The California Smack-down

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

4 November 2083: Throughout the United States, LGBT individuals gather to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the day when the voters of California bitch-slapped the LGBT community out of its “We’re here, we’re queer” complacency and into action. The date is remembered alongside the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s as one of the turning points in the fight for equality.

We lost in California. The ignorant, fearful, bigoted, and judgmental have won; gay marriage has been outlawed in a few more states. And the most amazing thing has happened as a result. We didn’t run and hide while we reorganized and bandaged our battered pride. No, we marched, by the thousands, gay and straight alike, mothers and fathers of gay persons, drag queens, ministers, celebrities, friends, neighbors, doctors and garbage persons – arm-in-arm, fighting for right and justice and common respect, all featured on the prime time news and newspaper front-pages. We’ve raised our voices, shouted our demand for equality, and shown the world (so much of which has marched with us) that this is the moment, the turning point which propels our society in a new direction. It has been remarkable. Or maybe not.

4 November 2008: A little time has passed since the election, and the marches have died off. With an upcoming inauguration and an economy lying among the rubble of eight years of greed-driven mismanagement, the news has quickly moved on, and our daily lives have returned to the worries of keeping our houses and our jobs. This is a time when America teeters on economic collapse. Americans are at war, their health care system is destroying families and financial futures, and the planet is about to melt, so what are the problems of a few gay men and lesbians compared to that?

However, the problems Americans face cannot be allowed to overshadow the GLBT struggle, just as the growing argument over the Vietnam War did not deter the brave men and women who fought for their rights in the ’60s. California Proposition 8 revisited that civil rights struggle, pitting the judiciary against the populace. It took the courts to get America’s schools desegregated, its voting laws to include all eligible adults, and the elimination of white-only counters and drinking fountains; as a product of the South, I can say with utmost confidence that if these decisions were left to the voters, blacks would still be riding in the back of the bus of several southern towns.

So it is with the civil rights fight for the LGBT community. Our hopes lie in the courts, not the average person. It is the “average person” that voted against John Kerry in 2004 because he was “too smart” (doesn’t the presidency deserve the smartest person?) and voted for Sarah Palin in 2008 because she likes to shoot moose from a helicopter, and wouldn’t that be cool to do?

Do we really think this “average person” is perceptive enough to comprehend the philosophical principles of democracy and evaluate the merits of discrimination-based ballot measures? This leaves the GLBT community with two options: continue to take its battles to the courts, which are more likely to rule against discrimination, or make the average person like GLBT people — really, really like us.

Both options are time-consuming. The courts are backlogged and filing multiple suits throughout the 50 states won’t help. As for the average person, the problem is that s/he isn’t average. Look into any demographic group — race, gender, age, religion — and there will be those who voted in favor of gay marriage bans. Latinos voted in favor of Proposition 8 by a significant margin, and blacks supported it by a 2-to-1 margin. Most whites opposed the proposition, but far from all. Catholics, Baptists, Jews marched for and against the proposition, while the Mormon Church worked hard to insure passage. The younger a voter was, the more likely he or she was going to oppose the measure, but supporters crossed all age lines. How do you win so many different people over?

Take the black community, where much of the focus of post-election analysis has centered. It’s no secret that a message of homophobia permeates segments of the black community. Rap and hip-hop music have often been cited for their homophobic lyrics; Kayne West famously called for an end to discrimination against gays in rap music. The problem is so bad in the US and elsewhere that the UK has imposed penalties on rappers whose lyrics call for violence against or killing of homosexuals.

If the message isn’t conveyed to the black community sufficiently through music, black churches help to reinforce it. In an article entitled “Homophobia, Hypermasculinity, and the US Black Church”, author Elijah G. Ward concludes:

Both directly and indirectly, black churches have been identified as fostering homophobia—a fear or contempt for homosexuals and behaviour based upon such feelings—playing an important role in its genesis, legitimation and weekly reinforcement in black communities (Dyson 1996). Indeed, theologically-driven homophobia, aided by black nationalist ideology, supports a strong and exaggerated sense of masculinity within black communities that, along with homophobia, takes a significant but generally unexamined psychic and social toll on people’s lives. (Culture, Health & Sexuality, Sept/Oct 2005)

However, Ward also cites the work of Lewis, who has reviewed surveys of the black community back to 1973 and concluded that, generally, blacks are more supportive of gay rights and less accepting of sexual-orientation based discrimination in the workplace than whites. With this in mind, how does the gay community win over the support of a group that is heavily swayed by two homophobic social influences, a group that declares its support of gay rights publically while voting against such rights privately?

Even black leaders can’t help answer this question, as there is no consensus among them. Coretta Scott King was a vocal supporter of gay rights and opposed gay marriage bans, while the Reverend Al Sharpton has frequently voiced his support of the LGBT community, telling one church congregation, “You cannot talk about civil rights and limit who’s included…The church should have a front seat in the car leading toward dialogue, leading toward tolerance.” (Landrum, Jonathon Jr., “Black Gays Ask Clergy for Tolerance”, 22 January 2006, Washington Post)

Not every one agrees with Reverend Sharpton, however. In the article “How Do Blacks Feel Being Compared to Homosexuals”, Dr. John Diggs is quoted as saying, “They (homosexuals) make more money as a group than most people, and they wield political power out of all proportion to their numbers. To compare themselves to the civil rights movement is extremely offensive and logically inconsistent.” (Hawkins, Geraldine, 14 March, 2003, Massachusetts News

Far more indignant is La Shawn Barber, writing for, who claims that both the gay rights and women’s rights movements have “co-opted” the civil rights movement to justify their destructive agendas, adding:

Civil rights refer to those found in the Bill of Rights and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Blacks were denied these rights, and the Civil Rights Movement extended them to blacks. It did not seek to redefine nor add to these rights. That affluent white homosexuals consider themselves oppressed in the same way because they can’t “marry” is an insult to my grandfathers and their fathers and grandfathers.

Barber is correct in her definition of civil rights, although her ethnocentric and historically inaccurate assessment of who civil rights apply to is frightening. Women, Native Americans, Asians, certain religious groups, and yes, gays have all been denied the 14th Amendment rights of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, and members of all these segments of our society have been imprisoned and killed for fighting for their rights.

Currently, the most egregious violations of those rights involve LGBT persons. Marriage is the issue that makes headlines, but in many parts of the country, gays can be denied housing or housing laws are designed to create hardships for same-sex couples, employers can fire individuals for their sexual orientation, medical care is denied, parental rights are terminated, and the list of discriminatory practices perpetrated regularly against LGBT individuals goes on and on and on. One Dallas suburb mandated that two persons of the same sex had to rent a two or more bedroom dwelling, even if there were heterosexual roommates with separate beds. Since the law could do nothing to insure that both bedrooms were being used, the law’s sole effect was to create financial burdens for lower income gay and lesbian couples who couldn’t afford to pay for a larger apartment.

Within America’s communities, LGBT persons are less safe than straight persons in “straight” areas, with hate crimes against gays second only to those against blacks. Additionally, a paper presented at the 2007 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting revealed that gays are disproportionately victims of crimes, particularly robberies, as criminals assume that gay communities will present “suitable targets”.

On the job, a gay man living with his partner will make an average of 23 cents per dollar less than a married man for the same work and nine cents less than a straight man living with a female partner, according to an analysis of the 2004 Census data. Gay men can also expect to face more difficulty landing a job, as discrimination is prevalent in hiring as well, the same study concluded. Interestingly, lesbians do not suffer the same pay disparity as married women, but they do suffer from pay disparity by virtue of being women. (“Gay Men Earn 23% Less Pay than Married Men”, Consumer Commentary, 9 November 2007.)

What’s more, for every “affluent” homosexual, there’s a gay kid sleeping on the streets tonight because of his or her family’s rejection. A study by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute found that upwards of 40 percent of homeless youth are gay. (Wall, Holly, “Sometimes You Can’t Go Home Again”, 12 December, 2007, Urban Tulsa Weekly) So yes, Ms. Barber and Dr. Diggs, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders need civil rights protections — not just the right to marry (and the hundreds of legal benefits that accompany that right), but the right to fair housing and employment laws, as well as equal access to social and medical services and the freedom to not be persecuted, belittled, insulted, gay-bashed, robbed, or murdered because of who we are. It is very much a fight for civil rights.

If we are to learn anything from the California smack-down, it may be this: there are a lot of people who just don’t “get it” — or us. Having spent so much time demonizing us as deviant and dangerous sinners who are trying hard to overthrow the American way of life by destroying the “traditional” family, it is difficult for those opposed to our equality to see us for who we are: not so different from them. We’re ordinary, everyday people who live ordinary, everyday lives. We don’t want to overthrow society; we want to be a part of it. Not through force or judicial decision, but through inclusion and invitation.

If, however, the LGBT community can’t win over the nay-sayers (and we will never win over them all) so that they gladly and freely put out the welcome mat for us, then force and judicial decision it will have to be. Let’s have no delusions here; gay marriage, employment and housing protections, and the freedom to adopt and raise children will come. It will happen, and someday, it will be such a part of the American fabric that historians will place the La Shawn Barbers, Fred Phelps, and Rick Santorums of society in the same category as the narrow-minded bigots who slaughtered and relocated Native Americans, promoted slave-trading and segregation, interred Japanese-Americans during WW II, and denied women the right to vote, get a job, or make decisions for themselves.

Let California be our catalyst for change, to organize and march and demand, but also to enlighten and educate and enable, both others and ourselves. If we can’t do that, maybe we deserve to ride in the back of the bus, and the LGBT community of 2083 can rightfully label those of us living in this era as the “loser generation” that squandered opportunity. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t plan to be remembered that way.

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