America may have just experienced its first non-violent revolution. My family and I watched Barack Obama’s presidential acceptance speech with tears in our eyes and joy and hope in our hearts. History was made this year, not just with the election of our first African American president, but also with the huge surge in electorate turnout, and the recognition of shared values across all political parties. From liberals to conservatives, Americans of all races and beliefs joined the democratic wave to take our government back.
Sadly, the momentous occasion was marred by the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar anti-gay initiatives in Florida and Arizona that apparently passed with overwhelming African American and hefty Latino support, along with the expected white social conservatives voting for discrimination. In this day and age, one would think that Americans who have experienced racism and the relegation to second-class status would understand the bedrock of our country is, or should be, equality. Values voters? Those are the wrong values if they deny children of gays the same rights that families of heterosexuals have.
There were a lot of signs at election celebrations that declared "We Have Overcome." No, we clearly have not. If African Americans or any other minorities are willing to discriminate right alongside conservative whites and treat other citizens as less than equal, than the civil rights movement and Dr. King's dream is left unfulfilled.
Although Obama’s successful campaign strategy resulted in AA and Hispanic turnout in historic proportions, it’s important to not blame minorities for the passage of CA’s Prop 8 and other anti-gay initiatives. People of all colors and creeds voted for these mean-spirited initiatives. In fact, according to the People for the American Way (PFAW), Republicans and white churchgoers, among many other groups, voted for Prop. 8 at higher rates than African Americans. Yet somehow it’s more painful when another oppressed community spits in the face of gay Americans, especially when gays and lesbians of all races have historically worked for racial equality. To add insult to injury, many gays worked on the Obama campaign to help increase turnout in those very communities who voted against gay rights! Simply stated, the increased conservative AA vote and mobilization functioned as a Nader effect for gay rights. Worse, it’s a shame that conservative AAs shunned another repressed minority using the very same bible that they were bashed with only fifty years ago.
The key to understanding what happened this year is to look beyond the old divisions of race and sexual orientation, and recognize who benefits from those divisions – the conservative religious groups that promote an anti-gay agenda. The real reason we keep facing discriminatory attacks by the Religious Wrong is that churches and political groups use the gay marriage wedge issue to fundraise, to engage and consolidate their base, and to increase their power in our nation’s political sphere. That is where we have solve this problem – by mitigating the culturally damaging distortions that are relayed to the electorate through religious and right wing organizations.
An analysis of the forces behind the anti-civil rights Prop 8 indicates that $73 million was spent, mostly from out of state resources. The Religious Right has invested in systematic outreach to the most conservative elements of the Black Church by promoting anti-gay clergy like Bishop Harry Jackson who worked hard to stir up opposition to marriage equality in California and Florida. Conservative evangelical groups that put Prop. 8 on the ballot are unremittingly hostile to the rights of gay people. Evangelical leaders bombarded pastors, churchgoers, and the public with outright lies about gays and lesbians, claiming gays want to destroy their religious freedom, prevent clergy from preaching about homosexuality from the pulpit and come after their children by preaching homosexuality in the schools (as if sexual orientation can be taught to children). They even suggested that Christians would be thrown in jail and churches would be forced to marry gays unless Prop 8 passed. All of which is not true, but is enormously successful in fear-based politics. They employed divide and conquer tactics that exploited the discomfort among many conservative AAs with white gays by accusing the gay rights movement of "hijacking" and "raping" the black civil rights movement. This divide and conquer tactic ignores and belittles the commonalities between oppressed communities striving for equal rights, and creates an artificial "Us versus Them" mentality that hamstrings progressive change.
In Arkansas this year, the religious zeal of social conservatives went well past the usual attack on gays with an even more ominous new law approved by nearly 57 percent of voters. That state’s Proposed Initiative Act No. 1 bans people who are "cohabitating outside a valid marriage" from serving as foster parents or adopting children. Although the measure was written by the Arkansas Family Council expressly to thwart "the gay agenda," it’s far reaching effects will be felt by heterosexuals as well, and will be devastating to children who could otherwise benefit from adoption or foster placement with loving adults. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the children in state custody have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their heterosexual parents. But by banning gay and straight unmarried people from adopting or fostering these needy children, social conservatives have shown themselves to be not just anti-gay, but also anti-family and anti-children. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2009, anyone cohabitating with his or her unmarried partner cannot adopt, even if the children are a deceased sibling’s kids. Grandparents who live with opposite-sex partners but who don’t marry because it would reduce in their pension benefits are barred from adopting their own grandchildren! The silver lining in all this is that they’ve expanded the pool of people impacted by their conservative, anti-family social agenda, which may result in more heterosexuals demanding an end to these bigoted, "tyranny by the majority" initiatives.
So how can progressives stop these anti-family initiatives? Mormon Church leaders turned Prop. 8 into a national religious crusade against gay couples, badgered Mormons nationwide to give heavily to the campaign, and recruited thousands of Christian foot soldiers for door-to-door canvassing. For that alone they should lose their IRS tax exempt status. Conservative Catholic leaders betrayed Catholic teaching about human dignity by enthusiastically joining forces with campaign organizers who portrayed supporters of gay equality as evil and satanic. "Yes on Prop 8" leaders viewed the campaign as a battle between good and evil, which led to an "ends justifies the means" campaign that included grossly distorted ads, mailings, and robocalls directed at AAs and Hispanics and falsely portrayed Barack Obama as a Prop 8 supporter. The Obama campaign responded with a statement opposed to Prop 8, but Obama’s own verbal statements helped the anti-gay cause, specifically his campaigning with Donnie McClurkin and Doug Kmiec (both of whom promote conservative, anti-gay bigotry), his unwillingness to steer the conversation toward civil rights and marriage equality instead of repeating their mantra that marriage is between a man and a woman, and his decision to not expend political capital on LGBT issues.
The fact is, Obama doesn’t need to stick his neck out and make gay rights his issue, but the Democratic Party has to take a stand immediately. Why? Because if we don’t, our opponents will continue to hammer us on this wedge issue for the next hundred years while it’s in limbo. As the Arkansas adoption ban indicates, gays aren’t the only target of the Religious Wrong. Oh, gay citizens will eventually win equality, but what will the right wing drag us through before we come to a sensible solution? Like blacks before them, gay Americans are never going to quit demanding equality, and the right wing will continue to take advantage of wedge issues like this that bring them big bucks and even bigger political clout. The Constitution, that great, insightful document, will eventually win out, but it’s going to take mainstream Democrats to step up to the plate, just as it was necessary for white Americans to take a stand on racial equality, and male politicians to allow woman suffrage. Sadly, change is dependent on the majority giving rights to oppressed minorities. Historically, major social change has come about with a combination of grassroots effort and political/social demands for change culminating in top-down, federal solutions. If Lincoln hadn't signed the Emancipation Proclamation, or Harry Truman hadn't integrated the military, or Congress and Pres. Lyndon Johnson hadn't signed the Civil Rights Act, we’d still be mired in all three of those civil conflicts. Remember, women didn’t get the right to vote just because they demanded it. Male politicians finally realized that they could reap the benefits of more voters if they included women in the electorate. As with black civil rights, the Bible was used to justify women not having the right to vote or to own property in this country. Slaves could not free themselves, women could not give themselves the right to vote, and gays and lesbians cannot create their own equality by simply asking or demanding it. Nature simply does not produce enough homosexuals to create a large voting block. The dominant groups in society have always been the ones who have the power to effect change.
Marriage equality can be won on constitutional grounds. Our Constitution & Bill of Rights guarantee equal protection. Period. It’s just a matter of time before we realize it’s full potential. Prop 8 will likely be struck down for violating the 14th Amendment by singling out a class of citizens to discriminate against. But we don’t have to wait for the courts to bounce the issue back to the public, we can move forward in the civic arena. Progress is made not through unity, but by more people coming to favor progress than those who oppose it. Black people remained in slavery for far too many years after this country was established because of a bad compromise for the sake of unity. Remember, there are two components of marriage. One is the religious joining of two or more people (even polygamy is one version of "traditional marriage"). The other component is the civil contract between two people who are taking financial and legal responsibility for their partner and/or family. The two components are already separate, in that you go to your church to have a marriage ceremony, but you pay the government to approve and record your marriage contract. The state has a valid interest in regulating domestic relationships, so there's no use trying to get the government out of the marriage business at this point, especially given the amount of family court decisions that exist on top of our laws. From our experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other countries like Canada, it’s clear that giving all adult citizens the right to civil marriage has absolutely no effect on the religious institution of marriage. Although the right wing is dishonest to say they’re protecting "traditional marriage" given the history of how marriage has changed over time, the appeal of the "one man, one woman" argument is powerful, even among Democrats. A reasonable solution would be to give the word "marriage" back to the church, and start calling all state sanctioned marriages "civil unions." The first step along that path would be to allow straight people to opt for civil unions instead of marriage. Since this would require a state by state approach, we also need a proactive federal solution. Back to the newly elected Congress and our Mandate for Change...
So what can be done? The solution is for Congress to provide a federal foundation for domestic relationships with the stated purpose of establishing clarity on civil rights disparities that are caused by states already regulating marriage in different ways, and with a clear goal of reaffirming the U.S. constitutionally guaranteed equality for all citizens. This should be a high priority for the new Congress, because the sooner the gay marriage wedge issue is put to rest, the better for democracy and for the Democratic Party. People voting other folk’s rights away is really not a healthy way to run a democracy, and is bound to lead to many more years of conflict and division among the electorate. A federal gay rights solution will resolve the disparity among states with differing domestic partnership structures (gay marriage in some states, civil unions in others) and the danger of more states illegally voting away gay citizens civil rights.
Pres Bill Clinton tried to take a progressive stand on the gays in the military issue. He got kneecapped for his attempt to replicate what President Harry Truman did as Commander in Chief when he ordered racial desegregation of the armed forces. One reason Clinton failed is because he caved to opposition, even though the arguments used against gays in the military were the same as those used against people of color in Truman’s time. But Clinton didn’t have the majorities and political clout that our new president will have. Obama doesn’t have to stand alone on this. He has surrogates, including strong congressional leaders. And he has us, the millions of Americans who believe in the Constitution and in fairness to others. We are the strong wind at Obama’s back, the voice of the newly emerged Democratic Majority, the foundation and mandate for the Change We Need! We have new progressive organizations that use the Internet to communicate and garner popular support. We have broad based coalitions that have arisen in the fight to take back our country from the lunatic right wing fringe that has foisted the likes of Dubya on us. If we truly want Change, then it’s time for the people to lead so the leaders can follow.
To begin with, we need one of the many organizations that have been created to promote progressive ideas such as MoveOn, ActBlue, ACLU, People for the American Way, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), National Organizers Alliance, National Organization for Women, American Friends Service Committee, True Majority or even Democracy for America to coordinate a broad based, grass roots coalition that will support a core group from both sides of Congress whose political careers won’t be damaged by promoting equal rights to create gay rights legislation as soon as the Obama administration is in place. Sen. Ted Kennedy is in an excellent position to take the lead (what a lasting tribute for him to continue in the Kennedy tradition of sponsoring key civil rights legislation) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the House (already maligned as a wild-eyed liberal by the right wing but frequently attacked by the left for not being progressive enough). Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments below of congressional leaders who could survive politically even if they take a progressive stand on this issue (or just forward them this article).
In my opinion, the most effective way to solve the gay rights issue is for our newly elected Congress and president to immediately pass legislation repealing DOMA and DADT (Defense of Marriage Act and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy), and change IRS code and other applicable laws to support states’ use of civil unions. These modifications should be based on the need to accommodate contract structures in states that already allow gay marriage or civil unions. As part of the process, Congress can set clear federal policy to support states that provide equal structures for gays and straights, from gay marriage to heterosexual civil unions (granted, these are not in existence yet, but they would help enormously to pull the rug from under the anti-gay marriage proponents). This allows for a variety of state responses, placates conservative demands for states’ rights, yet provides the framework for equality between those states that do allow marriage/civil unions and those that discriminate.
Although different states can create a variety of marital structures, including the mean-spirited gay marriage bans, the federal government should reestablish our "full faith and credit" clause so all states would have to accept marriages/civil unions from other states that allow gays to enter domestic contracts. Then just let it sit for a while until it’s clear that the states allowing gay marriage aren’t falling apart, and until the idea of separation of church and state is incorporated in how the public thinks about marriage. In the meantime anyone married in the states that allow marriage equality have 100% of the rights and benefits afforded to other married couples. The end game is reaffirmation of our constitutional protections, support for pro-family progressive values, and destabilization of this anti-family wedge issue. By the way, for those who are pushing polygamy as part of marriage equality, please don’t peddle that here. It just feeds the slippery slope argument and scares those who would otherwise support equal rights. Straights don’t have the right to marry multiple concurrent partners, and we’re working toward marriage equality, not expansion. So if you want to promote polygamy then start your own movement, but please don’t tie it to gay rights.
Our new President Obama should reiterate his support for these sweeping changes based on what he’s already stated, and the following:
- Today’s marriage is not at all "traditional." Marriage throughout history has meant no divorce, no interracial unions, arranged weddings between children and adult men, and polygamy. The "protect traditional marriage" argument is baseless, and people are just being mean spirited and anti-American passing laws that take rights away from a minority. Contrary to the Religious Right’s claims, the institution of marriage has been constantly modified since it was created thousands of years ago. Traditional biblical marriage was originally a business deal between families whereby a bride and dowry were the price for buying into a family that could offer prestige and security. That’s why rich and powerful men like King Solomon promoted polygamy as "natural." Mixed race marriage, a 19th century European/American invention, was considered a form of pollution to the purity of the white race, and was prevented by law in many states until rather recently, with the last states changing anti-miscegeny laws in the 1960s. That means numerous states still prevented interracial marriage at the time of Obama’s birth. Traditional marriage, as it was for most of our country’s history, was clearly not what it is now, with churches blocking divorce and any marital arrangement they did not agree with. Our country (and others) correctly made changes to "traditional marriage" to fix inequalities and limit religious barriers. Obama has the opportunity to remind the people who promote intolerance of gays using scriptures written by ancient mystics that the sign "Whites Only" over the water fountains is no different than "Heterosexuals Only" over the marriage bureau's door. Most importantly, one does not have to accept homosexuality to accept the constitutional guarantees of equality.
- President Truman’s desegregation of the military had a huge positive effect on race relations, in spite of naysayers claiming it would destroy morale and destabilize troop cohesion and readiness. Repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy will do the same. Gays exist, they are in the military in huge numbers, and many of them are in key roles like interpreters and intelligence. DADT is dysfunctional and counterproductive, so change is what’s needed now. When the CIC lays down the law, generals who refuse to implement it should get fired. Period. Obama needs to just man-up on this one and set more reasonable policy, especially given the number of gay and lesbian heroes serving today. If he sticks to his guns, and if we are solidly behind him, demanding and expecting the Change We Need, Obama will avoid the complications Pres. Clinton ran into.
- Obama is all about finding solutions that represent shared values. A congressional solution that allows states to define traditional marriage, but doesn’t allow them to discriminate against a group of citizens by restricting their access to equal protection is a no-brainer. Just give marriage back to the churches, encourage all states to start utilizing civil unions for the state sanctioned part of marriage, and sit back to watch the Change happen all over the country. Even if some states redefine marriage to "protect it" from gays (which many already have) gay citizens can always go to one of those "liberal states" to get married. Their home state will simply have to abide by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution that can require states to recognize other states’ domestic partnership contracts. Most importantly, the federal government will recognize those "liberal state" marriages/civil unions via policy changes from IRS rules to the military, which will do enormous good to mitigate our opponents’ anti-gay political actions.
Obama can stay above the fray, but provide his support throughout the congressional process. He won’t be as easy to criticize as President Clinton was, because he’s symbolic of the Yes We Can movement. Criticizing him will be like criticizing millions of us. People will respond with anger if they perceive pundits trying to tear down our first black president. The man studied constitutional law at an Ivy League school. Surely he can speak to the fairness and rationality of supporting constitutionally guaranteed protections for all Americans. Most importantly, Obama’s words and opinion will be repeated throughout the nation. He’s got the bully pulpit, and he’s the first Democratic president in our lifetimes who has a wildly supportive following. Imagine how hard it will be for conservative church leaders in predominantly black and Hispanic communities to contradict our new leader. For these reasons, Obama can come out in support of solutions on this issue on the basis that it’s a civil rights issue that divides our country. The black civil rights movement inspired gay liberation itself. Obama can remind black church leaders of Nelson Mandela's long struggle and that he and black South Africans made S. Africa the first nation in the world to guarantee equal rights for gay and lesbian people. The great Cesar Chavez spoke out for gay rights at the early marches on Washington, and Obama can use these examples to reframe the discussion in terms of constitutional rights instead of biblical/culture clashes.
Finally, progressives need to not let the passage of these anti-gay initiatives divide us, especially when polls show racial minorities in favor of discrimination. We must remember that anti-gay political action by the right wing and by churches is a huge fundraiser and a Get Out The Vote strategy. The difficulty isn’t that people of color tend to vote conservatively on social issues, the problem is that so many churches and religious leaders tell all their followers to vote against gay rights. That’s where we need to focus our energies, mitigating the anti-gay communication flow from powerful, political religious organizations to the electorate. For that reason, Obama should make it clear that his Faith Based Initiative funding will not be granted to religious institutions that promote hatred, division and political action resulting in loss of civil rights for any group of citizens. Progressive organizations should take steps to have the IRS repeal 501 (c)3 tax protections from churches that promote these anti-gay political initiatives.
Until mainstream Democrats stand up for the equality our Constitution provides, the right wing will use this issue as a wedge issue against progressive advancement. This is the chance in a lifetime to implement Change We Need and forward the cause of equality for generations to come. Let’s encourage our leaders in Congress to step up the plate, and make sure they know we’ve got their backs.