Election Aftermath: Proposition 8 and the Triumph of Theocracy
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I recently ran into an old friend of mine, a Gay man, who asked me if I wasn’t glad about how the November 4, 2008 election turned out. I told him that the passage of Proposition 8 by California voters, redefining marriage in this state as exclusively between one man and one woman, had wiped out any elation I might have felt about the victory of Barack Obama in the Presidential race. “Well, I’m sorry that happened in terms of being discriminated against and treated like a second-class citizen,” said my friend, “but it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t really want to be married.” (Just for the record, this is a man who has lived with one partner or another virtually the whole time I have known him.)
Certainly it’s been apparent from the reaction in the streets of San Diego and California’s other major cities that a lot of people in the state’s Queer community were as pissed off as I was about the passage of Proposition 8. Many of the rallies and marches in protest have been organized, not by the usual array of self-proclaimed “community leaders,” but voluntarily by individuals who just wanted to express their outrage and used the tools of modern communications technology — e-mail, the Web, cell-phone texting — to draw hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of people to share it with them. It’s been a joy to see out and proud Queers in the street and even more of a joy to hear them refuse to compromise; when the “official” organizers of an anti-8 protest November 8 tried to censor signs with messages targeting churches or calling Prop. 8 what it was — an act of hate against our community — the rank-and-file protesters resisted, and won.
In a way, it’s odd to see the marriage issue attract so much energy both on the part of orthodox Queer “leaders” and the rapidly mobilizing “No More Mr. Nice Gay” (to quote the signs at least two of the November 8 marchers came up with — probably independently, since they were hand-lettered in different styles) challengers to them, since it’s an issue that by any rational standard is a clear loser for this community. Every state whose people have had a chance to vote on whether they want same-sex couples to be able to marry on the same basis as opposite-sex couples has voted against us.
Let me repeat that: EVERY STATE WHOSE PEOPLE HAVE HAD A CHANCE TO VOTE ON WHETHER THEY WANT SAME-SEX COUPLES TO BE ABLE TO MARRY ON THE SAME BASIS AS OPPOSITE-SEX COUPLES HAS VOTED AGAINST US. Even the one state where we actually defeated a same-sex marriage ban at the polls — Arizona, in 2006 — passed it this year. Same-sex marriage bans have passed in every region of the country, in states that voted both Republican and Democratic in the 2004 and 2008 Presidential elections, and whether they also included bans on domestic-partnership and civil-union laws or not (though the proponents of Proposition 8 wrote their initiative to leave California’s domestic-partnership laws in place because their polls indicated that a measure banning both marriage and domestic partnerships would lose).
Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments: marriage is a basic civil right, allowing opposite-sex couples to marry but not same-sex ones is an act of discrimination, it’s a sign of equality for our community, domestic partnerships and civil unions are the sorts of “separate but equal” institutions the U.S. Supreme Court rightly banned for African-Americans in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Certainly we convinced the California Supreme Court and its moderate Republican chief justice, Ronald George, who wrote a luminous opinion on our side making the case for our rights and our equality better than most Queer people who’ve tried have been able to do.
But the success of every state campaign that has sought to ban same-sex marriage needs to be a community wake-up call that we have not convinced the American people that we deserve equality. One of the most effective arguments used by the Yes on 8 campaign was their complaint that if same-sex marriage stood as the law in California, “they’ll have to teach it to our kids in school!” In the No on 8 campaign we were told to pooh-pooh this objection, to say that it was based on a case in Massachusetts and that California’s laws giving parents the right to keep their children from being taught about sexual controversies were much stronger.
The hypocrisy of that argument was exposed, interestingly, by a Prop. 8 supporter who posted a response to the article on my blog about the November 8 demonstration. This poster quoted three of the arguments made in amicus curiae briefs to the California Supreme Court. From the Anti-Defamation League: “It is particularly important to teach children about families with Gay parents.” [p. 5] From the Human Rights Campaign:
“(Parents have) no right to remove the books now in issue – or to impose an opt-out system.” [pp. 1-2] From the American Civil Liberties Union: “ Parents do not have a constitutional right to override [the] pedagogical judgment of the school.” [p. 9]
The irony is that if you truly believe that same-sex relationships are identical to opposite-sex relationships — that they are equal in level and depth of commitment, emotional meaning for the two people involved, and worthiness of social recognition and the financial and other benefits that derive from it — there is no earthly reason why the schoolchildren should not be taught the existence and legitimacy of same-sex relationships. The California Education Code does oblige the schools to teach the importance of marriage and family relationships — and allowing same-sex couples to wed on the same basis as opposite-sex couples would mean that the schools would have to teach students to respect our relationships on the same basis as everybody else’s.
The battle over schoolchildren and the horror that they might be taught about “Gay marriage” was a smokescreen, all right, but it was a smokescreen for our basic legitimacy as a people and the fact that, as much as things have advanced for us in the 58 years since the modern U.S. Queer-rights movement was founded, the majority of American people still don’t accept us as equals. Oh, they’ve decided that we shouldn’t go to prison for having sex with each other, we shouldn’t be publicly disgraced and we shouldn’t lose our jobs over it — but that’s a long way from full acceptance. Indeed, it’s fascinating that in the last 20 years the bitterest opposition we’ve faced politically has been when we’ve been seen as trying to “crash” two institutions seen by most Americans as quintessentially heterosexual: the military and marriage.
The biggest mistake made by the No on 8 campaign was its assumption that voters would see a ban on same-sex marriage as a form of discrimination. One anti-8 commercial showed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, referenced the California Supreme Court’s 1949 ruling striking down the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and even said that in 1909 the California legislature had passed a law banning people of Armenian descent from owning property in the state. That was an interesting bit of historical trivia and I wondered how come I’d never known that before — but it was utterly useless as an argument for preserving the California Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry.
It’s clear from the election results on Proposition 8 and the similar measures that have passed in every state that has voted on them — I can’t stress that point enough: no state whose voters have had the chance to decide whether or not to let us marry has let us — that the majority of American’s DON’T see Queer people as a community worthy of anti-discrimination protections. The so-called “movable middle” — the 30 to 35 percent of U.S. voters who are neither whole-hearted across-the-board supporters of Queer equality nor bitter opponents who want to see the sodomy laws reinstated — long since decided that though they may support some protections for Queer individuals and couples, they simply don’t see Queer relationships as equal to their own.
What’s more, the overwhelming support for Prop. 8 among 70-plus percent of African-American voters (and the less sweeping 53 percent support among Latinos — both stronger than the 50-50 split of white voters) indicates that it is people of color themselves who most strongly reject the analogy between their anti-discrimination struggles and ours. The irony is that the modern Queer-rights movement drew not only its inspiration but much of its strategy and tactics from the African-American civil rights movement — and we simply assumed that African-Americans would see the same analogy we did, Instead, a lot of the African-American voters who were interviewed after Prop. 8 passed said we were being virtually sacrilegious by taking a movement that had been started in Christian churches by Biblically inspired ministers and using it to support a lifestyle they consider immoral and un-Biblical. The potential that the overwhelming support of Prop. 8 among African-Americans could encourage a revival of racism among white Queers seemed strong enough that one of Prop. 8’s staunchest opponents, Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, was moved to send a mass e-mail November 8 warning us against it.
The arguments why a majority of Americans don’t see same-sex marriage rights as an anti-discrimination issue boil down to two: “My religion says no” and “You can’t make babies.” (There’s a third one — “You can’t be faithful,” referring to the well-known penchant for many Gay men in coupled relationships to seek outside sexual outlets — but those are the main two. “You can’t be faithful” seems to be the main argument for the estimated 25 to 30 percent of openly Gay or Lesbian voters who voted for Prop. 8.) The “My religion says no” and “You can’t make babies” arguments tend to blend together in a conception of traditional Biblical marriage as the union of one man and one woman for the purposes of conceiving and raising the people of the next generation. Many people who voted for Prop. 8 did so in the belief that not only does their religion stipulate that marriage exists for procreation, but that their beliefs should rule and take precedence over those of religious and non-religious people who disagree.
This (mis)understanding persists not only in the face of the actual text of the Bible (which defines marriage, not as the union of one man and one woman, but as the union of one man and as many women as he can support financially — which in practice makes polygamy a luxury for rich males) but the clear opposition of Jesus Christ himself. As the late Queer historian John Boswell pointed out, in preaching against the Jewish law that allowed men to divorce their wives if they were infertile, Jesus essentially said that the purpose of marriage was companionship, not procreation. But that’s a subtlety lost on many believers in the long-institutionalized “Christian” religion that has lost touch with a lot of the progressive ideals of its founder.
The passage of Prop. 8 and similar measures in every U.S. state that has had the chance to vote on them is a triumph for the theocrats in the war that has been going on ever since the Anglo-American civilization was founded: between those who believe the state has an obligation to impose their religious values on the entire population, and those who believe that religious belief (or unbelief) is a matter for the individual conscience and the state should not make its laws based on the beliefs of one religion or another.
From the prosecution of Anne Hutchinson and the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts to the 1800 Presidential campaign that was described in one independent pro-Federalist leaflet as a choice between “John Adams and God” and “Thomas Jefferson and No God,” from the early 20th century revival movement whose doctrinal creed, The Fundamentals, gave “Fundamentalism” its name to the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in the last two decades, there has been a strong theocratic streak throughout U.S. history, starkly contrasting with the approach of the Bill of Rights which tolerates all religions and establishes none.
The modern-day theocrats seized on homosexuality and abortion as the key issues to organize around out of a fervent belief that not only marriage but sex itself exists ONLY to reproduce the species. They oppose abortion (and often contraception as well) because they don’t want straight people to be able to have sex without the fear of unwanted pregnancies, and they oppose homosexuality — and, therefore, homosexuals — because Gay and Lesbian sex cannot produce babies. Many Gay and Lesbian people have children — some conceived through artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, but most from heterosexual relationships they were involved in before they definitively decided they were Gay or Lesbian — and the social-science evidence indicates that children fare best when they are raised by two adults, but it doesn’t make a difference whether the adults are the biological parents or they are of the opposite or the same genders.
The literature for Prop. 8 and virtually every other anti-Queer campaign at the ballot box since Anita Bryant launched the first one in Miami in 1977 is implicitly, and often explicitly, theocratic. Not only were religious organizations — the Mormon church (which has spent the last 118 years living down its former embrace of polygamy by becoming one of the most sexually hard-nosed branches of the Abrahamic religious tradition) and the Roman Catholic-affiliated Knights of Columbus — the major donors to Yes on 8, the appeals were open and unashamed appeals to voters to write those groups’ religious prejudices into law.
Indeed, the tenor of the 2008 election as a whole indicated what a sweeping triumph the American theocrats have won in terms of setting their agenda front and center in U.S. politics — even though they’ve been able to achieve their agenda only partially and incrementally. (Abortion remains technically legal throughout the U.S. — though practically available in only about 15 percent of the country, albeit the 15 percent of the country with about half of its total population — and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 2003 in a decision written by a man who’s usually one of the court’s more conservative justices, Anthony Kennedy.)
Barack Obama was able to win the presidency partly by presenting himself as the “right” sort of Christian — one who could say, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states” — and he, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all had to put themselves through the bizarre spectacle of a televised debate on CNN in February 2008 in which they all proclaimed their belief not only in God, but in an actively interventionist God who takes a direct and ongoing role in day-to-day human affairs and can be appealed to by prayer. There had always been an understanding that it was practically impossible for an agnostic or atheist to win the highest offices in this land; today the people have essentially imposed a religious test on the presidency and other major offices that people who don’t believe in an interventionist God need not apply either. The deists who wrote the U.S. Constitution in the first place would be S.O.L. if they tried to run for office under it in the current religious/political climate!
The theocrats are on the move in this country, despite the setbacks to the Republican Party (caused more by their screw-ups on the economy and foreign policy than any broad public opposition to their union of God and politics) in the last two elections. They are clearly strong in both major parties. Democrats who once wouldn’t let anti-choice Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey speak at their convention later enthusiastically embraced his equally anti-choice son in his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Obama pledged as a candidate to continue President Bush’s program of “faith-based initiatives” despite opposition from other Democrats — at least in part because it’s largely been a welfare program for churches, and the strongly anti-Queer African-American churches Obama depended on for a large part of his political base are directly benefiting big-time.
Same-sex marriage has been able to grab a beachhead in two states — Massachusetts (ironically, since at one point in our history that state was the emblem of the American theocracy!) and Connecticut — whose constitutions were blessed or cursed with amendment mechanisms of Rube Goldberg complexity that prevented their people from voting their opposition to same-sex marriage into constitutional law. Elsewhere, this issue has been a triumph for the theocrats and a sure loser for our community. In 1964, just after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, then-U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) wrote that the law cannot get too far ahead of people’s prejudices, for then the law will be disrespected; but the law must always be one step ahead of prejudice.
As much as this issue has meant to me not only politically but personally — when the California Supreme Court decision came down May 15 the first thing I did when I heard the news was place a phone call to my partner of 13 years, and we eagerly grabbed the chance to marry knowing all too well the window of opportunity might quickly be closed again — I’ve long worried that in pushing for same-sex marriage and insisting on using the M-word that we have got too far ahead of people’s prejudices. It’s entirely possible that “marriage,” at least as the word is used in the U.S., carries so much religious baggage that it will take another 50 to 100 years before a majority of Americans are prepared to see it used to describe our relationships.
The passage of Prop. 8 has been a wake-up call for the Queer community in more ways than one. It’s had one salutary effect: it’s convinced a lot of Queer people (and our non-Queer supporters) that we need a strong presence in the streets, staging marches, rallies and other forms of activism outside electoral politics. But what we also need now is to do a lot of soul-searching on why we haven’t been able to move a majority of Americans to accept us as a legitimate minority, and in particular why people of color — whom we not only assumed would accept us but whose own struggles we used as role models — seem unable to make that link.
I think we also have to put aside all the “separate but equal” rhetoric and seriously reconsider whether “marriage” as most Americans understand it, with its religious connotations and assumptions of monogamy and child-rearing, is really an appropriate demand to make. One alternative that has crossed my mind is that we agitate for civil-union laws that would be open not only to same-sex couples but to opposite-sex ones as well, not as an inferior substitute for marriage but as an alternative institution that would give straight people who reject the religious bigotry behind Prop. 8 to speak out along with us in the celebration of their own relationships.
When the San Diego City Council voted in September 2007 to join every other major California city in support of same-sex marriage equality before the state supreme court, I wrote, “The irony is that the better we do in the courts, the worse we’re likely to fare at the ballot box. That’s a corner the American Left has painted itself into on issue after issue, notably abortion and reproductive freedom. In counting on the courts to overrule popular opinion in the name of abstract ‘rights,’ we’ve adopted a fundamentally undemocratic strategy whose limitations have come back to haunt us.” The principal political issue facing the Queer community in the wake of Prop. 8’s victory is how to get out of the box we’ve put ourselves in and how to appeal to people, not judges, to grant us our basic human rights.