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.
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.