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November 21, 2008

Thousands turn out to protest Propostion 8

Cleveland pair’s website brings out demonstrations in 300 cities

Cleveland--“Proposition 8 is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Willow Witte, one of the two organizers of JoinTheImpact.com, a website that helped people around the nation coordinate protests against California’s marriage ban amendment on November 15.

Witte and friend Amy Balliet, who now lives in Seattle, made Cleveland an unlikely epicenter for the national protests. Both are natives of the city, both graduated from Cleveland State University, and both are former co-presidents of the school’s Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliance.

Protests occurred all over the world, including ones in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, Youngstown, Bowling Green and Athens.

Simultaneous demonstrations were held in eight countries and 300 cities at 1:30 pm Eastern time Saturday, with tens of thousands hitting the streets in some coastal cities.

In Cleveland, over 200 people endured high winds, low temperatures and torrential rains to voice their outrage, while Columbus City Hall saw about 700 people gather in similar weather to express their dismay. Around 500 attended the Cincinnati rally.

After the November 4 election, Witte saw video images showing thousands of Californians in spontaneous demonstrations against Proposition 8, which re-banned same-sex marriage there.

“Prop. 8 is the first law of its kind that removes a civil right,” Witte said. “I was watching the protests on Twitter as they were happening. People in California were passionate, and so was I. I wanted so badly to be there with the protesters and stand up against the usurping of our rights.”

She had already seen bloggers call for national protests, but she could not find an organized call to action.

“So I sent out a late night email to some local organizations and close friends, including Amy Balliet, asking if anyone were planning a protest or a vigil to stand with the 18,000 people whose marriages had just ended and to show that we are standing with the people of California who were protesting and standing up for gay rights,” she recalled.

“There were people that protested all over the world on Saturday,” she continued. “This is not a California issue, or even a U.S. issue. This is a human and civil rights issue. We not only lost rights in California on election day, we lost rights in Florida, Arkansas and Arizona as well.”

Voters in Florida and Arizona also passed marriage ban amendments on November 4, and Arkansas enacted a measure to ban gay and lesbian couples from adoption and foster parenting. A total of 30 states have passed marriage ban amendments since Hawaii and Alaska began the trend in 1998. Ohio voters approved one in 2004, along with 13 other states that year.

But California’s is the only ban amendment passed after gay and lesbian couples had gained the right to marry. Over 18,000 couples have tied the knot there since the state supreme court’s May decision.

“Once Amy put the site up, the word got out quickly pretty much on its own,” Witte said. “I promoted it through Twitter, and other bloggers reposted it. There were clearly many people online throughout the country that were looking for a way to feel like they were involved and we just provided them with a call to action.”

Derek Stephens was one of those people, looking for a way to express his dismay at the results of the election.

The Michigan native, who moved to Columbus a year ago, checked the web every 15 minutes “hoping for a miracle” on Prop. 8.

“I just couldn’t believe the other side won,” he said, again referring to the constitutional amendment in supposedly liberal California as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

For Stephens, who organized the Columbus rally, it was the massive involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that really piled on that straw.

At the request of church leaders, individual Mormons reportedly donated $20 million toward Proposition 8’s passage. The church has also been involved in past ban amendment campaigns, beginning with $500,000 given to each of the Alaska and Hawaii efforts ten years ago.

“I think the fact that the Mormon church put a lot of money into that campaign, it was my turn to say, enough is enough,” he noted. “When I first heard about the national rally, I thought, I’m going to rally, I’m going to voice my concern.”

He checked Balliet and Witte’s website, but could find no planned event in Columbus.

Despite school and work commitments, he knew “it was just too important to me. I just couldn’t, in my heart, not have anybody organize this.”

“I knew that Cincinnati was having a rally, I knew that Cleveland was having a rally,” he continued. “I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and not let Columbus’ voice be heard.”

Stephens reiterated that, despite the number of marriage bans that had already been passed, this one struck a nerve, in part because of the narrow margin of passage and also because it removed a right that was already being exercised.

“One thing that I really have been upset about is how it’s okay that we live in a world where the majority can vote and put up a law that discriminates against the minority,” he said. “Yeah, 52 percent of those who voted in California spoke, but what if 52 percent of the people said that people with blonde hair couldn’t get married?”

“The world we live in is not accepting of who we are. People are ostracized for being gay, not everybody has the strength to stand up and say, ‘I’m gay.’ I can understand why people hide,” Stephens said. “Maybe a percentage of the population is afraid to stand up, so my being able to speak, maybe they can get the courage.”

He brought up a poem by Marianne Williamson that he wanted to read at the rally.

The last line, he said, was important.

“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others,” the piece concludes.

Stephens took a practical look at the situation.

“We live in a world where so many people feel that their voice doesn’t matter, who say, what difference will my one vote make? You take how many people feel that way, and you add them together, it’s a lot of votes, it’s a lot of people,” he said. Look at JoinTheImpact.com, it was a small group of people that had an idea, and after a week, you had a million people logging on.”

The final fate of Prop. 8 has not yet been decided. At press time, six separate lawsuits had been filed against the amendment, with arguments ranging from its classification as an amendment instead of a revision--requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature--to the legality of putting minority rights up to a popular vote.

The California Supreme Court requested a response from state attorney general Jerry Brown by November 10, indicating it will accept the six suits. Brown urged the court to seriously examine the arguments in the cases. While his response did not comment on the merits of Prop. 8, he asked the court not to issue a temporary injunction against it, noting that it would add to the number of couples whose legal status would be in limbo if the court upheld the amendment.

In addition to LGBT rights organizations and state legislators, other groups signing onto the suits include the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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