This year marks the 40th anniversary of a key moment in voting history for me: the 1978 gay rights campaigns which occurred across the country that year. It was a tough year in many ways: the vitriolic rhetoric against gay rights and gay people was at a high pitch, and in Seattle, where I lived at the time, we were facing a mean-spirited ballot measure aimed at restricting employment and housing protections for gay Americans. Many of us used the term “gay” in those days as an umbrella term for what today is more often called GLBTQ. I still use the term “gay” in that more expansive sense. In the “Initiative 13 Campaign” in Seattle that year, we assembled a truly remarkable coalition of hundreds of people in the city, including many allies who were not themselves “gay” but who understood that everyone needs to stand together on these matters of basic civil and human rights. The targets of discrimination change, but the work to protect ourselves and our neighbors from that discrimination is a constant labor.
That year we had a Speakers Bureaus, canvassing teams, media strategies, door-to-door educational efforts, pamphlets and flyers abounding (and we are talkin’ mimeograph machines, people), and meetings upon meetings. We even had “schisms” on our side, because, well, you can’t have coalition politics in a democracy without schisms! And we worked together anyway. We built coalitions with other civil rights groups, labor unions, religious and secular citizens groups. It was exhilarating, inspiring, and exhausting. Similar campaigns occurred across the country that year. In Seattle, on that November day 40 years ago, the campaign to protect gay rights won the vote: I remember very clearly going to vote that day, unsure of the outcome, but with real gratitude for all the hard work that such a wide range of people had done. And I remember celebrating together that evening as our weeks and months of hard shared work paid off. But in other places in the country, gay rights suffered harsh electoral defeats on the same day, and that bittersweet part of the memory of 1978 is a reminder for me of the need for constant vigilance and hard work in pluralistic democracies. Forty years later, we still have a lot of work to do to protect civil and human rights for all of us: locally, nationally and internationally. So when I think of voting, and the “joy of voting,” I think: coalitions.