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Thinking About California

Matt Coles,
Former Deputy Legal Director and Director of Center for Equality
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November 6, 2008

After the California Supreme Court’s brilliant, inspiring decision in May, Tuesday’s loss at the polls is a bitter pill. That it follows all the wonderful stories of people getting married, and the Connecticut decision that seemed to put us on a roll, makes it all the more difficult to accept.

But indulge me for a look back in history. In 1982, we passed a domestic partnership law in San Francisco, the country’s first. Despite having carefully laid the groundwork, it was vetoed without warning, and a vote essential to an override defected the next day. It took us seven years to get it passed again. And when we did, our opponents got enough signatures to put it on the ballot in 30 days. We ran one of the most expensive local initiative elections in California history. And we lost, 50.5 to 49.5. In 1990, we put it back on the ballot again and won. But the next year, we had to defend it again against an attempted repeal initiative.

Even in famously liberal San Francisco, we had to go through the process of trying to pass a simple domestic partnership law five times, and we lost twice. If you run up an unbroken string of victories in any battle for civil rights, that simply means you waited too long to get to work. Change that matters is never smooth or easy.

It will be important to go over the campaign carefully and learn from our mistakes. But we need to resist the temptation to blame ourselves for the loss. The perfect campaign hasn’t been run anywhere yet. Thousands of very good people worked their hearts out on this, and they deserve our thanks. The victims of an injustice should never be blamed for failing to end it unless they don’t try. And you can’t say that we didn’t try, and try damn hard.

We didn’t lose by much. Eight years ago, on virtually the same question, we could only get 39 percent. On Tuesday, we got over 48. While our opponents may be celebrating now, the handwriting is on the wall. They won’t be able to hold on much longer. There are other states where we’ll be able to get marriage in the next few years, and others where we’ll get domestic partnerships and civil unions.

We’ll be back in California. And we’ll win. You can depend on it. To learn what you can do to work for marriage for lesbian and gay couples, visit

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