The ugly backlash over Proposition 8
Sunday, November 23, 2008
A supporter of Proposition 8, fed up with what he believed was the gay community’s and “liberal media’s” refusal to accept the voters’ verdict, fired off a letter to the editor.
“Please show respect for democracy,” he wrote, in a letter we published.
What he encountered instead was an utter lack of respect for free speech.
Within hours, the intimidation game was on. Because his real name and city were listed – a condition for publication of letters to The Chronicle – opponents of Prop. 8 used Internet search engines to find the letter writer’s small business, his Web site (which included the names of his children and dog), his phone number and his clients. And they posted that information in the “Comments” section of SFGate.com – urging, in ugly language, retribution against the author’s business and its identified clients.
“They’re intimidating people that don’t have the same beliefs as they do … so they’ll be silenced,” he told me last week. “It doesn’t bode well for the free-speech process. People are going to have to be pretty damn courageous to speak up about anything. Why would anyone want to go through this?”
Let the record show that I absolutely disagree with the letter writer on the substance of Prop. 8. I believe that same-sex couples should have the full rights and responsibilities of marriage. In my view, the discrimination inherent in Prop. 8 is morally and legally indefensible in a society where the concept of equal protection is supposed to safeguard the rights of the minority.
But let me also say that I am disturbed by the vicious, highly personalized attacks against the letter writer and others. Protesters have shouted insults at people headed to worship; temples and churches have been defaced. “Blacklists” of donors who contributed to Yes on 8 are circulating on the Internet, and even small-time donors are being confronted. A Palo Alto dentist lost two patients as a result of his $1,000 donation. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre resigned to spare the organization from a fast-developing boycott. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the Sacramento theater group and a Mormon, had given $1,000 to Yes on 8.
This out-of-scale attempt to isolate and intimidate decidedly small players in the Yes on 8 campaign is no way to win the issue in a court of law or the court of public opinion.
Equally disappointing is the lack of a forceful denunciation from leaders of the honorable cause of bringing marriage equality to California. “We achieve nothing if we isolate the people who did not stand with us in this fight,” the No on 8 campaign reminded its coalition in a statement issued after the election.
Guess what? Certain advocates of the cause are alienating people – and this approach needs to be called out. Remember, the No on 8 campaign was shouting “blackmail!” at the top of its lungs when the Yes side sent certified letters to major donors threatening to “out” them in a press release unless they also contributed to the marriage ban. Of course, that “threat” had a tinge of absurdity. Corporations such as PG&E, McDonald’s and Levi Strauss were not afraid of being “outed” for their association with the marriage-equality cause. They were well aware that their major donations amounted to a public statement that might cause them to lose – and gain – customer goodwill.
Opponents of same-sex marriage should not be let off the hook for their post-election tactics. There is already talk of a recall campaign against California Supreme Court justices if they overturn Prop. 8, reminiscent of the unsuccessful attempt to oust Chief Justice Ronald George and Justice Ming Chin after they voted to overturn a law that required parental consent for minors to receive an abortion. The judiciary must not be intimidated in this nation of laws.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat who wrote a marriage-equality bill that passed both houses and was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he does not “defend or rationalize” overzealous tactics by those on his side. He noted that tumult and emotion have historically defined moments of momentous social change. “This is a visceral reaction to the fact that, for the first time in U.S. history, a recognized constitutional right was repealed by a simple majority vote,” Leno said.
Time is on the side of marriage equality. Sixty-one percent of voters younger than 30 opposed Prop. 8, while 61 percent of those older than 65 supported it. Attitudes are changing and will continue to shift as more and more Americans see that extending the right to same-sex couples is not a threat to traditional marriage, but an affirmation of its value to society.
Intimidation, through attempts to chill free speech or an independent judiciary, should have no part in this debate. The leaders on both sides should have the honesty to recognize it within their camps – and the courage to condemn it.