Dear Gay People: You’re Doing it Wrong

The election of Barack Obama to be the 44th President of the United States of America was a joy of joys for millions, both here in the U.S. as well as all around the world. However, in California the victory was bittersweet: Proposition 8 passed, consequently banning gay marriage (again).

This was a deeply saddening step backwards at a time when the nation as a whole took a giant leap forward in electing its first African-American President. So what happened?

The simple fact that Obama did win proves, pretty conclusively, that tolerance in this nation has been on the rise and it’s unlikely that it will go back again over time. It’s also very unlikely that racism was somehow replaced with homophobia amongst voters, which leaves us with the simple but harsh reality that the gay rights community and the No on 8 supporters (myself included) failed to run a good campaign against Proposition 8.

The vote on Prop 8 was a close call, with the proponents edging out the opposition by a relatively slim margin. For a state like California that’s especially significant, as it could reasonably be expected to have overwhelming pro-gay voters; San Francisco is the official gay capital of the world and Los Angeles county is largely very gay-friendly. Right? Turns out, L.A. County isn’t as gay-friendly as one might’ve thought.

So here’s some things that I think the gay community could’ve done better; while it’s too late to convince more people to vote against Proposition 8, it’s never too late to fight for gay rights as that fight will continue until the day that all gays have equal rights all across the world.

Location, location, location

I saw tons and tons of No on 8-campaigners out on the streets… of San Francisco. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between gays’ love for singing and them preaching to the choir, the point is that I saw Yes on 8-campaigners out in the South Bay and No on 8-people in San Francisco.

If you look at the county-by-county vote outcomes on Prop 8 (you’ll have to manually set it to show Proposition 8 results), the map shows that SF’s neighboring counties were vastly against Prop 8 as well, so even the majority of through traffic was part of the choir. Yet, in Santa Clara county where I noticed most of the Yes on 8 people, the gap between Yes and No voters is significantly smaller.

Another example is the post-election protest marches in SF and other cities around the country (not just California!): big cities are generally okay with their gay communities, it’s the people outside in the more rural areas that need convincing the most. If the gay community wanted to have a real big impact with their protest marches, they should’ve run them through those small towns — and since it wasn’t merely gay people in the protests, the straights among them could serve as indicator of the fact that despite our differences, we can all live harmoniously together.

The location argument is closely related to the next one:

Increase the exposure

One of the most treasured things in my own life is having grown up in the diversely populated Netherlands and being surrounded by different countries just a few hours drive away, each with their own language, people and culture.

The exposure to people of all races, of all preferences, of all natures, has given me what I consider to be one of the most valuable things that any human being can possess: an open mind.

Exposure is the key to developing understanding for one another. We don’t easily understand things we feel estranged from; be it people from another country or people with different sexual preferences that you only really hear about but don’t really know. With understanding comes tolerance, and while it may not happen overnight that someone exposed to gay love (and then hopefully realizes the harmlessness of it all) may vote against something like Proposition 8 the next day, it’s the first step that needs to be taken.

Take cues from Obama’s campaign

Barack Obama led a very successful campaign, probably the finest in American history. He leveraged not just every bit of technology available to him to get his message across, he also very strictly defined that message and then made sure to send people out into areas where he didn’t already have strong support.

Define your message clearly and succinctly and make sure to have either key phrases or key words. Obama had Change and Hope as key words, for instance. Some central talking points for him were bringing change to Washington, that John McCain had voted with Bush 90% of the time; the gay rights movement needs a few of such key talking points, information that distills what’s at the heart of it all, and then make sure to repeat those as much as possible.

And make sure to repeat them in areas where people don’t already know all about them.

Create compelling arguments

Here’s some examples; I’m sure you can think of even better ones.

  • Your love doesn’t hurt anyone
  • Your love doesn’t take anyone else’s rights away
  • Your love doesn’t threaten anyone
  • Your lifestyle doesn’t try to impose itself upon others

There are plenty of arguments to make here; you could also play off the fact that there are no 50% and upwards divorce rates among gay marriages; it’s a strong case against those who talk persistently about the “value of traditional marriage” yet so rapidly diminish its sanctity through divorce after divorce.

Create compelling stories

Stories take the world by storm; they make a stronger impression on someone than straight-up facts and they linger for much longer. A story can be retold easily; facts need to be remembered in precise detail and, often enough, people tend to forget a detail here or there which dilutes the value of the facts dramatically. A story can be tweaked, adjusted, retold and yet its core message will most likely survive if not get even more powerful.

A story is also a good, friendly, easy-going way to start up a discussion about the importance of gay rights, the values they treasure, the feelings that were shattered by Prop 8’s passing. Knocking on a door and telling a story goes over a lot better than knocking on a door to present people with a bunch of facts.

The story of Harvey Milk is a great example. Find other stories that will resonate with the less understanding crowds, perhaps stories from more recent days. I’m sure there are plenty.

With Milk’s story having been made into a movie, you have a powerful ally you can work with: ask people in rural areas if they’ve seen Milk; if they haven’t, there’s your opener to tell them a story or two. It allows you to talk about how this is not a matter of preference, but instead civil rights and completely unfair and unequal treatment against you.

But never forget: in the end, it is not their story that’s at stake here. Their story has been told; now and in the future, it is your story, and the rest of the world gets to decide whether your story will be like Harvey Milk’s or Barack Obama’s.

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