Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gay Marriage and the Sounds of Silence

Kudos to Mary Beth Schneider of the Indianapolis Star.

Her column today fleshes out two points made in my post after the California Supreme Court’s decision striking down a state law banning gay marriage.

First, Eric Miller and Eric Turner both say the California Supreme Court’s decision means we need a constitutional amendment here. Second, Republicans and conservatives are gearing up to parlay this into a November campaign issue.

From Republican House minority leader, Brian Bosma:

Republicans will be working hard to let voters know that the success of the amendment "very much depends on who controls the legislative process."

From Eric Miller of Advance America:
This will be an election-year issue," promised Eric Miller, who has lobbied hard for the amendment as head of Advance America. "We'll be distributing hundreds of thousands of voter guides letting people know how candidates from legislator to governor stand on this issue.

(As to the gubernatorial candidates, Jill Long-Thompson says she favors civil unions, while Governor Mitch Danielsalaam, in a move that might surprise some of his GLBT supporters, said that “as a voter” he would cast a ballot in favor of a constitutional amendment).

Ladies and gentlemen, this California opinion could not have come at a worse time for the Democratic Party. It will have repercussions in every state legislature in America, and to the detriment of the Democratic Party. This is because Democrats have historically been friendlier to gay interests, and this fact, respectfully, puts us ahead of the tolerance curve but squarely behind the popular opinion eight ball. In a state like Indiana, support has to be “quiet” for a lot of elected officials. Gay rights advocates might find that offensive, but pragmatism has to prevail, or there will be an anti-gay marriage amendment in this state.

Democrats win elections when we talk about economic issues – jobs and wages, healthcare, and education. Republicans know this, so they seek every opportunity to change the debate to “values” issues, such as flag-burning, gay marriage, gun rights, and prayer in school.

[As a quick aside, remember when all the Republicans - and a majority of Democrats as well - were acting like there was a flag-burning epidemic? Thank God we were able to stop that! OR…is it more accurate to say that NOBODY was doing it, and it was just a “values” distraction, kind of like whether you wear a flag lapel pin?].

Anyway, the success with which Republicans can distract depends, in large part, upon the media “echo chamber.” The more a story gets churned in the national media, the more it gets embedded in the national consciousness, and the less likely it is voters will focus on things like expensive gas and the mortgage foreclosure crisis. (This is my last post on this topic, by the way).

There is a season one episode of The West Wing that teaches a critical political lesson for every group whose position is disfavored by national public opinion. And let’s face it. That IS gay marriage. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have twenty-six states with constitutional amendments against it and another seventeen states with laws defining marriage as only a man and woman.

(Also, when my blogging compatriot Gary Welsh at Advance Indiana (no relation to Advance America) says House Republicans will lose seats if they put this issue front and center, he's in a Indianapolis echo chamber of his own. Republicans statewide will GAIN votes and money while mobilizing their base on this issue).

In the West Wing episode, a lightweight congressman has introduced a resolution to ban gays from serving in the military. A gay billionaire Hollywood executive (how cliché!) tells the President’s people that he’s going to cancel a major fundraiser set for that evening unless the President goes on national television and denounces this resolution.

President Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) barks at the guy that if he goes public in opposition, he will become a “human starting gun.” For the President to even speak on the matter gives it legitimacy and visibility.

If I were hired by gay rights groups as a PR consultant to advise how they should speak on this ruling, I’d tell them the following: don’t. Help the story die by not fueling it. Don’t tout the meaningfulness of this decision in stories that will be researched, discovered, and sent to your opponents’ funding sources with inflammatory letters.

But people who lead groups want their moment in the sun, so you’re going to see a lot of leaders of gay rights groups going on panel discussions with the leaders of anti-gay groups in the next few weeks. As a PR consultant, I’d say, “Don’t go.” How many panels can you have with one side beating up an absent party? The media would let it die. Or send a statement saying:

“This opinion relied on the specific language of the California Constitution. While we applaud the court for protecting a fundamental right for many Californians, it won’t change anything nationally.”

If you think this is unfair advice to give to gay rights advocates to lay low, understand this is the same advice I would give to the religious right.

Do you know Andres Serrano? I do. He’s an average artist photographer, at best, and at worst, a hack. (Go to and search “Andres Serrano,” and you’ll get a jist for the man’s work). And yet, he’s taken photos of some very famous celebrities. How did he get that high profile?

Because in 1989, a mostly unremarkable photo of a crucifix seemingly emitting blurred golden hues caused a massive controversy when people realized that the “special effect” the artist used was his own urine. Yes, this was the famous “Piss Christ” photo.

I’d be the first to admit my limitations as an art critic, but this particular piece relied on external context to make it noteworthy. In other words, the reaction didn’t come from the inherent aesthetics of the photo; it came from the shock of knowing somebody had the audacity to put Jesus in a big old bucket of number one.

When religious groups got wind of it and started protesting the exhibition, this picture, which maybe 5,000 people had seen up to that point, went into Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report (to name a few) and gave it exposure to millions. This controversy MADE Serrano a cause celebre for artistic freedom, gave him cachet in the artistic community he didn’t deserve (the guy is NO Mapplethorpe), and made him a wealthy man. Do you think that’s what the religious right wanted to accomplish?

Remember the Last Temptation of Christ? It wasn’t a good movie, and it might have passed out of the public consciousness in weeks for want of good word of mouth and reviews. Instead, it lingered because of the protests when people like me went to see it because we had to know “what the fuss was all about.”

Sometimes the best political tactic is to sit still and let something pass away. Eric Miller and his people are going to churn this as best they can. The prudent play is not to help.



Anonymous said...

Bring on the republican hate machine. For the life of me, I cant understand why those at AI cling to a party that hates them.

Chris Worden said...


Thanks for your info!


Gary R. Welsh said...

Polls consistently show people's interest in this issue waning. At no time in recent memory will the economy play such an important role in the campaign. When politicians try to bring up an issue like gay marriage these days, you can hear the groans from the crowd. The absolute worst thing the Republican Party could do is use this decision in this election. It will not in any way, shape or form help the Republican Party. That's why Gov. Schwarzenegger did a turnabout and now says he supports the decision despite his past opposition to gay marriage. He understands where the public is moving on this issue and he wants to stay out ahead of it.

RightDemocrat said...

A lot of rank and file Democrats oppose same sex marriage. Democrats need to reach out to traditional values voters. The Democratic Party must become the party of working families again rather than the champions of exotic social issues.

Chris Worden said...


I'm not saying that if you have Republican John Doe who is against raising the minimum wage, wants to stay in Iraq, doesn't want to expand healthcare or assist on the foreclosure crisis, and wants to keep Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy in place that he would beat Democrat Joe Sixpack who has opposite positions in a working class district just because the D says he's against a U.S. amendment. But if it's even close, or if you have a candidate, oh, let's say Barack Obama, who people have been ridiculously bashing for not sharing "our values," public opposition to such an amendment might be the final nail in the coffin for that candidate.

Rightdemocrat is correct. Even though D's are generally more friendly to gay interests, they are still a superminority interest even in the D party, which is why neither Obama nor Clinton favor same-sex marriage (they favor only civil unions). If the Democratic Party embraced same-sex marriage, they would go down in flames in election after election. America isn't ready.

Queers United said...

i sincerely hope the amendment fails