SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The path to gay marriage in California may start in Chinatown.
After a double defeat at the voting booth and in court, gay advocates are reassessing their plans to push for legal same-sex marriage in the most populous U.S. state.
The new drive, focused on getting the issue on the ballot again as soon as November 2010, is more personal and reaches farther beyond the liberal confines of San Francisco's Castro or Los Angeles' gay heartland West Hollywood.
Lost in the 2009 election wreckage for gays was the marriage campaign's relative success in Asian communities, which have swung toward support of same-sex marriage at a faster rate than the rest of California and have become a model for other groups.
Asian Americans have been building grass-roots support in Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Filipinotown for four years. Gays, lesbians and straight allies have talked about the often-taboo topic of homosexuality, set up booths at festivals, harangued non-English language media to change coverage and lobbied elected officials for support.
"What we felt we had to do is talk to people who aren't on our side. So that's why we do these crazy things like walk through the streets of Chinatown as part of the New Year's Parade. That's why we go out to festivals from Little India to Little Tokyo and talk to complete strangers," said Marshall Wong, co-chair of Asia Pacific Islander group API Equality.
From California Controller John Chiang to Star Trek's Mr. Sulu -- actor George Takei -- and dismissed U.S. Army Lieutenant Dan Choi, who said he cannot stay silent about his sexuality, Asian community heavyweights have come out in support of gay marriage.
Californians voted to ban gay marriage last November, ending same-sex nuptials a few months after the top court legalized it. The same court in May backed the new ban.
The margin of victory for the ban fell to 4 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 2000, when a similar vote was held (and later thrown out by the court).
Together ethnic groups can dominate elections. White non-Hispanics have dropped to 43 percent of the population in California, compared with 66 percent nationwide. Asians are 12 percent of Californians, blacks 7 percent and Latinos 36 percent.
Polls of ethnic groups are often controversial because of small survey sizes. But polls of Asians by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center showed a 36 point margin of victory for the ban in 2000, falling to 6 points in 2008. The decline in support was clearly faster than in the state overall, the center said.
Arnold Pamplona, president of the Philippine American Bar Association, said his group was goaded into supporting gay marriage even though it did not seem like a Filipino issue.
"That wasn't something we were going to touch, because being Filipino American, a great majority of our members are Roman Catholic," he said.
Gay groups lobbied hard and said past discrimination against the Filipino community was similar to what gays faced, eventually closing the deal on an endorsement from the group -- and many other ethnic bar associations and alliances.
"Until not too long ago it was illegal for Filipinos and whites to marry, and a lot of our board members are married to Caucasians," Pamplona said.
Gays and their allies were shocked by the passage last November of Proposition 8, the California state constitutional amendment which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Ethnic groups said their communities were largely ignored in a one-size-fits all campaign. Many political pundits said support from blacks was instrumental in the passage of the gay marriage ban but one pollster called this an impossible extrapolation from a flawed exit poll.
Pollsters say that factors including education and religiosity correlate more closely with voting patterns than race, but there is still some rancor.
"The campaign made certain efforts to bring people in around the table but didn't appear to have strong strategies for winning voters in communities of color," said Wong.
Campaigners for "traditional marriage" feel they have a single message which carries across ethnic groups.
"The issue of defending marriage was a very unifying idea," said Jeff Flint, one of the campaign managers. His side is credited for doing a much better job of door-knocking and running non-English ads.
Despite gay activists' hopes for success in ethnic communities, Flint still believes they favor his side. "You have to be working hard, but you have to work on fertile soil. In those communities the soil is more fertile (for us)," Flint said.
Gay and lesbian groups say the Asian push is a strong rebuttal to the view that ethnic groups can foster change.
"I just want to be like them," said Ron Buckmire of the Jordan/Rustin Coalition, a black group focused on gay and lesbian issues. But he said the black community needs a different approach than Asians or Latinos.
Buckmire, who once gave a lecture "Gay is Not the New Black," said his community is wary of easy comparisons between African-American civil rights and gay rights.
"Three hundred years of slavery," he said, "that is not the same thing as not being allowed to get married."
Ari Gutierrez, a leader of the new Latino Equality Alliance, has also been watching the way Asians organized. One big lesson is the success of connecting the issue to family members and individuals and their stories rather than dealing in abstracts.
"Familia trumps religion," she said.
Supporting gays and lesbians and getting them to tell their stories will be part of her group's push for acceptance.
Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman