Reflections on California’s Proposition 8

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The United States took away rights yesterday.

It’s a stunning thing to acknowledge. On the same day we culminated a civil rights struggle that spans our nation’s entire history by electing the first African-American president of the United States, California voters revoked the right of some citizens in their state to marry the people they love, and nullified the bonds of some who already had.

California’s Proposition 8 amends the California state constitution to eliminate the right to marry awarded to homosexuals by the California courts in May 2008. Further, it states that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized by the state, likely shredding the marriages that have occurred since the court decision. Prop 8 passed Tuesday by a vote of 52-48, part of a wave of successful anti-gay legislation nationwide.

If you look at the front page of any newspaper today, you’ll find heart-warming plaudits for the country about racial healing and America’s progress since the civil rights movement. Count me out. Barack Obama won because the Bush Administration hung a 30-pound anchor around the neck of every Republican in the country, because the economy cratered just before the election and his opponent showed no capacity to understand the problem, and because he ran the best campaign in recent memory. You cannot divorce his victory from those facts. Yes, his ascendance to the White House is a wonderful thing for everyone in this country — black, white, or otherwise — who have struggled for rights, and it a wonderful thing for children of all colors, who now know without a doubt that there are no limits on their potential. But Obama’s victory is muddied by too many other factors, some small but some quite large, to be taken as a clear sign that we have made substantial progress on the question of tolerance.

Proposition 8 was a question of tolerance, unmuddied. It was a straightforward proposal to a state that likes to think of itself as the most progressive in the Union — do you want to take away civil rights already granted to a minority group? The issues of unemployment, the stock market, gas prices, healthcare — all of which added nuance to the presidential election — were stripped away. It was a test of California’s tolerance in a vacuum. And California failed.

The reason why this pains me to such an extent is because I’m from California. The decision violates, violently, the image of my state that I have held with such pride my entire life. California is a wonderful place for a lot of reasons, but foremost among them is the way in which it welcomes people and their lifestyles. The state cherishes its diversity. I’ve written before, in a defense of a humane immigration policy, that I grew up in Northern California schools that were routinely over half Asian-American. The rest of our community was white, Hispanic, and to a lesser extent, African-American. It was impossible to leave without some vague notion that our lives are brighter for the diversity of people we get to share them with, and that our understanding of the world is richer for all the reflections of it in our day-to-day experience. And, ultimately, one emerges with an even stronger commitment to a future of shared success when the struggles of African-Americans, immigrants, and the gay community are before one’s eyes.

And so it is a shock to acknowledge that my vision of California is not shared by the majority of the state’s residents. It is particularly ironic, considering how the measure succeeded. Minorities voted for it. Barack Obama’s victory is a clear statement that respect is owed to people of all races, because they all have the capacity to excel equally. One would think it is a short step away from understanding that respect is owed to people of all sexual orientations, because they all have the capacity to love equally. And yet, African-Americans voted in favor of Proposition 8 by a huge margin, 70-30. Latinos supported it by a much smaller 53-47. Whites and Asians both voted against by a slim 49-51. These numbers dumbfound me.

But have hope. The other strong predictor of how someone voted on Proposition 8 was age. The 18-29 age demographic voted against it by an overwhelming 61-39 margin. Voters 30-64 voted in favor by about 10 points, and voters over 65 reversed the youngsters’ vote, 39-61.

The fact that younger Americans support marriage equality by such vast numbers means that the writing is on the wall. Proposition 8 and what it represents will not stand the test of time. In the coming days it will likely face legal challenges, and a constitutional amendment reversing the decision is possible in the short term. But it is the long term that holds out the real promise of change. Martin Luther King Jr., in a quote that is more relevant today than ever, said the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. King’s statement was never meant to apply exclusively to African-Americans. In applies to every group treated unequally in this country. It is simply the case that for some, that arc bends more slowly.

Proposition 8 is just one hurdle in a race that equality will eventually win. But that does not make its passage any easier to stomach. California now joins the ignominious list of states that have had the opportunity to expand civil rights and decided instead to take them away.


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