While there is an official campaign to defeat Amendment One out there, we have to recognize that there are many, many people working at the grassroots level, residents of North Carolina putting in countless hours to educate voters on their own time and dime because they feel passionately that this discriminatory amendment is wrong for the state that they call home. They find a niche to effectively counter the anti-gay, anti-logical arguments out there.

In this case, I wanted to spotlight a local effort — responding to op-eds and letters to the editor (LTEs) in our local and regional papers that have been, as you might expect, populated with anti-gay, fear-driven, often religion-based arguments in favor of Amendment One. LTEs are powerful tools, and Durham resident Steve Bocckino helped build a roster of residents eager and willing — sometimes for the first time — to write what have become extremely effective pro-equality, anti-Amendment One arguments.  A self described “60-year-old white guy, straight, and married for 21 years,” Steve wanted to make a difference. Here’s my Q&A with him.

Pam Spaulding: Have you always been politically active? What made you decide to use LTEs as your way of advocating for issues that you care about?

Steve Bocckino: In college, I was active against the Vietnam war, but I wasn’t involved again until the late 1990s, when a local development fight (Southpoint Mall) fired me up. That’s when I wrote my first letter to the editor. A few years later, when the drumbeats to the Iraq war were sounding, I set the electrons flying again. Why letters to the editor? It’s simple. Advertising costs a fortune, but LTEs are free.

PS: I saw that you have an educational guide to LTEs up at the site of the Durham progressive political action committee People’s Alliance. How have LTEs been an effective way to educate people about the harms of Amendment One?

SB: This is my first effort at LTE organization. I was inspired by a local Durham activist, John Schelp, who has organized LTEs to successfully oppose asphalt plants and digital billboards. John is now an active member of our LTE Brigade.

I am sure that our group and the host of other letter writers have shifted the debate on the amendment. I believe that the majority of amendment supporters are motivated by fear, and showing the very human face of those the amendment would harm makes them fear less and think more.

PS: When and how did you organize your “brigade” of writers for Amendment One, and how many newspapers have they sent letters to? What has been the success rate of getting published?

SB: Durham (Pam’s House Blend Central) is a special place. It has a long history of progressive politics, now spearheaded by the Durham People’s Alliance (the PA). Sara Terry, mom of 3 and ex-PA president, and Kate Fellman, PA staffer, organized a meeting to strategize against the amendment in December. Through meetings, house parties, fundraisers, and hundreds of “Another Family Against the Amendment” yard signs, the PA recruited volunteers eager to write letters to the papers, and they sent them to me. And so the Brigade was born.

The Brigade has 41 members (and we’re always looking for more). They include Cynthia Brown, Bill Velto, Stacey Poston, Steve Rawson, Cathy Rimer-Surles, Carolyn Surles, Catherine Constantinou, Nancy Blood, Cathy Chandler, Jacob Tobia, John Schelp, David Higgins, Kate Fellman, Sara Terry, and a certain notorious blogger, as well as many who are too shy to be named here.

We’ve concentrated on 4 newspapers, the Durham Herald-Sun, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Durham News, and the Independent Weekly, but letters have gone as far afield as Asheville, Yahoo and Talking Points Memo. Almost all of the letters that we’ve sent in have been published—a testament to the skill and passion of our writers and the importance of this issue.

Some proponents of Amendment One like to think that the opposition is just a handful of activists from Hollywood (or even Durham), but I’ve found that the opposition is remarkably diverse, from parents, teachers, and doctors to entire congregations. While I’m proud of the work the Brigade has done, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of letters written by people I don’t know. Some of the newspapers are receiving so many LTEs against the amendment that they are posting them online.

PS: In comparing the quality and quantity of the pro-Amendment vs. anti-Amendment LTEs, have you seen any political or educational patterns emerge over the last few months? What effect have you seen in terms of the response of the pro-Amendment forces to your group’s LTEs?

SB: We have overwhelmed the amendment proponents and they rarely mix it up with us. The “against” LTEs outnumber the “fors” by perhaps 10 to 1. The pro-amendment letters fall into 3 categories: the religious (“the Bible told me so”), the marriage historians (“but it was ALWAYS like this”) and the procreationists (“marriage is only valid if there are children”). Needless to say, we think these arguments are flawed, and we don’t hesitate to point that out. Occasionally someone tries to argue that the amendment will only stop same-sex marriage, but we are quick to counter with examples of the consequences in other states. Lately, we have been stressing the fact that civil unions would also be banned by the amendment. Recent polls tell us that if voters are informed about civil unions, a majority will reject the amendment.

Why letters to the editor? It’s simple. Advertising costs a fortune, but LTEs are free.  - Steve Bocckino

PS: In Durham, the local PACs and almost every local official is on record as against Amendment One. When discussing the issue with people you encounter, do you think there is still a lot of education to do about the Amendment even as early voting has started (through May 5; primary day is May 8?

SB: Amazingly, some people still think that a vote for Amendment One is a vote FOR same-sex marriage and they plan to vote against it. Fine by me. I do think that people who read the papers are well-informed on the issue. LTEs have started a lot of conversations, and early enough to move public opinion. Unfortunately, many people don’t read the papers. We have a lot riding on the TV ads that start on April 23.

PS: Based on the public response of businesses (like Duke Energy’s CEO), elected officials (current and past major office holders), and numerous conservative politicos, do you think these statements, along with the voices in your brigade speaking out against Amendment One bodes well for a defeat of it at the polls?

SB: The campaign by The Coalition to Protect NC Families has been extraordinary, and the passion and commitment of the opponents is unmatched, but we still need to change hearts and minds if we are to win this fight. The LTE Brigade will keep writing, and the TV ads should help a lot, but people need to get to the polls now! Early voting is the sure way to bank your vote.

PS: Give advice for people, average voters and residents of NC, the things that they can do to have an impact in their towns, counties and regions through actions like LTEs. Some people feel that they can’t do it, or it’s a lot of effort, or think that it won’t be published.

SB: Most of our LTE Brigade never wrote an LTE before, and most of their efforts have been published. Now that they’ve got the bug, I expect to see their letters in the paper for years to come, rattling cages for this and other issues.

Some advice: Keep your letters short. Papers print the first LTEs that they receive on a subject, so move fast. Ask someone else to read your letter before you send it in, and keep your cool even if you write in anger.

Some of the brigade’s LTEs can be found here:
* http://blogs.newsobserver.com/opinion/amendment-one-buggery-hate-groups-and-justice
* http://www.thedurhamnews.com/2012/04/21/211846/your-letters-april-22.html
* http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/18255264/article-Letters–April-17?