With no contentious issues facing New York City residents on the ballot this year, marriage equality organizations in the city have thrown themselves into campaigns in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, all of which have an aspect of same-sex marriage on the ballot in November.
“It would be nice to have our neighbors have the same rights we have in New York,” said Robert Lassegue, secretary of Marriage Equality USA, a New York based organization dedicated to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Representatives from four organizations- Freedom to Marry, TheFour.com, Empire State Pride Agenda and Marriage Equality USA- hosted a panel at the LGBT Community Center in early October to explain how New Yorkers can participate in the national movement for marriage equality. The session, which lasted a little more than an hour, briefly explained to 20 attendees what each group was doing, and how volunteers could join the cause.
Brandon Bostian, a recent transplant to New York, attended the event. Bostian was active in the Proposition 8 fight, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, in San Francisco. While he is still interested in working for marriage equality, Bostian admitted that he is less enthusiastic this time around. “It’s kind of insulting to have to beg people for my right to marry,” he said. “I feel like we shouldn’t even have to have this fight.”
With the election just two weeks away, Bostian is also worried that it may be too late for him to help. “What can I really do?” he asked.
But the community center panel members said that there is plenty to do, whether joining in a weekend road trip to canvass in Maryland or Maine or dedicating a few hours at phone banks in New York. Marriage Equality USA runs phone banks five days a week, calling voters in the four states facing ballot referendums in November. “Do something because it all adds up,” Brian Silva, executive director of Marriage Equality USA.
On a given day, the Marriage Equality USA phone banks have about six to 12 people making calls, each of whom volunteers about 10 hours a month, said Lassegue. While the number of volunteers may seem small, “even if we get 12 people here we get around 1200 calls,” Lassegue said.
Volunteer opportunities through these groups also allow New Yorkers who come from other parts of the country to get involved in a campaign that may be affecting their home state. These volunteers know the constituent base better, said Nicole Collins Bronzan, communications director for Freedom to Marry. Bronzan said that mere word of mouth between friends is advantageous to the initiatives. “The thing we’re trying to stress right now . . . is even if you’ve already done it, you can reach out to friends,” she said. “Everyone is Facebooking and tweeting about the issues. Anything that starts a conversation; this is how people change their minds.”
The Human Rights Campaign, a DC-based LGBT civil rights organization, recently launched Call 4 Equality, a Facebook application that allows users to build their own calling list to reach friends in the four battleground states. Application users can rack up points for their grassroots efforts, with the top volunteers receiving prizes from HRC after the election. “It gives them a way to play a role in these other campaigns around the country,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, the director of communications at HRC.
While the focus for the organizations has been on legalizing same-sex marriage in other states, they’ve also continued efforts in New York. Lynn Faria, interim executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, reminded those at the community center that in order to sustain LGBT rights in the state, voters need to continue to support the legislators that backed their interests. “These elections are so important to our community on different levels,” Faria said.
“We’re in a position that we need to hold on to what we have,” added Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-president of Marriage Equality USA.
The groups’ representatives also emphasized the importance of “straight allies,” a term used to refer to heterosexual advocates concerned with LGBT issues, and of outside organizations joining the campaigns through coalitions. Church groups, civil rights interest groups and others have contributed time, money and volunteers to the marriage equality efforts. “You don’t have to be an LGBT organization to care about marriage equality,” said Silva.
“We learned our lesson,” Lassegue added, explaining the importance of participation of all organizations. “You have to diversify your volunteer base.”
The New York organizations hope to turn their attentions to New Jersey next year, when the state’s current policy of only recognizing civil unions will be challenged. “New Jersey is so close it’s going to be an easy way to engage [New Yorkers],” said Bronzan.
On a larger scale, the organizations will also continue to fight the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman, Lassegue said. And time may be on their side. Recent surveys have found an increase in support for the legalization of same-sex marriage. “Probably the most likely explanation [of the support] is the increased visibility of gays and lesbians both in the media and in people’s daily lives,” said Justin Phillips, Political Science professor at Columbia University researching public opinions about LGBT rights. “Public support for same-sex marriage is growing, so gay-rights groups will increasingly be able to win these campaigns.”
Phone banks and canvassing activities help educate and mobilize voters during referendum campaigns, but don’t necessarily changes voters’ minds Phillips said. “Opinions about same-sex marriage are, at best, only marginally influenced by the tactics of campaigns.”
Like the other groups, Marriage Equality actively conducts outreach initiatives to make more people aware of the issues still facing the LGBT community. “We’ve learned that education is the best tool we have out there,” Lassegue said. “Most people don’t get into an issue until it directly affects them.”