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Gay rights activists ready to fight threat to benefits

Gay rights activists are ready to go to court to defend domestic partnerships they say will be threatened by the new constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
BY BETH REINHARD, breinhard@MiamiHerald.com

The Nov. 4 election delivered a cruel irony to the gay community: As voters broke barriers by electing the first black president, they shut the door on marriage for same-sex couples in Florida.

During the campaign, Barack Obama criticized an anti-gay marriage referendum in California, a state he was certain to win. But he declined requests to publicly oppose Florida's Amendment 2 during his frequent visits to the nation's biggest tossup state. And his massive ad blitz in the state made it harder for opponents of the ban to get through to voters.

''We were like whispering into a fire drill,'' said Derek Newton, campaign manager for Florida Red & Blue, the leading organization against Amendment 2. ``We might as well have held our breath.''

Some gay rights activists are also bemoaning their failure to reach the black community, which overwhelmingly favored the ban.

So while Obama supporters celebrate his historic victory, many of their gay friends and relatives are pointing fingers and asking: Where do we go from here?

''We're left with this dichotomy of emotions,'' said Jorge Mursuli, a veteran of Miami-Dade's gay rights battles. ``But what choice do we have but to continue to fight?''

Gay activists say it's only a matter of time before legal challenges are filed to domestic partnership laws in Miami-Dade, Broward and other parts of the state. The ordinances offer health insurance to same-sex partners of county employees and allow unmarried couples to receive hospital visitation rights and other benefits.

One group that aims to wipe out domestic partnerships vowed to take the political route before heading to the courtroom.

HILLSBOROUGH

David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, said the group plans to collect signatures for a charter amendment in Hillsborough County that would pre-emptively outlaw spending taxpayer dollars on same-sex benefits.

''We're going to use the momentum from the marriage amendment to speak to the fact that most people in this state don't want a recognition of that type of relationship,'' Caton said. ``At this time of economic stress, our government should not be providing benefits to nonemployees on the basis of their sexual relationships.''

That renewed focus contrasts with the underdog status of gay rights opponents just one year ago.

Even before Amendment 2 was certain to be on the ballot, Florida Red & Blue had amassed $1 million and brought political heavy hitters on board. Gov. Charlie Crist refused to put the Republican Party's resources behind the group pushing the amendment. Florida4Marriage.org was nearly broke, and a new, 60 percent threshold for the passage of constitutional amendments seemed daunting.

But religious institutions banded with Florida4Mar riage.org, and a flood of donations came in September and October. Meanwhile, Obama's presidential campaign was sucking up most of the Democratic money and attention, and opposition to the amendment was splintered between Florida Red & Blue and another group.

Despite the widely held expectation of a record-setting black turnout, the anti-amendment campaign made few inroads in the black community. Exit polls show black voters supported the amendment by the greatest margin -- 71 to 29 percent -- compared to whites and Hispanics.

Instead of framing same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue, the anti-amendment ads warned of government intrusion into domestic partnership arrangements.

''Our side did not do a good enough job getting people to see that a difficult, nuanced discussion about marriage was at its heart a discussion about discrimination,'' said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU. ``If we had made that transition, I think we would have won.''

No way, Newton said. Opposition to gay marriage was too deeply ingrained among religious blacks, Hispanics and seniors. ''The polling suggested it was useless,'' he said. ``You could sit down at their kitchen table for two hours and make every one of your points and they'd still vote against you.''

But Newton and other anti-amendment leaders did seek an endorsement from the first black nominee. The Obama campaign allowed Florida Red & Blue to issue a press release saying he opposed the amendment but did not offer a quotation directly from the candidate.

A statement from Obama's transition office Thursday said: ``President-elect Obama made clear during the campaign that he opposes discriminatory constitutional amendments.''

Obama has treaded carefully on the controversial issue. He heartened the gay community in his call for unity between ''gay and straight'' in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, but he has said he supports civil unions, not gay marriage.

`RULE NO. 1'

''Had Barack Obama said he opposed Amendment 2 while standing in Florida, I think we would have found the 2 percent to defeat it,'' said political consultant Stephen Gaskill, who worked for Florida Red & Blue until July. ``At the same time, I don't fault the campaign. Rule No. 1 for any candidate is to run your own race.''

''There's a long-term investment that has to happen to move people's opinions to a different spot,'' Mursuli said. ``It's not going to happen in one election cycle, and it's going to take a lot more than just ads for a certain number of months. We have no choice but to hold ourselves accountable.''

Gay activists are assembling a legal team to defend domestic partnerships and started a new website at www.undo2.org. Last weekend, thousands of people protested the new amendment across the state.

'Some volunteers who had been in the trenches expressed this: `These protests are great, but where were these people before the election?' '' said Nadine Smith, president of Equality Florida, a gay rights group. ``I think that whatever door people had to go through, we're glad they're here now.''

Miami Herald staff writers Dan Christensen and Tania Valdemoro contributed to this report.

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My partner of 17 yrs & I don't agree with the passing of Amendment 2!! We've both been raised in the beautiful State of Florida. This is where we have our home and family. Others have left comments that if we (gays) don't agree with Amendment 2 having passed, that we should move to another state that does allow civil unions and/or gay marriage. Why? Why should we have to leave our home and family behind, because of all those who lied, in order to get Amendment 2 on the ballot? We think that state officials, and religious groups, as well as, the government itself, should be sued to having Amendment 2 placed on the ballot. This is discrimination at it's finest!!

Nadine,

In answer the volunteers' question: "Where were these people before the election?" We were in the fight with you. We were attending fundraisers and cocktail parties to raise much needed cash. We were talking to our friends and neighbors and coworkers about Amendment 2. We were handing out SayNo2 bumper stickers and postcards to the cashiers at Publix and CVS. We were writing letters and sending out email blasts to thousands of friends and relatives.

Many of us cannot devote 40 hours a week to this or any other cause or issue because we must work to pay the mortgage and put food on the table and, oh yeah, donate to political campaigns and to groups that are fighting for the LGBT Community, groups like Equality Florida, Save Dade, and Florida Red & Blue.

But rest assured we were there in the trenches fighting with you and your volunteers before the passage of Amendment 2. And we will continue to be there for the fight to repeal Amendment 2.

Saturday's National Protest was simply an opportunity to further raise awareness about the discriminatory nature of Amendment 2. It was a chance for members of the LGBT community to vent some frustration and righteous anger. For most of us the protest was a moving experience and reenergized us for the long battle for LGBT equality that we all must fight together.

I hope this answers your volunteer's question and please know this; many of us in the LGBT community are simply waiting for our 'leaders' to guide us in the next step.

Regards,
David L. Wylie

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