5 min

Stonewall redux?

US gays protest marriage-rights defeats

A CROWD OF SOME 10,000. In San Diego, people swarmed the streets on Nov 11 to protest the passage of anti-gay marriage Prop 8. Credit: Wockner News photo by Fergal O'Doherty

Obama prevailed. Yet thousands of angry gay protesters are spilling into streets from California to New York to protest election results.

Once again, a US presidential race has revealed gay marriage to be a pivot point. In 2004, George W Bush won re-election thanks to a narrow margin in Ohio that could plausibly be explained by the Christian Right’s mobilization for a successful anti gay-marriage initiative. This presidential election swung radically the other way — Barack Obama is the anti-Bush, the most liberal Democratic candidate in a generation. Yet, Obama’s victory proved consistent — even connected — with wins for anti-gay ballot initiative in bellwether California as well as Florida, Arkansas and Arizona.

The 2008 results have left many gays feeling whiplash. Nearly spontaneous, virally organized protests have drawn overall tens of thousands — in Los Angeles, San Diego and across the country. It’s not clear whether the protests are a burst of steam-letting or a brand new chapter in US gay activism fired by Facebook and Twitter.

“This shows no signs of stopping,” asserted gay chronicler Rex Wockner six days after the election, as he reported protest rallies on the street and at rightwing churches and Mormon temples even deep in the suburbs. “California is having an escalating, statewide Stonewall.”

Added gay Los Angeles attorney Jonathan Handel, “People feel very much under siege here” after voters enacted Proposition 8, undoing last May’s California Supreme Court ruling allowing same sex-marriage. The ensuing surge of protest, Handel says, caught him by surprise: “LA is not a very political city.”

It wasn’t established New York City gay political groups but Corey Johnson, of the popular gay blog Towleroad, who put out the call on his Facebook page for a protest at a Mormon temple in Manhattan on November 12.

“It’s really getting people who otherwise haven’t been part of organizations or groups wanting to do something, wanting an outlet to express their anger,” Johnson says.

Other queer activists, meanwhile, contend that with same-sex domestic partnerships uncontroversial, the 2008 election offers more evidence that gay marriage is a poor candidate for the Holy Grail.

All mixed up

Widespread gay delight at Barack Obama’s sweeping victory was tempered by the passage in California, Arizona, and Florida of amendments to the respective state constitutions that define marriage as strictly a one man, one woman affair. Voters in Arkansas approved by nearly 57 percent a measure that bars unmarried couples — irrespective of sex — from adopting or fostering children.

In 2006, Arizona voters were the first to reject an amendment to the state’s constitution defining marriage as heterosexual. Opponents had successfully raised worries about the proposal’s implications for common-law heterosexual couples, especially among the elderly collecting government benefits. For 2008, those fighting gay marriage reduced the measure down to 20 words, and this time more than 56 percent of voters said yes.

Florida’s electorate plumped for Obama by a margin of 51 percent — symbolically ripe, as Bush’s supposed 2000 Florida win over Al Gore propelled him to the White House. But Sunshine State voters approved by 62 to 38 percent a ban on gay marriage — safely above the 60 percent threshold needed to amend that state’s constitution.

So goes the nation?

It was California, however, to which all eyes turned. Last May, California’s highest court ruled four-to-three that the state constitution guaranteed same-sex marriage rights. The most populous state joined Massachusetts as the only US jurisdictions where same-sex couples enjoyed a full right to marry. In the ruling’s wake, some 18,000 same-sex couples in California tied the knot. Barring court challenges on legal technicalities, Prop 8 has amended the state constitution to assert that marriage is only between a man and a woman, leaving those same-sex unions in an uncertain limbo.

Bitterly contested, the California ballot measure was failing in the polls by some five points in late October. Marriage-equality supporters out-fundraised opponents by half — some $44 million to $30 million — with a considerable proportion of the latter amount coming, it appears, from Mormons. Despite the monetary disadvantage of its supporters, Prop 8 prevailed at the polls, 52.2 to 47.8 percent.

Obama’s support for defining marriage as intrinsically heterosexual didn’t help the gay equality side, even while the Democratic victor said he opposed Prop 8.

Still, some critics contend the pro-gay-marriage forces held back their most powerful arguments.

“As soon as I started working for the No on 8 campaign I was amazed at the level of scripting: ‘Don’t say “civil rights,” don’t say “constitution,” don’t say “gay.” I couldn’t believe it,” blogger Andrew Sullivan quoted an unnamed volunteer.

Blame game

Depending on how you slice and stack the electorate, different demographic groups were “responsible” for putting Prop 8 over the top. The bulk of support for the anti-gay-marriage measure came from white, suburban churchgoers. Mormons were among them, though they make up less than two percent of the state’s population. But California’s African-American voters, who came out in force for Obama, voted almost two-to-one to ban gay marriages, according to one exit poll — enough to make the difference.

“I’m thrilled that we’ve just elected our first African-American president,” wrote Dan Savage on his blog the day after the election. “But I can’t help but feeling hurt that the love and support aren’t mutual.”

But some contested what they saw as gay commentators targeting Mormons or “playing the race card.”

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby claimed that “a fundamental gulf separates the civil rights movement from the demand for same-sex marriage. One was a fight for genuine equality, for the right of black Americans to live on the same terms, and under the same restrictions, as whites. The other is a demand to change the terms on which marriage has always been available by giving it a meaning it has never before had.”

Strategic questions loom

Whatever the status of the gay-marriage fight, Arizona’s reversal this year means that in every one of the 27 states where they have been put to popular vote, constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage have prevailed.

“The battle to win marriage equality through the courts,” asserts gay historian John D’Emilio, “has done something that no other campaign or issue in our movement has done: it has created a vast body of new antigay law.”

The solution, some contend, is to shift the fight from gay marriage to strengthening domestic partnerships and civil unions for couples irrespective of gender. “Instead of beating that dead horse, why not strive to make such legal partnerships as good as or better than marriage so that people don’t have to be married in order to keep their children, health care, their property,” says Chicago-based activist Yasmin Nair.

However the battle shapes up, time alone may heal what seem after the 2008 election to be open political wounds.

“Generationally, time is on our side,” says Handel. “Look at the youth vote on gay marriage, look at younger peoples’ attitudes toward gays. The conservatives are ultimately out of luck. Ten- or 20-some odd years from now people will look back on Prop 8 and say, ‘What you were you thinking? How could you even vote for such a thing?'”

Bill Andriette works for The Guide.