John Aravosis is a fast talker.
Conversation with the 40-year-old political consultant and writer is a whirlwind of ideas, opinions and observations, liberally punctuated with his rapid-fire staccato laugh. And a well-timed laugh seems to be a necessary release valve when dealing with hot political topics — say, fighting off the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay and lesbian marriage.
Last summer, Aravosis, along with activist Robin Tyler, launched Don’t Amend (www.dontamend.com), a web site devoted to building support to fight the amendment effort. Since then, of course, gay marriage has exploded onto the national political scene, as Massachusetts and San Francisco have transformed the debate from theory to reality.
In the past few weeks, Aravosis has taken the battle to yet another level, launching “Dear Mary” (www.dearmary.com). A web site project of Don’t Amend, the new site targets Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of vice president Dick Cheney, who happens to be running her father’s re-election campaign. Her father raised eyebrows in the gay community during the 2000 campaign when he said gay marriage was an issue that should be left to the states.
These days, of course, the politics are different and the vice president has said he will support what the president decides on the issue — and George Bush has voiced support for the constitutional amendment. And as thousands of couples are lining up to have their relationships legally recognized, Aravosis thinks it’s long past time to put up with hypocrisy when it comes to gay marriage.
METRO WEEKLY: How did DontAmend.com and DearMary.com first come about?
JOHN ARAVOSIS: We launched before the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas. We had a gut feeling that this issue was going to explode, and we were a little worried. The main intent of the site initially was just to get our ducks in a row, because you can’t do a big campaign on an issue that’s not hot yet and gay marriage wasn’t happening at the beginning of last summer, although the Republicans and whoever had already started making already nasty comments [on gay marriage]. I don’t like petitions, but they’re a useful tool for at least getting people give you their name, and ask them if they’re willing to do actions in cities. We got ten thousand people on our e-mail list who were willing to take part in actions and other activities in their local area, which was wonderful. Robin, who’s our national grass roots coordinator, was ecstatic because she had her army in place.
Also, we raised about ten thousand dollars in donations off of it, which was nice, because so far we’re doing this for free. I’d love us to get real money to do a campaign — it makes a difference. Stop Dr. Laura raised about eighteen thousand bucks, mostly from t-shirts. So ten thousand dollars really matters. It got us a place at the table, as far as the coalition meetings with the other groups on the gay marriage issue.
At that point, we weren’t standing out from the other groups as far as media attention or anything else. Then a few weeks ago Mike Signorile wrote a column entitled “Dear Mary,” his open letter to Mary Cheney spelling out the case for why one might wonder if she’s being hypocritical on this issue, and saying that this is her chance to step forward and do the right thing. It was an excellent piece and I thought it was a great idea to get the community to write public letters to Mary and post them on the web. I got the web address, dearmary.com — that blew me away because it’s really hard to get short web addresses. I talked with Robin [and others] about whether this was the right thing, if it’s ethical, and whether we would just be beating up on her private life — all those discussions I think the bad guys don’t have, but it’s good that we do. And launched the site as a special project of dontamend.com, with the goal being a psychological warfare campaign against the vice president. This is intended to make him say “Holy cow, this isn’t worth it.” Bottom line.
MW: Thinking back to the 2000 vice presidential debate, when Dick Cheney said gay marriage was an issue that should be left to the states, what did you think about his comments at the time?
ARAVOSIS: I was absolutely pleasantly shocked when Cheney came out more or less in favor of gay marriage in 2000 — it blew me away. I remember watching the debates live, and why the hell I watched the vice president debate is beyond me. Maybe that’s why I’m single. [Laughs.] When you think back, Cheney was also the one who [more than a decade ago] called the military ban a bit of an old chestnut. He’s got a little libertarian bent — the gay thing makes him uncomfortable, but the libertarian thing makes him think the government shouldn’t get involved. And I think the Republicans recognized that he blew us away by making those wonderful comments four years ago, and that’s why they put Mary Cheney out there as their poster girl for the compassionate conservative. They put her front and center and used her to get gay votes and gay money. And now they’re hiding her in a secret undisclosed location saying, “She’s a private vice presidential daughter, how dare you ask questions about her, she’s family!” But two years ago they had her hawking for gay votes and gay money as the chair of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay Republican group.
MW: You said you discussed potential problems and concerns about privacy and such before you started dearmary.com. What were the main concerns you had before deciding to move ahead?
ARAVOSIS: Ironically, I had the same concerns about the Stop Dr. Laura project. When you do these campaigns, you don’t want to become the people you’re fighting. It’s very hard when you’re always fighting the far right, or anti-gay people in general, to not just get angry. You need a certain amount of anger to motivate you and to motivate the community. But you don’t want to have this constant anger every day that starts to turn your soul black. So when you do things you ask, “Am I doing this motivated by anger? Is it going to be a little too angry, a little too mean?” Dr. Laura wasn’t a hypocrite, she was just hateful. Our campaign exposing her simple quotes to the public was destroying her advertisers — it was just that simple act. I remember talking with my mom about it and asking, “Is this wrong?” And she asked me, “Do you think Dr. Laura is sitting there having ethical debates about what she’s done to you?” Well, no. And she said, “That should answer your question.”
With a campaign like this the question is, is the campaign hurtful or are her own actions hurtful? Are we outing Mary Cheney? No, she’s had “gay” on her business card for ten years, and she was the gay and lesbian liaison at Coors. Are we outing her as running his campaign? Everybody knew that. Are we outing her as being on the board of a gay Republican group? Everybody knew that. Are we outing her as having been the person they used to get gay votes in the year 2000? Everybody knows about that. So what are we exposing of this woman’s private life? Unless we think the fact that people are openly gay is somehow embarrassing, which I don’t think. What we’re simply doing is pointing out what is certainly hypocrisy on her father’s part, but may very well be hypocrisy on her part.
MW: What’s the difference between, say, working for a presidential candidate with whom you may disagree on particular issues — say supporting a president who has an environmental program you don’t like — and working for Dick Cheney although you may think he’s full of it on the marriage issue?
ARAVOSIS: I would hope that anybody working on a political campaign is working on that political campaign because they actually agree with the candidate. It would be pretty reprehensible of you to help somebody get elected who completely believes in the opposite things from what you want your country, your neighborhood and your family. I think when somebody is trying to literally make you a second class citizen in the Constitution of the United States, and you shrug your shoulders and say, “Eh, it’s $100,000 a year, what the hell, I’ll help him get re-elected.” I think that’s a problem, even if he’s your father. The amendment makes it an even harsher issue. For most gay people, this amendment is a deal breaker, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. These sons of bitches literally want to make us second class citizens in our country’s most sacred document. You don’t go helping people do that if you’re gay without getting called on the mat for it.
MW: You said your mother asked you if you thought Dr. Laura sat around thinking about her impact on gay people. Do you think Mary Cheney’s spending a lot of time thinking about the ethics of her working for her father’s campaign?
ARAVOSIS: I’d like to think that she sits there and occasionally says, “Gosh, am I doing the right thing?” I’m concerned that she might be your worst nightmare of a gay Republican. And there have been so many gay Republicans who have stepped forward on this issue and said, “I’m not going to support President Bush if he goes ahead with this amendment.” I have been so impressed with that and I’ve written them notes back saying so, because sometimes we demonize Republicans. It’s nice to have people stepping forward like this so we know that we may differ on some political stuff, but on the gay thing we all get it. But I worry whether Mary Cheney’s one of the bad gay Republicans, the one who says, “I’m gay, but it’s only a part of who I am, it’s not really who I am. It’s just another issue like taxes that we disagree on.” What worries me is how she could run the campaign after her father said that he would be willing to support this amendment. I wouldn’t run my dad’s campaign if he said that. I may not go out and publicly bash my dad, but I sure as hell wouldn’t run his campaign.
MW: Bush seems to have been all over the map on this issue, saying he’ll support the Federal Marriage Amendment, but then pulling back, and then moving back toward it. Why do you think there’s been so much back and forth on this?
ARAVOSIS: The Republicans are freaking out because they’ve lost control of the issue. It is fascinating because on Tuesday we think we’ve lost, on Wednesday we think we’ve won, on Thursday we think we’ve lost again, and on Friday we think we’ve won again. The facts are changing every day and things are happening so quickly. The White House, I think, read the political tea leaves and said, “Mr. President, this issue is a home run. You’re going to shore up your base with the religious right, mainstream America could care less, and the gays aren’t voting for you anyway.” And then the Washington Post writes a big story about how the amendment the president was going to support doesn’t do anything he says it was going to do. Bush says it will allow civil unions, but legal scholars say it won’t. And then the president asks his people, “What did you do to me?”
An important part of this whole debate is San Francisco. With all the marriages happening, there’s a concern among political people, who worry, “Yes, this feels good, but is it dangerous? Are we going to provoke a horrible reaction?” But I don’t agree with that. San Francisco provoked lots of other cities to stick up for us. All of a sudden it looks like we’ve got a thousand points of gay light popping up as a result of what San Francisco is doing. What it really helped expose was that we’ve got a lot more support out there than we realize.
MW: About ten years ago, I covered a state of the movement panel where [gay marriage activist] Evan Wolfson said that gay marriage was going to hit the country like a tidal wave. That was around the time of Hawaii’s gay marriage battle, but it didn’t take off across the country at the time.
ARAVOSIS: He was ten years too early, but he was right. [Laughs.] It was a slow tidal wave, but he was correct in the end. Now it is a tidal wave — now it’s insane. It’s great that Evan’s been working on this for ten years because we need people who have been working on this because it’s out of control now. And once again, that’s why you’re seeing the White House vacillating on this. Every day it changes. A month ago the president comes out and says we need an amendment to stop activist judges. Well, now you’ve got activist legislatures, and activist mayors, and activist human rights commissions of cities — I mean, you’ve got all these people who are standing up to the president, who aren’t just “activist judges.” That’s where you’re getting vacillation. Now [Rep.] Tom DeLay has slammed us again, which means the religious right is freaking out again.
MW: There does seem to be a level of panic about gay marriage on some right wing and religious right web sites. But it does sort of make you wonder if they never learned anything from the 1992 Republican convention in Houston [the site of Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech].
ARAVOSIS: They thought they could finesse this issue. And to some degree, we’re very lucky. I don’t think we’re where we are today in this debate because of our grand brilliant strategy. The gay agenda won again! [Laughs.] The San Francisco thing could have cut against us, but it didn’t. The first couple to get married was an eighty-year-old lesbian couple — you couldn’t have had anything better. I think [the Republicans] thought this would be easy, and they could still do that compassionate conservative gay bashing. And they didn’t get away with it.
What’s been fascinating to me is what I’m calling a gay backlash that we’re finally having. We always worry that there’s going to be an anti-gay backlash, but I think we’re now having the gay backlash. These guys have been beating us up for seven months telling us that our relationships are like sleeping with dogs and that we want to rape children and people finally said, “Enough already. I’m not going to sit back and have you demean me and ban me in the Constitution.” You’ve seen this grassroots explosion really. The stuff going on in San Francisco is amazing and fabulous. In Massachusetts the issue came about because couples wanted to get married. It’s happening because of regular people.
Let them pass a constitutional amendment and see what happens. I think all hell will break loose. Let them ban us in the Constitution and see if another closeted Republican is ever allowed to work in this town. It ain’t going to happen. I mean, I met a guy a couple weeks ago in a bar, and he’s hitting on two of my friends — two of my friends mind you, he wanted to take a couple home — and the guy’s working for one of the senators who introduced the fucking constitutional amendment in the Senate. And he’s in his thirties, he’s not some kid who’s desperate for a job. It’s just like, what is the matter with you?
MW: A lot of people say that the amendment doesn’t have a chance because the people supporting it are crazy, or it’s too hard to get an amendment passed. Do you think that view still holds in some places?
ARAVOSIS: That’s why we launched our web site last June, because people were saying, “This isn’t going to go anywhere. What are you worried about?” I think there are still some people in town who say don’t worry, it’s not going to go anywhere. I think they’re wrong, and I think they’re stupid as well. You think Washington would never do anything massively anti-gay on a whim? Oh, no, they’d never do that! Give me a break. As soon as the first wedding bells ring in May in Massachusetts, there’s going to be mass panic in Congress. They’re going to try to jam it through now, because they’re going to try to stop all that’s happening right now. Anybody who underestimates how hateful Washington politicians can be to gay people is a fool. I think you’re hearing less of that now, and you have more and more gay people around the country waking up to the issue. But people have woken up, and I just hope nobody’s so foolish to think that this issue is just a passing fancy.