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Thinking About History

Matt Coles,
Former Deputy Legal Director and Director of Center for Equality
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November 4, 2008

After weeks of working tirelessly on CA’s No on 8 campaign, LGBT Project Director Matt Coles is waiting for the election results and reflecting on the campaign.

During this excruciating wait for the polls to close and the results to be reported on California’s marriage initiative, I let myself think about history for a few moments.

Intimacy for same-sex couples was a crime in California until 1974. There wasn’t a single law recognizing the relationships of same-sex couples—anywhere in the U.S. — until the Berkeley School District passed one in 1984. San Francisco’s groundbreaking domestic partnership law, passed in 1982, was vetoed by the very same Dianne Feinstein who just a few days ago made an impassioned plea against Proposition 8, the proposal to take marriage away.

We’ve come a long way in what is, in cultural history, a very short time.

And laws may not be the best way to measure that change. A few years ago, I had lunch with George Hecht, a man who supported a lot of LGBT organizations. George was then in his 80’s. He told me about how hard it had been to keep a relationship alive in the 30’s in the 40’s: the absolute need to hide it from employers, co-workers, even from close friends and family. The details were painful to listen to. He looked up wistfully as he told me how he and the man he loved had managed for a time, but that eventually, it had all been too much.

Society in the mid 20th century did everything it possibly could do to make sure that gay people led the sad, isolated lives it said were our lot. Some people, like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (and countless others I got to know as a young lawyer in San Francisco in the 70’s), were able to fight it and forge ways of living despite the social pressures. But there were many others who weren’t. I think about those damaged lives, and I grieve.

One of the things that has struck me as I’ve worked in California for most of the last two months on the campaign is the number of straight people who care as passionately about this as I do: the real estate agent who asked me if I had an extra “No On 8” sticker because it mattered so much, the server who asked me if I knew where to volunteer, my college roommate, who, unbeknownst to me, was volunteering in a phone bank.

I wish I knew for sure how this election is going to turn out. But talking to those folks around California over the last few months has made it clear to me that we’re not going back to George Hecht’s youth, or even to mine. In 1978, it was inconceivable that a majority of Californians would support marriage for same-sex couples, then or in 50 years. Today, the nail-biter is whether that happens today or in a few years.

It would be great to win, and it is always great to make the law carry out the promises of the Constitution. But the point really is to make it possible for millions of people to live their lives, and not have to hide their love. We’re winning that for sure.

For additional information on Prop. 8 and tools for advancing LGBT equality in your community, visit

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