WHY I AM NOT devastated by Proposition 8, and why Tuesday is a step forward

Some of you may not know that during the recent campaign cycle, I was actively involved in doing whatever I could (although, I still probably could have done more) to convince people around me to support gay marriage by signing online petitions and by donating money to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s leading gay rights groups that was helping lead the fight against Proposition 8 in California.

As many of you may know, it looks as if the proposal to ban same sex marriage has passed, which has inspired a wealth of criticism in the media, all of which shares a similar tone: that gay people (and gay rights supporters) are devastated by the passing of Proposition 8 and similar amendments that passed in two other states in our Union.

I, however, am not devastated. Actually, there are many positive things to come out of the California vote in particular. So, I wrote the following email blast (yes, I’m one of those) to the friends and family who had supported my missive-writing, some of whom wrote to me after the news of Prop 8’s passage, sending their consolations.

In truth, I need no consolation. I am optimistic and ready to fight the next round. Here are some thoughts on the matter… [BTW, The Times ran an editorial that shares similar arguments.]

“WHY I AM NOT devastated by Proposition 8, and why Tuesday is a step forward”

Dear Friends-

Thanks to everyone who had reached out to me in encouragement regarding my previous emails, which asked all of you to support same sex marriage, and to defend the right of California citizens who had been granted marriage equality through the state Supreme Court’s decision over the summer.

Now that we have found out that Proposition 8 looks to have passed by a very small margin, I have heard from a few of you who are concerned with my emotional reaction to the news (and to the news that similar gay marriage bans have passed in two other states). Thank you. However, I am in positive spirits, and for a few good reasons.

Many of the headlines read something to the effect of, “Gay rights supporters are devastated…” (Then they show a picture of sad gay people!) Yes, many are devastated. Many seem to be surprised by California’s outcome. But I am not devastated, nor am I surprised by the outcome; or, rather, I am actually surprised that so many people voted against the proposition.

To the emotional reaction: Yes, civil rights losses are particularly painful. They have real results on our lives, and the results mainly curb happiness and human dignity; they prevent opportunity and they shape our view of the world, namely, by narrowing it. This is different from, say, a capital bond that does or does not go through, or some other non-civil liberties related legislation. Even a hike in taxes does not equate to the same emotional, private sense of morale loss that the passing of Proposition 8 seems to have elicited.

We must understand that, when we begin to engage politically, we open ourselves up to uncertainty. That’s the nature of politics. Therefore, we open ourselves to disappointment, because participating in a political campaign necessitates one to nourish a deep care for a certain cause. I would assume that for many, this was the first civil-rights related cause that they have had the opportunity to actively engage in.

But the deep care is what drives the campaign, and not only is it entirely necessary, but it is impossible to remove from such struggles. And, as with all civil rights issues, the struggle is decidedly uphill. No civil rights gains have been made without losses, major and minor, along the way. Don’t forget that there was Plessy V Ferguson (1896) before there was Brown V The Board of Education (1954).

And the right in question–the legal equality of gays to marry–has particular negative potency because of its attachment to basic notions of religious morality. But such moral arguments have been used since the dawn of time to keep others from sharing equality. You can probably find a Biblical foundation (often by misinterpreting, but sometimes by taking quite literally) for virtually every type of discrimination known to modern society. But these are less and less useful as our culture matures.

On a personal note, my first sense of political loss came with Proposition 22, which, in 2000, passed by a wide margin (61/38) to make it California State law to recognize only heterosexual marriage. This is the law that the state Supreme Court ruling overturned recently. I participated a lot, volunteered, tried to spread the word. But to no avail.

I remember feeling demoralized afterward; a grave sense of hopelessness. My fellow citizens, some friends even, overwhelmingly had made their anti-gay position clear (although there were a couple unique factors that led to that vote being as slanted as it was).

After that, I seriously pulled back my activist activities. It has only been in recent years, after some time away, time in which our country has changed dramatically–and in a good way–and after being fed up with eight years of Bush administration bullshit, that I have been compelled–as Allen Ginsberg would have said–to once again put my queer shoulder to the wheel. But I’m doing it now with what I believe is a more mature understanding of such political struggles. Effectively, I am not discouraged by Tuesday’s election results. In fact, I am encouraged, and here’s why…

First, law suits against the legislation are already in motion. We should not rely on these as antidotes to the loss. Our goal should be to continue to affect change in the electorate, while continuing to press for equal representation at the judicial level. One could argue that Proposition 8 passed because of a conservative backlash to the state Supreme Court’s decision. So, even if we gain another judicial victory, we should still keep changing the minds and hearts of fellow voters as the ultimate goal of our struggle.

Second, Obama’s victory is encouraging for gay rights in the long run. Not only is his administration likely to appoint moderate to left justices (and balance out the unconstitutional activities of the Bush Justice Department which has now slanted courts to lean 60/40 conservative), but he does believe, at the very least, in rights equalities through civil unions. That’s a big step in the right direction. Obama and the Democratic party’s ascendancy also means that a federal Constitutional ban on same sex marriage is buried for a while, an amendment which Sarah Palin said she would have supported. (Oh, conservatives! When the issue is abortion, it falls into the hands of the states. But when it’s gay rights, the Fed should crack down…)

Ironically, it looks like the big African American turnout in California hurt gay rights. We cannot ignore the fact that the community overwhelmingly voted for the measure. But this should be looked at as an opportunity to really ramp up outreach within the black community, not as some kind of inevitable factor that can never be overcome. It only points out how much work there is to do to solidify equality for gays in all American communities.

Thirdly, it was heartening to see by how few votes the measure passed. The results of the Proposition 8 vote show a big improvement from the lopsided victory of Proposition 22. This does prove that California has changed overall to the advantage of equality for gay people, and also leads me to believe that a repeal of the amendment could be a viable option, should the law suits against Prop 8 fall through.

It’s clear, from the reactions I’ve heard from some of my California friends–which has mainly been disbelief–that many of those who support gay marriage underestimated the vehemence with which some people oppose the idea, and the money and effort those people are willing to spend to wage their cultural war. Next time around, I think a larger portion of the pro-gay rights side will understand that the effort to bring marriage equality to all citizens will require a greater effort, a bigger ground game, a lot more money, and frankly, more active outreach. It’s one thing to join a Facebook group (which I encourage), it’s another thing to speak to someone in person about why you think gay marriage should be legal.

And finally, why I genuinely do not feel devastated right now, is because I really do believe, as Martin Luther King believed, that the moral arc of the universe is long, and that it does bend toward justice.

I believe the country has definitely become more open minded on this issue. There are people in my life who support gay marriage now who did not support gay marriage in 2000. I’m sure I’m not the only person with this story. And I credit the change in those people, in part, to my own willingness to engage in the conversation, to share with friends and family–and risk heated arguments–why I feel marriage is a civil right that should be extended to same-sex couples. The greatest thing we can do is to talk talk talk about this issue. Don’t be afraid of people’s reactions. Just speak your mind.

Now is not the time to give in to demoralization. It is hard, I know. But opponents of gay marriage, and of homosexuality in general, use restricting civil liberties precisely as a tool to attack our morale. And guess what? It works! However, the sooner we pick ourselves up, dust it off, and get back to the grind, the more able we will be to swiftly counter the latest in what very likely will be a continuing series of defeats nationally. The pendulum kind of goes back and forth on this one; some years we make gains, other years, like this year, we lose official ground. So we must build our mettle up, because this struggle is likely to continue for a long time, perhaps for most of our lives. Look at the fight abortion rights proponents must still face, even after the passing of Roe V Wade. So we must be prepared for losses as much as we should be optimistic about future victories, and more than anything, we must be prepared to make this a fight we are willing to commit to for the rest of our lives, not just for the next election cycle.

Once again, I feel we have made gains in California, even though we lost this round (or so it seems; I think the count is still going, but it doesn’t look good). Keep your spirits up. Keep talking: Express to people how unfortunate the results are, and that you hope that we’ll turn this around as soon as possible. And maybe the next fight will go our way. I honestly am encouraged that it’s even a possibility to imagine that we have a chance at majority support for gay marriage in California. We should all feel empowered by this.

Thank you all for reading this loooong email. I hope it finds you well, and leaves you feeling better.

With love and respect,


  1. So Barack Obama, who was born in the U.S. during a time that many states would not recognize his parents’ mixed-race marriage, has publicly supported “SEPARATE BUT EQUAL” civil unions for gays?? While the irony of that sinks in, please read on….


    I think you’re good people, like me. I pay my taxes that support my schools and religious institutions so they can give back to the community. I don’t hurt anyone and only try to help. I oppose people who try to infringe on religious freedoms, and I don’t seek to infringe upon what “marriage” means to you. I appreciate that most of you DO approve of ‘domestic partnerships’ and ‘civil unions’ for gay people, but please listen to why that doesn’t work.

    The federal government gives married people about 1000 rights. The state gives them about 400 additional rights. The reason the government is involved in marriage at all is to promote and protect stable, happy families as basic units of society. Obviously marriage is not solely for procreation, as we do not remove that right from you if you are infertile, elderly, or choose not to have children. When you marry, you are automatically entitled to those 1400 rights, including the right to visit a spouse in the hospital, be added to your spouse’s insurance policies, acquire property with your spouse and automatically inherit it if your spouse dies, and many more. These 1400 rights are not simply and easily written up in a single civil document, nor always enforceable; for instance, a person under a state’s domestic partnership can’t force the IRS to give him the tax breaks afforded to married couples. It is extremely complex and doesn’t always work; I am aware of gay people whose partners died and the deceased’s hostile family successfully asserted their ownership of everything in spite of the contract, leaving the survivor destitute. Imagine children being involved, and a deceased partner’s hostile family takes your children from you because your civil contract didn’t stand up in court proving you were next of kin! In Arkansas, the majority just voted to prohibit unmarried people from adopting, meaning a gay person can’t even adopt their partner’s children to ensure that if their partner dies the children will remain with the surviving parent they love!

    ‘Civil unions’ and ‘domestic partnerships’ permit OSTENSIBLY most of the 400 state-afforded rights of married couples, but NONE of the 1000 federal ones, and I can tell you from personal experience that the state ones are NOT equal. Just one example is that to get on my partner’s insurance policy, we had to provide our certificate of domestic partnership, copies of financial records proving we had co-mingled finances and lived in the same home for at least two years, and more. If I died, my partner would have to wait at least two years to add her new partner to the policy to prove the relationship was ‘real’. Married people don’t even need to provide a copy of a marriage license, and if their spouse died today, they could add a new spouse tomorrow. This is only one example out of MANY.

    Other rights are specific to helping children of married people, including ensuring automatic inheritance rights, the right of a non-blood related parent to pick up a sick child from school, alimony and child support to help with their care in the event of divorce, and many more. No matter the makeup of the family or how it comes to be — be it traditional nuclear, or grandparents raising their grandchild, or a blended family resulting from divorced people remarrying, or single parents, or adoptive parents, or childless couples, or gay couples — ALL of these people deserve the same rights so they have the best chances of happiness and contribution to society.

    What I would like to see the FEDERAL government do is create one proto-marriage type of relationship (‘civil union’?) that applies equally to all people who want it, including granting them all 1400 of the rights and responsibilities that “married” people currently enjoy, and then simply leave the word “marriage” for religiously-inclined people who want to further consecrate their relationship according to their religions. I think that is what the MAJORITY of us all want. Unfortunately, the federal government is currently leaving the issue to states to decide, so we are stuck wrestling for the one word that currently encompasses all 1400 of those rights, and that word is “marriage”. Granting the existing rights encompassed by one word to a minority is a lot easier than changing 1400 laws to encompass them. That’s really all there is to it, see?

    I understand many of you are afraid that legalizing gay marriage will lead to your children being forced to learn in school that homosexuality is “normal”. I will be the first to agree with you that homosexuality is NOT “normal” – the parts don’t fit and we can’t make babies. But consider that in one out of every 100 live births, a child is born with ambiguous genitalia (intersexed). If God creates 1% of babies that way, why do we then do surgery to “correct” them to one sex or the other and make them “normal”? God made me abnormal too – I’m among the small percentage of people whose wiring is crossed so I’m attracted to my own sex. My abnormality doesn’t lead me to hurt anyone. The worst law I’ve ever broken is the speed limit. Learning that homosexuals exist isn’t going to turn any child homosexual, but it will help the small percentage born with this abnormality to feel less alone. That’s really the worst that could happen. All the same, currently in California no child can be forced, against the will of their parents, to be taught anything about homosexuality at school.

    As for the slippery slope arguments that legalizing gay marriage will automatically lead to legalizing polygamy or incestuous marriages, those forms of marriage existed throughout most of recorded history but are too impractical or undesirable for the vast majority of Americans to even consider. As for legalizing gay marriage leading to legalizing people marrying pets or children, these can’t even give informed consent. Please stay off the slippery slope; the ONLY topic we’re asking you to agree on is legalizing gay marriage.

    We gay people and our families are being hurt by laws as they stand, and all we are asking for is the concession that the word “marriage” include us so we may enjoy its rights – and responsibilities. I will leave you with the words of Mildred Loving, who wrote this forty years after her 1967 legal case struck down laws barring interracial marriage:

    “Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry.”


    P.S. I voted for Barack Obama with the fervent hope that he’ll come around to understanding the role he can play in advancing civil rights. Still hoping.

  2. Hi Paula-

    Thanks for the thoughtful arguments.

    I think that Obama’s official position was political, in that I think he really does believe gay couples should have the right to “marry.” I’m not happy out his position, but I make that exception because I know if he had outright supported gay marriage, it could have cost him the election. (Read also this great piece in The Times about how Muslim people made a similar compromise when Obama repeatedly refused to censure the pejorative use of the term “Muslim” in the darker days of this campaign: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/nyregion/07muslims.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin). I consider this an adult compromise.

    Remember too that legal Spousal Privilege is also one of the rights not extended to gay couples, therefore, leaving them in a position of being forced to testify against each other. That right is hugely important.

    But one of you arguments I find problematic. The idea of embracing the “abnormality” of homosexuality, as if it is a result of “wires crossing.” I see what you’re getting at, but I don’t think it’s a genetic miss-wiring. It may very well be genetic, but I just consider this a variety of beingness. Are left-handed people miss-wired? Red heads? Black people?

    We’re not the majority, but we’re a consistent minority. There are homosexual people in absolutely every culture and country of the world. If you were studying birds and found that 10% of every bird species around the globe had purple feathers, you would indeed conclude that it is normal to find a few purple birds in any given flock.

  3. […] Critic reflects on the passage of Proposition 8 in […]

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