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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."
Over at SAVE Dade's offices, executive director Heddy Peña is already looking to a distant calendar, one that contests Bill Stephens's version of history. "This is going to go way beyond November 2006," Peña insists. "Just like the civil rights movement did for African Americans, it spans decades, not a single year. And just as that movement saw backlashes, we're going to see backlashes. But I really believe Americans are people who, at the end of the day, believe in fairness. And that's why the numbers keep improving." Referring to Miami-Dade's gay rights law, Peña continues: "That's why the human rights ordinance failed in 1977 but passed in 1998. And I think it's going to keep moving forward. We're going to look back on this moment in history and not understand why people were so hateful towards gays."
On that point at least, the numbers are on Peña's side. Bob Meadows has charted a clear generational split over gay rights in Florida that mirrors national trends. "For young people, although they may use antigay rhetoric or epithets, there's much more tolerance," he notes. "They've grown up in a much more diverse world. I've done focus groups with older folks, 55 to 65 and especially folks who are over 65 years old. They say, 'It just wasn't like that when I was growing up. We always suspected somebody in my navy unit or where I worked was gay, but they kept it to themselves. Now everybody's out there.' They're horrified by it. While younger people say, 'Somebody's gay?Whatever.' For the 2006 election, as opposed to the 2016 or 2026 election, it's a difficult environment. But as old people die out and are replaced by people who are currently young with different attitudes towards GLBT issues, things are likely to change."
You don't have to rely on Meadows's research to glimpse the future though. In the latest issue of the gay news magazine The Advocate, stories about discharged gay soldiers and bashed lesbian students are more than a little depressing. Even as a new generation comes of age, the political mood seems increasingly hostile. Yet turn your gaze to the magazine's advertisements, and you may think the struggle over gay rights is moot. There's page after page of gay-themed ads from a host of corporate America's giants -- Bridgestone tires, Chase bank, Delta airlines, IBM -- all viewing gay households as a given. Most striking of all is an ad for Tylenol: Two slightly frumpy male torsos lie awake together in bed. "His backache is keeping him up," reads the caption underneath one pair of unhappily crossed arms. "His boyfriend's backache is keeping him up," reads the tag under the other set of weary limbs.
It's a portrait of gay domesticity in all its humdrum normality -- neither fabulous nor militant. Just another couple trying to get a decent night of sleep before going off to work the next day. Which might be the most revolutionary notion of all.
Would you be leaning toward voting yes or no on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Florida?
I would be willing to grant some rights to gay and lesbian couples through domestic partnership laws, but marriage is just too much.
Do you favor: permitting children to be adopted by qualified gay or lesbian parents?
Do you favor: banning discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation?
Do you favor: banning discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants or hotels based on sexual orientation?
Source: This survey of 1200 likely Florida voters was conducted statewide by Washington D.C.’s Lake Snell Perry Mermin Decision Research, May 21-28. According to poll director Bob Meadows, there is a five to eight percent margin of error with pro-gay rights responses.