Equality Deferred: What Happened in the Proposition 8 Vote

ON MAY 16, 2008 the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The ink hadn’t yet dried on the landmark decision when opponents filed an initiative, Proposition 8, to appear on the November 2008 ballot that would amend the state’s constitution to read: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

But it didn’t dim the celebration because no one seriously thought it would pass. Not here in California; not now in 2008; not our neighbors, our friends, our allies in a hundred political struggles over the years.

Everyone knew, of course, that there were deeply held feelings in opposition to same-sex marriage, that 48 states still prohibit it, that most don’t recognize the legitimacy of such marriages that are performed in states that allow it, and that at least one, Wisconsin, whose constitution was amended in 2006 to prohibit same-sex marriage, has a longstanding, little-known law that carries up to a $10,000 fine, nine months in prison, or both for couples who return to the state after marrying legally elsewhere. The law, passed decades ago to prevent teenagers from crossing state lines to marry, but it could now be used against same-sex couples, the Madison Capitol Times warned recently.

But that was there. This was here and now: a new time, a new day, a new beginning. Indeed, optimism was so high that UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy projected that about half of California’s roughly 100,000 same-sex couples would marry in the next three years and 68,000 out-of-state couples would travel to California to exchange vows.

Three months later, on one of those golden days that turns the San Francisco Bay Area into a picture postcard, I spoke before an assemblage of more than 50 people and recalled the warm June night in 1969 when the New York police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village started it all. “Who would have thought,” I asked, “that the resistance of a few hundred people would lead to the moment when the California Supreme Court would definitively end the ban on same-sex marriage and declare, ‘An individual’s sexual orientation—like a person’s race or gender—does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.’ Who imagined then that a social movement would arise from the ashes of those days of pain, rage, and violence—a movement that would change both the external social world and our internal psychological one as, little by little, it chipped away at centuries of prejudice, discrimination, and violence?”

Surely not I—who, in a life filled with unexpected twists and turns, could never have predicted that I’d be officiating at the wedding of two old friends who also happened to also be men. For in the nearly 85 years that make up my own life’s journey, I’ve traveled from total ignorance about homosexuality, to a kind of vague knowledge that left me with the same internal yuck that was common then, to a confrontation with these prejudices as the gay and lesbian movement for freedom and dignity swept across the land, and finally to a state of elation and awe at being a witness to the extraordinary moment of history when the Supreme Court struck down the ban on same-sex marriages.

Fast forward to November 4, 2008—election day. By a five-point margin, roughly 52-47, California voters said yes to a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Yes, here in California; yes, now in 2008; yes by our neighbors, our friends, our allies in a hundred political struggles over the years.

Paradoxically, it was Barack Obama’s victory, for which so many gays and lesbians had fought and worked, that led to their defeat. The intense interest in the Obama-McCain campaign—the fact that a black man could be elected to the presidency, the sense that the nation stood on the brink of a defining historical moment—brought voters of all classes, races, and ethnic backgrounds to the polls in unprecedented numbers. But it was more than voter turnout that made this year’s election a schizophrenic one: it was who turned out and how they voted.

Barack Obama won California 61-37, but only whites and Asian Americans voted against the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in significant numbers: 52-48. Among Latinos, the same people who gave Obama 67 percent of their votes, voted 59-41 for Proposition 8, and blacks who cast an overwhelming 95 percent of their ballots for the man who would become the first black president in the nation’s history, refused equality to their gay and lesbian children by a margin of 70-30. “Blacks,” said ABC News Polling Director Gary Langer, “can be said to have put it [Proposition 8] over the top. Hypothetically, had no blacks voted we compute a vote of 50-50.”

That’s the simple version. The more complicated one tells a story of ancient prejudice in which age, class, and religion each played their parts, while each was also entangled with the others. Age is the easy one: those over 60, most of whom grew up when homosexuality was still in the closet, voted heavily against marriage equality for same-sex couples, while their children and grandchildren weighed in equally solidly for it.

Talking about class is harder since almost no one uses the word these days, except, of course, for the ubiquitous “middle class” that featured so heavily in the presidential campaign and that, in encompassing everyone from a family living on $35,000 a year to one earning $250,000, stripped the word of all meaning. Yet there’s little doubt that there are significant class differences in America and that the Proposition 8 vote reflected them.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, analyzed the voting patterns of the various regions of Los Angeles county, the most populous and diverse in the state. Communities on the west side, the Times reported, voted overwhelmingly against Proposition 8, and those in the southern and eastern part of the county voted nearly equally heavily for it. Not a word about class in the article. Yet anyone even remotely familiar with the various communities of Los Angeles County knows that “region” is inseparable from “class.” The west side includes the western section of the city itself, plus the separate towns of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu, and the other beach communities, all populated by the middle class, the upper middle class, and the rich. And south and east means Compton, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Whittier, El Monte, Pomona, to name a few, all home to mostly poor and working-class blacks and Latinos.

But age and class wouldn’t likely have been enough to ensure victory for Proposition 8. For that, they needed an organized religious community that would stand together in an assault on marriage equality for same-sex couples. With San Francisco’s Catholic Archbishop George Neiderauer leading the effort, the Mormon Church joined in creating a formidably aggressive and heavily financed multi-religious coalition to support Proposition 8. “What the exit polls say,” commented Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, “is that religion trumps party affiliation when it comes to social issues.”

It’s true that one of the compelling statistics to come out of the Proposition 8 campaign is that voters who attend church every week supported the measure overwhelmingly: 84-16. But we know that those same people don’t necessarily follow their church’s teaching so slavishly on other social issues, whether on divorce, birth control, and yes, even abortion—all of which suggests that when it comes to homosexuality, religion may also serve to validate ancient prejudice.

Then, of course, there was the campaign itself, which cost a total of $73 million—more than was spent in any other campaign in the country except for the presidential contest. Supporters of Proposition 8 flooded the airwaves with emotion-laden, frightening tales: The very fabric of our society would be shredded if the court’s decision was allowed to stand; marriage was about to be destroyed; a couple (the Harry & Louise of this campaign), allegedly from Massachusetts where same-sex marriage has been legal for four years, told horror stories about the impact on their children; teachers, or a reasonable facsimile, warned that they would be required to teach children about homosexuality and gay marriage.

On the other side, the “No on 8” campaign did almost nothing to reach out to the black and Latino communities and counter the message they were hearing in their churches. Instead, they took the high ground with talking heads like Senator Diane Feinstein appealing to people’s sense of justice, arguing that a right once bestowed can’t be taken away. It was a pale, intellectualized argument that couldn’t compete with the emotional appeal of the dishonest, fearmongering campaign constructed by the proponents of the ban and heavily supported and financed by a coalition of Catholic, Mormon, and Evangelical Protestant groups.

Still, no accounting of the causes of the defeat of marriage equality for same-sex couples in California can conceal the irony that blacks and Latinos, the very groups who continue to struggle for their own basic rights, voted so heavily to deny them to another. Just 40 years ago, black-white marriage was still illegal in many parts of the country; 100 years ago the nation was shocked and outraged when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House; 150 years ago, African slaves weren’t allowed to marry legally; and 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson brought slaves from his plantation to serve him in the White House. All of it sanctioned by citing God’s authority as written in Leviticus—the same book that preachers and their parishioners rely on today to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage.

But the future tells it’s own tale. The last of the slaves didn’t believe they would see freedom in their time, and modern Americans never expected to see a black man elected to presidency. Just so, one day Americans will look back at this moment and wonder how we could have been so blind to the course of history while we were living it.

Lillian B. Rubin is with the Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. She is a sociologist, psychologist, and author of numerous books, the latest of which is 60 on Up: The Truth about Aging in America (Beacon Press, 2007). (Photo: Ingrid Taylar / Creative Commons)

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