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Same Sex Marriage and the Internet

Written By: Dave Patterson on November 29, 2008 16 Comments

Usree Bhattacharya, a frequent writer here and a classmate of mine in Rick Kern’s class on writing and technology, encouraged me to write a bit about Proposition 8 for Found In Translation. Since I saw how important the Internet was in my involvement in Prop 8, I thought I’d write about technological aspects of what I see as the next steps for folks like me who would like to see same sex marriage legalized in California.

Background. As a gay man who would like to marry my partner, I worked fairly hard to defeat Proposition 8.* Disappointed when the proposition won, I have spent the last few weeks like everyone else interested in this issue thinking about the next steps, which seem to include demonstrations, boycotts, court cases and possible attempts to repeal Prop 8 in 2010. While it is obvious that the Internet will continue to benefit us in three ways – by allowing us to gain information, by alerting us to upcoming events, and by tracking donations – is it possible that online activism also hinders the efforts of those of us interested in legalizing same sex marriage? I’ll explore each of these three benefits briefly before discussing how the Internet might actually be a drawback in legalizing same sex marriage.

Gaining information. Yesterday I wanted to know the basics of how a proposition in California could get repealed. I had heard that repealing a proposition required two-thirds of the voters’ approval, but I wanted to find out if this was true. I tried using Google to answer this fairly straightforward question, but I couldn’t find an answer. As a librarian, I felt a mixture of exasperation and inadequacy. I’ll look this question up later, or maybe I’ll come across the answer by accident while reading an article or a blog, or perhaps someone reading this will leave a comment that answers the question. In general, the Internet is, of course, great for gaining information. For example, a month ago I wanted to know more about Perez vs. Sharp, the case that ended the ban on interracial marriage in California, so I found a nice overview of it at Wikipedia, which also linked me to the court’s opinion within seconds.

Events alerts. I’ve signed up to receive e-mail alerts from a website called something like “The 8 Accountability Project” so that I can learn about demonstrations in front of businesses owned by folks who donated money to the Yes on 8 campaign. Knowing where and when these protests will be held is a lot like knowing how a proposition is repealed – it’s only the beginning of “knowing”. I’m not only interested in learning about the basic information about these protests, but I’m also eager to discuss the ethical dimensions of boycotting and demonstrating, which can be discussed to some degree on this same website.

Tracking donations. I have looked through an online database of donations to Prop 8 campaigns to see if I know donors. In fact, when I read about a dentist in Palo Alto who donated $1000 to Yes on 8 lost two patients, I got to thinking about my dentist! I looked him up in the database to see if he had donated money one way or the other. So far, I haven’t found anyone I know who has donated to the Yes on 8 campaign – including my dentist – in this database. Do I think boycotting a dentist for voting yes on 8 is ethical? Yes, I do, but I’d like to talk to folks who will challenge me on this.

Winning votes. Finally, I think the Internet might hinder my work to legalize same sex marriage by giving me a false sense of having tried to win votes. At Thanksgiving I talked to an 86 year old friend from the foothills of the Sierras who, along with his wife, voted no on 8. He complained that the queer community hadn’t done any outreach in his area because we had been too busy preaching to the choir in San Francisco. My outreach to rural areas of California before Prop 8 was limited to writing a dozen or so online “Letters to the Editors” in newspapers read by rural voters. Something tells me I didn’t sway a single voter; I sense that these online forums are places to rant. I think that to win votes I needed to be there on the person’s porch, talking to voters in their church’s adult education class, or at their senior center’s lunch. Maybe a massive queer face to face charm offensive is what we need – a fabulous series of adventures: the Road to Manteca, the Road to Redding, the Road to Salinas. I can’t quite picture how to start these trips now since the issue hasn’t come to a new head, but waiting seems wrong, too. I’m picturing setting up some sort of discussion of marriage event with my 86 year old friend and his 78 year old wife in their town. Maybe outreach efforts to the Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Masonic groups and to mainline Protestant denominations, where congregations tend to be more moderate, are possible strategies.

Maybe a useful next step for legalizing same sex marriage is to reflect on online and offline strategies. I feel that one reason we lost is that our opponents are excellent at offline organizing. I critique my online work to legalize same sex marriage as a way to have a sense of engagement in activism without actually coming face to face with strangers. Usree showed us in the lead up to Election Day one way to proceed: online she blogged her heart out in support of Obama, but offline she also went door to door wooing Obama supporters in Nevada. This might be just the sort of marriage we need: online organizing among ourselves and offline activism to woo hearts and win votes.

*I acknowledge that many folks reading this voted yes on Prop 8. Congratulations on your victory! I welcome your comments and wish to engage in ongoing dialogue with you, especially so that I can better understand your views on same sex marriage.

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16 Responses to “Same Sex Marriage and the Internet”

  1. Youki on: 30 November 2008 at 1:56 am

    yeah I remember looking at the prop 8 breakdown by county and how geographically segregated the votes were.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/politics/cal/la-2008election-california-results,0,1293859.htmlstory?view=8&tab=0&fnum=0

    looking at the donor list you linked above, I checked for Berkeley donors. 846 people donated in opposition, and 4 people in support. I agree, more outreach should be done in areas where acceptance of same-sex marriage is not as well accepted.

    I wonder if there’s a sort of catch-22 when it comes to geography and same sex marriage. For me, the best outreach is exactly not — the idea of outreach implies that there is a space between you and the people you want to communicate with. Same sex couples move to communities in which they are more accepted, but this results in a geographical segregation and what you referred to earlier, “preaching to the choir.” So by being in a more supportive community, same sex couples are at the same time making it easier to construct their own “othering” relative to less tolerant communities.

    The politics of mind-changing. I’m sure someone has written about this. This is one of the fundamental inequalities that I see with regards to prop 8: in essence, the issue of same sex marriage is about people in support of same sex marriages trying to change the minds of people against same sex marriage, not the other way around.

    In politics (and pretty much in everyday life), you don’t really change peoples’ minds on anything. You can only create the conditions in which a particular opinion “makes more sense” or fits into their understanding of the world. The best strategy, in my opinion? Like you state above, ongoing dialogue. You won’t change many minds by saying “this is what I believe in, this is what I think is right.” You have to understand what they believe in almost as if you believe it yourself, and create the conditions for helping them rethink how they understand the world.

    I googled “why is gay marriage wrong?” and the first hit came to this page:

    http://www.robgagnon.net/homoPresbyTodayArticle.htm

    Here’s a key sentence:

    “The vision of marriage found in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is one of reuniting male and female into an integrated sexual whole. Marriage is not just about more intimacy and sharing one’s life with another in a lifelong partnership. It is about sexual merger—or, in Scripture’s understanding, re-merger—of essential maleness and femaleness.”

    Now, not being Christian myself I can’t say whether this is representative of Judeo-Christian morals towards marriage (for all I know this may be an extreme or outdated perspective), and I’m sure that for each individual the issue is much more nuanced, but I’d think that if you’re going to attempt to change peoples’ minds about same sex marriage, you need to address their perspective. Perhaps this is impossible. Perhaps not. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will never change their minds on same sex marriage, and it’s their right. Is it their right to impose their beliefs on others, though? That I’m not so sure about.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 30 November 2008 at 10:11 am

    “Is it their right to impose their beliefs on others, though? That I’m not so sure about.”-Y. The “imposition” in the context of Prop 8 is legal. I see gay marriage as a civil rights issue, and I don’t understand how civil rights can be taken away because they are unacceptable to particular religious communities. Religious groups, in a “secular” state, should NOT legislate or dictate legal civil rights of others…

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 30 November 2008 at 11:49 am

    I want to also revisit a comment you made, Dave, about the Internet “hindering” your efforts. Hmm…well, I DO think a hybrid effort would be most successful in winning votes…one that relies on door-to-door neighborhood canvassing, phone banking, AND creating and using Internet spaces that allow you to get the word out (though, as I mentioned in the previous comment, I don’t believe the public SHOULD have the right to legislate on this particular issue-as others have mentioned, if we went with the will of the people, segregation could perhaps be thriving, interracial marriages could still be outlawed, and well…you get the drift). Legal options should also be followed aggressively.

    Obama’s movement became as strong as it did, I think, primarily because supporters got involved THROUGH a grassroots Internet movement, but once “hooked,” were not limited to it. The movement didn’t stop there; it found a huge home there, but millions of networked supporters also did personal outreach. Join the Impact, the anti-Prop 8 group, organized the massive anti-Prop 8 rallies (that both you and I had the pleasure of attending) across all 50 states, but the gatherings, the coming together of collectives of gay and straight people in the cause, didn’t, I feel, turn into a “movement.” All the passion and energy we saw there…well, it’s there, but we didn’t see it channelized. I think that’s where we need to make a difference, taking the energy of the anti-Prop 8 group, and converting it into a major civil rights movement.

  4. Dave Patterson on: 30 November 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Youki: Thanks for your comment! I think you are right that “if you’re going to attempt to change peoples’ minds about same sex marriage, you need to address their perspective.”

    And I also think you are right that it’s probably more about ongoing dialogue than changing minds. You said, “you don’t really change peoples’ minds on anything.” I tend to agree in the short term, but then I get confused.

    For example, peoples’ minds HAVE changed on lots of gay-related stuff. I mean, think of the difference between the way folks talk about gays today and the way they talked (or giggled) about them, say, in 1970. That’s where I get confused, because, in some cases you can explain change by pointing out that we are talking about new people on the scene (my niece, for example, is only 14). But my mom is a good example of someone who, in 1970, would have probably giggled about gays, would have probably expressed compassionate for their deviance and concern about them being around her kids, but today she has a much, much different view.

    I’m not disagreeing with you, Youki: I feel in my gut that you are right: I CAN’T change minds on same-sex marriage, but I do get confused about “change” when I think of big changes in individual and societal beliefs that I’ve seen with my own eyes. How did it happen? Slowly, I guess, and without fanfare…

    Can you or someone else comment on this, since understanding “change” in terms of stances on something like same sex marriage seems key to figuring out best strategies. Waiting is one strategy. Just waiting…There is a lot to be said for just waiting, but that seems, sounds strange but I’ll write it, irresponsible. If I don’t get the right to marry Nomi before I die, it’s really not a big deal (not being a martyr here: it’s truly how I feel), but seems like there are a lot of 16 or 15 year or lesbians and gay teens whose self-esteem, whose way of thinking about their future would really be bolstered by getting this right.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Youki!

  5. Dave Patterson on: 30 November 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Hi Usree: Thanks for your thoughts! I think I’d re-write the sentence about the Internet hindering me. It’s probably better to say that, in doing almost all of my outreach online, I gained a false sense of reaching out to voters. I did do offline outreach, but all of that was in the Bay Area, and none of it was in the rural areas or to people in the Bay Area who were potential Yes voters. I like this, Usree: “Taking the energy of the anti-Prop 8 group, and converting it into a major civil rights movement.” A woman at church today said basically the same thing: she’d like to see the issue set off a movement that would be broader in scope than just same sex marriage. Thanks, Usree, for your thoughts!

  6. Usree Bhattacharya on: 30 November 2008 at 9:05 pm

    How very fascinating to see such a great dialog developing around this issue here. The question of “change” is a big one. When I was reading your response, Dave, I immediately thought of the video of the San Diego mayor’s tearful change of heart, in support of gay marriage:

    I think for days after prop 8 passed I found myself watching it, for hope, for hope for the future, in order to tell myself that change WOULD happen. This, of course, was an individual case of change. It’s hard to know or predict what can induce systemic changes at a broader level: smaller, personal changes, I feel, are easier to initiate. However, I DO think that framing the message correctly is important. Obama’s message was one framed in exactly the right way, though of course it was helped along by other factors, such as timing, and a poorer performance on the opposing ticket. I DO think systemic changes are possible: every year I return to India, I see the major shifts that are very visible at the societal level. What triggers mass changes are generally though mainstream dialog. A large public voice. Gay marriage rights issues, I feel, should be mainstreamed into public discourse. Language, I feel, could be the most powerful agent of change. As Youki points out, dialoging is essential…even if that’s the only level at which it can stay…(I am a little more optimistic, though!). If we can’t engage, we can’t be heard.

    Yes, I say “we”; because this is not your cause as a gay person, and mine as a straight “supporter.” When your rights are curtailed, mine are too. Obama’s not going to be “my” president, but I was a part of his movement because I felt his election was important for more than just the US; he held out hope for the larger world. In the same way, I feel the pain of Prop 8 passing, thinking that this was not just the passage of an anti-gay measure, but something which was a matter of civil rights, rights we need to take seriously for every individual, of any creed, orientation, gender, etc. I am hopeful that a new generation IS seeing things that way, and time WILL correct this injustice. Until then, let’s talk.

  7. Usree Bhattacharya on: 30 November 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Hey, Dave, did you catch this debate? I find it funny that your almost namesake “[Governor] David Paterson remains a steadfast supporter of nuptials for gays and lesbians.”

  8. Youki on: 1 December 2008 at 1:07 am

    oh no, I wasn’t suggesting that people’s minds can’t be changed. I was saying that one of the most effective way to change someone’s mind on something is to understand why they choose a certain stance, and work within that perspective.

    For example, if someone’s religious beliefs prevents them from accepting same sex marriage, you’re not going to have an easy time convincing them otherwise. Instead, ask a different question: “isn’t it a core principle of our nation to protect civil rights, and to prevent religious institutions from exerting their ideology on our citizens?” Change the issue from “why same sex marriage should be legal” to “why should religion dictate legislation?”

    Similarly, if a community is being saturated with messages in favor of prop 8:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kKn5LNhNto&feature=related
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PgjcgqFYP4&feature=related
    then counter those messages. Break down those commercials and explain why you believe they are wrong, or a misrepresentation of the truth, or a fear tactic. Examine the validity of those commercials’ claims and call them on it.

    Changing someone’s mind on something isn’t like flipping a light switch. It’s not enough to get the message out, you have to get the right message out. That’s all I’m really saying.

  9. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 December 2008 at 9:55 am

    Youki, seeing the Youtube links reminded me of a very recent post I wrote on my personal blog, entitled “Youtube in the tank for gays?” It covers a NewsBusters article that alleges Youtube is saturated with anti-Prop 8 stuff, and pro-Prop 8 stuff is harder to find than the proverbial needle in the haystack. 🙂

    You’re right, tactics should include “Break[ing] down those commercials and explain[ing] why you believe they are wrong, or a misrepresentation of the truth, or a fear tactic. Examin[ing] the validity of those commercials’ claims and call[ing] them on it.” However, one question arises: the anti-prop 8 group then is left to act defensively, in reaction to the opposition. How successful can messages be, if they are forced to be framed and defined mostly by parameters dictated by the other, the opposing force?

  10. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 December 2008 at 9:58 am

    By the way, is this officially the most commented-on post ever? If it wasn’t before this comment, it probably is now. Congrats, Mr Patterson! 🙂

  11. Youki on: 1 December 2008 at 8:58 pm

    well, there’s a difference between accepting an opposing frame and understanding that frame in order to build the proper tools to dismantle it.

    If you were to accept the opposing frame, you’d debate same sex marriage as a moral issue. I’m saying that won’t ever work; you’re not going to get anywhere trying to convince someone that their deep religious beliefs are wrong. Everyone is entitled to believe what they choose to. If someone says, “the bible says that marriage should be between a man and a woman” and you reply with, “the bible is wrong” then you’ve lost any credibility with them, and have lost.

    What I am suggesting, with regards to the commercials, is to understand the flaws in the commercials and point them out. You’re not using their frame, you’re attacking their frame. For example, one of the arguments against same sex marriage is that it will confuse children:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75J3TN9Zzck
    If your message is “well shouldn’t children be confused?” you’ve lost. But, if you reframe the issue, you’ll be much more successful. Imagine the following commercial:
    “In colonial America, children were taught that slavery was a normal part of life. One such child, Abraham Lincoln, understood that all people are created equal, regardless of their skin color, and became a leader in civil rights, saying ‘Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.’

    In the 1800s, children were taught that women should not be allowed to vote. One such child, Susan B. Anthony, later said ‘It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.’

    Fight ignorance. We owe it to our children to teach them that religious persecution is wrong.”

    hardly perfect, but something along those lines. You’re not using their frame, you’re dismantling their frame.

  12. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 December 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Here’s my problem: I have had long, extended debates with a friend who believes firmly in Prop 8, because of his religious views. At the end of each discussion, we BOTH end up frustrated. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that I use cold logic, the frame of rational thought, whereas his belief lies in the religious/spiritual realm. I just don’t understand how to more efficiently engage in rational arguments with someone who is discoursing at a religious/spiritual plane. I have never approached him saying, “the bible is wrong.” I approach the issue as a civil rights issue in my discussions with him, as a case where the sacred “separation of church and state” issue is at stake. I go over what the problems are with the Prop 8’s arguments, and…nothing. I just don’t think pointing out flaws works effectively enough. No matter how many times, for example, people pointed out the flawed nature of the arguments about Obama being a Muslim, being a non-citizen, a pal of terrorists, there were people who, because their ideology did not permit it, would NOT accept otherwise. I heard that in the voices of people we phone-banked for. No amount of pointing out flaws was going to change their minds. No amount. We decided not to engage, for the most part, and worked on those who were open to accepting him. I agree with you that that would be a great option; however, I am not sure it works that well in practice. I have more to say but I need to get off FIT…like now. 🙂

  13. Youki on: 2 December 2008 at 1:12 am

    Like I wrote earlier, “Changing someone’s mind on something isn’t like flipping a light switch.” If someone went through years of socializing processes to get to a particular perspective, a few debates probably won’t do much.

    If you want to change people’s minds, don’t start with the hardcore religious right. That’s an exercise in futility. It’s not like 100% of voters fall into 2 camps: 1) “believe very strongly in favor of prop 8” and 2) “believe very strongly against prop 8.” It’s a spectrum, and you should focus on people more in the middle.

    I wish I could run the following experiment: take someone who voted yes on 8, and move them to Canada (where same sex marriage is nationally legalized). Are they having an existential crisis? Are they screaming “OH MY GOD YOU’RE ALL GOING TO HELL” while running through the streets? If the answer is no, then you have a potential candidate for someone whose mind you may change.

    As far as your friend goes, well, he’s entitled to his opinion and his vote, so I guess there’s not much you can do.

  14. Usree Bhattacharya on: 6 December 2008 at 11:17 pm

    Dave, Youki, I saw Milk last night (at the Castro!), and started thinking about our conversations again. The movie was outstanding…the audience was spellbound through the entire narrative, and there was not a dry eye in the audience when the credits began rolling.

    Milk’s perspective on the discourse necessary to change minds in a comprehensive manner was instructive: He took a more aggressive civil-rights based approach to Prop 6, which he helped defeat. While the film’s makers have quite deliberately stayed away from marketing this movie as a “gay rights” one, I think it’ll do much good in terms of mainstreaming the discourse, framing it within the civil rights issue, as I wished for earlier.

    If you haven’t seen it, you must. And you must watch it at the Castro!

  15. Usree Bhattacharya on: 26 January 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Dave, a new postmortem here.

  16. Wilford Zehender on: 15 March 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I agree with what Youki said above. It is too difficult (actually, almost impossible) to change peoples minds’. Too many people believe they can change someones mind, but in reality, it’s close to impossible.

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