Why Ask?

The political environment surrounding us here in Cleveland, and Ohio, is more favorable than it's ever been.  We have the most gay-friendly president in our nation's history.  Ohio now has a Democratic governor, and Democrats now control Ohio's House of Representatives.  We have the opportunity to advance LGBT-friendly public policies in ways we never have.

But when it comes to politics, America's LGBT community has an Achilles heel.  And our opponents know it.

It's voters.

For decades, anti-gay groups have used grassroots tactics to stymie even the most inoffensive gains.  They mobilize our opposition at the grassroots to create an outcry when our friends in public office try to protect us.

We're shocked -- and our allies are shocked -- over and over again, as fierce opposition springs up to fight us tooth and nail.  But we shouldn't be.  It's been happening for over 30 years.

Sometimes, we're not shocked.  We actually anticipate our opposition's strategy -- and then try to counter it with a stealthy approach.  We quietly lobby our friends amongst elected officials, behind the scenes.  They wink and nod at us, and agree to do us favors.  We hope no one notices.  But too often, they do.  LGBT issues stir our opponents' passion in a way few issues do.

Sometimes, our opposition's grassroots vigor stops us at the legislative level.  One LGBT group put it this way, in an E-mail to supporters -- touting progress on what legislators were telling them in private: "Every year more of our elected officials understand and often support these issues, even if they don't feel politically able to vote yes on our issues (emphasis added)."  It's great that we're doing a good job privately making our community's case to legislators -- but it's not enough.  Their votes are cast in public.  That's why they don't feel "politically able" to support us -- because our opposition lobbies them hard, and scares them into voting against us.  But it's not a law of nature that anti-gay groups lobby harder than we do.  It's just that we're not doing well enough.  We must -- and can -- do better!

And it's not just legislators we have to lobby harder -- it's the public.  Even if we get legislators to vote their consciences and stand with us, often our opposition will try to undo our victories at the ballot box.  It's been a devastating strategy over the years -- often, they win.

Proposition 8 grabbed the attention of both the LGBT community and the entire nation in a way that previous fights haven't.  But Proposition 8 was not a new idea.  For decades, our opponents have been putting LGBT rights to public votes.  Too many times, we've lost.

We don't do the grassroots work that's necessary to win.  The community isn't broadly involved.  Our straight allies aren't broadly involved.

In 1989, voters defeated a domestic partnership registry -- in San Francisco!  We try to pass laws that make it illegal to discriminate against gay people -- and a majority of voters vote against us.  Not just in 1977 or 1989 -- in 2008, when Hamtramck, Michigan lost its non-discrimination ordinance, Florida and Arizona voted to ban gay marriage, Arkansas voted to ban gay adoption, and of course California voters revoked the right of same-sex couples to marry. Gainesville voters decided in March to keep that city's non-discrimination law -- but it was a close election, in a college town.  It's very easy to lose these elections if we don't run good campaigns -- even in California -- even in San Francisco.

But the good news is, we in Ohio know how to win these elections.  The only two pro-LGBT measures initiated by voters -- rather than legislators -- have occurred in Ohio.  Cleveland Heights voters created a domestic partnership registry in 2003.  In 2004, Cincinnati voters removed an anti-gay amendment from that city's charter.  Those groups spoke with thousands of voters one-on-one before election day, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns.

The bad news is, we also know how to lose these elections in Ohio.  We lose them if we don't prepare.  We lost by 1.4 million votes when Ohio voted on a gay marriage ban in 2004.  We didn't involve the community -- LGBT or straight -- on a large scale.  We weren't ready to defend our rights at the ballot box.

Ask Cleveland is working to build a more mobilized LGBT community -- to make sure we win our current campaign, and make sure we're better prepared for the fights of the future.