How Maine Marriage Campaign Echoes Prop. 8 Battle

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 20, 2009

The lessons learned by both sides in last year's deeply divisive and hard-fought battle to pass an anti-gay voter referendum in California have not been lost on those waging a similar struggle in Maine.

An Oct. 20 Los Angeles Times article reported that anti-marriage activists in Maine, who are working to repeal a law granting gay and lesbain families state-level marriage rights, have adopted the same messages that proved to be potent vote-getters in California's Proposition 8 battle a year ago.

But the pro-marriage side has also paid attention to how the battle played out in California, and have organized their strategies with an eye to the loss of marriage equality in that state.

The experience gained from Prop. 8 comes embodied in the form of 29-year-old Brandon Brawner, of West Hollywood, who is in Maine to counter the messages being broadcast by the anti-marriage side. The Los Angeles Times article quoted Brawner as saying, "The tactics they use are fear and lies."

Among the messages that the pro-marriage denounces as false are virtual repetitions of the claims made in California regarding school children: that they would forced to learn about gay marriage in class, unless gay and lesbian families see their right marriage revoked.

That argument struck a chord among California voters, despite reassurances from officials that there was no truth to the claim.

Even though Prop. 8 narrowly passed, however, anti-gay activists are still, today, working to eradicate anti-bullying lessons taught in public schools that include mention of gays and lesbians or so-called "alternative" family structures.

The article also offered a perspective from the anti-gay side, quoting repeal activist Kym Souchet, who had been calling voters to urge them to vote in favor of the repeal of marriage equality. "We're being called hateful bigots," said the 45-year-old mother, who home schools. "I don't hate anyone."

As with California, the result promises to be close, likely hinging on a couple of percentage points. But while the Prop. 8 battle cost as much as $70 million to mount--making it the most expensive ballot initiative campaign so far--the Maine battle has involved much smaller sums of money, the article said.

The article noted that in almost every instance in which the rights of gay and lesbian families were put up to a popular vote, gays lost. The one exception was an Arizona referendum that spooked unmarried heterosexual couples. That referendum lost at the ballot box.

Then, two years later, when the referendum was rewritten to specifically exclude same-sex couples from rights, the referendum passed handily. This time, marriage equality supporters hope that things will be different.

The tide may be turning, given that in the last year crucial developments in the GLBT equality movement have taken place, among them the legalization of marriage equality through state legislatures rather than through the courts, and the passing of a marriage equality in a heartland state, Iowa.

Financially, the pro-marriage side in Maine has done better than opponents of gay and lesbian family equality, reporting revenues of $2.7 million--more than twice as large as the $1.1 million reportedly received by the anti-marriage side. But polls still show a virtually neck-and-neck tie between the sides as election day draws near.

If marriage survives the challenge it faces in Maine, it may lend renewed hope to gay and lesbian families across the country, who hope one day to see their unions recognized not only at the state level, but, with the hoped-for repeal of the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act from 1996, on a federal level as well.

Anti-marriage groups don't want that to happen. The same PR firm that managed the anti-marriage campaign in California, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, is in charge of the Maine effort to revoke the rights of gay and lesbian families, the article said.

The similarity in message might have been inevitable, given how effective the anti-marriage campaign was in the Prop. 8 battle, but the use of the same firm only reinforces that the tone and the slogans will have a certain familiarity.

Said the leader of anti-marriage group Stand for Marriage Maine, Marc Mutty, "We put suspenders on instead of cuff links" for the Maine campaign, "But the message is the same."

But will the message play in Maine? The article quoted the company's president, Frank Schubert, who said that at this point the outcome is "very much up for grabs," but who added, "We're cautiously optimistic. It's certainly a very fierce fight."

The article also quoted the state's governor, John Baldacci, a Democrat who started out against marriage rights for gay and lesbian families but who then realized that there are "400 rights and responsibilities that are only available under marriage, not civil unions," Baldacci told the paper. "That's not fair, and it's got to be fixed."

Another Maine official to reject the attempt to rescind existing rights for gay and lesbian families was Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who said that the anti-marriage side's assertion that school children would be taught about gay families in school was simply not true.

Speaking to that same issue, Baldacci said, "It is very, very clear it will not be taught in the schools." The governor called the claim "a red herring of an issue."

The article said that No on 1/Protect Maine Equality leader Jesse Connolly used to serve as Gov. Baldacci's campaign manager. Now he's got a different campaign on his hands.

In order to prepare for what he hopes will be a win, Connolly looked at the ads used by the anti-marriage side in California and developed his message accordingly. That turned out to be a wise choice: "Their entire playbook here is out of Prop. 8," Connolly noted.

As in California, religion plays a crucial part on both sides, as well, with anti-family equality churches denouncing legal parity and having extra collections to raise money to rescind gay and lesbian family rights.

However, people of faith are also opposed to revoking marriage equality; the article noted that New Hampshire's openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson went to Maine to address the gay faithful and their supporters.

Said Robinson of changing cultural views, "Could any of us have ever dreamt we would be together like this?" The article quoted Bishop Robinson as saying that the United States "has undergone a revolution, one family at a time" in its gradual embrace of equality for GLBT individuals and their families.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.