Out Against the Right: An Organizing Handbook for Queer Activists and Grassroots Organizers
For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.

The Campaign Closet

A controlled-message, top-down model will always enforce the closet. This is the inevitable result of any strategy that allows homophobic straight people to determine the message (through the polling of homophobic straight people) and that silences lesbian and gay people with different messages. This typical campaign model is formulated without regard to its real impact on people's lives. It puts lesbians and gay men in the position of being merely "a message" that we can choose to speak about or not, the way we would choose speak or not speak about taxpayer costs.

As we described earlier, campaign professionals claim to have a "scientific" analysis of why we shouldn't discuss lesbian and gay lives during an anti-lesbian and gay initiative battle: Most people think homosexuality is unnatural and wrong, so therefore we shouldn't talk about it. But that's always the reason people stay in the closet. How has this argument for the closet been elevated to a "scientific fact"? When did we become so defeated by the Christian Right that we are now willing to surrender the most central goal of our movement? Lesbians and gay men don't need an expensive poll to tell us that most people in this country think that we are unnatural and wrong or that most people in this country don't want to hear about our lives. We already know these things. We know the closet is built by the people who check "Yes" next to the question, "Do you believe homosexuality is unnatural or wrong?". And we also know those people. They are our high school friends, our co-workers, our teachers, our neighbors, our biological or adoptive families. We know them intimately. It is deeply insulting to imply that lesbians and gay men can't understand the meaning of this polling data, or don't realize how ingrained homophobia is, or can't handle direct communication with the people who check "Yes". We have far more experience than anyone in talking to homophobes about their homophobia.

Given this, it is astonishing how easily we can surrender our own knowledge and experience to campaign professionals and how easily we can believe that people with experience in non-related campaigns have more knowledge and expertise than people with experience in lesbian and gay communities. Nowhere is this more clear than in the issue of polling data and analysis. Questionable information and highly debatable interpretations are thrown at grassroots and lesbian and gay activists all the time, using the supposed "scientific" nature of the research in attempts to intimidate people. Campaign officials don't even bother to present the information they supposedly have and on which their argument for a closeted approach is based; polls and the analyses of them are usually kept "secret" during a campaign, while at the same time we are told they are the only professional, scientific way to win the vote.

As we continued to work against anti-lesbian and gay initiatives we couldn't help noticing how often polling data and analysis turned out to be dead wrong. Here are some reasons we found to be extremely cautious when looking at polls, the information they provide, and the possible interpretation of this information:

1. People tend to respond differently in polls than they do in the privacy of voting booths. Many people tell a pollster they oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men or don't think that someone should be fired for being a lesbian, but they vote against us anyway because of their homophobia. So, what people say and how they feel and act are different things. In Idaho this was taken to an extreme when the right-wing Idaho Citizen's Alliance actively encouraged their supporters to lie to pollsters. This is a common polling problem when certain topics are researched. As another example, when an African-American man, Harvey Gantt, ran against Jesse Helms, a white man, in North Carolina in 1990 , polls showed that people did not believe that race was a factor in who would be supported. The final vote, however, showed that this was simply not true -- the vote broke down heavily along racial lines.

2. Homophobia is far more sophisticated than it used to be. Most people won't openly say that they support job and housing discrimination to a pollster on a telephone, because it's not acceptable to say those things in mainstream U.S. culture. However, it is still acceptable to say that lesbians and gay men are immoral, unnatural, or wrong and to have complicated explanations for why discrimination doesn't exist or is already covered under existing laws, or that protection against discrimination is a special right. Polls ignore the complexities of homophobia as it currently is expressed in our society.

3.There are lots of different ways to interpret polling data. For example, many polls have shown that voters who believe that homosexuality is a choice tend to say it's immoral, while voters who believe that it's genetic tend to say that it's okay. Almost always, campaign professionals interpret this to mean that if people can be persuaded that homosexuality is genetic (whether we believe that or not), they will be more tolerant. Another interpretation, which seems more realistic to us, is that people are homophobic and, in order to have political justification for their homophobia, they conclude that it must be chosen. The interpretation would impact a strategy decision if organizers are deciding whether to push a message that homosexuality is genetic or a message that homosexuality is chosen or a message that homosexuality is okay. (Not that we would want to base a message only on what people believe.)

4.Polls have no way of taking into account the political context of a campaign. Say that 75% of people polled say they oppose discrimination, 85% say they oppose special rights, and 75% say they think lesbians and gay men are abnormal, unnatural and disgusting -- a pretty typical poll result. This tells us nothing about what they will be most likely to believe when these issues are being debated during an anti-lesbian and initiative campaign. Will they believe it when mainstream campaign spokes people and literature say the initiative is about discrimination? Or, will they believe right-wing spokespeople (who like themselves, think that lesbians and gay men are abnormal) that the initiative is about special rights about homosexuals? Just because someone says he opposes discrimination doesn't mean that he will ever believe that the initiative is about discrimination, no matter how often and cleverly you present the argument. In fact, when our side does not mention homosexuality while the right-wing doe s, we enforce negative attitudes about us -- "you see, they are being secretive and sneaky, pretending this is about discrimination." -- especially when the anti-lesbian and gay initiative is titled something like "An Initiative Against Special Rights for Homosexuals.".

People say they are against discrimination because they don't want to sound like bigots. But if they hate us, as the polls show they do, how much emotional effect will their opposition to discrimination have when they step into the voting booth? How much emotional effect will it have when the other side is talking about nothing except dykes and fags chasing down schoolchildren and demanding special rights?

People aren't homophobic because they think we want special rights; they can believe we want special rights because they are homophobic. Similarly, people refuse to believe we are discriminated against, or that we are not covered under the constitution, because they are homophobic. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't clarify issues of civil rights, special rights, and the Constitution, since many people are obviously confused. But we should realize when doing so that homophobia is stronger and deeper than most people's emotions about discrimination, equal rights, taxpayer costs, and censorship. People organize their understanding of these issues around their hatred of dykes and fags, not the other way around.

In a 1992 pre-vote poll conducted by Miller Research Group for Equal Protection Colorado, only 19% of voters said that they agreed with the statement: "An employer should have the right to fire a person because he or she is homosexual", while a whopping 75% said they disagreed. The campaign therefore focused its message around discrimination, giving voters throughout the state lots of information that the initiative was, in fact, about whether an employer had the right to fire someone for being homosexual. Despite the fact that 75% of people said they opposed job discrimination, and despite the extensive work that campaign did in educating the public that the initiative was about discrimination, we lost the Colorado initiative 54%-46%.

If there is no one during the campaign who addresses homophobia and the reality of lesbian and gay lives, we are not dealing with the underlying problem and voters will be much harder to convince. While it's true that many people with some degree of homophobia have voted on our side, it's our experience that these are usually people who at least will agree that lesbian and gay people are human. Almost everyone is against discrimination; what is really being debated in these campaigns is whether or not we lesbians and gay men matter, and therefore, whether discrimination against us matters.

We believe that people need to have a personal and emotional investment is something they are voting for. It is not enough to explain logically what special rights, equal rights, the Constitution and discrimination are about. Simple logic will not work in the face of centuries of extremely emotional hatred. What may, possibly change voters minds, and what has been the only thing to ever effect real change in the history of the world, is direct confrontation with the objects of their hatred -- in which we are people with the honesty and integrity to say who we are. We are not saying this will work either in the short run -- but at least it has a chance. And, since the right-wing will continue to organize against us even if they lose one vote, as they have in Oregon, unless we confront the underlying homophobia we will always be starting at square one, always focusing on a short-term goal, and never achieving our long term goal of equal participation in this society on our term s -- as we are in all of our diversity. It is our very diversity that is the second reason the typical mainstream campaign model is inappropriate.

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