What Illinois really teaches us: that we must still do the work
In the days since the the Illinois House failed to vote on a marriage bill, we've seen socially conservative groups look to the state as some sort of a bright light. Groups like the National Organization For Marriage are trying to frame the Land of Lincoln as a beacon—as a ray of hope that will guide them out of the political wilderness.
They are of course wrong. This is a delay, not a repudiation. Most likely, Illinois will advance equality in the fall of this very year. If not, this state, like all states, is guaranteed to advance equality in due time. Sometimes, sadly enough, it takes a loss to connect some needed dots. We New Yorkers saw this firsthand, where our 2009 failure in the state legislature spoke directly to our 2011 success. I would suggest that very similar conversations are happening right now in Springfield.
But the bigger takeaway is not derived from either NOM's overstated "victory" or our obvious inevitability. For me, the biggest reminder to come from Illinois is of how we on the right side of history can get in our own way, keeping us from doing the work that must still be done. Let me explain.
We went into the Illinois conversation quite enthusiastic about our chances. At the turn of the year, many of us assumed Illinois would be the first state to pass equality in 2013. Coming off the historic 2012 elections, we looked to the President's home state as our next obvious place to turn. With so much seeming support, it seemed like a no-brainer.
So we passed a bill in the Senate. "Yay!" we all shouted—though we shouted it in a somewhat muted way. Not because we weren't excited, mind you. Instead, we were so confident in Illinois' obvious passage that the Senate vote seemed kind of procedural. Within LGBT political circles, our celebrations were less like sighs of relief and more like, "great, now get on with it already."
But Illinois didn't get on it with. Instead, Rhode Island got on with it. Then Delaware got on it with it. Then Minnesota got on with it. All of these states, each of which had seemed less like a fait accompli than Illinois did, passed and signed marriage bills. We were all still quite confident about Illinois, still regarding a first-half-of-'13 passage as foregone conclusion, but we weren't hearing all that much practical, on-the-ground, convertible data to match our confidence.
We remained largely at ease because we know, rightly, that we are on the right side of this issue and that we will win the full enchilada in the end. We know that polls are on our side, that we are gaining incredibly historic ground, that our support base is becoming broader, and that civil discrimination simply cannot hold up under the weight and force of the law. Psychologically, we have every right to feel at ease about our trajectory. If you are concerned about winning the future, then you made a smart bet when you signed up for Team Marriage Equality.
The problem with this ease? It has a way of stopping us from doing the work that still must be done in order to win. And don't kid yourself: These fights are still a slog! They still require work, even in the bluest of states.
Behind the scenes, I know firsthand that A LOT of hard work did, in fact, go on. I have friends who spent countless hours in Illinois, and I have nothing but trust in their work ethic and sweat equity. I want to be crystal clear about this: a lot of groups, professionals, grassroots supporters, and everyday people did some really strong work trying to pass marriage equality in the state.
Where I think our overconfidence hits us is in the crucial conversation that never ceases. On the other side, they were CONSTANTLY TALKING about us. The Illinois Family Institute, which is truly one of the most jaw-droppingly hostile of any state policy group working in America, held numerous pastor events where they talked local preachers to use their pulpits to rally against us. They also held demonstrations, where firebrands like Peter LaBarbera framed us as an "offense to nature and nature's God." At multiple appearances and testimonies, IFI brought out "ex-gay" Linda Jernigan, who painted gay people as "changeable" and therefore in no need of rights of any kind. On its website, volitional voice of hostility Laurie Higgins penned countless pieces about how on part with pedophiles we gay people really are. And so on and so forth. And while this stuff is exceedingly nasty and so glaringly destined to fail, it did breed some short-term enthusiasm, which translates into lawmaker calls, legislator letters, lobby visits, and all of those other things that do, really and truly, sway some lawmakers.
There was also the outsized role of the African-American Clergy Coalition. This is where NOM, still working its stated "drive a wedge between gays and blacks" strategy, placed all of its time and money. The AACC generated robo-calls, events, press conferences, and in-church rally cries, swaying some needed votes against us. They didn't stop talking about us which, sadly, led some people to listen.
And let's not forget the Catholic church. Like in all states, the local Catholic leadership decided that hurt gay people in civil law is the church's current call. For the past six months or more, Catholic dioceses bombarded its members with all kinds of messaging that, at best, made gay people seem underserving of rights and, at worst, questioned whether we even should gay in the first place (see this January document pushing the idea that gays must live "chaste lives"). They pitted their personal theology against our shared public policy, which is of course wrong and violating. Unfortunately, it can also have efficacy.
But again, I don't want to say that we weren't talking. We surely were, and we surely also brought some fence-sitters over to our side. But I would be lying if I said I saw the same kind of enthusiasm on our side as we did on the opposition's. While we are so sure that Illinois would become out thirteenth (!) to come over to the right side of the trend lines, our opposition was using that oh-so-powerful motivator known as despair. They positioned themselves as the scrappy, down-trodden, "victimized" troops going against a powerful Goliath. They showed up because they were told that only their banding together could save them from the list of horribles that they said our jewelry-adorned ring fingers would bring to their lives.
Okay, so what do we learn from this? Well, it's a tough one, frankly. I don't want to depress our enthusiasm because that enthusiasm is both apt and understandable. We've fought long and hard to get where we are, and we've done SO MUCH work. Those of us who came to this fight in those heady days at the state of the century want nothing more than to grab a plate of cake, lift a glass of champagne, and think about all of those children's books we can write once our keyboards are free of their missions in this "culture war." Trust me: I. Get. The. Instinct!
But while I don't think we should mute our jubilance or question our inevitability, I do think we have to remember that this stuff doesn't just happen. All of these fights still require time, money, effort, conversation, and muscle. We can't rest on our laurels, at least not 24/7. We still have to call our lawmakers, fund our groups, show up at our capitols, and play the game in the way that we know the game to be played.
Most crucially, we have to continue the conversation. That conversation cannot be, "We've won, it's over—period, full stop." Instead, its has to be more like, "We're winning, it's awesome—let's keep going. Who's with me?"
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