After 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.
TJ: The irony in Hollywood is that as much as characters populate primetime, there’s still a perception that it is a risk to come out as an actor or actress. Will that change?
CG: I am not a casting director. I cannot speak to that. What I can say is there are an increasing number of high-profile people in the entertainment industry who are expressing their true identity. It has not changed their careers. Ellen (DeGeneres) is a great example. She happens to be a lesbian, but she is a talkshow host who resonates with Americans across this country. I think she has been a trailblazer. I suspect that her leadership and others have made it easier for others to follow. It is a personal choice. Everyone goes through their own struggles when deciding whether to come out to those around them. But I also think that high-profile people (such as) people in the entertainment industry have a special responsibility because they truly have the ability to change the lives of thousands and thousands of young people across the country who and are looking for role models.
TJ: You were a producer of the movie “Outrage,” which spotlighted and even outed prominent closeted political figures. Some in that movie are now working for marriage equality. Are you surprised by what has happened?
CG: I believe that any person who is in elective office, any person who is serving in the United States Congress or state capitals around this country, if they are in fact closeted and are voting for hate and discrimination, they deserve to be called out on that hypocrisy. … And I am thankful now that there are journalists who increasingly are a check on that kind of hypocrisy. That movie was more about hypocrisy than it was about outing.
But yes, everyone evolves. And my view is once folks are on our side, we put them to work and we embrace them. … Someone who has become a dear friend and a professional confidant is Ken Mehlman (the former Republican National Committee chairman who was featured in “Outrage”). He has proven to be one of the greatest strategists in our movement.
TJ: What advice do you have for activists in entertainment?
CG: Passion. Work on something that is natural to you and natural to your passion, that you want to bring about change in. The second is study. Know the issue inside and out when you talk about it, and partner and pair with those who have been working on it longer than you have been. And the third is focus. Don’t spread (yourself too thin). Just as you have to be strategic or thoughtful as to what movie you choose to produce or direct or to star in, you have got to be smart and strategic and thoughtful as to which philanthropic effort or social cause you choose to make an impact in.