering without mentioning Israel or a group of teachers without addressing education, he or she would be booed out of the room. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter stood before hundreds of LGBT supporters in July without saying a word about LGBT issues—or even the words “gay” or “LGBT”—and was rewarded with $100,000 in campaign contributions.
One would think that our “community and their substantial resources,” would at least warrant inclusion of LGBT issues and events alongside the other constituencies and topics Nunn highlights on social media, but Nunn has decided LGBT Georgians are worth zero attention. No reference to our issues on her campaign website. No interview with LGBT media to outline her positions. No rhetoric about equality and fairness in her stump speeches.
Yet, questions about what Nunn has done to deserve such generous LGBT support have been decried as foolish and subversive by the LGBT establishment. Georgia’s gay elites lecture those who they deem electorally naïve, “single-issue” voters, while they themselves advocate an outdated strategy whose ineffectiveness has paralyzed our movement.
Our leaders have given notice to future candidates that we will support them even if they have no track record as an ally, and even if they choose not to recognize our existence on the campaign trail. Whisper your support for us in our ears, and we will shout our devotion to you.
Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.