Robin McGehee at Fresno City Hall, "No on Prop 8" Rally
FRESNO, Calif. — Gay-marriage proponents in California, anticipating another loss, this time in court, have turned their focus to trying to win over potential voters in some unlikely places.
Last month, 200 gay-rights activists gathered at a Holiday Inn in this city at the heart of California’s conservative Central Valley for a two-day training course on how to pair Internet-based social networking with old-fashioned canvassing to promote a gay-friendly agenda. It is part of a wider effort to reach out to the state’s more conservative precincts, with polls showing Californians are evenly split on the issue.
"If you want to win in this, you have to change people’s minds through contact," said Rick Jacobs, a former Democratic Party organizer and founder of the Courage Campaign, the online-organizing network for liberal causes that sponsored the Fresno event, one of several across the state dubbed Camp Courage. "It isn’t a message as much as a method."
Event organizers say the campaign against Proposition 8, the voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage, failed in November because it preached to the converted in big cities like San Francisco. But it ignored places like Fresno.
Gay residents in this city of roughly half a million say they didn’t start to see many billboards against Proposition 8 until a week before the election. "We felt like a gay ghetto. They would fly over from San Francisco once or twice and throw a few leaflets down at us," said Robin McGehee, a 36-year-old college professor who married her partner of 10 years when gay marriage was briefly legal last summer. She is now helping to organize an event dubbed Meet in the Middle, which calls for activists all over the state to march in Fresno on the Saturday following the coming California Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to Proposition 8, which many gay-marriage supporters admit isn’t likely to go their way.
"If you learn what works in the Central Valley, you learn what works across the U.S.," Ms. McGehee said.
In many ways the initiative copies the campaign playbook of President Barack Obama, whose Camp Obama events organized volunteers into an army that penetrated deep into territory usually ignored by Democrats. At Camp Courage in Fresno, Obama-campaign veterans taught classes on the fundamentals of canvassing door-to-door and tapping into the same sorts of online voter databases used by the president’s campaign.
In a training session about house parties, Vincent Jones explained how to create a setting where friends and relatives might be inclined to respond to an "ask" — a call for donations or volunteer support. "If it is for adults, it is always important to have alcohol," said Mr. Jones. After making a request of party participants, he said, the best technique is to just shut up. "When you are quiet, people will want to fill the silence," Mr. Jones said.
Sitting in small groups, participants also were taught to make the issue personal, by condensing a narrative of their own experiences as a gay person into two-minute "story of self." Volunteers also taught how to organize homes and community centers into calling banks, and walked participants through the first steps of making a cold call to a voter.
In a role-playing exercise, Anthony Ash, a 27-year-old medical assistant from Fresno, practiced one-on-one with Mr. Jacobs, the Courage Campaign founder, on how to convince skeptical friends and neighbors about gay marriage in awkward social situations.
Mr. Jacobs took on the role of a friend who criticized a TV news report about gay marriage. Mr. Ash shifted the conversation away from religion, and toward personal relationships. "Do you think it is OK for two people to be in love with each other?" said Mr. Ash.
"But the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman," responded Mr. Jacobs.
"The Bible has been a good guide, but I wonder if you would be willing to have a conversation with a married gay couple?" Mr. Ash said.
Of the more than 3,000 houses that Camp Courage participants have canvassed in the past two weeks around California, they say they have changed the minds of 16% of the people who initially said they were undecided on or somewhat opposed to gay marriage.
Others aren’t so sure the effort will help. Frank Shubert, the manager of the Yes on 8 Campaign to ban gay marriage, said his organization already used many of these community-outreach techniques — particularly with churches.
He says outreach won’t be enough to change minds on gay marriage. "That is a much different and harder effort than what the Obama campaign was engaged in," he said. "Here we are dealing with an issue that most people don’t even want to talk about."
While the gay-marriage movement has scored victories in Iowa and Vermont during the past week, its outlook in California is in doubt. If the Supreme Court does leave Proposition 8 in place, gay-marriage activists could put another initiative on the ballot to overturn it as soon as next year. But that could be too soon for their side to find a victory. According to a Field Poll conducted at the end of February, California voters remain sharply divided, with 48% saying they would vote to permit gay marriage, 47% saying they would vote against it, and 5% saying they are undecided.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at [email protected]