By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006
TUCSON -- A pair of retirees keeping house in a concrete bungalow, with snapshots of their 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the living room and an American flag out front, may not look like the face of gay America.
But this month Al Breznay, 79, and Maxine Piatt, 75, were pivotal in defeating an Arizona initiative that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman -- the only one of 28 such state measures ever to fail.
Breznay, a retired mechanic who still does odd jobs to bring in extra cash, and Piatt, a former bank teller, are at the forefront of a strategy to defeat a tide of same-sex marriage bans by talking about straight people.
Of those 28 state marriage initiatives, 17 have included language outlawing domestic partnerships. Gay rights advocates see this as an opening to highlight for heterosexual voters the impact such initiatives may have on them, and in Arizona, activists kept the spotlight on couples such as Breznay and Piatt, registered domestic partners whose faces appeared on fliers and television ads.
"The majority of people in Arizona don't support gay marriage. That's clear, they do not," said Marty Rouse, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. "Once you say gay and lesbian, people hone in on that. We have to focus on the majority of people that will be affected by this. And the majority of people are straight couples."
The campaign against the Arizona measure, Proposition 107, avoided almost any mention of gay marriage, except in small liberal pockets of the state. Instead, the message was about the section of the measure that would have banned government agencies from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships.
That apparently struck home in the state's sizable senior-citizen enclaves, where many older couples do not marry because their retirement income would be affected. The initiative was defeated, 52 percent to 48 percent.
"It's not a liberal-versus-conservative issue," said Steve May, a former Republican state representative who is gay and who served as treasurer of the campaign against Proposition 107. "It's about, 'I don't need to take away health care from Al and Maxine, this nice old couple in Tucson.' "
In fact, the couple's health coverage would not have been affected by the measure's passage, although their ability to pay for the coverage or to visit each other in intensive care would change, as they discovered when Piatt got sick two years ago.
Such generalizing upsets supporters of the initiative, who accuse opponents of fear-mongering.
"They misled voters. They scared seniors into believing they would lose Social Security benefits," said Cathi Herrod, spokeswoman for the pro-107 campaign. "Our problem was we did not have funds to respond to the attacks."
Her campaign spent about $1 million, she said, compared with the $2.1 million spent by the measure's opponents.
Talking to straight couples does not always work; the strategy failed in Virginia this year, where a marriage law passed with 57 percent of the vote.
The differences in Arizona were a longer campaign and a relentless focus on benefits and health care, Rouse said.
In Virginia, "most of the media coverage talked about a gay marriage ban," he said, "whereas in Arizona, you did hear about a ban on same-sex marriage, but it was still focused on health care."
This month's results may prove instructive in setting the debate in the next state where same-sex marriage is likely to appear on the ballot: Florida, in 2008.
"Florida might be able to learn from Arizona," Rouse said. But "campaigns are campaigns. If you do your research and you find out what voters care about, then you know what to focus on."
For some gay activists, it was bittersweet to defeat a same-sex marriage ban by avoiding the subject of homosexuality.
"To truly win the freedom to marry and end discrimination, we can't just play defense," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the gay rights group Freedom to Marry. He added that proponents of same-sex marriage must "avoid messaging that blocks further attacks and does not move us further ahead."
Wolfson says he takes heart in the reelection of legislators who support same-sex marriage and in the narrowing margins by which initiatives banning same-sex marriage have passed. In 2004, 71 percent of voters voted for such initiatives on average; that dropped to 56 percent this year.
"Even if, in the short-term battles, we may have to emphasize the overbreadth, the dangers to non-gay people and the general unfairness, the trend is in our favor," Wolfson said.
That is not how it looks to Bill Maier, vice president and psychologist in residence at Focus on the Family, a proponent of state same-sex marriage bans.
Voters in states with marriage initiatives this year tended to be more libertarian than those voting in 2004, so they shied away from constitutional changes, he said.
"When you see more of these amendments pop up in 'red states,' I think you're going to see more of those large percentages," Maier said.
Maier also sees a backlash on the horizon. He points to New Jersey, where civil unions or same-sex marriage could be legalized in the next six months after an order by the state Supreme Court.
"When people see gay people standing on the courthouse steps saying, 'I'm getting married come hell or high water,' among the general population there tends to be a recoil," Maier said.
For their part, Breznay and Piatt are pleased that Arizona's initiative lost, though same-sex marriage has never been their cause.
"We didn't care one way or the other. It didn't involve us," Piatt said. "That's what makes me so angry, is people linked this gay marriage to domestic partnerships."
Breznay added, "We got involved because it was affecting us personally."