Garden State Equality and New Jersey's fight for gay marriage
by Kelly Roache
Try as I might, I will never forget my first experience phone banking for a political campaign. I was a sophomore in high school when I volunteered with Victory NJ 2006, the GOP’s ultimately ill-fated midterm election effort to elect Tom Kean, Jr. to the US Senate. Many – if not most – of the calls ended in disconnected numbers or awkward and fumbling attempts with recipients who could not speak English. It was the latter case that led to a particularly disturbing encounter. As I read from a script about how the Republicans vowed to end the culture of corruption in New Jersey, the woman on the other end of the line interrupted me in broken English and a thick Chinese accent:
“I do not like the homosex.”
I don’t know that words really exist to describe the range of emotions – from shock to disappointment to pity – that I felt in that instant. I promptly wished her a good night and ended the call, unsure of how to react. Rarely in my life had I been faced with such ugly, discomfiting prejudice as I was right then – at least not until last spring.
It was shortly before the end of the semester that I caught wind of the now infamous ad released by the National Organization for Marriage – headed by Princeton’s own McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence – warning against the “gathering storm” of marriage equality, with its “dark clouds and strong winds” that make one of the actresses feel “afraid.” (The rest of their ads are also worth viewing, particularly one alleging that gay marriage should be banned to keep kids from getting “confused”.) I generally find myself on the same page as Professor George – and even if I didn’t, I would respect him for his notable achievements and intellect. But I found this menacing characterization of gay marriage just as disturbing as the woman on my call sheet at the phone bank years before.
A pro-marriage equality conservative is a difficult thing to be (but not as difficult, I try to remind myself, as a gay couple unable to marry under prevailing law). But for me it has always been an issue of conscience. This Republican Party has strayed far from its roots – the cause for my recent re-registration as Independent/unaffiliated. The thought of a
Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage should make, at least in my estimation, diehard small-government conservatives cringe. For me, the federal government has no business defining the morality of marriage between consenting human beings all of equal worth in the eyes of the law and their Creator. And it seems I’m not alone – Ted Olson (of Bush v. Gore fame (yes, he argued on the side of President Bush, as well as arguing for an end to affirmative action and working to impeach President Clinton) has agreed to represent two gay couples in a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 in California:
“For conservatives who don’t like what I’m doing, it’s, ‘If he just had someone in his family we’d forgive him,’ ” he says. “For liberals it’s such a freakish thing that it’s, ‘He must have someone in his family, otherwise a conservative couldn’t possibly have these views.’ It’s frustrating that people won’t take it on face value.”
Yes, it is. Not belonging in either “camp” is a political challenge I’ve wrestled with time and time again, especially for those who believe that a conservative feminist is a contradiction in terms. Still, I was glad when a friend from home approached me this summer about volunteering with Garden State Equality, an organization working to pass same-sex marriage in New Jersey before the year’s end. With six* other states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and, most recently, Vermont – condoning gay marriage, the movement in New Jersey is gathering momentum. Right now, Garden State Equality is just three votes short in the Senate of passing the bill, which will be decided after the November elections so that legislators can vote their consciences (and Governor Corzine can still sign it even if he loses a tough race to former US Attorney Chris Christie). With 20,000 postcards sent to state legislators, 10,000 more in the works before November, and weekly phone banks to turn out their base, the organization is well on its way to winning over enough fence-sitting senators to make gay marriage a reality in New Jersey.
My volunteer stint with Garden State equality may well be (fingers crossed) my first experience working with a winning campaign. The energy displayed by the people we speak to on the phones and meet at postcarding events is a radical departure – and a breath of fresh air – from the apathy and complacency typically plaguing Jersey politics. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, I know that I’ll always treasure the experience for what it’s taught me about challenging assumptions, something I’ve championed as a feminist but never really seen firsthand. When the phone script encourages us to tell call recipients what motivates us to support gay marriage, people on the other end of the line more often than not jump in to “sympathize” with me as a liberal or a lesbian. But I’ve been just as guilty of these assumptions myself; for instance, at a local summer jazz festival, I approached what I expected to be a group of supportive young people, only to find from their looks of disgust that they had no interest in passing marriage equality. That same night, I met an elderly pair of women who professed their excitement at finally “shacking up” after knowing each other since kindergarten. Meanwhile, a 91-year-old man who was anxious to send a postcard to his legislator in clamorous support of the cause: “Well, considering I was in a gay marriage for fifty years, I guess I didn’t know any better by these guys’ logic!”
While it’s uncertain whether Garden State Equality’s efforts will be successful, I think the words of the organization’s head, Steve Goldstein, sum up well the sentiments of those involved with the campaign: "I wouldn't trade where we're positioned with where (the foes of gay marriage) are positioned." With the vote two months out and outreach efforts planned on campuses all over the state, the best we can do is get – or stay – involved in what is quite possibly the civil rights issue of our time.
*Seven, if you count Maine, where gay marriage was supposed to be effective come fall. However, a Prop 8-style referendum coming to a vote in November has put the measure on hold.