The Election: Presidential Promise and the Heartbreak of Prop 8

Published in: January-February 2009 issue.

Transcending Our Righteous Anger

Our first collective response to the passage of Proposition 8 in California was denial. For two days after the election there was no concession by the losing side. Then came rage, as we confronted the great design flaw in American democracy, the tyranny of the majority that Alexis de Tocqueville described in the early 19th century. As happens with losing campaigns, blame-throwing set in. There was indignation that, of all constituencies, African-Americans voted by a two-to-one majority to strip us of our rights. Some trying to counter the overemphasis on that statistic seemed to suggest that we instead blame ourselves for the homophobia of others.

Then the community seemed to regain some perspective, to turn away from the impulse to cannibalize ourselves or indulge in racist overgeneralizations. As the role of the Mormon Church in the “Yes on 8” campaign became increasingly clear, the “Latter Day Saints” drew fire for their theocratic overreaching. How dare a patriarchal sect with its roots in polygamy lecture us about what marriage means or exploit a tax exemption to enact its prejudices into secular law? While the Mormons are more socially acceptable targets for a backlash than the Catholic Church or evangelicals, they were hardly alone in relegating us to second-class citizenship in the nation’s largest state.

We must respect the anger we feel, and acknowledge its role in the progress we have made over the past forty years. What fueled the Stonewall Riots was a sudden, ferocious resistance to our treatment by the New York police as heavies for society at large. GLBT audiences to this day applaud the scenes of the “White Night Riots” in The Times of Harvey Milk, where a row of police cars went in flames following an unjust jury verdict in the trial of Harvey Milk’s murderer. Would we have made as much progress in the fight against AIDS without Larry Kramer’s clarion call to anger and the guerilla tactics of ACT-UP? Queer Nation’s warning that “Queers Bash Back” still gives many potential gay bashers pause.

But our advancement in the wake of the Stonewall Riots owes much to the fact that we turned the energy of that seminal event into visionary community organizing. The Gay Activists Alliance invented the “zap” and micro-targeted liberal politicians like Greenwich Village City Councilor Carol Greitzer, who took our votes but treated us with disdain. Then, as the campy petulance so effective in 1971 coalesced into sophisticated institution building, we began to amass the necessary political power to effect meaningful social change. When is the last time you heard about a police raid on a gay bar?

I defy anyone who would wag their fingers at the GLBT crowds that surged into the streets of Los Angeles and even Salt Lake City after Election Day to confront institutions whose anti-gay politicking is subsidized by the IRS. But as a movement historian, I attest that we will consign Proposition 8 to the dustbin of history by channeling our outrage into a savvy political strategy.

Donald Gorton, who sits on this magazine’s board of directors, is the chairperson of the Anti-Violence Project in Boston.


Proposition 8 and Black Homophobia

I have learned as both a pastor and also as a member of several minority groups—African-American, woman, and lesbian—that popular opinion on a civil rights issue does not always match the morally right position. More often than not, the moral high ground on an issue is revealed to society by a small, struggling group trying to be seen and heard amid a cacophony of opposition to its legitimate claims. It is with such a group and its struggle that we see democracy at work for good or ill: when those relegated to the fringes of society test the willingness of the majority to grant to others the rights they take for granted as inalienable, such as the right for two individuals to marry.

Last November we saw democracy at work with the election of Barack Obama as our first African-American president, something that my enslaved ancestors could have never imagined. But we also saw how democracy didn’t work for its GLBT citizens with the passage of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution eliminating marriage equality for same-sex couples after the California Supreme Court ruled in May that a “separate and unequal” system of domestic partnership for same-sex couples was unconstitutionally discriminatory.

Exit polls indicated that seventy percent of African-American voters chose to deny another minority group a basic civil right, and many people in California’s gay community blamed African-American voters for Prop 8’s passage. As a practical matter, it should be noted that blacks comprise just 6.2 percent of California’s total population, so their vote was only one of many interests favoring the measure. Nevertheless, we cannot wash our hands of this result by saying that other interest groups are just as culpable.

Other justifications have also been advanced. Pollsters noted the it wasn’t race but religion that underpinned black people’s support for Prop 8. And yet, as African Americans we have always been willing to disregard damning passages from scriptures about us, such as those that cursed all people of African ancestry (“the curse of Ham,” Genesis 9:18-27) or advocated slavery (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Or perhaps black voters were sincerely concerned that the traditional family was at stake. And yet, surely the African American community knows better than anyone that today’s family is a constantly changing configuration. While African-American ministers argue for the traditional nuclear family, the reality of the black family as it is constituted today is another matter. Multiple family structures have anchored our families through the centuries—a grandmother or an aunt and uncle, straight or gay, raising us in their loving homes. These structures, which we’ve had to devise as a model of resistance and liberation, have always, by example, shown the rest of society what really makes a family. Surely the nontraditional family structure presented by same-sex marriage should not pose a threat to the African-American community. While it is true that the white GLBT community needs to work on its racism, white privilege, and single-issue platform that thwarts efforts for coalition building with both straight and queer communities of color, the African-American community needs to work on its homophobia. No more excuses.

In the end, much of the blame of the passage of Prop 8 rightly belongs not to the voters themselves, whether black or otherwise, or even to religion, but instead to the government apparatus that allowed a basic civil right to be put to a popular referendum. If my enslaved ancestors had waited for their slaveholders to free them predicated on a ballot vote, we wouldn’t be living in the America we know today. And Barack Obama would not be our new president.

Rev. Irene Monroe is author of the forthcoming book, Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow 365 Days a Year: Meditations on Bible Prayers.


On the PR Failures of the Anti-8 Side

After the passage of Proposition 8, the GLBT community in California and nationwide reacted with understandable anger and resistance. It’s great to see this outpouring of political activism after the fact, but it’s also disappointing that more people didn’t channel this political energy into the campaign against Prop 8 before the election. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon that people get more excited when something is taken away from them than when they’re trying to acquire or just hang on to that something.

I host a television show, carried on cable outlets throughout Los Angeles County, airing on Saturday afternoons. In early October, the producer of my show asked both the “No on 8” and “Yes on 8” side to come on. He said whichever side responded positively first would get to come on the show as my guest for the week. The Yes side replied positively first, and three people showed up at the television studio at Cal State Dominguez Hills (which has a substantial African-American student body) in suburban Carson. A well-dressed, soft-spoken Latino man came on camera to argue that the Yes side was not in favor of discrimination. Gays and lesbians, he argued, already have domestic partnership rights in California and do not need marriage to get respect for their relationships. I disputed some of his points, and I expected a few viewer calls questioning his argument. However, the phones were silent, except for one caller who agreed with my guest.

I do not mean to argue that my show is the equivalent of Oprah. My complaint is that the No side apparently didn’t think a Saturday appearance on a cable TV show aired throughout Los Angeles County was worth bothering with. The alternative argument, I suppose, is worse—that organizers of the No campaign were so disorganized or unmotivated that they couldn’t find someone to come down to the studio on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps they were busy that day organizing telephone calls to likely supporters or holding up “No on 8” signs on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, who am I to say?

The ineptitude when it comes to managing public opinion underscores that gay activists are relying too much on the courts to achieve change. The courts have proven to be useful allies, but unless we reach out to people who oppose gay marriage, such as a majority of blacks and Latinos in this past election, we will be fighting against public opinion for a long time to come. In the fight for and against Prop 8, both camps were roughly equal in fundraising, so we cannot blame our defeat solely on the fact religious activists poured in millions of dollars, especially at the last minute. We had plenty of money, too. We just need to start doing the grunt work, walking neighborhoods, and talking to people of all backgrounds and ethnicities before the election. Waiting until after we’ve been defeated might make us feel better, but to our opponents we just seem like sore losers.

Christopher Burnett is an associate professor of journalism at California State University at Long Beach.


Blame the God of Woe for Prop 8’s Passage

Michigan just legalized medical pot. Liddy Dole is gone. John Sununu is gone. The Dems picked up at least six Senate seats. North Carolina went blue for the first time in more than three decades. A teen girl in California, for the third time now, won’t be forced to notify her parents if she wants an abortion. California will get high-speed rail. And the smart black dude won the presidency.

It was almost a grand sweep for the forward-thinking people of America—almost. Amid the glory and the disbelief and the Obamapalooza, the thorn on the rose, the nail in the pudding, the kidney punch during the massage. Who is to blame for the inglorious success of Proposition 8, the brutally regressive measure that removes the rights of very specific people to marry one another?

Some say it was Gavin Newsom’s smugness and political recklessness. Some blame Diane Feinstein for daring to support Prop. 8’s defeat. Some blame the black and Latino communities for supporting what amounts to a civil rights abuse of the kind they themselves have struggled to overcome. Or maybe it was all those sad, white voters in the central portion of the state whose general lack of education apparently means they still believe certain varieties of love will poison everyone’s soup and ruin the sanctity of heterosexual marriage’s fifty percent divorce rate. And it must be said: a big chunk of blame for 8’s passage has to go to the No on 8 campaign’s initial arrogance, followed by its utterly limp reaction when the Yes campaign started attacking and gaining steam.

But I don’t think it stops there. Because when you peel back all those surface factors, when you trace the line of quasi-reasoning back to its source, to the “real” reason many people voted for Prop. 8, I think the real blame lies with, well, the Almighty himself. That’s right, I blame God.

Who stabbed marriage equality to death, again? The Mormon Church; Catholic groups; evangelicals; militant fundamentalists; reclusive, sickly, right-wing billionaires like Howard Ahmanson, a guy who also funded a radical Christian theologian madman who himself endorses stoning gay people to death; and the mother of Eric Prince, CEO of the notorious Blackwater thugs-for-hire company.

Behind it all, it’s God. No, not the god you and I understand as a universal, non-gendered, asexual, love-drunk energy coursing through all things at all times everywhere without the slightest wisp of prejudice or geographical preference, but that famously small, myopic version, the one that encourages a literalist interpretation of very carefully selected biblical passages—a version that, in short, has been drilled into the consciousness of far too many voters for far too long.

Once again this election, in pulpits across America, the call rang out: we must stop the gays! Hetero marriage is the final Christian stronghold, the final barrier against what they seem to envision as a nipple-pierced, polyamorous rave party from Sodom, where people can marry their pets or anything else, one supposes. And it must be said: this included many black pastors who envisioned a new dawn for civil rights in Obama’s America but also foresaw the wrath of God striking down parishioners who would allow homosexuals to register for stemware at Crate & Barrel.

And maybe they’re right to believe that heterosexual marriage is the last bulwark they’ve got. The other arguments they’ve tried to inject into the national agenda—intelligent design, God’s war against Muslims, the end of reproductive choice, prayer in schools, abstinence education, et al—haven’t worked out too well.

So, I don’t blame God; I blame a gloomy, revisionist version of the divine, a sour and demeaning mindset that believes in restriction, constriction, dread. I think Prop. 8’s desperate, last-gasp victory merely reveals that this hollow, homophobic version of God is waning, sliding, fighting for its last taste of relevance, soon to be replaced by something just a bit more dynamic and open-hearted and, well, truly divine. The bad news is, it’s just going to take a bit longer than we’d hoped.

Mark Morford is a columnist for, in which this article originally appeared (11/7/08).