Those who wish to gain marriage equality suspect that their opponents, who work tirelessly time and again to block their legal rights at the ballot box, are motivated out of an unreasoning hatred, fueled by vague but potent anger, and justified by a handful of cherry-picked and poorly translated Biblical passages.
Meantime, those who wish to restrict the legal rights of gay and lesbian families, seem to have an idea that sexual minorities are plotting to destroy faith and the family by... well, by taking a place in the pews and at the Thanksgiving table, wedding rings gleaming on their fingers.
The reality is a little more nuanced on both sides, of course, but what is truly fascinating is how much passion, sweat, and marriage the anti-gay side pours into ballot questions like Maine’s Question One, the 2009 ballot initiative that replicated the tactics, and the successes, that saw passage of California’s Proposition 8 the year before. Both initiatives rescinded law granting gays and lesbians the legal right to enter into marriage.
Joe Fox and James Nubile’s new documentary "Question One" takes a piercing look at the 2009 campaign that led to the curtailment of marriage rights in Maine. Their cameras delve behind the headlines and sound bites and going into the headquarters for both sides. For the GLBT viewer, the scenes set in the pro-marriage camp may seem completely familiar; it’s the footage from the anti-marriage side that informs, even as it infuriates, and it’s the people on the anti-marriage side that stand out most memorably.
Indeed, like any compelling story, this film is less about the politics of the matter than the personalities: Marriage equality leader Darlene Huntress was her sister’s maid of honor in 1986; she thought she would never have a chance to share a dance with her father at her wedding. Infused with hope that gay families might win at the ballot box, Huntress is animated, decisive, passionate, and informed; in defeat, she’s gracious, saying she wishes to "break bread" with the very same people who worked with the religiously-driven group, Stand for Marriage, that spearheaded the "people’s veto" effort that took her rights away.
Marriage opponent Marc Mutty chaired Stand for Marriage. Time and again throughout the documentary he expresses doubts and pangs. He understands the job before him, and he’s committed to doing it; he believes in the purpose he’s working toward. What troubles him is the way that the politics of the situation work, and he seems troubled by the harm that his group is poised to do to gay and lesbian families. Mutty may be the one marriage equality opponent in this movie who comes across as believable (and not deluding himself) when he claims that he is not a bigot.
Take, for instance, Pastor Bob Emrich, another Stand for Marriage leader, who declares, "I want to do anything that I can, anything in my power, to improve Maine’s culture." And yet Emrich addresses a crowd to tell them that legal recognition for same-sex families is "counterfeit" marriage. To the documentary film crew Emrich poses the question, "Are we as a society ready to give complete approval to homosexuality? Are we prepared to say as a society that it’s normal or healthy or okay?"
It’s a loaded question, and there’s no doubt where Emrich himself lands on it: Obviously, he doesn’t believe that gays are okay, normal, or healthy. His words betray a deep-seated distrust of gays and an assumption of gay pathology, which is the default position of a number of the Stand for Marriage operatives we see here. That assumption leads to a pre-judgment against gay people and their families; that judgment, which it seems fair to call prejudice, lurks behind virtually every argument we hear in opposition to marriage for same-sex couples. Regrettably, those who act out of prejudice are commonly known as bigots.
But the anti-gay activists shown here are uniformly incapable of seeing their own anti-gay animus. Emrich declares that he does nothing out of hatred, declaring, "The Bible is pretty clear that you can’t bring about the righteousness of God by the wrath of men." Instead, Emrich settles for contempt for gays and their families, which, when it’s translated into legal restrictions applied to the personal lives of some and not others, is pretty much a distinction without a difference.
Nor does Emrich seem to recognize any fundamental separation of church and state, speaking as he does of religious faith underlying civil law. But why does he aim so much effort and passion at the gay community rather than, say, the cheeseburger eating community or the blended fabric wearing community? After all, cooking meat and dairy together into a single dish is cited in the Book of Leviticus, right along with same-gender sex, as a big no-no.
The film falls short of answering this question, but it does illustrate the tenacity of the anti-gay side. Nothing raises money, gets out the vote, and excites deep and volatile passions like the issue of marriage equality. It’s a strain of monomania that extends from the anti-gay leadership down through the ranks of the volunteers and into the electorate, which is why anti-gay activists are so eager to put rights for gays and their families to a vote at every turn. It’s revealing to see how a phone bank worker drumming up anti-gay votes jokes with a constituent who asks, "So you’re not a lesbian or a queer?" "I hope not," the phone worker responds. "Not the last time I checked with my wife." Evidently, rhetoric about not being bigoted or motivated by hate is reserved for media outlets, not shared with people on the ground behind the scenes. (Except, that is, for Mutty, who seems to be a lone example of integrity.)
The way that anti-gay activists see themselves is a true puzzle. Yes on One volunteer Linda Seavey drives around with an SUV packed with yard signs, encouraging her neighbors to vote early. She also voices a familiar litany to the camera, a mixture of denial, outrage, and anti-government propaganda. "I don’t hate these people, and I’m not a bigot," Seavey declares. "I respect them if that’s the way they want to live; but it’s their choice. But don’t go thinking that you have to go change everything else through history because you’ve made this choice."
But is this a rational response or merely a rationalization? Seavey continues with, "Don’t tell me it’s a civil right. This has nothing to do with civil rights." Seavey does not say, however, what it does have to do with; the next time she addresses the camera it’s to suggest that people like her, who are willing to speak up against the rights of sexual minorities, could conceivably face legal persecution. "Are you going to be able to say, ’I don’t agree with that’ without being arrested?" she asks.
It never seems to occur to Seavey that, until less than a decade ago, deeply committed life partners in a number of states could be interrupted, in their own bedrooms, by the police and then arrested for sharing sexual intimacy. Even if it did occur to her, one suspects that Seavey wouldn’t change her mind; speaking about the loss suffered by the state’s family after election day, Seavey says that gays and lesbians "made the wrong choice" in being gay and having same-sex spouses instead of going to a church that condemns homosexuality, an astonishing double Bingo that denies gays both their family rights and their freedom of religion.
To be sure, the battle lines are drawn around religious beliefs. On the anti-gay side, the response of the faithful seems to be defined in a way that includes justification for denying others their legal rights and protections. Gay families, on the other hand, shudder at the idea that the state’s legal process is being used against them in the name of saving their souls.
The movie shows us plenty of what we already know, but it does find a few unexpected nuggets, as when the movie looks into the personal cost of the anti-gay crusade. One post-Prop 8 tactic by the anti-gay side is to paint gays as thugs who threaten and intimidate, but the real toll is taken by the simple loss of privacy and anonymity. Mutty regrets that simply going to the supermarket leads to confrontation with a marriage equality supporter--and a handshake from an opponent of equal marriage rights. He seems to find both encounters equally exhausting: "I’m just trying to buy a six-pack of beer."
Each side sees the other as characterized by "angry people," which is more or less true; the anger is palpable from the anti-gay side, who seem affronted by the very idea that same-sex families would want to claim the same legal protections for themselves and their loved ones that heterosexuals gain simply by saying "I do." As for the gays and lesbians struggling to attain those protections, of course they are angry: They have seen their families come under attack, after all, and that makes anybody angry, whatever their sexuality might be.
The basis of the anti-gay effort seems to rest on an assumption that gays "choose" to be attracted to people of the same gender. There’s also an odd, and somewhat alarming, arrogance at work: obviously, the anti-gay side see gays as uppity for wanting to participate in the institution of marriage, but gays see their opponents as equally arrogant for thinking themselves superior enough that they have a right (God-given, they would claim) to dilute, curtail, and even rescind the civil rights of others who do not share their religious views. It’s a little easier to sympathize with the gays when one sees the anti-gay side celebrating their victory by singing gospel songs. The message seems to be that religious convictions should trump the promise of civil equality.
Gay and lesbian families lost the day in Maine in 2009, when voters narrowly approved Question One and a "people’s veto" struck the marriage equality law from the books. A new referendum will be placed before voters in Maine this year; this time, a "Yes" vote will give marriage equality to those same families. Will Maine’s families win full equality this time around? Even if they do, should their rights ever have been put up to vote to begin with? Whatever the outcome, the very idea of voting on rights remains repugnant. Maybe in another three years we’ll see a documentary on that subject.
This article is part of our "Boston LGBT Film Festival" series. Want to read more?
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