Just hours after a federal judge issued his definitive ruling overturning Proposition 8, David Boies — who is teamed with fellow star attorney Ted Olson in fighting California’s same-sex marriage ban — signaled what the other side would do to counter the ruling.
“They are going to attack the judge,” he told a West Hollywood rally on Aug. 4. “They are going to attack the judicial system. They are going to attack everything they think they can attack except the court’s opinion.”
Asked by Variety if that meant a backlash was coming, Boies quipped, “I would call it a last gasp.”
Hollywood activists, led by Chad Griffin and including Rob Reiner, Dustin Lance Black and Bruce Cohen, have backed and helped spearhead the case that has changed the direction of the debate over same-sex marriage. As pushback starts, and the case heads on appeal to the 9th circuit, they also are engaging in a public awareness effort with tinges of entertainment PR tactics, to educate the public about the decision, and personalize the stories of the plaintiffs.
That could prove a potent counter to critics decrying the ruling as “judicial activism.” Charles Cooper, the lead attorney who defended Prop. 8, quickly attacked the latest ruling for overturning the will of California voters and said, “Fortunately, the Constitution does not require the people to substitute the social science musings of gay rights activists for common sense.” Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage noted a San Francisco Chronicle story that the judge, Vaughn Walker, is openly gay.
“What we will continue to do, as we have done over this past year, is to show the human side of the story,” says Griffin, the president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the org formed to fight the case against Proposition 8. “We have the best lawyers one could assemble to represent us in court as this case is appealed. But we also have plaintiffs, and they represent real live people across this country.”
Last week, for example, the Foundation released a video showing plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo at home, talking about their relationship and how they met. Their press conferences, including those on the day of the decision, were webcast live on its site. Just about every event was staged with the backdrop of American flags, and the rally in West Hollywood ended with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA .” Other orgs, like Courage Campaign and Equality California, have tied campaigns to the decision as well.
With Reiner and his wife Michele, Cohen and Black among its board, the foundation also has been increasing its fund-raising efforts at the grassroots level, with appeals to small donors via text messaging and online clicks, as it is expected to take millions of dollars more to pursue the case to the Supreme Court.
The first phase of the case — which ended up being lengthier and costlier than expected — has been financed by a dozen or so donors, with Reiner leading the fund-raising effort, and significant support coming from Steve Bing and David Geffen, with other contributors including Katie and J.J. Abrams, Mike and John August, Lyn and Norman Lear and Ron Burkle .
“I think public involvement is very important, and it will only get more so moving forward,” Cohen says. “Just seeing how the news was reported, and what a big story it is, is going to change people’s perceptions of the issues in and of itself. But certainly the more our community and supporters take ownership of this, as it moves forward, the better, because we have a huge fight ahead of us as we go to the court of appeals and potentially the Supreme Court.”
The case has its roots in the frustration among “No on 8” fund-raisers and donors, upset over how the campaign was run by committee and that marriage rights were even on the ballot, after the passage of the initiative in November 2008.
Shortly after the election, the Reiners and Griffin and his partner in his public affairs firm, Kristina Schake, were sharing a meal at the Polo Lounge when they ran into an acquaintance of the Reiners who later tipped them to the idea of calling Olson, whose support of same-sex marriage was then not publicly known.
It was Olson who suggested Boies, giving the case the publicity value of uniting the two ideological foes from the Bush vs. Gore recount.
“To me you can’t have better casting than that,” Reiner says.
Cohen, who along with Griffin, was a key Southern California fund-raiser for the “No on 8” campaign, says he opted to join the latest effort after deciding “if I was going to get involved in political campaigns and issues in the future, if I am spending all this time raising money, I want a seat at the table as far as how the campaign is also being run.
“Certainly coming from the film business, you want to have one writer who writes a brilliant script, who does the revisions himself, who is not replaced six times,” Cohen says. “Those are the great movies. So it is that same idea of a tight group of people who are deciding how a case should be run from our perspective. It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree. But that is not what we are doing. We are not running a public campaign. We are running a court case.”
Black got involved after winning the screenwriting Oscar for “Milk.” In his acceptance speech, he called for taking the issue of equality to the national level, but he says that he took heat and even outright antagonism afterward by some established gay and lesbian leaders, as it conflicted with a strategy of fighting not in federal courts but state-by-state, through the judicial system or ballot initiatives. But before he was slain, Harvey Milk’s next step in the gay rights movement was to “take it to Jimmy Carter and to take it national,” Black notes.
The message, he says, was that “you have to ask for everything you deserve. If you ask for partial equality, that is what you will get.”
Going forward, the challenge will be to engage more of the public in the case — with the message that it’s about civil rights, not politics — while steering clear of the partisan fray. Says Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant based in Hollywood: “I don’t think (the decision) changes the views at the political extremes; what I do think it does is soften the middle.”
In the days following the ruling, the surprise was how few D.C. politicos on the right had chimed in, perhaps because Olson’s presence has made it more difficult to frame the debate along ideological lines. After all, Olson is probably the most conservative figure to be a star draw at a West Hollywood rally.
“What is new here is we are on the offensive, not the defensive, for the first time in a very, very long time,” Griffin says. “We have a very non-partisan story to tell, and we will tell that story aggressively in the months to come.”