Just a Reminder: The Campaign for Prop 8 Was Unprecedentedly Cruel

The current flap over Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s recent resignation revolves primarily around Eich’s $1,000 contribution in 2008 to California’s Proposition 8 campaign. Eich’s supporters insist that progressive criticism of his donation is tantamount to thought control or even censorship. To them, Eich’s significant financial support of Prop 8 is simply an expression of his political views, which should not be policed by his employers.

The view that Eich was just expressing his opposition to marriage equality, a common stance at the time, strikes me as naive. Because Prop 8 is now dead, and because its passage was largely overshadowed by President Barack Obama’s election victory, it’s easy to forget the vicious tactics of the pro-Prop 8 campaign. Or, I should say, it’s easy to forget them if you’re not gay—because almost every gay person I know remembers the passage of Prop 8 as the most traumatic and degrading anti-gay event in recent American history.

The tactics used by pro-Prop 8 campaigners were not merely homophobic. They were laser-focused to exploit Californians’ deepest and most irrational fears about gay people, indoctrinating an entire state with cruelly anti-gay propaganda. Early on, Prop 8’s supporters decided to focus their campaign primarily on children, stoking parents’ fears about gay people brainwashing their kids with pro-gay messages or, implicitly, turning their children gay.

Another notorious commercial shows an earnest school administrator fretting that a “new health curriculum” that mentions gay marriage will “mess up” children with reference to “gay attraction.”

And Prop 8 supporters quickly zeroed in on the terrifying possibility that religious adoption agencies “may be forced to place children in same-sex marriages.”

In perhaps the most insulting ad, two gay fathers are quizzed about marriage and reproduction by their daughter; the takeaway, of course, is that this faux-family is twisting the mind and morals of their child with perverse ideas about marriage and love.

This message of belittlement cut across pretty much every pro-Prop 8 ad—ads that ran incessantly in the state for months. The campaign’s strategy was to debase gay families as deviant and unhealthy while insinuating that gay people are engaged in a full-scale campaign to convert children to their cause. This strategy worked. And it worked because wealthy donors like Brendan Eich flooded the campaign with the money it needed to run ads like the like the one featuring the Pepperdine professor’s grave warning.* Eich wasn’t just a casual opponent of marriage equality. He was a major contributor to the most vitriolic anti-gay campaign in American history, one that set the standard of homophobic propaganda that continues to this day. When we talk about Eich’s anti-gay stance, we aren’t just talking about abstract beliefs. We’re talking about concrete actions that harmed thousands of gay families and informed innumerable gay Americans that they were sinful, corrupted predators.

Update, April 23, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that the organization to which Brendan Eich donated money produced only the first of these ads. The other three were produced by other organizations within the same pro-Prop 8 coalition.​