On Civil Rights vs. Gay Rights

Monday, 2008-12-22; 19:13:23

In the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, I’ve been reading a lot of articles dissecting the reasons why it passed, who’s responsible for its passage, and continuing discussions about the merits of gay marriage.

As I’ve said before, ideological convictions are next to impossible (if not outright impossible) to change. A political campaign takes place in a moment compared to how long it takes to convince people that their long-held opinions are wrong. So while it sucks that Proposition 8 passed, it’s good that people are talking about it. In that vein, I’d like to address some of the various fallacies keep popping up in many of the articles that I’ve read on Proposition 8.

On Blacks Handing Proposition 8 the Victory

In an article entitled “Is gay the new black? Marriage ban spurs debate”, Jesse Washington writes for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In the vote on Proposition 8 in California, which repealed gay marriage, about 70 percent of blacks favored the ban, according to an exit poll; Latinos’ close vote may have favored it, though the poll’s small sample left some uncertainty. In Florida, 71 percent of blacks and 64 percent of Latinos favored a similar ban.

And in a transcript of a discussion between Dan Savage and D. L. Hughley on CNN, Savage states:

Well, there is a lot of outreach that has to be done — that falls to the gay community, to do outreach to voters of color. But voters of color also have to step up and take some responsibility. It’s the responsibility of white people not to be racist. It’s the responsibility of men not to be sexist. And it is a responsibility of all of us not to be homophobic.

It strikes me as rather odd that in an election that resulted in the first African-American president, everybody would turn around and blame the same old scapegoat for the passage of Proposition 8: blacks. This isn’t blame coming exclusively from the gay rights activists, it’s coming from everybody. It’s practically “common knowledge” that blacks doomed the efforts against Proposition 8.

Only it’s completely false. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight.com writes:

Now, it’s true that if new voters had voted against Prop 8 at the same rates that they voted for Obama, the measure probably would have failed. But that does not mean that the new voters were harmful on balance — they were helpful on balance. If California’s electorate had been the same as it was in 2004, Prop 8 would have passed by a wider margin.

Furthermore, it would be premature to say that new Latino and black voters were responsible for Prop 8’s passage. Latinos aged 18-29 (not strictly the same as ‘new’ voters, but the closest available proxy) voted against Prop 8 by a 59-41 margin. These figures are not available for young black voters, but it would surprise me if their votes weren’t fairly close to the 50-50 mark.

At the end of the day, Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one. If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two. It appears that the generational splits may be larger within minority communities than among whites, although the data on this is sketchy.

Gay rights has always been a generational issue. Older people generally grew up during a time when gay rights wasn’t at the forefront of social issues, and when discrimination against gays (and blacks, for that matter) was more commonplace and didn’t spark as much outrage as it does today. So it’s unsurprising that people who grew up during times intolerant to gays are more likely to be intolerant themselves.

It’s not even really intolerance, per se, that breeds intolerance. It’s personal contact that breeds tolerance. When people have a family member or close friend who comes out, or has more personal experience with homosexuals, they’re more likely to realize that, hey, gays are often just like everybody else. That’s not to say that there aren’t gays who are flamboyant or quite in-your-face about being homosexual (which is fine, too, by the way), but that gays as a whole have the same desires, needs, emotions, and differences as the general population. And that realization, in turn, leads to the realization that you know, there are some pretty out-there heterosexual people, too.

Looking at Proposition 8 in this light, it’s unsurprising that it passed in California. There seems to be a myth that all of California is a radically liberal set of Democrats who are far out of touch with mainstream American politics. As a Californian, myself, that idea is just laughable. Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, most of the rest of California is just like the rest of America. The reason that the San Francisco and Los Angeles communities are more tolerant to gays is simply because there’s a higher likelihood of people in these places to have had personal contact with gays. And when that happens, people see that the world doesn’t come crashing down.

On Homosexuality Being a Choice

Washington in the Chronicle continues:

“I do not consider (gays) to be a minority in legal and adjudicated terms, the same way people who only like to eat broccoli with butter aren’t a minority,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “We can’t categorize things according to behavior. It’s based on ethnicity, on who we are rather than what we do.”

And D.L. Hughley has this to say:

I have to say, honestly, I don’t — I’m not particularly homophobic. But when I read the bill the way it was written, it was a little confusing. When I read it, it asked me to make a decision that didn’t — that I couldn’t quantify on the ballot. I can’t, for whatever reason, is it my religious upbringing, I don’t condone a gay lifestyle, but I also don’t condone the government being involved in two people’s affairs. So there was no place for me to vote. And I think a lot of black people I talked to found themselves in the same quandary. Had I been more religious, maybe I would have voted yes to ban.

If you’re straight and you’re still questioning whether being gay is a choice or not, ask yourself this question: when did you choose to be attracted to the opposite sex?

No, seriously, think about it. If you’re a guy, can you remember a time when you said to yourself, “You know, I’ve decided that I’m not attracted to guys.” Wouldn’t that be a pretty significant milestone in your life? You might say you’re not attracted to guys because you prefer looking at girls with smooth skin and long hair and smaller features as opposed to guys with muscles and facial hair. But that’s not because of you being attracted to girls, that’s an effect. You prefer some features over others not because you simply chose to favor them, but because you were intrinsically attracted to them in the first place.

My brother’s response to the question was, “It never really occurred to me to like guys.” And that’s the response that most people have when they really think about the question. They don’t know why they’re attracted to a certain sex, they just are. Because it’s not a choice.

So it’s ridiculous for Rodriguez to say that gays aren’t a minority because they choose to have same sex relations. That’s akin to saying that writing isn’t a legitimate profession simply because people choose to write. No, some people have an intrinsic affinity for writing and so they pursue that path, just like gays have an intrinsic attraction to the same sex and so they have sexual relations with the same sex. The “decision” to actually have sexual relations with the same sex isn’t the same as the purported “decision” to actually be attracted to the same sex in the first place.

And if you subscribe to the idea that being attracted to the same sex isn’t a decision, but that it’s a choice to actually pursue that path (i.e.: “gays do have the same rights as heterosexuals; they can marry people of the opposite sex just like heterosexuals can!”), think about it in the reverse. Wouldn’t it be ludicrous to suggest that heterosexuals should act against their own nature and pursue homosexual relationships, just because laws were framed in a certain way?

There’s nothing to “condone” about a gay lifestyle, as Hughley says. That implies that there’s something morally wrong or offensive about gay lifestyles, which (as far as I can tell) usually means that being gay is a choice. I think that most of those who don’t “condone” gay lifestyles perceive being gay as going against nature, since nature “obviously” intended for opposite-sex relations since that’s the only way to propagate the species.

But there’s a whole litany of assumptions that go along with that line of reasoning. One has to assume that being gay is a different sort of “defect” than being impotent, or being sterile, or having another genetic problem that precludes you from finding an opposite-sex mate and having offspring. If propagating the species is the ultimate goal of sexual relations, then shouldn’t marriages between seniors not be “condoned” either?

And gays being unnatural also implies that nature has an obvious end-goal, that species (and, in particular, humans) should propagate and continue to multiply. But nature has no such end-goal in mind at all. Species have died off all the time, genetic defects have existed in animals far before humans ever existed on the planet, and homosexual behavior in animals has been observed for decades even though evolution might predict that homosexuals should die off because they aren’t nearly as likely to pass on their genes.

The point is that homosexuality is a natural expression of diversity among a single species. That this particular difference happens to reduce the likelihood of that individual to pass on his genes doesn’t mean that the difference is “unnatural”, nor does it mean that this difference needs to be condoned or corrected.

On Obama’s Place in the Gay Rights Movement

Washington, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

And in some ways, gays see Obama himself as a symbol of gay progress — even though he opposes gay marriage.

Obama is in favor of civil unions, and during his victory speech, when he included gays in his description of America, it made them feel part of the historic racial milestone.

Let’s get this myth out of the way: Obama is not a progressive, not by any means. His positions on gay rights are decidedly centrist, just like his positions on many other issues. You’d be forgiven if you did think Obama is a progressive, simply because the last eight years have been dominated by such far-right politics that it’s easy to think that slightly left-of-center policies are radically liberal.

John Hodgman (linked from the Daring Fireball Linked List) does a good job of dissecting Obama’s positions:

BOTH WARREN AND OBAMA believe in a fallacy: that one can support equal rights for “everybody” (Warren) and for gay folks specifically (Obama), and yet not support a gay person having the same access as a straight person to the governmental special status known as “marriage.”

I KNOW HOW TEMPTING this fallacy can be: I am ashamed to admit that I half-fell for it myself until Massachusetts proved that the world would not end, and the semantic difference between “domestic partnerships” and “marriage” was so meaningless as to be offensive. I was wrong, I am sorry.

Hodgman continues:

THOSE OF US, however, who foolishly refused to take Obama at his word when he told us he didn’t support gay marriage OVER AND OVER AGAIN must now take him at his deed. He really, really doesn’t want gays to get married. SRSLY.

LOOK: my gut tells me that Obama likes and respects gay people and wants them to thrive in this country. I think he is tolerant by nature, as his patience with Wright and his embrace of Warren shows.

BUT AFTER MCCLURKIN and now Warren, it is hard not to conclude that Barack Obama is somewhat tone deaf when it comes to gay issues. And at this point, if he is interested in convincing us otherwise (and I’m not presuming he is), it will take more than a few words or a second pastor or some other symbolic gesture. It will take deeds.

On Proposition 8 Protests

Allysia Finley, in an opinion article for the Stanford Daily, writes:

Raucous rallies and vandalism at Mormon and Catholic churches have shrouded gay rights activists’ calls for tolerance. White powder was even sent mysteriously to Mormon temples in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Many Prop. 8 backers have complained that their houses and Yes on Prop. 8 signs have been vandalized. The backlash against Prop. 8 supporters is becoming nearly as radical as that of the far-left animal rights movement, which bombs clinics and houses of researchers who experiment on animals. My mom was even concerned about my publishing this article because she thought a violent backlash might ensue.


It’s incredible that Finley thinks that vandalism and white powder letters are indicative of the gay rights movement as a whole. All movements have their own extremists that carry out their agenda in radical and violent ways. Should we represent the all anti-gay rights activists by the Klu Klux Klan? Or how about the civil rights movement for African-Americans — anybody remember Malcolm X?

It’s disingenuous to suggest that only the gay rights movement has its radical factions, and that somehow all gays are radical anthrax mailers because of it. It’s also disingenuous to suggest that those who are pro-gay rights should somehow be “tolerant” of anti-gay rights activists, when anti-gay rights activists often don’t extend the same courtesy.


The same could be said of a Web site called Californians Against Hate, which posts a “dishonor roll” listing over 800 people and businesses who donated $5,000 or more to the Yes on 8 campaign. The Web site encourages people to boycott these businesses. Now imagine if pro-lifers decided to post a list of businesses and individuals who supported abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood and encouraged people to boycott businesses that hired women who had abortions. The horror! The horror of the liberal double standard.

Bahahaha. One simple Google search for “abortion clinic boycotts” turns up this CNN article as the top result: contractors in Texas refusing to do work to build an abortion clinic.

NEWS FLASH: conservatives have staged boycotts against abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood.

And, yes, “liberals” are “outraged” because of it since, again, it’s conservatives injecting their own personal views into other peoples’ business. How does someone getting an abortion personally affect you? Every time there’s an abortion in the world, do you personally feel a pain that shoots up your back? It’s just like the gay rights movement; how does two gays getting married personally affect you?

NEWS FLASH: it doesn’t.


Prop. 8 opponents need to take the high road instead of irrationally lashing out against those with whom they disagree. Discuss, debate, protest, challenge the decision in court. But don’t resort to barbed epithets, vandalism and bullying.

That’s what the gay rights movement has been doing! Discussions, check (this very article). Debates, check. Protests, check. Court challenges, check.

The gay rights movement is just like any other civil rights movement, and yet somehow Proposition 8 supporters charge detractors as being somehow intolerant. It boggles the mind.

On Invoking The Civil Rights Movement (Capital “T”, Capital “C”, Capital “R”, Capital “M”)


Yet even some gay leaders are reluctant to directly tie their fight to the African-American legacy. They acknowledge significant differences in the experiences of gays and blacks, ranging from slavery to the relative affluence of white gay men to the choice made by some gays to conceal their sexual orientation, which is not an option for those with darker skin.


“The gay fight for marriage has its own integrity, its own background,” said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “The experience of blacks in the United States is very different. … I don’t think it helps the fight for equality to make that claim.”

Nobody denies the fact that The Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans has a different history than the gay rights movement. Nobody claims the experiences that blacks had are equal to the experiences that gays have had. Nobody denies that blacks were enslaved for hundreds of years in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean The Civil Rights Movement can’t be invoked to support the gay rights movement. The larger experience is the same: a group of people is persecuted for who they are.


It is nearly impossible to engage in a rational discussion with staunch Prop. 8 opponents without being called a bigot. According to gay rights activists, Prop. 8 supporters want to deny homosexuals “civil rights” and make them second-class citizens. They equate the ban on gay marriage to a ban on interracial marriage and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Strangely, most blacks who struggled as true second-class citizens for hundreds of years don’t see it that way. Unlike blacks prior to the civil rights movement, gays can vote and are not discriminated against in employment and education. Most Californians and blacks agree that gay marriage is a personal and religious issue, not a civil rights issue.

How is the ban on gay marriage not the same as a ban on interracial marriage? What is the difference? Two people who are capable of giving consent and agreeing to contracts are being denied the right to do so simply because of who they are. Does that not describe the situation before a ban on interracial marriage was struck down? Does that not describe the push for gay marriage equality as well?

And, by the way, “most” doesn’t mean “61%” anymore. It means “52%”. I think 48% of Californians would disagree with that statement; they probably believe that gay marriage is a civil rights issue. It’s pretty disingenuous to suggest that California as a whole supports a ban on gay marriage, when in fact almost half of Californians don’t.

Hughley and Savage:

Hughley: Here’s what I think. I’ve seen a lot of people, gay activists, make the comparison of basically equating their struggle with the struggle of black people throughout the civil rights era. And that hits me even me kind of wrong.

Savage: And me too.

Hughley: Because historically, millions of people died and they were disenfranchised. Some of them couldn’t have a name. This is about one segment, like to be married. And I think that that is none of my business. But I also think that what you asked — I’ve never met a black atheist. I never have, because we are so rooted in theology, we are so rooted in all these things, that even me, who — I’m not a regular churchgoer — had a hard time going, this is — this goes against what I was taught.

Saying that gays can’t invoke The Civil Rights Movement in support of their cause is fucking bullshit. No, gays weren’t enslaved for hundreds of years, but it doesn’t negate any of the struggles that gays have had. Gays have been murdered too. Gays have been persecuted around the world and in the United States, too.

And you know what? It enrages me when it’s suggested that The Civil Rights Movement somehow “belongs” only to blacks, as Hughley does here. It’s one of the worst things you could say about The Civil Rights Movement, because it completely throws the lesson of the movement out the window.

The Civil Rights Movement “belongs” to all Americans. It’s American history, not black history. All Americans bear the burden of having a country whose history is tainted with hundreds of years of slavery, with Presidents that owned slaves and widespread persecution of blacks. All Americans are taught about The Civil Rights Movement in school, not just blacks.

Because the lesson of The Civil Rights Movement is not that we should be tolerant of other races. The lesson is that we should be tolerant, period, full stop. The legacy of The Civil Rights Movement extends far beyond the bounds of racism. It extends to the persecution of anybody because of who they are, not just because of the color of their skin.

On Marching a Little Longer

Hughley concludes the interview with this choice statement:

Well I’ll tell you what, being black, I can tell you, you got to march a little while longer and then it might happen. I promise. Look how long it took us to get a president. I hope it works out for you. One thing I don’t understand is the government involvement in our bedroom. They can’t even deliver my mail.

Seriously? It’s a requirement to march in order to get equal civil rights? That’s the lesson that Hughley gets from The Civil Rights Movement? And you automatically know what it’s like to be persecuted just because you’re black?

And really, this whole “the government can’t even deliver my mail” thing is nonsense. I don’t think I’ve ever failed to receive a letter. Ever.

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