On Tuesday, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency marked an historic night that won’t easily be forgotten. But, democracy also pointed us in a different direction on Tuesday. Arizona, Florida, and California all voted to ban same-sex marriage.
In California, the passage of Prop 8 (a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage) was especially significant, given that it had been the first state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in 2005. Throughout the past few months, over $70 million was spent in California on Prop 8 alone. Supporters of Prop 8 argued that endorsing gay marriage would lead to a breakdown of the traditional family. More importantly, most “Yes on 8” ads focused on the impact in classrooms, claiming that children would be taught about same-sex marriage. As an example, these ads often cited a class trip, where first-graders attended a gay wedding in San Francisco.
Education officials and those against Prop 8 tried to combat these misstatements. California public schools superintendent Jack O’Connell appeared in a “No on 8” ad to dispute the claims that children would be taught about gay marriage. The “class trip” turned out to be organized by parents as a surprise for the teacher, who was marrying her longtime partner. But, even while celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Itzhak Perlman, and Samuel L. Jackson made their voices heard against Prop 8, it still wasn’t enough. A 52% majority of California voters passed the amendment on Tuesday.
Thus, it was a bittersweet day for progressives… we got Barack Obama, but we weren’t able to get equal rights for all.
The popular case against gay marriage/civil unions focuses on the traditional family. The “Yes on 8” ads running through California were just a small microcosm of a widespread fear that, if we allow gay people to marry, we might just end up with more gay people. If we tolerate homosexual culture, then we might have more homosexuals one day. In fact, these arguments sound very much like why we ban prostitution, or why we crack down on drug lords. By portraying homosexuality as akin to committing a crime, we immediately have a gut reaction against it. If those first graders were brought to a heterosexual wedding, it’s doubtful that anyone would object. But because they were brought to a lesbian wedding, they became front-page news and campaign fodder. Is this necessarily right? No. But it’s the culture we live in–a culture that still can’t shake that gut aversion.
Some people might argue, “Well, as long as gay couples still get the same treatment as straight couples, then it’s just an issue of calling it a marriage vs. calling it a civil union. It’s just semantics.” Indeed, Barack Obama himself does not support gay marriage, as he favors civil unions. However, according to the New York Times, only “a handful” of states allow civil unions or domestic partnerships that afford gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. On the other hand, more than 40 states now have laws that ban gay marriage (versus two that allow it: Massachusetts and Connecticut). And on Tuesday, Arkansas passed a law banning same-sex couples from adopting children. Thus, whether it is semantics or not, there is an inherent injustice when anyone is denied civil rights granted to all.
Interestingly, while the Western world cheered the United States for becoming the first to elect a black president, we can look to their example when it comes to gay rights. The following countries guarantee civil rights for gay couples: Canada, Britain, Spain, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Luxembourg and South Africa (even given its apartheid past). France, Germany, and Argentina recognize civil unions but do not include full rights as heterosexual couples. The United States? We’ve left it up to the states, and apparently, our states just aren’t ready for it yet.
So, with this in mind, I just want to end with an excerpt from Obama’s speech. Hopefully a hundred years from now, we can look back and be proud that we corrected the injustice of this generation’s civil rights issue. One day, I hope we can see the progress we have made: a more open society, a more tolerant culture, and a country that truly treats us all as equals.
“This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight’s about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.
At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.
When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.
And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.
Yes we can.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.
This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
– From Barack Obama’s speech at Grant Park in Chicago, 11/4/08