I wasn’t that nervous, really. I had done door-to-door work
before. But I could tell that a few folks in the room were. After all,
we were planning to walk up to people’s front doors
and ask them
for an opinion on gay relationships. One of our volunteers did professional
car repossessions; she said she was ready for anything. At a state campaign
strategy meeting last summer, several state activists argued against
door-to-door campaigns, insisting that it wouldn’t be safe, people
would get bitten by dogs, someone might even get shot.
Having knocked on doors for an openly gay candidate in Charleston, in some
rural areas, I thought these fears were exaggerated. I believe strongly
in the power of one person to make a difference and in the importance of
this kind of direct, grassroots political work. Billboards and TV ads may
be flashier, but I believe that nothing can be as effective as a neighbor
asking a neighbor for their support and their vote.
So in November and December, volunteers from the South Carolina Gay and
Lesbian Pride Movement (SCGLPM) met twice at the Harriet Hancock Community
Center to do door-to-door canvassing. We were canvassing Melrose Heights,
a small neighborhood in Columbia where the Hancock Center is located and
the neighborhood I live in. Most folks in the neighborhood probably know
the Center and we figured the neighborhood was pretty progressive since
Kerry won here in 2004. We figured it had a fairly gay-friendly population
as well, given the number of university students and all those little Human
Rights Campaign (HRC) equal sign bumper stickers.
In groups of two, we walked the streets, asking people to vote against
the proposed constitutional amendment that will prohibit legal protections
for gay and lesbian couples and their children, which will be on the ballot
in November. We told people we were volunteers from the community center
down the street, making the politics local. And my partner and I told people
that we are their neighbors, just down the block on Fairview, making our
appeal personal as well. Most folks in the neighborhood didn’t know
anything about the amendment, but most said that they would vote against
A few years ago, SCGLPM invited Georgia representative Karla Drenner to
speak at Pride. Drenner is an out lesbian and mother of two who won a House
seat in Georgia against the odds. She didn’t have major funding,
she didn’t have TV ads and she didn’t even have the endorsement
of Georgia Equality, the state gay group, which decided to endorse a gay-friendly
Democrat rather than one of their own since they didn’t think she
had the money or the clout to win.
But she did win. In Drenner’s book, “The Power of One,” she
tells of long days walking her district, meeting voters face to face, listening
to their concerns, and asking for their votes. This is old-fashioned grassroots
work, but it is still effective. And I believe it is the only way for us
to run an effective campaign for the hearts, minds and ultimately the votes
of our neighbors.
When we meet voters at the state fair booth or on their own front porches,
we challenge old stereotypes about our community, we answer their concerns
about the real issues and we ask for their support. As we saw from our
outreach at the state fair this year, surprising numbers of people will
support us, when we explain the issues to them — and when we ask
them to support us.
We cannot afford a campaign based on television commercials and billboards
and mass mailings. Nor do I think any of these things would ever be as
effective as a neighbor asking a neighbor for their support and their vote.
But this kind of volunteer work is time and labor intensive. It requires
a lot more people than the few folks who showed up at the Center to help
us this fall, and it requires more courage, I think, than our community
has shown before now. It means taking the risk of telling your neighbor
that you are one of the people this amendment will hurt. It means having
the courage to tell the married man next door, the divorced school teacher
across the street or the closeted gay man down the block, that their votes
matter on this, and that they will be voting on folks like you.
We need a lot more folks like Rep. Drenner in our community, and more folks
like those few volunteers who showed up at the Center this fall, or the
56 volunteers who helped at the South Carolina Equality Coalition (SCEC)
booth at the state fair this fall, people who aren’t afraid, who
are not going to sit by idly during this fight and expect others to do
the work, people who believe in the power of one voice.
I know that a lot of folks don’t think we can win. The national organizations
don’t give us the funding or support they give other states and some
of our own folks don’t think we can change things here in South Carolina.
But I think about Karla Drenner’s campaign and I believe we can win.
And I know that come election night in November — whether we win
or lose — I want to have done everything I can to create change and
empower our community. If we lose, I don’t want to hear from any
depressed friends I didn’t see out in the trenches helping with the
work. And if we win — even if we don’t win the whole state
but do win some neighborhoods — I hope there will be a lot of folks,
more than the four people who showed up at the Center to do this work or
the 50 who showed up at the state fair, to celebrate these well-earned
victories. I hope that we will be able to say that we used this opportunity
to its fullest, that we empowered our community in unprecedented ways and
that we did everything we could to make this state a better place for all