Prop. 8 Stirs Debate, Even Vandalism, as Election Day Nears

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 22, 2008

With less than two weeks before Election Day, residents in California are feeling the strain of an increasingly loud and heated struggle to revoke the existing right of the state's gay and lesbian families to marry.

Neighbor has been pitted against neighbor, student against student, and church against church as the most expensive campaign against gay family rights ever waged enters the home stretch.

One side of the debate seeks to preserve the right to marry, and views the other side as hateful and bigoted; the other side says it seeks to "protect" the institution, or at least the definition of the word marriage, by writing a ban into bedrock law that would restrict marriage as a special right to be enjoyed exclusively by heterosexuals.

In the midst of the TV ads, media blitz, and intense social stress that the divisive campaign has brought to the state of California, gay and lesbian individuals and families are feeling more vulnerable, more stressed out, and more alienated, according to new studies on anti-gay campaigns seeking to deprive a select section of the population at large of civil rights enjoyed by others.

Another result: raised voices, hard feelings--even vandalism.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that in one neighborhood, the Sundstroms, a Mormon family supporting Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that would rescind marriage rights for gay and lesbian families, found that their lawn signs expressing support for the anti-family amendment kept getting yanked up, so they hung a large banner over their garage reading, "Protect Marriage Yes on 8."

That's when a vehicle registered to two women, Mara McWilliams and Renee Mangrum, was parked in front of the Sunstroms' home. The SUV was painted with slogans like "Bigots live here," "God Hates Haters," and "Stop Bigots."

The Sundstroms don't see themselves as bigoted; they say that gay and lesbian families should have rights, too--just not marriage rights.

Said Bob Sundstrom, "All I see when I look at that vehicle is venom and hate."

But parallel sentiments exist on the other side, too. The article said that in 2004, when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples, McWilliams wrote a piece that was published in the Mercury News.

In that article, McWilliams expressed a "feeling of liberation, validation and equality'' following her marriage to Mangrum.

The issuance of licenses was halted and the marriages later declared void. It took another four years for the San Francisco Supreme Court to find that denying gay and lesbian families equal marriage rights unconstitutional under the present version of the state's constitution; even before that ruling, anti-gay groups had set the wheels in motion to get an amendment to the constitution on the ballot, where voters could weigh in on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Attending the wedding of heterosexual friends, openly gay Erik Martinez was told by another wedding guest--and a close friend of Martinez--that, "You don't have the right to get married."

Said Martinez of that utterance, "I felt every single word," and they felt like blows.

While gay families experience stress and depression at the campaign to curtail their rights, pro-amendment supporters say that they have suffered too, with more than 200,000 lawn signs being defaced or stolen. The signs cost $2 apiece, but the campaign to revoke marriage equality, Yes on 8, is delivering replacements as the anti-family drive enters the final weeks.

Yes on 8 spokesperson Chip White spoke on the issue of the signs and on reports that an estimated $20,000 in damage has been done to the cars of Proposition 8 supporters.

Said White, "It's just been so egregious," reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel article.

Added White, "It's ironic, because the other side claims they are the open-minded side, and they are the tolerant side, but having property damaged or destroyed is not an expression of tolerance."

For gay and lesbian families, however, there is no credence to any claim of tolerance from the pro-Proposition 8 side when songs are sung to the tune of "Bigger Than Any Mountain," but with new words: "Bigger than any gay rights."

Such was the anthem at a rally at a black church in Oakland, Calif., the Foothill Missionary Baptist Church, where a pastor from another black church, Ray Williams, explained the mostly-white, Mormon attendance at a church with a mostly black Baptist congregation by saying, "The [Mormon] people are assisting us because they have more resources," reported an Oct. 22 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Indeed, much of the stupendous level of funding for the pro-Proposition 8 campaign has come from out-of-state Mormons, who were instructed by the leadership of their church to support the measure.

Some estimates put funding from Mormons as representing two thirds of the total being spent to revoke gay family rights.

That seems like a lot of money and a lot of support for an issue that Williams says blacks don't care about.

The Chronicle quoted Williams, who is pastor at Oakland's First Morning Star Baptist Church, as saying, "When you look at the people getting married in San Francisco, you didn't see very many blacks.

"It's not a distinct issue in the black community."

Even so, the church rallies taking place around the state both for and against the anti-family amendment tend to indicate otherwise, and some pundits expect that a surge of black voters--conventionally thought to be anti-gay in their social stances--heading to the polls to cast their votes for Barack Obama may be enough to see marriage equality revoked in California.

Like the Sundstroms, Williams portrayed himself as having nothing against the GLBT community: "I am not trying to rail against gay people; we have gay people in our music department," Ray Williams, pastor of the First Morning Star Baptist Church in Oakland, said at the pro-Prop. 8 rally.

Other black pastors resist Proposition 8.

Roland Stringfellow used to be a Baptist minister himself. Then he came out as gay. Now Stringfellow, still a reverend, is with the United Church of Christ.

The Chronicle article quoted Stringfellow as saying, "I do not believe Christ is teaching us to take rights away from people," said Stringfellow, who hopes to get married some day.

The Chronicle noted that mostly-white anti-gay groups have sought solidarity with black churches as the campaign against marriage equality has progressed.

Not all black ministers appreciate that sudden alliance. Said the Rev. Amos Brown of the Third Baptist Church, "I'm one Baptist who refuses to be a bigot."

Added Brown, who also leader the NAACP in San Francisco, "I am ashamed that African American faith leaders have been duped and conned by white evangelical fundamentalists."

Added the Rev. Brown, "They are doing unto those who are different that which we didn't want done to us."

The debate has wider implications than who goes to which church, or who belongs to which racial demographic. College students, too, are divided by the anti-gay amendment. As reported by ABC affiliate KXTV's News 10 students as American River College on Sacramento voted to recall a number of Student Association members after the Student Association passed a pro-Proposition 8 resolution.

Of the 15 SA members, 9 were recalled, all of them Mormons or fundamentalist Christians; the student body as a whole was in turmoil, with signs and shouting evident on the campus.

Said Owen Cleveland, a student whop supported recalling the SA members, "I am very disappointed with [the resolution]."

Added Cleveland, "They are saying they're representing the students' voices and they never asked the students [for their opinion of the resolution].

"They only asked a select few who shared their religious ideas."

But Campus Crusade for Christ president Brandon Garcia said that out of 37,000 students, less than one percent voted in the SA elections; of the sudden campus-wide outrage and the recall, Garcia asked, "[W]here were they before all this?"

Added Garcia, "Why all of a sudden do [the students who didn't elect the SA] say [the resolution] is not right? Those people voted according to their moral standards and what they believe is right and wrong. They're allowed to say what they think marriage is."

In Pasadena, according to an Oct. 21 article in the local newspaper the Star News students had also become active, with around 30 students from Pasadena City College demonstrating with signs reading, "Vote No on Prop 8" and "When Do We Vote on Your Marriage?"

The demonstration is just one of several planned by students around the state, according the No on 8 campaign.

But students and gay-friendly churches may not be enough; with marriage advocates being out-spent by anti-marriage organizations that have raised millions more nationally in an effort to revoke family parity, No on 8's Nicole Suell told the Star News that the effort to preserve marriage equality is in trouble.

"We are down about three points right now," said Suell.

If political apathy until a crisis arises is indeed the pattern at college campuses, much the same cold be said of the American electorate in general. Suell offered advice to students that adults could also make use of, saying, "It is not enough to vote no."

Said Suell, "Be visible, be active. Help with the phone banks."

Suell added that, "it is about taking action."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. 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.

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