Marriage Inequality: Painful Lessons for the Queer Community and the Road Ahead

As I write this article, the No on Proposition 8 campaign has conceded after most of the final absentee ballots have been counted.  Prop 8 on the California ballot redefines the CA constitution and strips away the right of same-sex marriage, which was legally recognized in February.  Just the fact that such a proposition could be placed on the ballot shows the virulent homophobia in American society.  51% of the people should not be able to tear apart over 18,000 same-sex marriages.

The Organized Campaign and the Queer Community

The Fight to defeat Prop 8 was also massive and matched the churches dollar for dollar.  There was a huge outpouring of energy and money and many queer people took their first political action ever raising money, phone-banking, and holding signs on street corners.  The entire neighborhoods of the Castro and West Hollywood became campaign headquarters.  Still there were some real problems and until we learn from our mistakes, we’re not going to get anywhere.

The large non-profits that dominated the campaign pandered to white middle-class straight society (this is probably because the same organizations are themselves white and middle-class).  We were told not to use the word “gay” in any talking points, nor “civil rights” nor “discrimination.”  As if we could slip same-sex marriage past people at the polls.  These were the same organizations that made a deal with the devil and threw out transgender rights in the hopes of getting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed earlier.  Shameful.

After the last upsurges in the late-80’s/early-90’s, queer political actors broke away from the politics of liberation and toward the politics of assimilation with capitalism and white supremacy.  The “we’re just like you, but we happen to sleep with our same sex” organizing model also gave rise to some of the worst and ugliest racism in the queer community this year.

Proposition 8 and the Politics of Race

Blacks and Latino/as voted in large majorities against same-sex marriage, with the black community voting by a larger margin than whites.  A handful of white queers reacted with visceral racial hatred in blog postings, e-mails and on the streets in the demonstrations that followed.  Falling back on blaming communities of color as scapegoats is an old failure of white organizers.  Instead there needs to be some critical self-analysis of the failure of the white queer community to actually build the united front that was needed.

The message to black community leaders was “this is just like the civil rights struggle you had in the 50’s/60’s”—as if one can easily compare the black liberation movement with the queer liberation movement.  There are entirely different dynamics at play.  To just assume that you have support without bothering to build it is amateurish beyond belief.  There was almost zero relationship building among the black churches, and very little support for those church leaders that did make the connection.  People that proposed and developed videos and outreach material were denied access to the $35 million in funds.  And where was the outpouring of activism from the white queer community during the fight to save affirmative action in California?  Alliances are built through struggle and not ham-handed rhetoric comparing racism to homophobia.  This left many black queer people once again feeling marginalized, and forced to be spokespeople for an entire community.

The religious right certainly knew how to organize.  Thousands of voters in predominately black communities received robo-calls with the recorded words of Obama: “I believe that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman … this is a Christian nation”—and then a call to vote yes on Prop 8.

Where to From Here?

The quickly organized protests after election night were a good start.  As the first militant action in the Obama presidency, the anti-Prop 8 demonstrations were a clear indication that complacency is not what is needed right now.  The Mormon Church was a dead-on appropriate target and needs to get even more critical attention.

The Queer community also needs to step up to the task of fighting for equality beyond marriage as well and build critical ties to other communities.  Health care for partners needs to be linked with universal health care.  Immigration reform for queer couples cannot become separated from stopping ICE raids across the country.  The religious right doesn’t just attack same-sex marriage but also single mothers, many of whom are single because 20% of black men are in the prison system in California.  And the economic crisis is going to affect the thousands of working-class queers who are struggling to survive without family networks and with fear of getting fired in most states in the country.

And in the end it’s going to take a united left in this country to create the real social transformation that will be needed to make a diverse sexuality and gender a part of the fabric of society.  Queer people need to be a part of that dialogue and sitting at the table.  Let’s hope that we learn the lessons from the passage of Proposition 8 to make that dream a reality.

Eric See is a former member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation has been active in LGBTQ struggles since the early 90’s.

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