Thursday, November 06, 2008

Whatever happened with Prop. 8?

A friend who lives far from California asks:

I just ... found that Prop. 8 passed. How could California go so overwhelmingly for Obama and not defeat this? We've got a good ways to go on full civil rights...

Yes, electing a President Obama (that sure sounds good!) is just about the greatest symbolic blow for an expansive understanding of who we are as a people that most of us have ever experienced. And yet the people of California, by popular vote (it seems to be roughly 52-48) voted to deny full civil rights to their gay citizens by amending our state constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

There will be long and painful dissections of this outcome. There are many people who were closer to this and who are wiser than I am. But here are my preliminary thoughts:

Item: This isn't the first time recently that a subset of Californians have seen their fellow citizens vote to reject their rights and their very personhood. In 1994, a much larger majority than this (roughly 60-40) voted that their fear of being overwhelmed by Brown immigrants justified denying their immigrants' children education and health care. In 1996, a similar majority voted that the occasional hurt to white people that is a by-product of using affirmative action to give Black and Brown people a fair shake was enough reason to forbid such efforts to spread opportunity around. The California electorate sometimes votes its fears when incited to do so.

Item: And there was lots of incitement to fear in the campaign to pass Prop. 8. Lies flew nonstop from proponents. Moreover the incitement came from a particularly evil source: "religious" authorities who appropriate human longing for God to prop up their human power and glory. In particular, the Mormon church, right wing Protestant "Christian" dominionists, and segments of a fading type of authoritarian Roman Catholicism (the Panzer Pope's kind -- there are others) used Prop. 8 to bind their followers ever more closely in a hidey-hole of fear where the men in charge can reign supreme.

To my kind of Christian -- a kind who experiences God as sacrificial love embodied -- this kind of religion seems demonic. They reduce God to a monster hovering to pounce on unfortunates who violate a long list of rules. And somehow those rules always prop up the current distribution of power in society, especially the waning power of anxious men over "their" women.

Item: These rightwing religious guys get away it because historic Christianity does have a lot to answer for when it comes to promoting intolerance. Lots of people have said this better than I can. Two books I've touched on in blog posts this year come to mind. Gene Robinson (the delightfully openly-gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire), in his new book wrote about how religion had such a central role in promoting homophobia that faithful people had a special responsibility to root out this particular societal intolerance. The Prop. 8 result shows how right he is.

And Chris Hedges challenged Christians who believe in love to deconstruct and delegitimze the many Biblical passages that justify promotion of an angry intolerant picture of God. He's right too -- this is our job.

Item: Elections are not a time for having complex, nuanced discussions; they are a time for turning out voters. But outside the campaign season, many of us in the LGBT movement have failed to do the hard emotional and intellectual work of understanding the anxieties so many of our fellow citizens have about "family." We've been content to just want "in" to marriage. The people who want to ban our marriages prey on real, widely felt, fears that "the family" is under threat. For lots of folks, in our dog-eat-dog system, blood relatives are all they can imagine to fall back on when times are tough; government and institutions don't help.

Our society is not helpful to any of us in maintaining our web of relationships. Our economy treats us as interchangeable units of labor: want a job? -- go work where some company or institution needs you, even if that tears up your human connections. Trying to raise children? You are on your own with maybe a parenting class if you are lucky -- and forget affordable childcare so you can go to that job that moved you away from relatives and friends. The divorce rate shows the strain all this puts coupled relationships.

Gay people, of necessity, have become quite adept at forming intentional human support systems to replace the broken connections too many of us experience. The AIDS epidemic challenged us; in some times and places, we responded creatively and humanely. We know we have made good, strong, loving relationships and we want our families recognized in the one way that society does recognize relationships: by allowing us to enter into civil marriages. But civil marriage itself is under great strain. Despite the wedding industry's glowing promotions, it is not working very well. So we are fighting hard to enter an institution where conflict and anxiety are already acute. Maybe gay and straight together need to ponder how to give our complex enduring relationships more structural support from society at large.

Item: Because Prop. 8 won and the campaign against it failed, there will be recriminations about the campaign itself. Some obvious ones:
  • Too many California progressives were too obsessed with electing Obama; they should have stayed home. Maybe -- or maybe not. As one who traveled, it is hard for me not to be a little defensive on this one. Electing a mildly progressive President of color was more important to this lesbian than winning civil marriage. I admit that.
  • The campaign used the wrong messages, either messages that were too mushy or messages that failed to reassure voters. Get over it. Campaigns do their best; you can't satisfy every constituency. When you lose, your message was always wrong, if you could afford to deliver it at all.
  • The campaign didn't appreciate that Obama would bring out masses of voters from communities of color who believed they had more urgent needs than appreciating why gay people might want to get married. Maybe, but the real problem implicit in this line of thought may be that too few people of color were part of the "no on 8" campaign structure from the get-go. Messages for and messengers to these communities had to come from these communities. Were they there and empowered? I don't know.
All these recriminations have to be understood in the context of the structural problems built into a campaign to defeat an initiative that someone else put on the ballot to hurt you. When you work for a candidate, the buck stops with the candidate. There is someone structurally empowered to say "yes" or "no" to campaign decisions. In a defensive ballot campaign, it is very hard to run a coherent effort. Everyone who feels under assault believes (not wrongly, but inconveniently) that they have a right to campaign for their own survival in their own way. And they mostly will. So in managing the campaign, you struggle with trying to maintain appropriate message discipline within your ranks at the same time you have to go out to combat the other side. It's a wonder when anyone who assumes leadership in these kind of emotional fights comes out relatively unscarred by bitterness at her own side. But these tensions are not solely the consequence of individuals' behavior on the campaign -- on who was acting as an arrogant idiot, for example -- but on the structure of the defensive situation.

As far as gay marriage is concerned -- I'm not worried. Here's why:

This is a struggle that reflects a moment in time. Barring that our society goes belly up completely -- and we now have a President who will at least try to prevent that, -- the fight over gay civil rights will go away when some of the current electorate dies off and their children replace them. Our time will come.

The struggle is long, but the arc of the universe bends toward justice and love.

8 comments:

Rebecca Gordon said...

Or as I said to my next-door neighbor, it wasn't our turn this time. So we just have to wait until some people at one end of the age spectrum die, while some at the other end become old enough to vote.

I actually think the vote in Arkansas to prohibit adoption by unmarried couples might be worse. That's a real step backwards. But we're in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance.

And this lesbian agrees with you that I'll trade an Obama victory for a Prop. 8 loss. Just wish we didn't have to make those trades.

Anonymous said...

I agree, my joy over Obama is far greater than my sorrow over the passing of Prop 8.

I'm not sure this is true for most gays though - the grief inside Peets in the Castro (across from the No on 8 HQs) was unbearable yesterday. I saw no evidence of celebration over our new president.

bjohanna said...

Tuesday evening I had a moment of disbelief -- is it really true that Obama won the election? (Fortunately, that stunned moment of silence didn't last too long, thanks to the celebratory cheering from neighbors on their porches.)

Wednesday and today I am in a different state of disbelief -- an inability to understand what it is about me that scares people so. I know it's not me personally, but yet... The people who voted for Prop. 8 know people like me. And that makes me wonder about the people I share coffee break with, volunteer with, etc.

The problem is by the time the majority of the older "yes on Prop. 8" voters die, I'll probably also be dead. Perhaps I'm a bit selfish, but I'd like to be equal before I die.

Anonymous said...

absolutely, an obama win over a no on 8 victory. i can't imagine what it would feel like right now to have mccain as president elect and same-sex marriage won. (i also can't imagine how that combination could have occurred.)

i think one of the biggest reasons for prop 8 passing was that the HRC and Equality California really dropped the ball on organizing in/outreach to communities of color. the same problem happened in the Prop 22 campaign. by contrast, Yes on 8 did a good job of reaching out to voters of color, African Americans in particular. perhaps, too, Black voters may have already been getting mobilized to vote through their churches (many relatively more conservative, eg Baptist, therefore likely to independently urge Yes on 8). (It's very interesting that Latino voters were not as strongly Yes on 8.)

I had a friend doing No on 8 work through API Equality in LA, and No on 8 kept sending API Equality to more white areas, even though API Equality specifically wanted to reach out to Asian and other voters of color.

Generally, I think many more voters of color could have been moved to vote no based on the idea of a "civil rights" issue, AS LONG AS they were convinced that these "civil rights" did not impinge on the independence of their churches. No on 8 didn't really know how to talk about how race and sexuality are different, AS WELL AS related. It's a complicated message to talk through - especially for HRC and NGLTF folks who really don't talk about race much at all.

The things that give me hope are

1) it was only 52% Yes on 8, not the 61%+ of Prop 22

2) the age factor - younger voters voting No on 8 in higher numbers

3) the court challenges - hard to imagine this state Supreme Court reversing its own decision

4) the energy out on the streets to protest the Prop 8 results

The things that keep me still depressed are

1) The misguided rhetoric about race and blaming Black voters I've overheard from a number of LGBT people (mostly white, mostly moneyed, mostly men)

2) The Arkansas, Arizona and Florida initiatives passing

3) The simple fact that I feel personally alienated after getting something I didn't really know I wanted, loved once I had it, and now see taken away.

- Emily Hobson

Lisa said...

The Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage came in 1967. I was born only fifteen years later and can't imagine a world where blacks and whites could be jailed for having sex. Most people my age don't even know it was ever illegal. I believe that by the time my children are my age, it will accepted without question.

Fr. John said...

Jan, thanks for taking the long view on this. I'm not sure this was a necessary trade-off. I think we could have had both President-elect Obama and marriage equality in California. The key is to learn what lessons we can from this loss, without devouring our leadership in the process.

One learning for me is that the progressive religious community was not proactive or organized enough. There is a need for ecumenical dialogue about this issue - especially with historic African-American churches and Roman Catholics who are otherwise fairly progressive - outside the heat of a political campaign. Creating structures within which that can happen - through solidarity work on other issues - will be important.

That said, I'm thrilled about President-elect Obama and the prospects for building a progressive political movement.

Darlene said...

As an 83 year old grandmother I was dismayed by the narrow and bigoted vote of the elders. I shouldn't have been surprised, I guess because elders seem to be the last to give up their prejudices. I think it should be the other way around. One would think that a person over 65 would have learned something.

As an Arizonan, I was disgusted that a "so called" religious bunch of nut cases from my state were responsible for getting Prop. 8 on the ballot in Calif. How can this happen? Unfortunately, the same initiative passed here promoted by the same group of haters. The advertising was intense with beautiful white people extolling the virtues of marriage. These ads made me laugh (in disgust) at the irony of a Church that practiced polygamy at one time denying another group their civil rights.

Ronni Gilboa said...

I do not believe that "it wasn't our time" is a way to speak or rationalize a clear loss of equality. The issue is that no one's civil rights should be subject to the impacts of political or religious bigotry. The instituion of marriage was created to insure property, inheritance rights and lineage. I want my queer partner to have complete and total access to my social security account after I die, life insurance benifits without question,home and other assests when I die. I want to be able have and use the same "rights" that hetrosexual couple have, without question, now. Or is this a "free" country only for some?

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