Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Proposition 8: One Week Later

It's been a week now since Barack Obama was elected and Prop 8 was approved in California. Of course there was more to the election than these two things (including anti-gay legislation in Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas), but, for many gay Americans, this is how the 2008 election will be remembered: elation that Obama became our first African-American president; anger, hurt, and disappointment that the voters of CA decided to strip away our right to marry and write discrimination into their constitution. (Inevitably, this will go back to the courts. Civil rights should not be subject to the whims of the majority.) At first it seems impossible that the Obama victory and gay rights defeats could happen simultaneously, but what this jarring juxtaposition demonstrates is that the path to equality is rarely smooth or linear.

In the aftermath of the Yes victory on Prop 8, there has been a lot of finger pointing over why we lost: Mormon money, effective (if blatantly false) fear-mongering and prejudice-inflaming Yes on 8 ads, an ineffective and poorly run No campaign, No on 8 ads in which gay people didn't appear, the misguided theory being that straight people would be more apt to support us if they didn't think of Prop 8 as a gay thing. Then there was half-hearted, late in the game No support from prominent CA politicians. There was Barack Obama saying he does not support gay marriage, those words used by the Yes on 8 people even though Obama was on record (tepidly) in favor of No on 8. Ultimately, however, it was in the hands of the voters, and the voters (52% of them anyway) decided that gay people don't deserve the same right to marry as they do.

Then the exit poll statistics on which voters voted which way started to come in, and that's when the Prop 8 victory became a racial thing. 70% of black voters voted Yes on Prop 8, a disproportionately high Yes vote when compared to white, latino, and asian voters. (The accuracy of this much tossed around 70% statistic has been called into question.) Many gay people were taken aback by the lopsided black Yes vote. How could the same people who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, a liberal who supports gay rights (if not marriage), vote against us? Gay voters overwhelmingly supported Obama, an African American, shouldn't black voters have returned the favor? This reasoning neglects the fact that most white gay people didn't support Obama because he was African American but because he was the best candidate. But even if Obama hadn't been in the picture, shouldn't black voters have known better? Gay people see obvious parallels (along with differences) between our struggle to overturn sexuality-based restrictions on marriage and the struggle to overturn race-based restrictions on marriage. (The language around Loving v. Virginia was undeniably similar to the language used to oppose same-sex marriage.) Shouldn't black people automatically recognize the parallels and support civil rights for another minority? Many white gay people, in the immediate aftermath of Prop 8, felt that this was the thanks we got for our support of civil rights for all minorities. Whether white gay people were truly as supportive of black civil rights (say, in the 50s and 60s, when many gay people were closeted and subject to the same prejudices as straight white people) as some like to pretend now, the sting of being slapped in the face by black voters was genuine.

Suddenly, the other Yes voters on 8 were pushed to the side so that we could fully blame the black people for putting Prop 8 "over the top." (Gay black people were rendered invisible, as were the 30% No voters, as were important black allies like the late Coretta Scott King, Deval Patrick, David Paterson, and celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, and Chris Rock.) The reasoning went that if all those black people hadn't come out to support Obama, one of their own, Prop 8 wouldn't have passed. (A useful discussion of the rhetoric around the black vote can be found on Pam’s House Blend.) But who's to say that it was specifically the black vote that put Prop 8 over the top and not another vote? White Republicans (who made up a significantly larger proportion of the CA electorate than ALL black voters) voted 82% in favor of Prop 8. Couldn't they have been the ones to put it over the top? Or what about eligible gay voters who didn't bother to go to the polls? Or the way the campaigns for and against were run? Or the huge influence of (tax-exempt!) religious money and power? But, no, it was definitely the black vote that did it. (The latest person to make this claim, with his usual simple-minded, divisive bluster is Bill O’Reilly.) As soon as this became the accepted perception (echoed all over the media), the demonizing flourished. In reader comments on blogs like Towleroad, the side issue of race trumped the main issue of marriage equality. On the one side were the "PC people in denial" who were letting blacks off the hook; on the other side were the "racists" who had been waiting for an opportunity to scapegoat black people. The reasonable middle ground collapsed, leaving bitter polarization, which the right wing will continue to encourage since minority vs. minority is a Fox dream come true.

I spent days arguing, with minimal success, that blaming black people for Prop 8's passage was both wrong-headed and useless. Don't get me wrong. My initial response to every straight person, black or white, whose vote said to gay people--WE ARE BETTER THAN YOU ARE--was Fuck you, asshole.

It's not letting black people "off the hook" to say that religion is more to blame than race. It's not letting black people off the hook to say that the power structure and funding behind Prop 8 was largely Mormon and largely white. (Black people weren't the ones who put Prop 8 on the ballot to begin with.) It's not letting black people off the hook to speculate, in hindsight, that there could have been more educational outreach to people of color, some of whom see gayness as a rich white thing. (Using TV as one's guide, it pretty much is.) It's not letting black people off the hook to understand that variables such as education, class, faith, and the relationship between family and the closet could have played a role in those black Yes votes. Seeking to get beyond racial profiling to analyze why the black vote went down as it did and learn from that is not the same as excusing black anti-gay prejudice. But narrowly heaping the blame on blacks (who only made up an estimated 10% of the CA vote) distracts us from the primary reason ballot initiatives like this can pass: color-blind faith-based bigotry.

Religious fundamentalists (not all, it should be noted--many people of faith support full marriage equality) believe that "gay marriage" is wrong. The Bible says it's so. Marriage is a 5000 year old tradition that should not be tampered with. (In fact, marriage has continually evolved throughout history, yet fundamentalist leaders insist it is a static tradition.) Children need a mother and a father. (This overlooks straight divorce and single-parenthood, but never mind.) The problem is not the religious beliefs themselves, however much I, or anyone, might disagree with them. The problem is that anti-gay religious beliefs are being used by powerful religious institutions to meddle in gay lives. Religions should be free to hold whatever beliefs they choose, but they should not be free, in a secular society, to employ those beliefs to infringe upon the civil rights of others. And let's be clear: it is civil marriage gay people are fighting for. Barack Obama said, "God's in the mix" when it comes to marriage equality, but he--like many--is wrong. God is in his personal mix. God (or, rather, individual interpretations of God's word) should not be in the marriage equality or civil rights mix. I am not taking away a straight religious person's right to freely practice his faith. But he wants to use his faith to take away my right to be equal under the law. That is wrong. (Michelangelo Signorile effectively explored this distinction when he dissected the faith-based argument of Nancy, a Mormon caller, on his radio show.)

While the passage of Prop 8 was clearly a (temporary) defeat for gay people, it may ultimately be a tipping point towards victory. We are pissed off and we are letting the world know about it. Gay people and our allies are energized and protesting across the country. Our opponents are discovering that we will not quietly go away. Some of the gay people who either didn't care or didn't think our rights could be taken away are waking up. Some of the straight people who voted Yes but not for religious reasons are seeing that real people's lives are at stake. Homophobes may never be swayed to our side but arrogant or misinformed straight people may be forced to imagine what it would be like to have someone break into their house and shred the marriage license they take for granted. Businesses that donated to Prop 8 will be boycotted by gay people. (They were free to donate; we're free to deprive them of our dollars.) One of the most eloquent voices of support for marriage equality comes from a straight man whose life is, by his own admission, entirely unaffected by Prop 8. Keith Olbermann asks same-sex marriage opponents the obvious but often overlooked question: "What is this to you?"

What, indeed. For when marriage equality becomes a reality across America (and it will), straight people will learn that gay people getting married will have no discernible impact on their lives whatsoever. (That's not quite true: the service industry is likely to benefit economically from some fabulous gay weddings.) In Canada and parts of Europe, where marriage equality has been a reality for several years now, straight people seem to be going about their lives just fine. Future generations will look back and wonder at the absurdity of all that energy poured into fighting against something that harms no one. Future generations will find it difficult to fathom that some straight people spent years of their lives obsessing over homosexuality and fighting against the thoroughly non-threatening prospect of two loving and committed gay people sharing the same rights and responsibilities as two loving and committed straight people. Looking back, the unreasonable straight resistance will seem quaint, a bit silly. (Not that there isn't some queer resistance, too, but that's another story.)

But, right now, the struggle towards equality will continue. And, if the damaging race baiting can be put aside, the passage of Prop 8 will be remembered as one of the major catalysts in giving us the determination to move forward past setbacks until we achieve full recognition of our basic humanity. As I write this, gay couples are lining up to marry in Connecticut. These couples are the future, and another step forward in the positive evolution of marriage.

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