Dear California

Wednesday, 2008-11-05; 20:56:38

Dear California:

Today is bittersweet. The majority of the nation, including you, celebrates the election of President Obama, and it’s hard not to feel a sigh of relief that the national policies of the last eight years will be put behind us in a few short months. I have to admit that even I stopped to watch Obama’s acceptance speech.

But while you helped elect President Obama yesterday, California, you also approved Proposition 8.

It’s hard not to take this as a blow to the stomach. It makes me bitter. It makes me angry. It makes me sad. Just five months ago, I thought we struck a bellwether blow for the gay rights movement. But yesterday, you decided to take it away.

Proposition 8 in California is symbolic. California offers comprehensive benefits for domestic partnerships equal to those offered for marriages. And California law cannot affect federal law. But there are still many who take the symbolic rights afforded by marriage very personally, and to take them away is sending a powerful message to those people.

California, you approved a doctrine that we thought was long behind us. Yesterday, you approved the idea of “separate but equal”. You approved of the fact that it is OK to separate partnerships into two groups in the eyes of the law, based solely on gender. It is hard to see how this is anything but subtly implying that one kind of partnership is inferior to the other. If everyone is afforded equal rights, why separate us out? If our own United States history is any guide, “separate but equal” is never equal.

California, I realize that the passage of this proposition doesn’t tangibly affect anyone’s rights. But it does affect some people themselves. Today I was unable to hold back my tears for a few minutes because of the subtle message of inferiority that Proposition 8 projects to everybody in California.

Arkansas yesterday banned gay couples from adopting children. Yesterday, Arizona and Florida also voted to ban gay marriage, but their state laws do not provide for comprehensive domestic partnerships rights as does California. And in yet another 33 states, same-sex couples do not have the same rights as opposite-sex couples.

California, does this sit right with you? You are OK with “separate but equal”, but are you OK with “unequal”? Because that’s the situation in those other states.

California, if there is anything I want you to take away, it is this: your symbolic vote could have sent a message to the country that unequal rights are not OK. You could have stood up for same-sex couples to help argue for their rights in other states. You could have stopped the alarming trend of relegating same-sex couples to second-class status across this nation.

To those who helped attempt to defeat Proposition 8:

I know it’s hard. You’re angry, you’re bitter, you’re sad. And we were so, so close.

But take heart. A little under a decade ago, California was asked the same question, with Proposition 22. California approved Proposition 22 with 61% support. Yesterday, California approved Proposition 8 with 52% support. Progress.

Change does not come easily. Change comes slowly, over decades and even centuries. Almost a century and a half has passed since the abolishment of slavery, and over four decades have passed since the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the African-American civil rights movement. Only yesterday did we elect our first African-American president. And so must change come slowly to the gay rights movement as well.

It is easy to be hostile and lash out against California as bigots. It is easy to blame Californians as being susceptible to false advertisements fueled by money and the Yes on 8 campaign, by pointing to polls that put Proposition 8 as failing in the double-digits in June. But I suspect that we never really convinced California of the necessity of marriage equality in the first place.

We, in California, are not fighting against bigotry, we are not fighting against dirty money. We are fighting the status quo.

Real social progress — actually convincing people that long-held convictions are wrong — is never made in the space of a single campaign. Deep convictions are next to impossible to reverse, and when they are, it takes years if not decades to do so. Can we really expect people in California to change their minds in half a year? It’s unrealistic. People, including those who worked hard to elect Obama, are way past tired of the past two years of campaigning. Can we really expect a political campaign to turn deeply-held opinions around when people are tired of listening?

Yesterday, I worked the polls in California, because I wanted not only to be a part of an historic election through voting, but also by assisting others to vote. And there are three encounters that stand out in my mind.

On Monday, a team of election workers, including me, helped to set up our precinct the day before yesterday’s election. Afterwards, one of the other workers, an elderly lady, probably in her 70s or 80s, engaged in a discussion about Proposition 8 with another of the poll workers and I.

This elderly lady was for Obama. She was outraged about disenfranchisement of African-Americans in southern states, tired of the lies coming from the McCain campaign, and just as anxious about hearing voting results from other states in the Presidential election as any of the rest of us.

But on Proposition 8, she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why same-sex couples cared about marriage. She said that two people can live together for seven years and be recognized as a partnership because of that mere fact (a common-law marriage). She didn’t understand why same-sex couples cared about “a piece of paper”.

This lady represents one of those voters that we are still trying to convince.

On Tuesday, while the California polls were open, an elderly man of Mexican descent hobbled into our precinct, wanting to vote. He was from Santa Clara county, but at the wrong precinct, so he had to fill out the paperwork to file a provisional ballot. He couldn’t walk very well, and his hand wasn’t steady, so he had difficulty writing down his name, address, and signature. And then there was the ballot itself: two pages, one double-sided, with so many things to decide on. We gave him his ballot and had him go to one of the privacy booths to cast his vote.

But a couple minutes later he came back, confused. He pointed to the ballot, and in a halting voice said, “Obama?”

This elderly man took thirty minutes to fill out the paperwork, just to cast a vote for Obama. He represents one of those voters that have been convinced, that one thing is so important that he will dare to overcome all obstacles to make sure that thing happens. Not defeating Proposition 8, but electing Obama.

One of the other poll workers who also helped out at my precinct was a 17-year-old high school student, one who’s currently attend the same high school that I started attending a decade ago.

In talking with him, it was clear that marriage equality was something that is just taken for granted, much like ensuring the same rights for all races is something that almost everybody in this nation already takes for granted. He told me he has a family that’s ideologically split, with half being pretty conservative. He’s a Christian who attends church and, from what I could tell, participates in a lot of events through his church.

But it was clear that he took Proposition 8 seriously, he knew people who organized the phone bank at Stanford in opposition to Proposition 8, and he was unwavering on where he stood on the issue.

He represents someone of my generation, people who have been growing up during the modern gay rights movement, one who needs little to no convincing that marriage equality is important.

A political campaign does not convince the elderly lady at the polling place. A political campaign does not convince an elderly man to get to the polling place at all costs. A political campaign does not produce new citizens that take certain ideological shifts for granted. A political campaign is useful, but only for convincing those voters who are on the fence, to make sure that those voters who have a weak opinion actually go to the polls.

But a political campaign doesn’t change someone’s ideology. And marriage equality requires that change.

So feel dejected, feel shitty, feel outraged. Then continue to hammer away at the ideology that still supports “separate but equal” in California. Challenge ignorance about same-sex couples when you overhear it, show others that same-sex couples have the same great aspects — and problems — that opposite-sex couples do. Prove to others that all members of the LGBT community have the same desires, wants, needs, and should have the same rights as everyone else.

This takes time. It takes patience. We’ll get there, eventually.

Emotional Supernova   Personal   Older   Newer   Post a Comment