Our Full Interview with Anne Levinson
By Gail Benzler and Mona Smith
[Note - a condensed version of this interview is included in the Winter 2013 print edition of GSBA's Perspective magazine; this interview was conducted in December of 2012]
Why did you believe that the time was right in Washington state for marriage in 2012?
There were two very important reasons to move forward with marriage equality legislation in 2012. First, it was a presidential election year, which meant there would be a larger, younger and less conservative electorate than in non-presidential election years. Second, depending on the results of the governor and senate races, there was the possibility legislation might not be passed or could have been vetoed if Democrats lost control of either.
It had been 14 years since passage the state Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and six years since the State Supreme Court had ruled DOMA was constitutional. Meanwhile, our state had become the first in the nation to vote in favor of LGBT relationship recognition with the 2009 vote to retain the domestic partnership law and public opinion in support of marriage equality had shifted significantly all across the country. Gay and lesbian families in Washington had been denied this fundamental right for far too long. It was time to move forward.
As we saw in the Legislature and during the campaign, so many people knew LGBT people in their lives. Legislators had LGBT kids, constituents, staff, friends, business colleagues and members of their congregations. It was those personal relationships and hearing the journey stories of others like President Obama and Governor Gregoire that made all the difference. It was stories such as that of former State Representative Betty Sue Morris, a Democrat, who recounted how much she regretted a vote she cast against same-sex marriage in 1996 – because her daughter had since come out and State Representative Maureen Walsh, a Republican, who shared that she had always wanted to put on a wedding for her daughter, also a lesbian.
Can similar coalitions (business, religious, community and others) be built in other states?
In some ways we were fortunate that, because there had been so many attempts over the years in our state to roll back laws protecting LGBT Washingtonians, we had already built strong relationships with progressive allies, with business and labor and with faith communities. We knew first-hand the importance of having a broad, inclusive coalition. All four states with marriage ballot measures (Washington, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota) did a terrific job in coalition-building. Each not only engaged progressive allies, but also had wonderful support from communities of faith, business leaders, libertarians and Republicans. All broke records for involving the most volunteers, the most donors and so on. Minnesota, in the heartland, and fighting to stop a constitutional amendment for the first time anywhere in the country, raised more than $12 million and had something like 62,000 donors.
Now that we have marriage equality here in Washington, what are the next steps that our LGBT and allied business community needs to take in order to move forward in other states and federally? What is the significance of the four wins you described for the future?
The Supreme Court will be ruling on two cases related to marriage, one involving California’s Proposition 8 and one involving the federal DOMA, and there are several states where we are looking to move forward on marriage equality in the coming months. We may see marriage equality bills in the state legislatures of Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, and New Jersey this year.
Our four ballot victories in 2012 were important not just for people in those states, but also because it provided a backdrop for the U.S. Supreme Court of four popular votes in different parts of the country with different demographics. Adding additional states in the next few months will further improve the climate for the Court.
What do you believe is the best messaging for equality going forward? How can additional wins be secured?
The silver lining of having had 35 ballot measures banning same-sex marriage come before the voters since 1998 where 34 of them having passed was that we had a huge amount of knowledge of what didn’t work. The only measure that failed -- in Arizona in 2006 -- lost because it included limits on civil unions as well marriage, and voters then approved a marriage-only ban two years later. We knew that these campaigns were hard to win because it was always easier for the other side to exploit pre-existing prejudices or fear than it was for us to persuade voters to change thinking that was very ingrained.
We know that we have to be thoughtful both about the message and the messenger. We needed to move from rational to emotional framing and we had to have a large voter contact effort where human beings talk one on one, giving people a chance to compare their fears and concerns with the actual lives of gay and lesbian people. Let parents hear from parents, Catholics from other Catholics... People need to hear from folks with whom they identify. In the past, our side has focused on rights and discrimination. But that framing doesn’t move those voters who are still conflicted. We need to have conversations from the heart, to take it from an abstract frame of mind and into the personal, reminding people that real people and their families can be hurt and to let people know it is ok to have been on a journey to get to a place of understanding. It is important to expect that people want to act with integrity, inclusiveness and decency, toward the common good, rather than assume that because people haven’t always been supportive, their intentions are not good. We have to tell our stories. We have to listen to their stories. We have to have open hearts and open minds if we want voters to do the same.
What should GSBA's role be going forward at home and to assist other states in making sure that businesses -- large and small -- are supportive of equality and understand the value of equality and what it brings to business?
GSBA has played a critical role in every ballot campaign, helping to build support among small businesses and corporations, explaining why LGBT equality is good for recruitment, particularly in national and global competition for top talent and good for the economy. Understanding of this in the business community is no longer limited to the coasts or to just progressive business leaders. As seven or more states take up marriage legislation this year, having GSBA reach out to its sister organizations in these states to share with them how business support can make such an important difference both in legislatures and during the campaigns would be terrific
What was it like being a part of history here in Washington state and officiating the two marriages at the Chorus?
Officiating weddings with the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus on stage at Benaroya Hall on the first evening marriage was legal was wonderful. The audience enveloped Jane & Pete-e and Donald & Neil in love and support (Jane Abbott Lighty and Pete-e Petersen; Donald Glenn Jenny and Neil Hoyt). When I said, “By the authority vested in me by the State of Washington,” and the two choruses sang One Hand One Heart, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. I was privileged to be a part of a very special experience.
What do we need to be aware of as we move forward?
As important as marriage equality is, it is only one part of what we need to achieve and that is full equality for LGBT individuals and our families. We need to address the issue of youth living on the streets. By some estimates, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. We need to improve our current health care system to provide culturally competent care and services for our seniors. Bi-national same-sex couples are still at risk until we have comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans in Congress have refused to pass the Violence Against Women Act because it includes LGBT Americans. Our transgender community has unmet needs. Even though DADT was repealed, as long as DOMA is on the books, LGBT military families are denied housing, benefits and even burial and notification rights. Until we pass a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), it will remain legal to fire people in many states solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. So, as we celebrate a year of tremendous momentum, we need to reach back and make sure no one is left behind.