What do we know about Prop 8?

But the guiding maxim of this entire political experience surrounding LGBT rights — all rights of minorities — is power isn’t something that is easily given; it’s something that has to be taken. The political consultants that advised No on 8 to wear wedding rings loosely instead of tattooing it to its fingers — well, it speaks from a rather entitled mountain peak, a place where people aren’t accustomed to losing the most basic of liberties through the most democratic avenues.

I’m beyond tired of the Monday morning quarterbacking that has decided that the No on Prop 8 campaign should have known better or somehow didn’t work hard enough to save marriage rights in California. And this quote from Sylvia really hits me in the gut for one specific reason: gay people ARE accustomed to losing the most basic of liberties through the most democratic avenues. We have lost every state fight for marriage. Every single one. We lost the legislative battle on ENDA (even though the LG&Bs capitulated to make the law more ‘palatable’). We didn’t lose because we felt somehow entitled, we lost because we’re unaccustomed to winning.

That’s one of the reasons California was so hard. We were leading in the polls before the campaign started. It caught everyone by surprise. I know that I looked at the early polling and decided to cut back my contributions because I thought Obama needed my money more. And this is coming from someone who rushed to CA to get married in August because I was concerned the right wouldn’t be there after November. No on Prop 8 never recovered from optimism.

Moreover, it could not compete with the energy that was being sapped to the Obama camp. Even in CA, which was as safe a Democratic state as they come, you saw dedicated queer activists leaving for Nevada to campaign in a state that went for Obama by 12.4 points rather than campaign against Prop 8. I phonebanked for Obama out of Maryland, but I didn’t work to save my own marriage. If I or any other activists had known the final outcome, would we have made different decisions?

But this doesn’t mean the No on Prop 8 campaign didn’t work hard. That it didn’t fight. That it sat back and rested. I think we can learn lessons from the loss — maybe targeted grassroots organizing does work for initiative campaigns, maybe straight people are able to see happy gay couples and feel sympathetic rather than disgusted. But we didn’t know that at the time. We have never won a campaign for marriage rights. We don’t know what victory looks like. We will not know whether these tactics would have worked until we use them and we win. Just like we’ll never know whether the Briggs Initiative would have passed if it had only targeted queer teachers instead of also targeting straight people who supported gay rights.

What we have learned from the campaign is that lies work. That people are scared that their own ‘right’ to discriminate will be taken away. We learned that schools and churches and cute little kids are powerful images that homophobes can use to excuse their bigotry. That when a politician’s position is confusing — like Obama’s position on marriage — it can be twisted by enemies and used to sway constituents away from justice.

We will never know what would have happened if Obama had forcefully opposed Prop 8. We will never know what would have happened if Obama had announced support for gay marriage.

Finally, I am really beginning to resent the implication that gay people just haven’t fought long enough for our rights, that we’re n00bs and just need a few more trips around the block before we reach the promised land. Our activism has a history as diverse as we do. If you read this timeline of gay history you’ll see a familiar arch of victories and backlash spanning back to the 4th century. The start to the modern gay rights movement is usually placed in Germany, where arguments against Paragraph 175 were made by out homosexuals beginning in 1867 and where gay struggle begat an organized movement for gay emancipation in the 1920s. The first organized gay group in the US was founded in 1924.

I won’t accept the criticism that we didn’t fight hard enough, that we don’t know struggle, that we just need another generation. I won’t accept it because it’s just not true.

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2 Responses to “What do we know about Prop 8?”

  1. Bq Says:

    “Finally, I am really beginning to resent the implication that gay people just haven’t fought long enough for our rights, that we’re n00bs and just need a few more trips around the block before we reach the promised land.”

    Which gays? Please don’t homogenize the “community” and gloss over clear differences in class, race and level of entitlement. Sylvia Rivera’s struggle or Fierce NYC’s struggle was/is not HRC’s struggle.

  2. murphy Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Bq — it’s my first official one!

    To reply, I’m not trying to gloss over differences in the LGBT community. I haven’t had a chance to clarify my position on gay vs. queer activism yet, but I should try to summarize. I consider the fight for marriage rights a “gay” struggle, just like I consider fights against sodomy laws and employment discrimination a “gay” struggle. I view queer activism as anti-assimilationist, one that relishes the differences that set queers apart, and one that is actually a broader fight for justice. I should be more careful with my language (especially since I fall in the trap of using both “gay” and “queer” as umbrella terms in this very post).

    But, what I was referring to in the passage you quote was specifically the gay fight for rights (especially the right to bugger one another), one that was historically male and, as you can tell from the examples I cite, based in Europe. And one that has been going on for a very long time.

    I suppose it’s ultra ironic because I don’t consider myself ‘gay’ (genderqueer dyke is probably a better moniker) and should be more sensitive to exclusionary practices. But wrapped up in my head is that the fight for marriage is quintessentially gay. And while I personally devote more of my activist time to struggles that center class, race and community development more generally, I support the gay struggle from afar and I think it is a necessary prerequisite (but not sufficient) for justice.

    So thank you for your comment. Prop 8 and its aftermath have left me very much preoccupied with the fight for marriage and other legal rights, but I need to move on or my blog is going to start sounding like the HRC.

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