He’s your classic do-gooder. After sleeping under a canopy of bats in Madagascar during a two-year stint in the PeaceCorps, Eric Harrison, 34, moved to San Francisco where he served as vice president of development for United Way of the Wine Country before joining Equality California as its development director in 2009.
Recently, Harrison left Equality California to take the reigns as interim executive director of Love Honor Cherish, an organization launched in May 2008 to the repeal Proposition 8 in the next general election in November 2012.
It’s an uphill battle, he knows, but he’s ready and he thinks California is ready.
“I’m inspired by people who are able to see light through adversity,” Harrison said. Certainly, he’s one of those people, too, as he tackles this hot-button issue.
The Minneapolis native devoured Anne Frank growing up, which helped hone his look-for-the-silver-lining disposition. “I believe in equality and I think that marriage equality is a giant stepping stone in that pursuit,” he said.
Conversation, Harrison said, is the key to winning the hearts and minds of those who oppose LGBT rights.
“Geoff Kors [former executive director of EQCA]taught me this and it’s in the spirit of Harvey Milk. I talk to everyone at all times about LGBT equality. Cab drivers, people in line at the store and on the plane,” he said. “Once, I was flying and I chatted up this guy from Orange County. When I told him what I did for work, he froze up.
“After awhile, he said, ‘I just want you to know, I didn’t really realize what I voted for in 2008 and I know now that it was wrong.’ It’s about connecting to what we have in common and not what we don’t. You don’t demand commonality, you expose it.”
Exposing common ground is priority No. 1 at Love Honor Cherish. The organization empowers members “to use their own talents and skills to advance the freedom to marry,” he said. “After Prop 8 passed, we began working immediately to secure its repeal by means of a new ballot proposition because we recognized that we lost Prop 8 by a very small margin, that we could win California if we did the work needed, and that the court system — although the courts should rule in our favor — works very slowly and there’s no guarantee of success.”
Working closely with other organizations, Love Honor Cherish partnered with Equality California to hold a series of town halls around the state to discuss whether to go to the ballot in November 2012.
“The result of those town halls was an overwhelming consensus that we should gather signatures and be prepared to go to the ballot in 2012, if marriages haven’t resumed in California by April,” Harrison said. “Love Honor Cherish has also worked closely with other organizations to have the vital, heart-to-heart conversations with California voters that have resulted in the majority of Californians now favoring the freedom to marry.”
The conversations should be easy, he says, because we all share the same value of commitment, even while we express it differently. “Who doesn’t relate to dating, frustration, laughter, love, death and sharing all of that with the person you want to commit to from start to finish?”
Harrison says that’s how we’re going to connect outside of the LGBT community, but there are still connections that need to be made within the LGBT community.
“We need to stand proud and be willing to share these very experiences openly,” he said. “I have many gay friends who have not come out to their parents, shy away from public affection or keep their sexuality hidden from certain family members. Be proud and fearless.”
While Harrison thinks a judicial restoration of the right to marry in California would be great, a referendum would be better as it “would forever debunk the claim that the majority of people will not vote for marriage equality. This is one of the major arguments that our opponents make in courts and legislatures against us,” he said. “We’ve progressed so much since 2008, and I believe that Californians will make it right.”
On the state and federal level, there are a number of liberal leaders who don’t like using the word marriage, Harrison thinks it’s the only word to use.
“Federal domestic partnerships sound great in theory, but at the end of the day (and the opposition would say this), it’s not marriage and thus not equal,” he said. “Marriage equality is important to me because it’s a right of passage that my brother and sister have that I do not. My father is a retired, Southern Baptist minister, so I grew up seeing a lot of marriages and also living in shame.”
The holiday season is a time when this inequality really hits home for Harrison, “I’m saddened around the holidays when I go home and see the way that my father embraces my sister and brother-in-law and know that the same affection would not be extended to my partner,” he said. “Although, I took him to see ‘Milk’ when it first came out and was scared to death by his reaction, I turned to look at his face at the end of the movie and tears were rolling down his cheeks. Like our president, he’s evolving. At the end of the day, we’re on the same page, we value commitment.”
With 11 months until the election, Love Honor Cherish is in high gear. “We are preparing to begin signature gathering to qualify an initiative to repeal Prop 8 with our coalition partners,” he said. “Although we are confident that we can gather a significant number of signatures through our dedicated volunteers, we really need people to step forward and write major checks to ensure that we qualify an initiative and make history. If we don’t, it may be years before loving gay and lesbian couples can marry in California.”
It’s more important that ever as same-sex marriage powerhouse Equality California struggles with the resignation of longtime leader Geoff Kors and the quick departure of his replacement Roland Palencia. Former GLAAD executive director Joan Garry has stepped in as interim head of EQCA as they search for a new leader.
“Marriage equality simply cannot wait as Equality California rebuilds,” he said. “There is a void in leadership and that is why Love Honor Cherish took the bold step in hiring me as its first full-time staffer.”
Harrison can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He’s confident that he can lead California to same-sex marriage and common ground.