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From Skeptic to Activist: A Straight Woman’s Journey to Equality

You might easily mistake newly-installed MEUSA board president Jane Wishon for a high-achieving lesbian wearing many hats: mother, PTA enthusiast, church elder, zoo volunteer and an activist for LGBTIQ rights, among others. But this MBA-holding Californian, mother of three and aptly self-described “professional volunteer” has been in a heterosexual marriage for close to 40 years. Her conversion from “tolerant skeptic” to head of the MEUSA Board of Directors is a paradigm for middle Americans ripe for conversion to the LGBTIQ equality movement as straight allies.

MEUSA Board President Jane Wishon

A comparatively recent convert, Wishon readily admits to her early doubts about marriage equality for gay couples. “I was flabbergasted,” she says of her reaction to the California Supreme Court’s decision striking down the state’s discriminatory marriage laws. “It wasn’t that I disliked or hated or disapproved of gays and lesbians. I simply thought of marriage as between a man and a woman – in the same way that the color red is red. To me, that was the definition of marriage. Politically incorrect as this may be, I’ll confess that I thought that there had to be a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’ in every marriage – if both partners are the same gender, how was that going to work? Do they both call each other husband?”

Wishon credits her husband, Keith, with turning her around. “Jane, you of all people know that separate but equal is not equal,” he told her. “And, in that moment of reflection,” says Wishon, “I stepped into the colorful world of Oz. I hadn’t known any gays or lesbians who wanted to get married but couldn’t. I hadn’t seen the pain, the frustration, the heartbreak of gay and lesbian couples who wanted to shout to the world that they were equal and married, just like everyone else. My excuse is that I hadn’t known – but frankly, I hadn’t cared enough to find out.”

Determined to better acquaint herself with the LGBTIQ community and the challenges it faces, Wishon involved herself in numerous LGBTIQ charities and causes. “Most LGBTIQ organizations are geared for LGBTIQ people – from the messaging to the events. And it’s uncomfortable feeling like an outsider when you’re used to being part of the majority – a lesson in what it must be like to be LGBTIQ in our society.” Finding a straight-welcoming LGBTIQ rights organization, Love Honor Cherish, Wishon immersed herself in the fight against California’s Proposition 8. On Election Day 2008, Wishon says she further witnessed the sting of being a minority. “I worked outside the polls on Election Day,” she says. “As I handed palm cards to people on the way to vote in a neighborhood sympathetic to ‘No on 8,’ I was treated with disgust by some. I finally realized that they thought I was a lesbian and that is how members of the LGBTIQ community are treated every day. What’s the saying about ‘walk a day in someone’s shoes’?”

Marriage Equality USA IT Director Christine Allen says there is much more to the welcome Wishon is receiving as the new board chair than her story of conversion to the marriage equality cause. “Jane has a solid business background – she is very familiar with financial and contractual issues and will help to guide the organization from a practical perspective,” says Allen. “One of Jane’s primary focuses in her volunteer work and in her work with MEUSA is her coalition work. She is experienced at and passionate about working in coalition with other communities and organizations, a core value of MEUSA. We have informally and affectionately referred to her as our ‘coalition maven’ or the ‘Queen of coalitions.’ This blonde, white girl from Texas has an interesting and unique ability to fit in with and listen to people very different from herself.”

Allen also notes Wishon’s natural ability to broaden the geographic landscape. Says Allen, “Jane sees beyond the right and left coasts – she is very clear that the battle for national marriage equality is far from over and that we now need to focus our efforts on states outside New York, New England and California. She’s seen that for a long time and has been looking ahead at the national picture for several years. Personally, I think the fact that she is not a native New Yorker or native Californian will well-behoove the organization as we begin working in other states.” Wishon adds, “This fight is both like and unlike other civil rights movements. We must show gratitude and respect for those we seek to emulate. There are LGBTIQ and ally youth waiting for the adults to provide them with role models – we must not lose our passion for and dedication to this fight for equality.”

Wishon exercised her coalition-building prowess when she founded her first LGBTIQ initiative, a Facebook cause for straight allies of marriage equality: AWE (straight ALLY Women 4 Equality). Embracing both men and women in the effort, Wishon rationalizes, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of making straight potential allies welcome in this movement. The more straight people we have talking about equality, the more moderate people will start to think about the movement and its message. For good or bad, the LGBTIQ community needs the Gavin Newsoms and the Antonio Villaraigosas and the Jane Wishons in the same way each civil rights movement has needed spokespeople within the majority.”

Bringing her conviction and passion to Marriage Equality USA, Wishon hopes to encourage more straight allies to join the cause. However, she also has a message she has outlined for the LGBTIQ equality movement:

There are many Christians who do not support the vile rhetoric of the religious right – don’t paint all Christians with that brush.

There are good-hearted people who do not see the psychological cost of denying marriage equality to the LGBTIQ community – quiet conversations can make the difference.

There are many who support LGBTIQ rights, but not marriage – calling them “H8ers” will only ostracize them.

There are reachable people who do not understand the differences between domestic partnerships, civil unions and marriages and, therefore, fall back on the traditional definition of marriage. It is up to us to show them the difference.

There are straight allies all around us – it is up to us to help them plug in.

Jane takes MEUSA’s message to a rally at L.A. City Hall

Wishon intends to carry these messages with her in her role as MEUSA board president. In particular, she is determined to de-centralize MEUSA to allow local groups to take the lead on defining local campaigns and messages. “We will listen to the local communities, whether a geographic, cultural, age-based, gender identity or other organization, we really have to keep our ears open to what people are saying on the ground,” says Wishon. “I feel really, really strongly about this because what many people feel went wrong with the ’No on Proposition 8’ campaign (the campaign against the California proposition striking marriage equality from the state’s constitution) was the campaign tried a statewide approach. What works well in Weho does not necessarily work well in Imperial County. People tried to create a local campaign but the statewide campaign turned deaf ears on the feedback.” Wishon believes future campaigns must keep this in mind when strategizing. She says, “The lessons learned here in California about listening to the different groups were a learning curve and do not have to be learned in other locations. Sitting at the table with grassroots organizations, learning from one another, sharing information, respecting both sides and respecting the competencies, the cultural competencies, is how we will succeed moving forward.”

Wishon plans to push MEUSA’s strategy beyond legalization of same-gender marriage to greater societal acceptance of such relationships. She emphatically notes, “We want to continue messaging and creating change within states where that might not be a reality any time in the near future. We are looking for societal change, not just legal change. We’re looking for respect for same-gender relationships wherever they are. The law can change, but unless society changes there is no further benefit. We’d like to use the wisdom from California’s ‘Breakthrough Coalition,’ where a lot of research and practice has gone into training models for how to train volunteers to discuss same-gender marriage one-on-one with people they know; taking the lessons learned here and utilizing them, to help locals have conversations all over the country informed by that knowledge.” Recalling a lesbian she met at a function who, fearing a possible negative reaction, initially introduced her wife to Wishon as a “friend,” Wishon says, “We need to change peoples’ hearts in every part of the country so that society no longer excludes same-gender couples from the respect, dignity and recognition that my husband and I have had for 38 years. That’s what I want for everybody.”

Wishon believes the marriage equality movement also needs to be more aggressive in recruiting a diverse group of leaders. “I believe very strongly in diversification of leadership. People of color, the transgender community, we’re all in this together. There should be meaningful representation within our organization of all groups; young, old, gender-presentation, gender-identity and sexual orientation. We need all the groups represented so that we are tapping into their wisdom, their energy and their knowledge to be more effective in creating this change.”

While some might question the ambitious nature of Wishon’s agenda, Wishon leaves few, if any, doubts about her ability to accomplish her goals. “I’ve been told I’m intense. That’s a good thing, but it’s not always easy.”

By MEUSA News Manager John Mattras

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About Marriage Equality USA

Marriage Equality USA is a volunteer-driven national grassroots organization whose mission is: "To secure legally recognized civil marriage equality for all, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, at the state and federal level through grassroots organizing, education, action and partnerships". We are a registered 501(c)3.

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