The campaign: losing the battle, winning the war

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The campaign: losing the battle, winning the war

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Monday, October 20, 2014 - 3:35pm

“History is made by those who show up,” Christie Herring said during her appearance last spring for the Stanford screening of her documentary film The Campaign. “Who shows up and takes action, are those who make the decisions,” she reflects.

The Campaign is a film about those who showed up. Took action. Made decisions. And, in the end, The Campaign is a film about the people who made history. 

Christie Herring worked as the director, producer, and front camera for her documentary about the 2008 campaign to defeat California’s Proposition 8, the so-called “gay marriage ban.” In an already belligerent election year marked by the face-off between McCain and Obama, Proposition 8 was an even more controversial piece of legislation.  Same-sex marriage supporters called it “Proposition Hate,” an infringement on civil rights, and a return to segregation.   Supporters of Prop 8 called it a “defense” of marriage, arguing that the legislation would protect America’s children and preserve the social fabric. 

Proposition 8 passed in November 2008. Many were triumphant. Many were devastated. And all of California was affected by the controversial constitutional amendment. The Campaign chronicles the “No on 8” campaign to defend the rights to same-sex marriage, which proved to be successful in June 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision on the appeal, in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, ruling that proponents of initiatives such as Proposition 8 did not possess legal standing. Even more recently since the film was made, the Supreme Court Justice’s appear to have handed down the last word on same-sex marriage with their October 6, 2014 decision that declined to hear any of the pending appeals from the states still defending their constitutional bans. A major victory for same-sex marriage advocates, although it's not a sweeping ruling for all 50 states.

Yet, it's the human story portrayed in The Campaign, and the relentless political campaigning by same-sex marriage supporters that moved us towards these recent successes. It is a film about civil rights. But most of all, it is a story about people and political heartbreak, about love, and community, and people trying to do right in a world where many wrongs exist.

A social history of LGBTQ marriage

Remembering back to November 2008, Herring refelects at the film screening, “I was exhausted by Election Day, I got about a half an hour of sleep. But once I’m in shooting mode, I’m locked in.” 

Herring’s career as a filmmaker and producer has been marked by her commitment to social justice and historical movements for change. The narrative in The Campaign follows the history of same-sex marriage legislation in the United States, while interspersing footage of the 2008 campaign with historical material.

Herring brought in footage from celebrity singer Anita Bryant’s 1960s “Rally for Decency,” a hodge-podge ultra-conservative crusade to criminalize sodomy and outlaw homosexuality. Bryant’s political organization – called “Save Our Children” – was premised on the preposterous theory that homosexuals were recruiting youth to join their ranks, since they were unable to have their own children.

“If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards and to nail biters,” Bryant said, famously. Bryant’s ice-cream-cone hairdo, prim and starchy public image, and conspiracy theories seem almost laughable to modern viewers, her footage definitely drew reactions from the Stanford audience. 

That Bryant’s extremism is especially ludicrous today demonstrates just how far LGBTQ activism has come in the last fifty years. This contrast is a lesson in itself, teaching us how history was made by the people who showed up against Bryant and other anti-gay crusaders. History was made by the activist who threw a pie at Bryant, the crowds who booed her offstage, the consumers who refused to buy her records or go to her concerts. History was made by everyday people who stood up to bigots like Bryant and is still being made by ordinary people like those who served on the No on 8 campaign.

Ordinary people, extraordinary purpose

The film tells the parallel stories of five people – four women, some straight, some gay, some old, some young, some politically active, some apathetic, but all with an extraordinary commitment to the cause of same-sex marriage. State leaders such as Gavin Newsom and Nancy Pelosi make glittery cameos but The Campaign is truly a story about ordinary people with extraordinary dedication.

One campaign volunteer was present at Stanford's film screening.  Dani (Claudia) Gardner was just a college freshman when she joined the campaign, and the film shows her protesting tirelessly, passing out pamphlets, spreading the word on street corners. 

“What do I do now?” Gardner asked, reflecting on the six years since the defeat of Proposition 8 and the premier of The Campaign. Then she reaffirms her commitment to continue advocating for change, “Pick an arena because there’s thousands. There’s no limit to what you can do now.” 

“We have a lot of stuff going on with trans youth right now – school issues, particularly,” Gardner told the audience, encouraging civic engagement with these pressing issues.

Herring nodded in agreement, continuing by reflecting that “one thing I learned from filming the campaign and being part of it is [how important] that sense of engagement and that sense of community is and giving back to the community and taking action – whether it’s legislative or not.” 

Losing a battle, winning the war

The day after the November 2008 election, the campaign headquarters were empty. The phones were quiet. The coffee pot was cold. No one was chanting or yelling or singing or praying, desperately, in quiet corners.  

But, soon, volunteers trickled in. Crying. Hugging. Providing support. Encouraging optimism, providing hope, looking forward to the long battle ahead, arguing that one defeat in battle shouldn’t mean despairing the war. And so they forged ahead. People like Dani (Claudia) Gardner and Christie Herring and so many others have continued their civic engagement, rallying support around same-sex marriage and many other LGBTQ issues – transgender health care, anti-discrimination legislation, violence, and mental health. 

The lost battle really didn’t mean defeat for marriage equality. After Proposition 8 was overturned in 2013, in Herring’s words there were “parties in the streets” in San Francisco and more battles have been won since the film debuted.

“It started with weddings in city hall, (so) I had to go back to city hall,” Herring remembered, reflecting on the trials and tribulations of raising funds to produce the final film. “But we finally have the footage we had been waiting for all these years – and it was so beautiful,” she said. And this twist of luck meant that The Campaign could conclude, not with an image of desolation or defeat, but with pictures of celebration and joy: of same-sex couples being married in San Francisco’s city hall, joining hands, exchanging rings, kissing, throwing rice, posing for pictures, and publicly celebrating their love.  

Ph.D Candidate, Program in Modern Thought and Literature

Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She studies American popular culture with particular attention to the body, labor, and the landscape, and has done research on the history of American vacationing, frugality, and dieting. She is a 2008 graduate of UC Berkeley's American Studies program and has taught in the American Studies, English, and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at...