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

So What Are You Waiting For?

There are three main varieties of canvassing anxiety:

  1. I can't talk to strangers.
  2. I don't know enough about the topic; I'm no authority.
  3. People hate queers and I am one. I will be somewhere remote and could have the shit kicked out of me.
  4. Stage fright

    The first time you go out, go in a pair with someone more experienced. Let them do the talking at first, till you're bursting at the seams because they don't make the point you want to make. At the next house make the point you wished they had made at the last door. At the next house say whatever you said at the last house. You're canvassing. Many of us thought that canvassing would be terrifying. Knocking on the first door often is. Maybe you will blunder at the beginning, but it doesn't matter. No one amongst us was unable to master the basics. Once you get used to interrupting strangers in the middle of their dinner or whatever it is they're doing behind those closed doors, and once you get used to introducing yourself a dozen times a night, and bringing up the hottest political topic in town, and coming out, and trying to have an informative and convincing discussion in five to ten minutes, it's a snap!

    I don't know what I'm talking about

    If you're already involved in a community organizing project, you must know something about your subject and have some ability for motivating other people. What would stop you from being able to argue effectively with a stranger? Whereas some campaigns require a "single message", we had as many messages as there were organizers. Whatever motivates you is what you should talk about at the door. People will come up with questions you can't answer. That's okay. The people you work with and the people you talk to at doors all have expertise in different areas. Keep track of questions that often come up at the door and compile a resource sheet with useful arguments or information. Add to this cheat-sheet as issues come up, and make it available to anyone who goes out canvassing. No one is more of an expert on a local campaign than organizers in that community. No one is more of a comprehensive expert on lesbian rights in your town than lesbians in your town. So get out and start talking.

    I Won't Be Safe

    We've already discussed some precautions you can take to make this a safe experience (See "A Few Precautions" above). In our experience in both Maine and Idaho no one actually got hurt in either in our canvassing or literature drops. Some people did get harassed, and several cars were vandalized. It's important to think through and plan safety measures without obsessing about it to the point that you talk yourself out of doing it.

    Don't Get Caught Empty-Handed

    Along with the literature you've generated to hand out to people, make sure you provide your canvassers with a bunch of written back-up material for whatever may come up in conversation. Make a cheat sheet for canvassers to refer to in conversations or check between doors. What is the exact text of the initiative? What are the main points and what's the best way to explain them? Relevant statistics? Favorite persuasive arguments or come backs? These can be simple fact sheets, (i.e. what the governor said about the issue, how many dollars will it cost taxpayers, which churches support you, etc.) or copies of other people's information.

    It can be very helpful to draw on others' research and expertise. Who has done work on these issues that you could make use of? In Idaho, we reproduced copies of "Speaking Tips for People of Faith" from the Unitarian Universalists, lists of religious leaders who had come out against Prop. 1 from organizers elsewhere in the state, copies of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force "talking points" including common myths about gays and lesbians, and ways to refute them. If there are sticky ideas or words in the text of your initiative, look for an accurate definition of the terms from a civil liberties organization, a lawyer, or even in the dictionary. What about press clips? Have you received any positive press coverage? Have prominent politicians, celebrities, etc., received attention from the press for their opposition? Copy it all!

    How much literature do you need?

    This is entirely up to you. By the end we used some pieces all the time, others we never touched. If its a strain on your time or budget to find and reproduce all sorts of fact sheets and press clippings, you can go with as little as one piece to hand out at every door, and one resource sheet for canvassers. A disadvantage to having a million different pieces of literature is that you have to keep track of it all. Copy what's used up and organize it enough so that when canvassers burst in and out of your living room sometime around sunset, you can give them what they need in a flash. On the other hand, there are advantages to having a range of material. Different canvassers may prefer different pieces of literature. Or a canvasser may want to switch her approach if her arguments are falling flat at every door. Or, she may get sick of saying the same thing night after night, and she may fall flat at the door. Someone at the door may ask a question about the legal ramifications of the third clause in the first provision of the initiative, or about the response of a Protestant church they once drove past in the southern tip of the state. Low and behold, your canvasser has the answer stuck neatly in a stack on her clipboard! How smart, together, and efficient she must be. What a campaign.

    Knock Knock

    Arriving unannounced on somebody's doorstep and giving them a piece of your mind proved to be a remarkably persuasive technique. People's responses fell into a few basic categories, which determined our strategy for each encounter. The don't-assume-anything rule was hard at work keeping us on our toes, so that we eventually believed that not every room full of long-haired guitar-playing young men would be on our side, and not every bristly white man over 65 was out to get us. We were forced to accept that there was no way to gauge where someone stood without simply asking. So we began: "Hi, we're in the neighborhood tonight talking to people about Proposition 1. Are you familiar with Prop 1?" No matter what they responded--"yes I've heard of it, " "No not really," or "Yes in fact I wrote it myself"--we still went on to introduce it in our own terms. We spent a long time as a group looking for a short and accurate way to explain the proposition. We highlighted the three major agendas Prop 1 sought to enact: discrimination against lesbians and gay men in housing, jobs, and public accommodation, censorship in the schools, and censorship in public libraries--then practiced saying it. Over and over. Because when we went out, that was exactly what we had to do--define Proposition 1, over and over and over. By stating the three main points of Prop 1 at the beginning of each discussion, we framed a working definition in our own terms. Instead of entertaining a "No Special Rights" spin on the proposition, we began with the premises that Prop 1 was about discrimination against lesbians and gay men and homophobic censorship.

    After presenting the proposition, the more subtle part of the encounter began. Some people were already adamantly for or against the proposition and/or lesbian and gay rights. We decided that it often wasn't worth our time, energy, or emotional health to try to talk to people who were too hostile to hear anything we said. In those cases we simply went on. Some people agreed with us 100%. We encouraged those people to get involved with the campaign, took their names and numbers, and asked them to put up a lawn sign. Unless we needed some pats on the back, we tried not to get into long discussions with agreeable people about all the things we agreed on. The longer discussions took place when the person was prepared to consider our opinion. This is where your persuasive power comes in. Here are some quick tips on door to door canvassing that we give canvassers in our training sessions:

    1. As a conversation progresses, be sure to pause often to allow the person to respond. Otherwise you may lose their interest. Try to gauge how much attention they're giving you; if you think you're losing them try a different tack such as handing them a piece of literature or asking another question.
    2. Try to ask questions often, especially questions that will likely elicit a "yes." For instance, "Do you support the separation of church and state?" or, "Are you opposed to discrimination?" They will like you better when they feel they're in agreement with you.
    3. Maintain eye contact. This is the most effective way to hold someone's attention, and to make a personal connection. The rapport you and the person establish can be as important as the words you exchange. An individual may not be able to back down from his or her position while you are standing on their doorstep, but later on they may remember the friendly homosexual they met last month and things may seem different.
    4. While you are pausing, asking questions, and locking gazes with the person, don't forget to listen. Be an active listener--nod your head a lot, murmur "mmmmm, mm-hmm, uh-huh, right, I see..." Their responses will be your cues for directing the conversation. A good rejoinder, effective even when you disagree with what's being said, is "Well that's an interesting point. Actually . . ." or, "Yes, in fact a lot of people have heard that. Actually . . ."
    5. Make a personal connection whenever possible. For instance, when they say, "As a mother of three children in the school system here", rejoin with: "As a parent I share your concerns..."or, "I live in this neighborhood too so I certainly agree that..." or, "My parents always took a very active role in my local school board, so I relate to your concerns..." Or, when job or housing stuff enters the conversation: "As a lesbian living here in Moscow I can agree with. . .and am also concerned about . . ." or, "I see you can relate to the need for stable housing, and as a gay man living in this neighborhood. . ."

    4. The Lit Drop...Specifics

    A literature drop is when you take a piece of literature (preferable in some kind of brochure or newspaper-like form), copy it a couple thousand times, and leave it on every doorstep in your area/town. When distributing literature you may encounter people who want to discuss its contents. So individuals who do the drop should also be familiar with and supportive of your literature. They can use the same methods of dealing with face-to-face contact as we just described for in door-to-door canvassing. Once you have your literature, your maps and your droppers, the rest is pretty self-explanatory, but there are a few important things to keep in mind when making the drop:

    1. Make sure everybody knows that it's illegal to put literature in mail boxes. These are solely for the use of the U.S. Postal Service.
    2. Ensure that literature you leave is firmly attached and impossible to avoid, preferably stuck in the screen door or rolled up between the door knob and the frame. It doesn't look good if your literature is in the middle of somebody's geraniums.
    3. Don't exclude specific houses/apartment based on assumptions about people who live there. You'll find supporters everywhere.
    4. Legally, your literature must be clearly endorsed (i.e., that it has an individual's or group's name and address clearly marked). See appendix on campaign literature and PACs.

    Yard Signs, Bumper Stickers & Buttons

    Besides canvassing and literature drops, there are several other ways you can get your information and message out so that voters are persuaded or reminded to vote on our side. All of these rely more on a short and direct visual message than on conversation or long explanation. Yard signs, bumper stickers, buttons and window signs (for cars & homes) create a really powerful visual effect in a town if you get a lot of them displayed.

    Producing Campaign Visuals

    As with our other tactics, we try to allow for multiple messages in our visuals. At the same time, we try to keep the design, color and phrases similar enough to be easily recognized and to create a powerful overall effect. For example, in Idaho we produced "support signs" to be used in car and home windows and in businesses. They had different messages, such as "No to Censorship. No on One." and "No Lesbian-Bashing. No on One." But they were similar in their phrasing and repetiton, and the color and design were identical. These were a spectacular success; businesses were able to choose signs with messages that made sense to them. Anyone walking down Moscow's Main Street in August was bombarded with many reasons to vote "No".

    Not all visuals need to have multiple messages, of course. Buttons, for example, might be just fine saying something like "No on One". These are not trying to convince someone with logical reasoning--they're just reinforcing the level of support on your side.

    Distributing Campaign Visuals

    When we canvass, we always take along bumper stickers and buttons and ask supporters if they want some. We also ask them if they'd like a yard sign or window sign. If they say yes, we mark their name and address on our canvassing sheets. Yard Signs Yard signs take the most coordination, because we always put them up ourselves. Counting on people to have the tools and the time to put them up properly themselves is usually not very effective. When we return from canvassing, we mark the people who want yard signs on a map, and every couple days someone goes out and puts them up.

    Putting Up Yard Signs

    The tools you'll need for quick and efficient yard sign distribution are: signs and sharp wooden stakes (not attached yet), a heavy mallet (a hammer will do, but not as well), a regular stapler and an industrial stapler, and plenty of regular and industrial staples.

    1. Select your location, and hammer the stake into the ground with the mallet. The firmer it's in, the less frequently you'll have to return to put it back up.
    2. With the industrial stapler, staple the two yard signs down the middle, to each side of the stake. Make sure to leave some of the wooden stake showing at the top, because you may have to come back to hammer it in if it gets knocked down.
    3. With the regular stapler, staple the two sides of the yard sign together along the top and down each side. With two people, this will soon become a very fast process. Make sure you leave instructions for the person who's yard it is, including your phone number in case it gets knocked down by bad weather or torn down by homophobes (both of which are very likely). (INSET Care & Feeding of Your Yard Sign)

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