Prop 8 demos— photo by Ellen Shub
This past election saw a series of interesting cultural clashes and collisions over the issue of same-sex marriage. Almost all of these centered on California’s Proposition 8, a state-wide referendum to create a constitutional amendment to legally mandate that in California marriage could only be between a woman and a man. This isn’t really news because at least 26 states have passed constitutional amendments that forbid, in various ways, same-sex marriage. What was different about Proposition 8 is that it would outlaw what had already been legally recognized—the State Supreme Court had previously ruled, four to three, that barring same-sex couples from marrying was discriminatory. Prop 8 was the first time that a referendum was used to overturn a judicial or legislative ruling on same-sex marriage.
The California voters passed Prop 8 by 52 to 48 percent. It was a costly campaign on both sides—the pro-forces spent $35.8 million and the LGBT activists $37.6 million—and the fallout is still being felt. Some gay activists are arguing that the national LGBT groups did not do enough work and made a series of mistakes that led to the proposition passing, including relying on too many expensive ads featuring heterosexual celebrities. Other activists, and especially reporters, pointed to the African American vote. According to CNN exit polls, 70 percent of African American voters supported the Proposition—not that much of a surprise since Black churches, for the most part, supported the proposition. But to understand this number we also have to take into consideration that these were probably older voters, since voters of all races, ethnicities, and incomes under the age of 35 were against Prop 8.
The situation was also complicated by the fact that the New York Times and other news outlets suggested that the large turnout for Obama mobilized an African American constituency that did not regularly vote and whose liberal views on a number of issues did not include support for same-sex marriage. In the last days of the campaign the group Protect-Marriage.com distributed flyers with a photograph of Barack Obama quoting him as being against same-sex marriage, which was true. But Obama had also stated that he was against state-wide referendums to decide the issue and was specifically against Prop 8. This was further complicated by the fact that organizing by national and local LGBT groups did not include special or extensive outreach to African American voters, a serious flaw in the mostly-white LGBT national movement groups.
The bottom line is that from the very beginning of the same-sex marriage movement there have been a series of organizing blunders that have brought us to this crossroads. The movement has never felt that it needed to do much outreach to wider populations about same-sex marriage. They relied on judicial and legislative rules to make same-sex marriage a reality. As a result, these state-wide referendums passed very easily. Another blunder was the constant recitation that the fight for same-sex marriage was exactly like the fight for interracial marriage that was won by Loving v. Virginia—an essentially false comparison that must have been difficult for many African Americans to hear and was not useful in trying to present the question of same-sex marriage (a moral issue for many people) in a civil rights context. But this points to an even larger problem: that the overwhelmingly white LGBT rights movement has never really attempted to form coalitions with groups that may have been willing to be supportive.
For years a popular slogan and banner at gay pride rally and parades was "Gay Straight/Black White/Same Struggle/Same Fight." A nice piece of rhetoric that does not take into consideration the hard work of discussing differences and coalition building. Since the mid-1970s, the more mainstream gay rights movements have rejected the wide vision of coalition building that had been articulated by the Gay Liberation movement. That decision has been the cause of many missed opportunities in the last decades.
Perhaps the main lesson is that it is perfectly possible for many people to articulate a liberal politics (and vote for Obama) and hold various opinions on a number of topics—the presumption that a vote for Obama meant a vote for same-sex marriage was simply not true. The culture wars are still with us and the incredible energy that propelled Obama to the White House is as prone to the idiosyncrasies of a wide range of personal, moral, ethical, and cultural sentiments and claims as any other moment in history. The fighting and recriminations about Prop 8 are going to continue for some time, but until the LGBT movement can begin to understand the complexities of real coalition building and what that may actually mean, we will be stuck in the same series of cycles.
Michael Bronski is a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator. He has been a visiting professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College since 1999.