Election Day 2008

I’d intended to write this as soon after Election Day 2008 as possible… Oops! At least I got it in before Inauguration Day. This is the last of my planned “Election 2008 and Prop 8” entries. Hopefully, I can keep things a little lighter (and less lengthy) in the future. In any case, here’s how I experienced Election Day 2008…

The mission. On Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, 2008 I joined volunteers across California outside polling stations to encourage voters to vote No on 8. If we could get all our supporters to actually vote, that could make the difference, especially here in the Bay Area where such strong support might tip the balance statewide.

The training. The whole event was well organized and started with a rally and training at the headquarters in San Francisco the Saturday before election. Volunteers were packed in shoulder to shoulder and the training was short and sweet: they role-played different voter encounter scenarios and stressed the importance of not engaging the opposition and staying at least 100’ away from the polling stations. After that, we were turned loose to sign up for a polling station and, after weaving through the crowd trying to find a location I was familiar with, I gave up and picked one randomly: Hub#2, Alameda County, the First Congregational Church of Berkeley (coincidentally, I’d seen a Cry Cry Cry concert there some years before; it’s a gorgeous church with an active queer community outreach program).

The big day. Tuesday morning, early enough to beat the sun, I showed up at the Church and was greeted by coffee, pastries and loads of other volunteers. The Hub organizers set up big sheets of butcher paper along every wall (one for each polling station served by our Hub) and laid out shopping bags with all our goods (cards, stickers, posters). Those of us volunteering all day as team leaders signed up first and there were enough of us that I landed on a team with another team leader, Mike. A young woman (whose name I’ve forgotten, sadly) then joined us and we set out for our polling station: Berkeley Fire Station 3 Side B Precinct 203800.

I was lucky to be working with those two. They were outgoing and enthusiastic. Mike was a nurse at an SF hospital and the young woman was a grade school teacher in Berkeley. Mike brought water and snacks for everyone since he knew it would be a long day and the young woman knew the neighborhood and gave me directions to our station.

When we arrived, we introduced ourselves to the polling volunteers (we’re all citizens doing our part!) and then went to the 100’ line. The main way to the booths was down a side alley and we realized we could position ourselves just outside that alley and easily hand cards to everyone walking in. In fact, that turned out to be so efficient, we decided we didn’t need all three of us to be right there. So, Mike, who was a fantastic talker and incredibly friendly (his nurse’s training?) handed out the cards and the young woman and I moved a block away (but still within sight and shouting distance) to an intersection with loads of foot and car traffic. I stood at one corner and she another. The three of us had great coverage and excellent visibility. And to make things even better, there was a bakery café next to us and the manager let us use their bathroom.

After an hour or two of waving signs, handing out cards and talking with voters, the young woman had to head off for work. The Hub then sent us Morgan, a tall, UC Berkeley student sporting an awesome green shirt showing a half-eaten rainbow and a unicorn with a sick tummy. At one point, the Hub sent us more people than we needed, but those folks stayed only an hour or so before they were sent to other sites. Mike and I kept in contact with the Hub throughout the day and they were great about making sure we had the supplies we needed and were staffed appropriately. So, for most of the day, from about 9am to 8pm, the No on 8 gang at Berkeley Fire Station 3 consisted of Mike manning the alley entrance and Morgan and me at the intersection.

Voters and passersby. After the flyer drop in Oakland, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Turns out, it couldn’t have been a more friendly, welcoming, supportive community (it was Berkeley after all).

I received only a small handful of dirty looks and didn’t see any official Yes on 8 volunteers. A couple grumpy people asked if we were far enough from the polls and one man said he’d report us. There was one odd encounter with a nicely dressed, curly-haired fellow in his early forties. He introduced himself as a gay man who was voting yes on 8 because he didn’t believe gays could live in sustainable long term relationships. I told him I was in a long term relationship and had many friends who were also committed couples and he replied, “That’s never been my experience.” What do you say to that? I managed, “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope whatever your experience has been, you’ll support the right of other same-sex couples to marry and vote no on Prop 8.” I think I said “Good luck” to him as he walked away.

There were also the occasional frustrated supporters. At one point two junior high girls started toward me, then away, then toward me again, until they plucked up the courage to ask, “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be someplace else where it would matter?” I told them the margins were thin, every vote counts and we needed to make sure all our supporters (especially those in the Bay Area) voted No on 8. The girls seemed marginally satisfied by the answer, said thanks and walked away leaning into one another, whispering. They were not alone with their concerns and people of actual voting age asked me similar questions. Some asked why we weren’t in Walnut Creek (other volunteers were up there) and others asked why we were out at all because, “Obviously the measure won’t pass.” This last comment was most frustrating. The Bay Area is so politically insulated that some supporters took it for granted Prop 8 would fail. Fortunately, those were exactly the people we were trying to reach and hopefully some of those folks I talked with got the message and cast their votes.

The vast majority of people, though, were very supportive. There were countless cars honking. A few times grade schoolers in the passenger seats of their parents’ cars gave their thumbs up and cheered us on. There was even a moment when a preschooler in the car seat of a parking car said “No eight” and when we couldn’t quite believe our ears her dad laughed and shouted out the window, “Did you hear that? She said No on 8.” I know these kids are just imitating Mom and Dad, but it reminded me how thankful I am to be part of such an embracing community where supportive parents don’t hide their views from their children (unlike the “supportive” mom from the phone bank who couldn’t talk about Prop 8 because her kids were in the room). Then there were countless folks on foot saying, “Thank you for doing this” and “Of course we support No on 8.” We quickly ran out of No on 8 stickers because so many people asked to wear them. Around the time school was out, I spotted a murder of scruffy-haired adolescent boys coming toward us from across the street. I thought, oh boy we’re going to get razzed. But when they approached, one of the kids asked for a high five and another said, “We had a school election and I voted No on 8.” I said a big thank you, that’s awesome, and watched them walk away. There was also a worker at a local shop on the corner who gave us free bottled water. And that manager of the bakery café gave us free sandwiches at the end of the day.

It was a great experience. And it turned out if I hadn’t been there that whole day receiving such constant and regular encouragement, I would have been completely destroyed the following day when it was all but confirmed that Prop 8 had passed (final breakdown: 52.2% to 47.8%).

Relationships and strangers. When Morgan joined us, he and I started across the street from each other, but I eventually went to his corner to chat and we spent the rest of the day rotating together to different corners of the intersection. He had been involved with the campaign for a while, having stood on campus all day in a rare downpour handing out flyers and later getting involved with some vaguely illicit flyer drop at his dorms. At one point during the day he received a call to speak at a No on 8 press conference, but that fell through and he ended up sticking around. Our conversation started with the casual basics, but by nighttime we were discussing family, college life and coming out (um, and at some point, the term “shrimping” came up and he had to tell me what it meant).

Morgan was 19 and I was 35. I’ve always been fascinated by generational differences, but the last few years I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious about my own age. So in the beginning I wasn’t sure if I was perceived as a peer or an old fogey or creeper. But as we both talked about our younger queer days, about high school and college dorm life and our families, it was refreshing to realize we weren’t so different. Or, rather, our differences were defined more by personality and life experience than age alone. That realization has gave me permission to feel a little younger. And I suppose it didn’t hurt that at one point, a car drove by and two girls shouted out: “Are you guys a couple?” Almost in unison, Morgan and I replied, “Nooo.” The thought that anyone would mistake us for a couple hadn’t even occurred to me, but again, it was nice to know that maybe I don’t look as old as I feel.

Anyway… Morgan was great company. Thoughtful, funny. We’ve traded messages twice since, but we have enough going on in our lives that I doubt we’ll cross paths again. I love that life has those fleeting, rare moments with strangers who come and go. Moment’s where you are briefly introduced to another fragment of life’s possibilities. I like that bittersweet reminder of all the potentiality in this world, the fact that there are so many lives we missed living and so many lives we can still live.

As it approached 8pm and time for polling places to close, our feet were sore and we were tired and ready to head home. We’d seen some of the same people return from work that night that we saw leave for work that morning. But we hung in there and stayed until 8pm on-the-nose. Then we met back up with Mike at the alley, said “Bye ‘til later” and that was that.

Driving home. So much was at stake in this election. I tried, while standing out there for those thirteen hours, to avoid any news about results. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and wanted to wait until the morning. But inevitably, I’d catch, “Did you hear such and such state went to Obama!” or “Prop 8 returns are neck and neck”. And for a moment I’d let myself feel that sliver of hope.

When the polling stations finally closed, I said goodbye to Morgan and drove Mike to Bart and another fellow back to the Hub. Then alone and driving in the dark, I was overwhelmed with emotion. At that point it was pretty clear Obama had won and Prop 8 was too close to call. I resisted turning on the radio, but as I drove down Shattuck and University Avenue, groups of people were standing together on the sidewalks, waving flags and signs and cheering, yelling screaming. Yes we can! Yes we did! I finally turned my radio on and heard McCain giving his concession speech and I couldn’t help honking my horn to cheer with the crowds.

After so many years of feeling this country doesn’t represent me, after so many years of frustration and anger with the Bush administration, to think for the first time in nearly a decade I could feel a little more free and hopeful again was overwhelming. And still, I had a foreboding sense that my own very personal stake in this election would be lost. I wanted to believe that if people were voting for change and hope and truly compassionate politics, then surely they would vote down Prop 8. But the early returns were not promising and I felt deep down it would pass and my rights would be revoked.

I cannot put into words the internal tumult, the corkscrewing whirlwind of joy and sadness I felt that night as I drove home. The sensation continued turning in me for days after. Actually, the stomach-dropping mix of hope and despair paralyzed me much longer than I like to admit, I think. For days after, I was in some state of shock and it took weeks to fully let up. I am still at a complete loss to understand how any thoughtful, compassionate, caring person would choose to vote to remove others’ rights. I felt hated and cheated and alone. Eventually, anger started to enter the mix and helped break apart my paralysis until I began to feel motivated again to get back into the fight.

Couple embracing after hearing about Prop 8's passage.

Now and the future. And so, that’s where I’m at today. Hopeful about the policies of our soon-to-be President Obama and determined to do what I can to overturn Prop 8. First mission following the election: On Saturday, November 15th, I volunteered with the newly formed grass roots group Join the Impact to support their Nationwide Prop 8 Protest Rally. About 7,500 supporters showed up at San Francisco’s Town Hall in the civic center and the event received great press coverage and was a great way to kickoff a renewed effort for equal rights. There have been countless planned and spontaneous actions since then and there are dozens of grassroots organizers all over the country fighting the fight. It’s been only a few short months since the election and I feel already the community is turning this “defeat” around!

Photo 1: Join the Impact poster. Photo 2: A picture of Morgan from Facebook. Photo 3: Couple receives news of Prop 8’s passage, photo from the SF Chronicle.

[This post updated January 19, 2008.]

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