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Marriage amendment spurs gay-rights activists to action


Editor's note: Due to editing errors, an earlier version of this story contained errors that have been corrected in the version below. A full correction will run in next week's print edition.

Although this fall's vote on gay marriage in Idaho has been seen as bait for conservative voters, it just might spawn a new movement on the other side.

Idaho's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered population isn't exactly silent. But that community has not been a political force in Idaho. Part of this is the reality of life in a conservative state that is second only to Utah in its support for President Bush.

But with the proposed amendment on the ballot that would ban any marriage-like union that does not include one man marrying one woman, gay-rights groups are changing tactics. And as the nation turns its attention to states like Idaho that have ballot questions about same-sex marriage on the docket this year, some national gay-rights strategists are focusing their attention, and delivering their advice, to progressive activists in the Gem State.

Just last week, members of different women's and gay-rights groups registered a new political action committee with the Idaho Secretary of State's Office. Their new PAC, Idaho Votes No, is designed to aggregate opposition to the measure and is actively raising money to do so, said Wendy Morgan of the Idaho Women's Network, who is the chairwoman of the organization.

Morgan said Idaho's ballot initiatives have, of late, trended towards the more esoteric: tax levies, bonds, and the like. Not so with the gay marriage ban.

"This one is different," Morgan said. "This is people's lives we're talking about here."

Of course, Idaho already bans gay marriage per se, and has done so since 1996. But this year the Idaho Legislature decided to send to voters the question of whether or not such a ban should be written into the state's Constitution. Because activists fear the initiative would deeply restrict non-traditional couples of any sexual orientation from enjoying the rights of the average married couple, gay-rights advocates far and wide have chosen to get active.

The fund-raising against the amendment has already begun; last weekend the Idaho ACLU hosted an event in Ketchum featuring Michael Mitchell, a national strategist on gay-rights issues who cut his teeth organizing against an initiative in Utah similar to the one now on Idaho's ballot. Mitchell and company were successful in convincing parts of Utah's red-state population that such an amendment went too far. Now, he hopes to help Idaho's same-sex activists do the same.

What Mitchell is proposing might seem risky to risk-averse Idaho gay couples: to make their lives a part of the debate.

"It's important to remind people that there are gay and lesbian people in Idaho," said Mitchell, who was raised in Preston. "They have children. They are taxpayers. It's an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the rest of Idaho."

The strategy worked in Utah, Mitchell said.

"The more we introduced ourselves to people, the more we turned the tide," Mitchell said.

Morgan said that will be their tactic this summer and fall.

"This isn't something we asked for," Morgan said. "It's time for us to step out and be visible and say, 'We're a part of Idaho.'"

Just how they do so will be tricky, Morgan concedes. Finding allies in the traditional political parties won't be enough. Republicans are, at the moment, a house divided among staunch religious conservatives like State Rep. Bill Sali, who successfully garnered his party's nomination to run for Congress this fall, and more moderate members of the Legislature and beyond who might quietly disagree with his hard-line politics. Democrats don't necessarily offer safe harbor either; the state party's chairman, Richard Stallings, has explicitly advised his party's candidates not to talk about the marriage initiative in their campaigns, to avoid getting attached to one side of it or another. Not to mention the fact that Democrats are themselves a distinct minority in Idaho.

"If we were just building our support along party lines, we'd get screwed," Morgan said.

She said she can understand why Democrats are wary.

"I'm not going to say that they're wrong. This is a polarizing issue," Morgan said. "We hope to be a resource for all candidates who will be asked about it. And they will be asked."

The proponents of the ban are already in place. In the Idaho Legislature, in groups like the Idaho Values Alliance, and in the candidacy of Sali, religious conservatives have their networks of support up and running already. Brian Fischer, the director of the Idaho Values Alliance, has been running a steady stream of editorials in favor of the amendment, and Sali's campaign is expected to mobilize conservatives in much the same way that he did in the primary, when he beat so-called moderates from his own party by wide margins and with fundraising that far outpaced others.

The question now is just how well the fledgling political group Idaho Votes No, and others, will be able to mobilize opposition to the amendment. If they're successful, Mitchell said, they will mark a turning point in Idaho politics.

"These amendments are a fantastic opportunity for us to really build our political power," said Mitchell, who calls himself "an insane opportunist." "This is an opportunity for us to galvanize ourselves, and build coalitions."