Morning in America II: The Hangover in California

Posted on November 7, 2008

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As anyone who has read the preceeding post may know, I was positively elated on Tuesday night. There are a lot of reasons, but I must say, few have anything to do with how Obama will govern. I am cautious in extending him the benefit of the doubt, but I do want to give him a chance. I’m not overly optimistic, however.

What really made me sad yesterday were the incontrovertible facts that Proposition 8 has made manifest here in sunny California. Up until then, I was hoping against hope that the uncounted ballots might spell a defeat for the odious measure. And, from a purely selfish standpoint, I just wanted to celebrate.

But now here we are, with Prop 8, and we must come to terms with just how this hateful and unprecedented measure became law. It has a lot to do with the heavy turn out among a previously marginalized cross-section of the electorate. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians came out heavily for Prop 8, just as they came out heavily for Barack Obama, which leaves people of color like me with a blinding hangover. We are in a depressing and prickly situation, that threatens to divide us even more, and bodes ill for the kind of unity that got Obama into the white house in the first place. After all, where would the Democratic party be without its gay and lesbian foot soldiers?

Its easy to blame the whole thing on homophobia–and to deny that the proposition passed because of homophobia would be ludicrous. But I believe there’s plenty of blame to spread around. One of the unlikely suspects, I believe, was the pro-marriage movement itself. Just one look at its lack luster campaign shows an effort that made no attempt to understand the mentality of its opponents.

Certainly, through the summer, if Prop 8 was finding purchase in the wider electorate, it meant that those voters already had a negative view of gay and lesbian people. It would seem unlikely to be able to turn that around in the space of a few months, but even if it were possible, it seems even more doubtful that the anti-8 ads we did see would have done the trick. The civil rights issue falls on deaf ears in communities of color, for a very good reason that continues to be ignored by gay and lesbian communities.

The civil rights of communities of color and of gay communities have been violated for generations in this country, but that does not mean that there are similar paradigms operating in both instances. Though many political minorities experience prejudice and marginalization, each experience is unique and may, in fact, inure one to the others. The idea that the experience of oppression creates some kind of continuum is a delusion that needs to now be forcefully exercised from our civil rights movements.

Had the anti-8 community been thinking more clearly, they would have stuck at the most overwhelming riveting and revolting issue that emerges from the prop 8 nightmare–that a small group of people can take advantage of a political system to actually re-write our state constitution to remove rights, rather than expand them. That’s a truly remarkable event in the evolution of constitutions at the state, federal and even global level in the modern world, where the momentum has gone in the opposite direction, erring on the side of caution to constitutionally protect rights.

Constitutions, by definition, have historically existed to expand access to the rule of law, even to the most loathed and despised minority communities. Indeed, if such communities were not hated, they would not be in danger of becoming oppressed, and there would be no need for a constitution. To protect the constitution, I need not believe in your activities or like your race, I need only fear that I may one day be in those shoes, as may a family member or friend. Perhaps other similarly narrow-minded organizations may take advantage of our proposition system to advance changes to outlaw computer games, certain forms of literature or political speech, and even limit marriage among the hetero sexual community. After all, why not? The forces behind Prop 8 proved it to be relatively easy and there are many groups out there who have their own culture war axes to grind that indeed affect a far larger swath of our polity.

So, this is the part that proves difficult to understand. Had the anti-8 movment approached the measure purely as an issue of constitutional integrity, rather than attempting to convince homophobes that being gay and married is ok, they may have shaved off just enough fair-minded bigots to defeat the measure. There is no way to legislate tolerance. This is why we have state and federal constitutions in the first place.

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