The Blame on Prop 8

By Steven Gdula

Since California voters amended the state’s constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage via Proposition 8, the call for action and unity among supporters of same sex marriage has been loud, persistent, and fast. Early on Nov. 5, grassroots groups—like “1,000,000 Strong To Overturn Prop 8,” — sprouted on various Internet networking sites, and simultaneous rallies calling for Prop 8’s repeal occurred on Saturday Nov. 15 in cities across the country. While this is encouraging, the finger pointing that has accompanied these demonstrations is disturbing; particularly troublesome are the racial overtones of many of the accusations.

Ongoing arguments between religious groups and the GLBT community are nothing new. It was assumed that conservative Christians—regardless of denomination—backed the amendment. But when surveys showed that 70% of African-American voters voted “Yes on 8,” some opponents of the ban charged the black community with betrayal as many thought a “one minority to another” mindset would guide certain voters.

“We helped their candidate get into office,” one friend said to me, “And they … stabb[ed] us in the back on Prop 8. You would think they would know how we feel.”

Similarities between the two groups’ civil rights movements are obvious, but growing animosities in the aftermath of Prop 8’s vote have yet to be addressed without rancor.

But as some members of the GLBT community hold others responsible for not granting them equal rights, they might want to ask themselves what they’ve done prior to this election to help secure those rights.

In Washington, D.C., in October 2004, I helped organize WedROCK, a benefit concert for Freedom To Marry. Despite an engaging line-up of performers including Sandra Bernhardt and Bob Mould, with Henry Rollins as host, the event barely attracted 200 patrons through the door. Noticeably absent were representatives from the Human Rights Campaign.

Our explanations for the scant turnout ranged from, “It was yet another benefit in Washington, D.C., during an election season” to “The VP debates were televised tonight.”

But the attendance confirmed what I’d witnessed as I canvassed for the event; some gays and lesbians didn’t care about having the same rights as heterosexuals to marry—whether they chose to wed or not. When promoting WedROCK, I was often met with indifference and even opposition. A friend who’d been with her partner for over 13 years dismissed me: “We really don’t need this, Steven, not now with domestic partnership laws.”

Considering the myriad of benefits that heterosexual married couples legally have that same-sex partnerships don’t, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that she thought we didn’t need.

Equally puzzling was the reaction of a neighbor who witnessed first hand the effects of apathy during the early years of the AIDS crisis. When I asked for his support of Freedom To Marry, he admonished me. “You’re going to tip the scale with this WedROCK thing. You’re going to hand [the Republicans] a victory.”

Looking back at what was won and lost since then, these reprimands eerily echo the chastisements Harvey Milk allegedly received from gays in San Francisco’s political circles during his first campaign as an out candidate for city supervisor. Milk was told, “Harvey, it’s not time.”

This November, voters in California (and Arizona and Florida) have spoken: It’s still not time.

So as demonstrators and repeal groups demand equal rights, I have to ask again, where were all of these people four years ago?

I think the answer is clear: They were waiting for Obama.

The idea that Obama was shoo-in for the presidency empowered those who championed the more controversial issues of this election season. Obama in 2008 was the strong, charismatic candidate that Kerry in 2004 was not. Republicans were pushing for a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the previous election cycle, and speaking too loudly against such a measure was seen as throwing more red votes in the ballot box.

But reticence then is partly responsible for the passing of Prop 8 now. Grassroots movements are great, but they need strong cultivation. Years of educating voters about marriage equality would have helped establish those roots. Instead of being pro-active, some activists hedged, waiting for “the right time.”

Now many people who had the “It’s not time” mentality are managing a stiff upper lip, saying, “History is on our side.”

But history tends to be on the side of those with the foresight to take action. As tech scientist Alan Kay has said, “The best way to predict the future is invent it.”

As California’s Supreme Court readies to hear arguments on the proposition’s constitutionality, a future that includes marriage equality is closer to being actualized.

For those who said, “It’s not time” in the past, I wish I’d asked “If not now, when?”

Steven Gdula is author of The Warmest Room in the House and also Wearing History: T-Shirts from the Gay Rights Movement. He lives in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2008

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