The morning after California banned gay marriage, my cousin Samantha in Los Angeles announced on Facebook that she was “surprised to learn that groups who have experienced unequal treatment are more willing to persecute others.” Like many California queers who woke up in a state of grief and shock, Samantha was referring to the oft-repeated statistic that 70 percent of black voters in California voted for Proposition 8. Gay marriage proponents have already launched legal challenges against the new law — a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage, threatening to undo the nuptials of Ellen Degeneres and 18,000 other newly married queers.
The initial reaction of many of my friends and family in California was to express frustration and disappointment that on the very same day that the US elected its first black president, California voted to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
The Obama campaign registered millions of people to vote for the first time — largely people of colour in poor neighbourhoods. Many people argue that this helped push Obama’s support over the top, but may have also topped up the vote on anti-gay ballot measures in California, Florida and Arkansas. I’ve never been good at math, so I can imagine jumping to a similar conclusion in a fit of righteous anger.
But when you take a look, the numbers just don’t add up. As Huffington Post blogger Raymond Leon Roker points out, “according to the exit polling, there’s enough blame to go around.” Forty-nine per cent of Asians voted for Prop 8, along with 53 per cent of Latinos and almost half of the white people in the state. Roker argues that attempting to direct blame based on exit polling is dangerous — especially when it leads to racist backlash again people of colour — queers included. Besides, this obscures what should be the real target our rage: the misinformation, outright lies and the obscene amount of money that the Mormon Church poured into the Yes on 8 campaign.
What’s particularly offensive is the notion that black voters somehow “should have known better” — as if the experience of racism automatically translates into an inherent empathy for queers and a desire to fight homophobia. This especially stings queer people of colour who have experienced intolerance from white gays who haven’t bothered to question their own racism. Black queers who hit the streets last week in Los Angeles reported being yelled at by white gay marriage supporters, who accused them of being part of the problem — automatically assuming that their dark skin qualified them as straight homophobes who voted for Prop 8.
Pitting white gays against people of colour is not going to advance the fight for equality in California or anywhere else. Is black homophobia reprehensible? Of course it is — but so is every other kind of homophobia. And is the general climate in the US any different that in virtuous, human rights-loving Canada? Hell no.
Let’s not forget that it took more than 30 years of street protests and lobbying to achieve equal relationship recognition for same sex couples in Canada. The majority of that hard work took place in a climate where most Canadians opposed gay marriage.
In an essay published this year in the book Mobilizations, Protests and Engagements: Canadian Perspectives on Social Movements, Laurie Arron, the former director of Canadians for Equal Marriage, describes how he spent years engaging in gentle conversations with opponents. His organization was enormously successful at gaining a broad base of support from the traditional supporters — labour unions and social justice groups — but also from groups like the World Sikh Congress and the Muslim Canadian Congress.
While I agree with some of what Arron has to say, it’s easy to forget that his gentle conversations were fuelled by decades of action on a whole range of queer issues, from fighting bath house raids to protesting censorship to demanding adequate funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. All of these protests made our community visible and built a base of support on core values such as the right to privacy, freedom of assembly, freedom from violence and the right to love whoever we want.
While religious leaders aren’t likely to support all of the issues that we care about (especially decriminalization of sex work or lowering the age of consent for anal sex), it means a lot when they can get behind the basic idea that a wrong to one is a wrong to all. That gives us a place to begin a conversation with people from all cultural backgrounds. This has the potential to change the social consensus on the thornier issues.
Still, it’s not enough to declare that all rights are universal. If we demand that our friends and neighbours reject the positions posited by religious institutions and family members, are we prepared to show solidarity for their struggles in return? The Prop 8 debate in California opens up the possibility for discussion about what “big tent” issues various marginalized groups in the US might be able to work on together. Fighting against police repression and for universal health care immediately come to mind.
A couple of weeks ago, I bumped into two friends in Montreal who symbolize how solidarity can build bridges between groups who are assumed to be opponents. One woman, a trans activist and street outreach worker, has been keenly involved in the No One is Illegal campaign, protesting against draconian “security” measures and fighting the deportation of non-status immigrants. Her friend, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, is actively involved in migrant issues but also recently joined the board of a community centre that provides services to people contemplating gender transition.
The late Coretta Scott King said it well in a 1998 speech, when she stated that “homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.”
If queers expect other Canadians to stand up for our rights in the Harper era, what other struggles are we willing to roll up our sleeves and support?