Q&A With Chad Griffin: How Hollywood Shapes the Marriage Debate

Griffin_chad2After the passage of California’s Proposition 8 four years ago, a
stinging defeat for same-sex marriage advocates, a group of Hollywood
activists led by Rob Reiner and his political consultant, Chad Griffin,
took a bold, activist approach to the issue, launching a federal legal
assault on the state’s ban on same-sex marriage that helped refocus the
dynamics of the debate, and maybe even contributed a bit to the dramatic
shift in public opinion toward support of gay nuptials.

After a
string of court victories, their Prop 8 case is now awaiting word on
whether the Supreme Court will accept it for review or deny cert, the
latter of which would mean that marriages in the Golden State could
resume. Griffin, who continues to sit on the board of the org they
created, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, has gone on to lead
the country’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights
orgs, the Human Rights Campaign, where his concerns are not just on the
courts but on a quartet of ballot initiatives this November in Maine,
Minnesota, Maryland and Washington — hoping to win at least one,
given a 0-32 record at the ballot box.

Griffin spoke with Ted
Johnson on the role of the entertainment industry in shaping the debate
the importance of role models and of welcoming former enemies into the
battle who have evolved into friends.

TED JOHNSON:Primetime
has a record number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
characters this season. Vice President Biden recently cited the huge
part that “Will & Grace” had in shaping public opinion. Even
Republicans acknowledge the role of pop culture. So why has this
acceptance not translated to gains on election day?

CHAD GRIFFIN: The
leaders of the entertainment industry, have been at the forefront of
the civil rights movement. They were there through the ’50s and ’60s,
and they have been there throughout the LGBT struggle for rights. … If
you look on TV today, you see characters that portray real life in this
country. There are gay and lesbian people in communities and households
across this country. And so at the end of the day, (the shows) are
reflecting the reality that exists in people’s lives. Folks in the
entertainment industry are really stepping up from a philanthropic
perspective (as well).

You can just look at (the lawsuit against)
Prop 8. Were it not for David Geffen, we wouldn’t have had a Prop 8
case. When we were trying to figure out how to file and fund that case,
Rob and Michele Reiner and I met with David Geffen and he immediately
wrote (a) $1.5 million (check), and called Steve Bing and asked him to
raise the other $1.5 million. And I believe marriages will start in
California, whether it is in a few weeks or it is in a few months.

TJ: You downplayed the role of the entertainment biz at the beginning.

CG:
Early on, our opposition tried to make hay out of the fact that it was a
bunch of lefty liberals that were funding this case. That’s because
they didn’t want to put the focus on the plaintiffs and the legal
arguments in the courtroom. In this case, discrimination was put on
trial for the first time as it relates to same-sex marriage. In a court
of law where truth and facts were the only thing that matters, we
prevailed. And discrimination lost.

TJ: Is it unusual for
you now that you are at HRC, working on ballot campaigns in Maine,
Minnesota, Maryland and Washington. After all, you have been critical of
the idea of having same-sex marriage on the ballot.

CG:
When (the idea to put gay marriage on the ballot) came up in California,
that was after we had already won (in federal court). I just didn’t
think it was strategic or wise to take the issue back to the ballot. I
was and remain confident that we are going to win each step of the way.
And we have three times, and there is still one final hurdle to go, and I
am looking forward to that next step and to ultimately Prop 8 being
gone forever from the books in California.

I have also said that
having to go to a popular vote, having to determine the civil rights of a
minority, is fundamentally unfair. Having said that, it is the system
we have, and the opposition has taken unfair advantage of the initiative
process, and we can’t unilaterally disarm. We have to win. … Public
opinion has moved at lightning speed on this issue, and in large part I
give credit to the leaders in the entertainment industry. We now have
support for marriage equality at over 50%, including a Washington Post
poll that showed it over 50% in many of the swing states. We can win at
the ballot box. We have the ability to finally take away their talking
point that this (issue) has never won at the ballot box.

TJ:
What is more helpful for someone from the entertainment industry to do:
contribute money to these initiatives or lend their name?

CG:
(At the recent HRC dinner in Washington) Sally (Field) didn’t deliver a
political speech. She delivered a personal story about love and
fairness about her own family, about her son and how she loved each of
her kids equally. And that has more power than anything. Folks in the
entertainment community have a megaphone that is much larger than most
people who stand up and tell their stories. Almost every time, when an
undecided American hears one of these stories — personal passion,
personal stories of one’s own family — they move with us.

TJ:
What do you think of Mitt and Ann Romney’s embrace of “Modern Family”?
They have each said that was their favorite show, but Mitt Romney
opposes same-sex marriage.

CG: I laughed when I heard that.
I initially wondered if they were serious. Because that show portrays
real-life American families, particularly the roles that Eric
(Stonestreet) and Jesse (Tyler Ferguson) portray, and the embrace (of
them) by the straight couples on that show. … Look, I hope the Romneys
and the Ryans and quite frankly anyone, Republican and Democrat who does
not support equality, will increasingly watch these shows.


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