News & Politics

On the Eve of Big D.C. March, Leaders Argue California Should Be Patient About Same-Sex Marriage

The founder of the nation's largest LGBT church and a noted activist say when it comes to restoring same-sex marriage to California, patience is a virtue.

Editor's Note:This October 10-11 weekend in Washington, D.C, thousands will join together for the National Equality March to push for equal rights for the LGBT community, such as the right to marry, donate blood and serve in the military. To participate in the march and learn more about it, visit the Equality Across America website.

For more than a generation, efforts to recognize gay people and same-sex couples in the law have been central flash points in California politics.

Religious identity and the frequency with which one attends religious services remain key predictors of a voter's stance on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Religion continues to shape debate in California over marriage and Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that overturned marriage equality. But two dynamics show potential in coming years to blur the traditional battle lines over faith and the full equality for LGBT people.

First, as members of a new generation, even those no less religious than their parents, register to vote, a shift is in the offing.

Second, a broad coalition of marriage-equality allies has focused on a three-year drive to overturn Prop. 8 and is engaging equality-minded people of faith in that effort.

We are troubled by the current "faith divide" in the politics of equal rights. Overcoming it is crucial to our goal of regaining civil marriage in California by passing a constitutional amendment to restore the freedom to marry for committed same-sex couples.

The three-year drive to approve such a measure unites the leading organizations for civil rights, people of color, family advocacy, labor, health and community service in the state. This broad coalition can win in 2012 in part by reaching out and realizing the room for growth in support for marriage equality within the ranks of the faithful.

To ensure that existing programs of dialogue and outreach among churchgoing Californians on the importance of marriage equality endure and bear fruit, nothing less than the strategic use of precious resources and the healing balm of time will be required.

Rushing back to the ballot next year with a bid to overturn Prop. 8, which a handful of gay groups is now pursuing, threatens to nip these important conversations in the bud at precisely the time when they hold the most potential.

A mad dash to the ballot box also squanders the harvest we could reap when today's 15-year-olds, who have grown up in a world of "out" people, arrive at the polling booths in 2012.

We know firsthand the missionary power of the love and devotion of same-sex couples to change the hearts and minds of family, friends and neighbors. As guest, participant or officiator, we witnessed some of the weddings in 2008 that united 18,000 pairs -- that's 36,000 lesbians and gay men -- in marriage in California.

Among the thousands from outside the LGBT community who attended these ceremonies, many found that witnessing the vows of committed couples opened their eyes to the joys, anxieties, ordinary pressures and often extraordinary dignity that gay people show one another and our families, even while facing treatment that may fall short on grace and respect.

Many, many times in the course of these ceremonies, we saw siblings, parents, co-workers and fellow worshipers of all racial, class and language backgrounds moved to tears and to prayer at what God had brought together.

We breathed a sigh of relief when, in May, the state Supreme Court, even while upholding Prop. 8, refused to tear these couples asunder.

Gratified that a faithful remnant of brave clergy, including California Faith for Equality, stood with us in vowing to win back the freedom to marry, we vow to expand the ranks of these voices of conscience as we build toward repealing Prop. 8 in 2012.

Still, we are not naïve. We know that a sizable chunk of the 52 percent of state voters who approved Prop. 8 are those whose opposition to marriage equality is absolute and unflinching.

But if we are to make inroads with churchgoing Californians in restoring the freedom to marry for committed same-sex couples, it will be wise to avoid painting caricatures of the religious -- especially specific denominations -- or lambasting antagonistic clergy.

Gay activists benefit by holding up a mirror to those who proclaim intolerance in the name of God and by providing solidarity and sanctuary to those seeking an inclusive church home.

Let our antagonists in collars be who they are: They do our organizing work for us when they use their pulpits to bully gay people or allies.

Politically, we see promise in projecting the voices of congregational leaders and parishioners whose fair-minded voices resonate within their denominations, congregations and communities.

As proponents of equality, we know that numbers and trends are on our side. The venerable Field Poll of California votersrevealed in August that support for marriage equality has risen from 31 percent in 1977 to 49 percent today.

A recent survey by Polling 4 Equality, which supports the restoration of marriage rights for same-sex couples, showed that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in California -- 73 percent -- report knowing someone who is gay or lesbian.

Surveys from Gallup indicate that familiarity with a gay person is a determining factor in support for gay couples' freedom to marry, which is especially high among young voters.

Time is on our side, and we should make the most of it. Each election means more anti-equality voters leave the California electorate and more pro-equality voters cast their first ballots.

Taking advantage of three years until a new vote on restoring marriage equality, we aim to turn parity with foes of equality -- or by some surveys, a minuscule plurality now in support -- into a strong majority.

The movement for LGBT equality has matured. Where once we fought to prevent state resources from being used to persecute us in the form of police abuse and raids on gay bars and social clubs, we now also fight to be included equally and fully in the protections of the state.

Building welcoming faith communities, including the founding of the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles in 1968, has been a key step in that movement. We gained both spiritual homes and launching pads for local outreach.

Our challenge is to take that tradition to a new level of one-on-one advocacy with religious Californians and the state's newest voters leading up to 2012.

How well we work with our faith allies to broaden alliances and build rank-and-file support for equality over the next three years will help decide whether same-sex couples in California regain the freedom to marry.

The Rev. Troy Perry is founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, the largest LGBT denomination, and a plaintiff in the marriage cases in California. Hans Johnson is a political consultant, commentator and contributing editor at In These Times magazine.