Not There Yet

First published at Between the Lines News on December 4, 2008

I have a confession to make. I’m getting ever so slightly tired of the reaction to Prop. 8.

I know I shouldn’t. I know that the loss in California is terrible, and far-reaching, and deserving of attention. We had marriage, and voters took it away. A majority took away minority rights in a close election. That sucks.

I also know that we should do everything possible to capitalize on the outrage gays and their supporters are feeling right now, organizing marches and coming out to their friends and family and whatnot. The last thing I’d want to do is curb their enthusiasm.

And if I follow any of the above with a “but…,” it’s going to look like I don’t really mean it—even though I do. What happened in California really sucks.


It’s important, as always, to maintain some perspective.

Gay and lesbian Californians will go back to having virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage via domestic-partnership legislation. That’s not quite as good as marriage, but it’s better than what most of the rest of us have.

Here in Michigan, not only do we lack domestic-partner legislation, our constitution bans it. And our attorney general interprets that ban as prohibiting public employers from offering health-insurance benefits to same-sex partners. We had them, and voters took them away.

So while California may have been the first state to take marriage away from gays, it’s hardly the first to take rights away from gays—or the most significant in terms of tangible benefits.

This past election day, Florida passed a ban similar to Michigan’s, and thus much worse than California’s Prop. 8. Not only did it pass, it passed with a whopping 62% of the vote. With all the fuss over California, you may not have heard about it.

Arizona passed a ban that was limited to marriage, and thus less obnoxious than Florida’s and Michigan’s (and many others). But Arizona’s ban appeared on the ballot only because of a dishonest last-minute parliamentary maneuver—another story you should have heard about, but probably didn’t.

And for what may be the worst bit of gay election-day news, consider Arkansas, which passed a ban on unmarried persons serving as adoptive or foster parents. That ban was specifically targeted to fight “the gay agenda,” but what it means is that thousands of children who could have stable loving homes will instead languish in state care.

Of course, we could broaden our focus even further, and note that in some parts of the world, being gay is still grounds for arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. In that light, even Arkansas looks downright welcoming.

None of this should make us any less outraged about what happened in California. I repeat: what happened in California sucks.

But I hope the people getting outraged about California will take a moment to look around at the rest of the country—and the world—and get even more outraged. Because what happened in California is nothing new.

For some years I’ve noticed a kind of myopia from some quarters of the GLBT community. They tell me: “We’ve won this war, John—gayness is a largely a non-issue. Sure, there are some stragglers in the South and the Midwest, but they’ll catch up soon enough. In the meantime, trying to engage them just dignifies their bigotry. It’s time for you to accept that we’re living in a post-gay society.”

Prop. 8 stung so much, in part, because it proves that we are not there yet.

This myopia is not limited to California, or even the coasts, though it does show up more there. It exists anywhere that liberals have the luxury of spending their time mostly around other liberals. (I write this as a liberal philosophy professor in an urban center, so I’m hardly immune to the phenomenon myself.)

And so when Sally “Gays are a bigger threat than terrorists” Kern gets re-elected by a 16-point margin in Oklahoma, these liberals look on with a mix of perplexity, smugness, and pity. That is, if they look on at all. (In case you missed it, Kern’s comfortable re-election happened on November 4, too.)

Of course, the other side has its own brand of myopia, as we all continue to become more polarized and isolated.

What’s the solution? As I’ve said over and over again—in columns, in speeches, in any forum available—we need to keep talking to each other. We need to engage our opponents. We need to keep making the case.

If there’s a silver lining to this Prop. 8 defeat, it’s the wake-up call that reminds us that we’re not there yet.