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Prince Research Excerpts on Gay Rights & Mormonism – “22 – Dominoes Begin to Fall”

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22 – Dominoes Begin to Fall


“A month ago, with no members of the press present, Harry Reid gave a speech at the private wedding of his openly gay communications director, Jon Summers. According to a source who was present, Reid spoke powerfully in favor of equality for gay and lesbian Americans.

I’m reporting this previously undisclosed episode because I’m not sure folks fully grasp how instrumental Reid was in getting don’t ask don’t tell repealed. Specifically, I don’t think it’s clearly understood what was so effective about his strategy, and why it was central to getting this done against all odds.…

How did Reid do it? Advocates for gay equality hammered Reid relentlessly throughout this process, erupting in anger each time he refused to state definitively that a DADT vote would happen or refused to clarify precisely when such a vote would happen. Advocates worried that Reid was going to let the session pass without a DADT vote at the behest of the White House, which was prioritizing New START above all else.

But Reid’s approach paid off, and here’s how. Recall what happened before the vote on the defense authorization bill containing DADT repeal was blocked by the GOP. Reid made a whole range of concessions to GOP moderates, bringing them to the brink of casting a Yes vote. When it became clear that Susan Collins’s procedural demands risked throwing the lame-duck session into chaos, Reid’s decision to fast-track the vote — even though vote counters knew it would not pass if he did — was roundly criticized.

In retrospect, it turns out Reid’s gamble worked. Scheduling that first vote allowed moderates the room to register their procedural objections with a No vote. As Reid knew, he could then schedule a second, stand-alone vote, giving the moderates a bit more time and maneuvering room (and another round of meetings with military leaders) to come around to the Yes camp.

What’s more, when Joe Lieberman and others started demanding that Reid hold the DADT vote before resolving New START, Reid saw the logic of this move. According to sources involved with the process, Reid had specifically delegated to Joe Lieberman the task of rounding up the votes, and assured him a vote would happen if he got to 60. Lieberman assured him he had over 60 in hand, and told him the prospects for repeal would be at risk if the vote were delayed. Reid forged ahead despite GOP threats that so doing could scuttle the START treaty. The rest is history.…” (Greg Sargent, “Harry Reid earns his place in history,” Washington Post, December 20, 2010)


Jacobs: In terms of the “movement” that erupted—and it was an eruption of a movement overnight—there was a group that sprung up called Join the Impact.  There were a couple of women in Ohio who decided to put up—because everybody was marching all over the place; not just here, but all over the country and all over the world, people wanted to do something.

Prince: All in response to Prop 8?

Jacobs: All in response to Prop 8.  All.  Every bit of it.  Again, we had lost in thirty-something states.  Now, California, the highest profile loss.  But the difference was that we had something taken away from us, because in May the Supreme Court of California had ruled that gay and lesbian people could marry.  The reaction was this ballot measure.

Prince: Was that the invalidation of Prop 22?

Jacobs: That was the invalidation of Prop 22.  That’s right.  Now there was this ballot measure that was going to trump the Supreme Court, and that was that.  So you had something taken away from people.  And you had the confluence, as we all talked about so much, of Obama, the first African-American President, winning, an unlikely thing to happen.  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  It was supposed to be Hilary Clinton.  It was supposed to be a white Republican that would beat him.  All those things were supposed to happen but they didn’t happen.  Instead, a historic thing happened and everybody was very happy about it.  Shaun and I were at the Century Plaza Hotel for the big celebration that we had in Los Angeles for that; but then we went over to the anti-Prop 8 headquarters and it was a very different feeling.

So we had this spontaneous set of actions.  This Join the Impact was simply a website that these women in Ohio put up.  They said on November 15th, which was two Saturdays after Prop 8 passed, everybody around the world should march and have a protest.  It was a wildfire.  It happened all over the world.  It happened in Rome.  It happened in London.  It happened here, in Los Angeles.  It happened all over the United States, hundreds of thousands of people protesting because of Prop 8.  The Mormon Church was now front-and-center as the prime backer of this.…

Then in November of 2009 was the first gay marriage vote in Maine, and we lost again.  I think the Catholics actually did play a big role in that, but not officially.  I don’t remember the role the Mormons played, but there was an expectation that the Mormons would and did, so it almost didn’t matter if they did or they didn’t.  My recollection is that the Church was quiet, if anything, defensive.  But it certainly never sought to engage people on it.  I guess I understand that; if you’re being attacked, that’s hard to do.

Again, from an organizational point of view if you had to thank somebody, you’d thank the Mormon Church for building the Courage Campaign in a lot of ways.

Prince: What is Courage Campaign’s membership now?

Jacobs: About 850,000.…

Then, the Prop 8 court case came along.

Prince: When did the Walker case get filed?

Jacobs: May, 2009.  Again, it was interesting organizationally.  We were new to the LGBT world in a sense.  I had known Ted Olsen by then for 27 years, through my work at Occidental Petroleum.  I knew that he was a serious guy.  There was a lot of speculation that Olsen was doing this to make sure we lost.  A lot of people in “Gayland” thought, “This is a trick.”  There had been a pretty nasty, strong letter signed by a bunch of LGBT organizations, saying that that case shouldn’t have been filed.  Then there was a rejoinder by AFER [American Foundation for Equal Rights] and a very nasty spat in public.  The simple fact is that Prop 8 upended the LGBT movement, and again it never would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Mormon Church.  If we had won Prop 8, then I think the progress would have been slower.

Prince: Yes, because it would have been business-as-usual.

Jacobs: Business-as-usual.  “We win.  Life goes on.”  Nobody would have cared.  That, to me, was always the dirty little secret.  How many gay men really were going to run out and get married?  Some number, but I think the heat around it made it a more interesting thing to do.  It was yes, it was no, it was yes, it was no.  As soon as somebody takes something from you, you want it all the more.

Prince: Nationally, not just California.

Jacobs: California and then nationally, yes.  One simple way to frame this is that the Mormon Church is uniquely responsible for the outcome, which we are going to see in some few years, of same-sex marriage being the law either of the entire land, or of most of the land.  I think the DOMA case that the Supreme Court ruled on last summer probably wouldn’t have happened.  It’s unknowable, but the political environment would have been substantially different if Prop 8 had not passed.  Think about it: Diane Feinstein herself had not come out in favor of same-sex marriage until Prop 8.  Right before the election, she did.  The liberal Barbara Boxer had not publicly.  She did an ad.  Now people were saying, “Gee, I need to take a stand on this.”

And then afterward, the momentum was enormous to get Senators and Members of Congress.  The other thing that happened was in the spring of 2009, Dan Choi came out in public, this lieutenant in the army, and ignited the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell movement, which now combined with the marriage movement.  So now you had this army of people who were determined that the President and the Congress should repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, which the President promised to do—but Presidents promise to do lots of things, and they don’t often get them all done—and if Prop 8 had not passed, I think it less likely that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell would have been repealed.  I think that because Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell had never been a very big issue to most people.  If you think about it, it’s a civil rights issue, it’s a crazy issue just on its base.  Why shouldn’t people who are willing to join the military and go out and get killed for America be allowed to do in their private lives what they want to do?  But here was this silly law, and nobody cared about it.  A very small group of people cared about it.  Service Members Legal Defense Network worked tirelessly to repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell when Bill Clinton did that in 1993, and nothing happened.

Now, thanks to the Mormon Church, Prop 8 passes, people are angry, just angry, and they become radicalized.  And a movement grew where one would not have been.  I hadn’t thought of this, but you might thank the Church for the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.

Prince: And certainly Harry Reid played a central role in that.

Jacobs: Harry Reid played a central role, which is a direct way of putting it.  There is another way, though, which is my point, although I don’t disagree with you at all.  The broader public on the left, with LGBT people included in that, would not have been energized over the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell if Prop 8 had failed.  I can’t prove that with a regression analysis, but the people were angry.  I remember Courage, with Dan Choi, led the first protest—the first time Obama came to Los Angeles after he won the election was May of 2009.  It was at a fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton.  We had a very respectful, but nonetheless protest where we tried to present hundreds of thousands of signatures saying, “Repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.”  If Prop 8 had failed, we wouldn’t have had the energy to do that.  The movement wouldn’t have been there.  The President may have moved as quickly as he did on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, but I don’t think so.  It came down to a very narrow window in the lame duck Congress of 2010, when it was clear that Democrats were out of power, and that’s when it passed.  Courage did an enormous amount of work on it.  I don’t want to say we take credit for it, but we take some credit.  Our members called Senators and Congressmen from all over the country.  We got a vast array of letters from people who had served in the military, and relatives of people who were serving in the military.  Again, it was the same stream.

At the same time, of course, in January of 2010, the Walker case had started.  That helped, too, because there would have been no Walker case if there had been no Prop 8.  It wouldn’t have happened.  We wouldn’t have needed it.  Without the Walker case, obviously we wouldn’t have had a Supreme Court ruling, however narrow it was, in the summer of 2012 on Prop 8.  That was the first time we had had one that was favorable.  And as I said before, I still don’t think we would have won on DOMA, although I can’t prove it.

So this Prop 8 was just great!  It was terrific!

Prince: But that’s not what people thought at the time.

Jacobs: No, it isn’t.  But I actually did think that—maybe not right then, but not long after, I did.  I remember saying publicly in 2009—and I got chastised for this by some folks—that it was the best thing that had ever happened to us.  It built a movement.  It energized people.  A lot of the energy has dissipated now, which is normal, but this country couldn’t have moved as quickly as it did in public opinion had it not been for Prop 8.  It couldn’t have happened.  You need that kind of catalyst.  So I really do think we have the Mormon Church to thank.…

I think big societies, in particular, need a wakeup every so often.

Prince: A reset button.

Jacobs: A reset button, that’s right.  Again, you could argue pretty convincingly that because the Church did so much to make Prop 8 pass, it effectively made gay relationships mainstream.  It had the absolute opposite effect that it intended.

(Richard Jacobs, January 19, 2014)

Prince: Talk now about the Law of Unintended Consequences.  The Mormon involvement in it was to put a permanent halt to gay marriage, and look at what has happened since then.

Ryan: Well, I think it has only accelerated.  I actually think the unintended consequences are going to lead to a positive Supreme Court decision.  And it led to all of these changes in all the states.  One of the things that I think they really did not want to do was to normalize homosexuality.  One way to normalize something that is secret and hidden and shameful and stigmatized is to talk about it, and to talk about it in normal discourse at the dinner table, at the water cooler, in congregations, and to see more and more and more people come out.

I’m going to go back in time to the early AIDS epidemic, when most people didn’t think they knew anyone gay.  When AIDS came along and there were other people like myself who were LGBT health providers working in the field, not all of them were out.  Many of them were not.  But more and more people came out who were lesbian and gay, in the workplace, in their congregations and in their civic lives because they saw the terrible things that were happening to people with AIDS, the stigma, how it was being manifest, and they wanted to stand in solidarity.  They wanted to make a statement.  They wanted to help in whatever way they could.

So you began to see more and more people coming out who were hidden.  A similar thing happened here, with a public coming out, if you will.  Not only did more people come out; celebrities came out and other people came out who were in the closet that you would never suspect.  But you began to see a normalizing of what these lives meant that pushed, I would say accelerated the whole process of same-sex marriage legislation in all those states.

And it went further.  I think calling attention to the Mormon Church’s lack of recognition of decades of solid social science on sexual orientation, young Mormons who are raised to be respectful and go on a mission and participate in all parts of Mormon life are looking at what the Church has been doing and looking and what they are seeing among their peers, and realizing that gay people are not these stigmatized, hidden, defective human beings.  They are something else, and this is part of life.  I think there is a great sense of the Church really refusing to evolve around just recognizing the humanity of gay people—not even an expectation that the doctrine is going to change.  But if the religion is supposed to be one of compassion and optimism and hope and kindness and love, why are supporting our children who might be in a relationship without marriage, or people in other kinds of situations that have been frowned upon, and everybody can benefit from the Atonement but gay people?  This just doesn’t make any sense.  Why is there no compassion for gay people?

So I think the space between saying and doing has become much greater among young Mormons.  I know that a lot of people have struggled with their faith and have left the Church.  I think that will only grow greater until the Church really begins to provide a more compassionate response to LGBT Mormons who want to stay connected to the Church.

(Caitlin Ryan, March 15, 2015)