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LGBTQ Rights Activists on Victories for Marriage Equality in California and Washington

StoryFebruary 09, 2012
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Washington state is set to become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage following a vote in the State House. The vote came just a day after a U.S. appeals court ruled California’s ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, is unconstitutional. We discuss marriage equality with Josh Friedes of Equal Rights Washington, Rick Jacobs of Courage Campaign, and Kalil Cohen, a transgender community organizer based in Los Angeles. Jacobs says the Prop 8 fight “has supercharged the entire movement for full equality and has pushed people like me, frankly, to be much more comfortable talking about transgender issues that I didn’t really pay that much attention to before.” Cohen, meanwhile, is critical of the LGBTQ community’s emphasis on gay marriage, saying, “My biggest concern is how much resources in the LGBTQ movement have been funneled towards marriage equality alone, and away from basic survival [issues] that a lot of LGBTQ people still face, such as lack of access to education, healthcare, housing and criminal justice reform. And these are issues that have really taken a backseat to marriage equality, and that has harmed the most vulnerable members of our community.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Washington, which is set to become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage. Yesterday, the State House voted 55-43, largely along partisan lines, in favor of marriage equality legislation, a week after it was passed by the state’s Senate. Governor Christine Gregoire is expected to sign the measure into law next week. She filed the bill last month and has publicly advocated for marriage equality.

GOV. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: I’m Chris Gregoire, governor of the great state of Washington. And I’m an American for marriage equality. As governor, I believe the state of Washington cannot be in the business of discrimination. As an American, a wife and mother, marriage equality is fair, just and right, and it is time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Washington same-sex marriage bill was modeled after the one approved by New York in June. It allows churches and religious groups to choose not to perform same-sex marriages and to deny same-sex couples access to their facilities for weddings.

Nonetheless, Republican State Representative Jim McCune lamented yesterday’s ruling, saying, quote, “No one in this state has the right to change the definition of marriage. The bill casts aside one of the greatest cornerstones of our society, the family unit, which starts with a father and a mother.” Opponents of same-sex marriage are now working to gather 120,000 signatures to prevent the measure from immediately going into effect. If they gather the requisite signatures, the measure will be put to a public referendum, as mandated by Washington state law, and the bill would not be implemented until after the vote.

The historic Washington vote came just a day after a U.S. appeals court ruled California’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. California outlawed same-sex marriage in 2008, when voters passed the ban known as Proposition 8. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel struck down the ban in a two-to-one decision. Writing for the majority, Judge Stephen Reinhardt stated, quote, “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationship and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.” Outside the courtroom, co-plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier hailed the ruling.

KRIS PERRY: We can see a place where freedom and respect come more easily and where protection from harm is what our government does for us and not to us.

SANDY STIER: Today our court sends a powerful message to us and to our children and our children’s children, and that is that we are all equal, we all deserve the same rights, and we all matter.

AMY GOODMAN: This week’s victories for marriage equality in Washington and California precede several votes on same-sex marriage around the country that are expected to be more contentious, including in Maryland, New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Carolina and New Jersey.

For more on marriage equality, we’re joined now by three guests. We’re going first to Seattle, Washington, where we’re joined by Josh Friedes. He’s the director of marriage equality at Equal Rights Washington.

Tell us how this went down, Josh.

JOSH FRIEDES: Well, it was extremely exciting. Of course, we’ve been working for years and years to build a marriage equality majority in the legislature and in the public. And we’ve just seen a sea change over the last 24 months or so. And frankly, this passed much more rapidly than we expected, with wider margins than we expected. And we have seen so many allies coming on board to say that marriage equality would be good for Washington state, would be good for families in Washington. And we’ve been really delighted with the leadership from Governor Gregoire, from faith communities, from unions, from businesses. It’s been a tremendous team effort.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if it does end up in a referendum, if the opponents are able to get it on the ballot, what are your expectations or your hope in a referendum?

JOSH FRIEDES: Well, the core concern right now is that people continue to talk to their friends and family about why marriage matters. What we’ve really learned is that people talking about why marriage matters is what is transformative. And, you know, polling shows right now that there are a majority of Washingtonians who support marriage equality, but we really cannot be complacent. So right now the focus is continuing the conversation with the public to make sure that if there is a referendum in November, that we can win that referendum. And that really is about everybody speaking to their friends and family about why marriage matters, answering questions and concerns that people have.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in Los Angeles by Rick Jacobs, the founder and chair of Courage Campaign, a statewide progressive alliance which has played a leading role in informing and organizing around Prop 8, the Prop 8 trial.

And we’re joined by Kalil Cohen, a transgender community organizer, founder of the Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival, critical of the LGBTQ community’s emphasis on gay marriage.

Let’s start with Rick Jacobs in Los Angeles. The significance of the court decision? And explain it for those who might not be following the progression of this—of the whole issue in California.

RICK JACOBS: Well, it is a—it is complicated on some levels, but very simple on others. I have maintained that the best thing that happened to the LGBT community, since probably Stonewall, is the passage of Prop 8, which occurred on November 4th, 2008. People were largely enthusiastic about Barack Obama being elected, jumping up and down, and when they came back down, they got punched in the gut, because California had passed Proposition 8, that took rights away from people. And that’s really what the court decisions are all about.

So, in—three years ago, just about three years ago, Ted Olson and David Boies, who are probably the most famous litigators in the country right now, famous for the Bush v. Gore decision, took to court, to federal court, and said Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. And there was a bench trial, 12 days, that I live-blogged, in federal court under Judge Vaughn Walker in January of 2010. In August of 2010, he ruled, in a very careful and long ruling, that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. And so, then began appeals. And just now, two days ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled two to one, as you all said, that Prop 8 indeed is unconstitutional, because it took rights away from people and specifically targeted gay and lesbian couples, and that that is unconstitutional both from a due process and equal protection standpoint.

What does this mean? It means the—it is a huge, huge, huge victory for America, because what it says is that you can’t target people for being gay and lesbian, simply, and say, “Oh, you’re gay, and you’re a lesbian, and you can’t have what other people can have—in this case, marriage.” So it’s an enormous victory. And I would also suggest that it—that Prop 8 and the aftermath, which we’re seeing now, help propel what happened in Washington state. People are much more active, aware and ready to fight.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Rick Jacobs, there’s a great possibility, obviously, this will be appealed, and I want to turn to Mitt Romney’s response to the court ruling on Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. He said, in a written statement, quote, “Today, unelected judges cast aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage. This decision does not end this fight, and I expect it to go to the Supreme Court. That prospect underscores the vital importance of this election and the movement to preserve our value.” That was presidential Republican candidate—or seeking the nomination, Mitt Romney. Your response, Rick Jacobs?

RICK JACOBS: Well, I would be very cautious, if I were Mitt Romney. The Mormon Church is the reason that Prop 8 passed in California. The Mormon Church put millions and millions of dollars, or encouraged its members to do so, and was actually brought up on investigative charges for failing to disclose expenditures in the campaign. And so, if I were Mitt Romney, I’d be very, very careful about mixing his views of what his beliefs are and trying to impose them on the rest of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Kalil Cohen into the conversation, transgender community organizer. This whole discussion about gay marriage, but also the backlash against it—talk about your activism around same-sex marriage, but your concerns about the focus on it.

KALIL COHEN: Sure. Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.

Well, I’ve been active in the movement to establish same-sex marriage as a trans activist with Trans Equality L.A., which was a group here in L.A. that was advocating for marriage. But I think my biggest concern is how much resources in the LGBTQ movement have been funneled towards marriage equality alone, and away from basic survival that a lot LGBTQ people still face, such as lack of access to education, healthcare, housing and criminal justice reform. And these are issues that have really taken a backseat to marriage equality, and that has harmed the most vulnerable members of our community, and whereas marriage equality is what’s helping the people who are already doing OK, who are mostly affluent, mostly white gay and lesbian folks.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Jacobs, your response?

RICK JACOBS: There is some truth to that. There’s a flip side, which is in—there’s an—I’m an online organizer. And when there is a wave and there’s an opportunity to change fundamentally the way people believe, go with the wave. I think that what marriage equality fights—particularly, again, Prop 8—have done for the LGBT community is, precisely, give more power. When Prop 8 took rights away from people, I think that was the first time that particularly gay men—I’m going to say this—that particularly gay men woke up and said, “Whoa! They took something from me, that I didn’t even know I wanted.” And I think, by the way, that’s sort of the dirty little secret about all of this, is that the right-wing fringe—and they’ve become fringe, if you listen to what happened in Washington state and you look at public opinion polls—they’re out of step with America now in terms of their opposition to people being treated equally under the law. Gay men were not, frankly, clamoring to get married, in particular, until this happened. And so, I would say that this has supercharged the entire movement for full equality and has pushed people like me, frankly, to be much more comfortable talking about transgender issues that I didn’t really pay that much attention to before. So that would be—that’d be my response.


KALIL COHEN: Well, the way that I see that is, I tend to see, yes, more gay men are active and involved as—while it’s their issue, and then, when it’s no longer something that affects them, I see them pull right back. So, for instance, at the same time that Prop 8 was going on, ENDA was going through the federal government, which was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. And that was a bill that was supposed to protect people from employment discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender. And at the same time that all of this was going on around Proposition 8 in 2008, the bill became exclusively about sexual orientation, and they took gender identity out of the bill. And at that time, as an activist, I felt incredibly disenfranchised by gay men, in particular, for not stepping up and saying, “We can’t accept one right without accepting everybody’s rights.” And especially being transgender and being an even smaller portion of the community, it’s extremely dangerous for us to not have allies around us and to not feel like we can trust other people to stand up for us when we need them to, especially because I had been advocating against Prop 8 as an ally to gay men.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rick Jacobs, we only have about a minute left, and I’d like to ask you about the prospects for, and in this presidential election year, for any other victories at the state level or setbacks at the state level in terms of marriage equality.

RICK JACOBS: I think, as concerns California, where we’re headed right now is, I think, to a good place. There’s a chance that the Supreme Court will not even take this case, and I think that would be just fine, thank you very much, because that would mean that 38 million people, the largest state in the country, would be subject to—guess what—the Constitution of the United States. And that would be a very good thing and historic, because it’s the first time that same-sex marriage would be ruled constitutional, or at least the banning of it unconstitutional. So, we’ll see whether this goes to the Ninth Circuit, whether it goes to the Supreme Court. But the more states, in the meantime, before it does go to the Supreme Court, because ultimately something like this will—Washington state, Maine—the more states that come on board with same-sex marriage, the more quickly we’re going to see that the Supreme Court will find itself out of step with the country, just as Mitt Romney is, if they don’t support what the people are saying is equality.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Friedes, last word on where you plan to go from here and how this story seems to have fueled what happened in Washington, particularly California? The California decision came down right as Rick Santorum was participating in the primaries and caucuses in Minnesota and Missouri and Colorado, and he swept all three. It’s fueling the presidential race.

JOSH FRIEDES: Well, there’s clearly momentum that is created by the California decision. I think Rick is, you know, exactly right. You know, Prop 8 completely energized the LGBT community. We realized we cannot be complacent. We’ve seen unbelievable engagement since that time, both from members of the LGBT community and also from our allies—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

JOSH FRIEDES: —particularly faith communities. Now we’ve got to work with Washington United in Washington state, our campaign to make sure that we can win a referendum.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Thanks so much, Josh Friedes, Rick Jacobs and Kalil Cohen.

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