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Bill Stephens is careful to sound confident but never cocky as he chats with Kulchur. After all, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and as executive director of Florida's Christian Coalition, Stephens has an example to set.
Still, these are heady days for conservative Christian activists -- their strong turnout was seen as decisive in the 2004 election, and with the culture wars showing little sign of cooling off, they appear poised to repeat their key role in 2006's electoral contests. Indeed it is Stephens's job to make it so, and the pink specter of gay marriage has become the wedge issue of choice. To that end, Christian Coalition members have been petitioning to place a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on Florida's November 2006 ballot -- the same ballot as hotly contested gubernatorial and senatorial races.
The results have been a tad sluggish so far. Of the required 611,000 signatures of registered Florida voters due by February 2006, Stephens says "we're somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000." The particular language of the proposed amendment, defining marriage as solely "the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife," is pending judicial approval. But "once we get a green light from the [Florida] Supreme Court, it will be more of a full-court press," Stephens promises. "Our plan is to get everybody in place in the grassroots network we're putting together for this project, and then be ready to pull the trigger at the end of the summer."
Encouragement is coming from an unlikely source -- a statewide poll recently commissioned by Equality Florida and an alliance of other gay rights groups, including Miami-Dade's SAVE Dade, that have been meeting to strategize about countering a gay marriage ban. If anything, the poll results only strengthen the Christian Coalition's hand.
A clear majority of Floridians are ready to vote for the ban, by a margin of 55 to 43 percent. In fact that level of support may even be higher, according to the poll's director, Bob Meadows, a partner at the Washington, D.C. firm of Lake Snell Perry Mermin Decision Research. Having overseen similar polls last year in five states and then compared the actual Election Day results, "there typically is an overstatement of support for GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] rights that is in the five to eight percent range," Meadows explains. Polled respondents may say one thing on the phone, but they act quite differently in the privacy of a voting booth. Meadows saw the phenomenon at work during the 2002 repeal vote against Miami-Dade's gay rights law: A poll he conducted for SAVE Dade showed a twenty percent margin in favor of retaining the law; that figure shrank to six points in the actual vote. Similarly, a majority of Miami's Hispanics may have told Meadows they supported gay rights, but they voted just the opposite.
Even more telling, "there's very little wiggle room for proponents of marriage equality," Meadows adds of his latest findings on the prospect of legalizing same-sex marriage anytime soon. "Very few people are undecided on this issue. You can put up a ballot measure on adding slot machines at racetracks and you'll see fifteen to eighteen percent undecided. It's nothing like that with respect to marriage [where] it's usually four to six percent undecided."
Informed by Kulchur that at least 60 percent of Florida's voters already support his gay marriage ban -- before his public media campaign has even begun -- Stephens doesn't so much as break stride. "That falls right in line with what we've seen in other states," he replies coolly. "This isn't an effort to discriminate, which is what the gay activists tend to think we're doing. We just think history tells us there's a reason why there are differences between man and woman, and these differences need to be present in a home situation where children are growing up. Children need to be around both genders."
About the only way to get a rise out of Stephens is to compare his present take on gay marriage to Florida's earlier miscegenation laws which outlawed interracial marriage until 1967 -- even threatening couples who crossed the color line with two years in prison. At the time, conservative groups were full of dire warnings about the societal breakdown and moral decay such forbidden unions portended, many of which eerily echo the claims offered up today.
"Trying to ride on the heels of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement is outrageous," Stephens says, his voice rising for the first time, "and a lot of my black friends have a similar reaction. Their response is 'I was born African American. I have dark pigmentation in my skin and there's nothing I can do about it. I can't go to some ministry and become un-black.' But a homosexual can go to a ministry like Exodus International and become a heterosexual."
Uh, Bill, trust me on this. Most gay folks don't think you can really become "un-gay."
"I would expect them to argue that."
The same sound of battle lines being drawn can be heard from local gay community leaders, and polls be damned. Equality Florida regional organizer Vonn New says sharply of the looming amendment fight: "We have a choice -- we can have defiance or denial. Some people will opt out, but more people will realize this is an attack on our lives. They're going to hit that tipping point and decide it's time to stand up." Herb Sosa, president of Miami's Latino-focused Unity Coalition, agrees: "I don't know if we can win on the issue of same-sex marriage, but I know we're not going to sit around idly because of a statistic."