Triumph and Tragedy
Obama Win Tarnished By Gay Rights Losses
Even for a community accustomed to feeling different, LGBT Americans found themselves in a supremely awkward position the morning after Election Day. Sure, they celebrated with everyone—including many gracious Republicans when Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois made history as the first African-American elected to the presidency. But within the very democratic exercise that fulfilled the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., millions of gay and lesbian Americans saw their equality put to public scorn, when majorities in four states retracted their rights to adopt, marry and effectively live as whole citizens.
The conclusion was swift, stark and undeniably shocking: Many of the same people who supported the “change” candidate also be-trayed the rights of gays and lesbians.
Hour by hour on election night, good news rolled in for Obama, as catastrophe unfolded for the gay community. In the final tally, voter-approved ballot measures denied gays and lesbians adoption rights in Arkansas, and banned their right to marry in the state constitutions of Arizona, California and Florida. The latter outlawed any union, including domestic partnerships, that approximates straight marriage.
Those who voted for Proposition 8 must feel so much safer from erratic stock markets, global warming and nuclear-armed terrorists as a result.
The losses in Arizona and California especially stung, being reversals of hard-won gains. In 2006, Arizona was the first state to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, defying what had by then become a disturbing national trend. Two years and many episodes of Ellen DeGeneres later, voters somehow could not muster the same sense of basic fairness.
Meanwhile, in California, the high-profile, $73 million marriage battle was also the costliest outside the presidential race. The outcome was viewed as a critical measure of the gay community’s political progress and public acceptance. For all intents and purposes, it was “The Big One.”
The Supreme Court in California legalized same-sex marriages in May, a decision that sent hysterical opponents clamoring to certify the ballot initiative, Proposition 8, for voters’ consideration on November 4. Its razor-thin passage nullified a right previously upheld by the high court, and jolted more than 17,000 legally married gay and lesbian couples into limbo.
It’s a good thing California’s voters did approve another ballot initiative for farm animal rights, securing more cage space for chickens, and thereby maintaining a shard of the state’s increasingly thin progressive veneer.
The question haunts all LGBT Americans and their allies. How could triumph and tragedy for civil rights transpire on the same historic day in America?
Confused and angry souls searching for answers, and therapeutic outlets will find no shortage of targets to blame.
Early assessments attribute the passage of Proposition 8 to record-breaking voter turnout of more than 13 million prompted by the charismatic Obama candidacy. Obama won California by 61 percent compared to Republican John McCain’s 37 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times, whereas Proposition 8 passed by a much narrower margin, 52 to 48 percent.
At the very least, the implications appear challenging for Obama’s pluralistic New Day in America.
According to exit polls from CNN, for example, 70 percent of African-American voters in California approved Proposition 8, compared to 53 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of Whites, and 49 percent of Asians. Black turnout was unusually high because of Obama.
But before anyone heaps blame on African-Americans, one should acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether other racial groups told the truth about how they voted, not to mention the impact of all those new or previously disaffected voters Obama attracted to the political process. Where did independents and crossover Republicans really stand on Proposition 8? For that matter, was every white Democrat on board? It seems not.
Scholars may take some time to determine exactly who gave the hateful proposal its margin of victory, but in the interim, there are plenty of troubling questions to occupy fair-minded Americans.
First and foremost, there is the issue of the ballot initiative process. Why should any mechanism exist that subjects the rights of a minority group to public approval, and why are gays and lesbians so frequently targeted by this tactic?
"There's something deeply wrong with putting the rights of a minority up to a majority vote," Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, told the Associated Press in the aftermath of Proposition 8. “If this were being done to almost any other minority, people would see how un-American this is.”
Second, why should churches that encourage their members to give tens of millions of dollars to influence public policy enjoy tax-exempt status? The virulently anti-gay Mormon church did more than just about any other organization to affect the outcome of Proposition 8, mocking the principal of church and state. State records indicate they received help from the Catholic-affiliated Knights of Columbus and various evangelical groups.
Third, what happened to the LGBT community and its marquee national organizations? In a banner year for liberal impulses, the community suffered devastating defeats in four states, and failed to outspend religious fanatics bent on their apocalyptic destruction. Maybe the Proposition 8 protestors now pouring into the San Francisco streets beneath posters advertising the new Harvey Milk film can offer a more effective, grassroots way forward. Rumor has it the Obama model works well.
At a minimum, the gay rights movement needs to learn how to weave allied communities into the marriage equality dialogue. For many blacks who, despite the Proposition 8 result share an undeniable civil rights bond with gays, acknowledged by the late Mildred Loving, this involves talking about gay rights within a religious framework.
“To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity—not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it,” wrote black lesbian activist Jasmyne Cannick in the Los Angeles Times. “To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.”
Ultimately, many will argue that the highstakes nature of the 2008 election is what made victory for Obama the imperative, even at the cost of diverting attention and resources from the same-sex marriage battle. Now that he’s won, and with a fortified Democratic majority in Congress behind him, the LGBT community would do well to ask what President-elect Obama plans to give them in return for their sacrifice.
During the long campaign, both he and his vice president-elect, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, pledged their support for federal recognition of civil unions, a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-discrimination Act, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
So, which are they going to deliver first? To quote the winner, “Our time is now.”