OutRight: Losing California

Marriage equality will be achieved. Eventually

By Dale Carpenter

DaleCarpenterOn election night, I stood in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro district. Around me were thousands of people cheering and dancing for Barack Obama’s victory and for the promise they believe it brings gay America. Meanwhile, on a large screen broadcasting local news, it became more apparent with every passing hour that Californians had voted on the marriages of a small minority, and had found them wanting.

There will be a strong temptation among gay-marriage supporters to put on a brave face about the loss on Proposition 8. It has been noted that the vote was close, 52–48 percent, which is both heartbreaking because it was winnable now and encouraging because it may be winnable soon. We narrowed a gap that stood at 22 percent eight years ago, when Californians last voted to ban gay marriage, to just under 5 percent now.

But the narrow margin of the Prop 8 loss masks some hard facts for the gay-marriage movement. Counting the losses in Arizona and Florida, we are now 0–30 in the states. In California, we lost under circumstances that were as favorable to our side as they are likely to be for some time. We lost in deep blue territory on a blue night, when Obama carried the state with an astonishing 61 percent of the vote. We lost despite being on the “no” side in a ballot fight, with the built-in advantage that gives you among those who vote “no” on everything out of understandable proposition fatigue. We lost despite the state attorney general changing the ballot title to reflect that it “eliminates rights,” something most Americans don’t like to do no matter the subject.

All of this suggests that actual support for gay marriage in California is something less than 48 percent. My best guess is that actual electoral support for it in the state is somewhere in the low 40s, when you factor out ballot fatigue, the blue tide, and the favorable ballot title—all of which you would have to presume in trying to reverse Prop 8 in a future initiative requiring an actual “yes” to gay marriage.

And, of course, to reverse Prop 8 we’ll have to raise lots of money and put together a petition drive just to get to the ballot. My estimate is that this loss—barring federal or state judicial intervention to undo Prop 8—means there will be no gay marriage in California for several years, perhaps a decade. In fact, it might be a mistake to put this on the ballot again in two years, as some are planning. Voters may resent a quick re-vote.

Something else, however, concerns me even more than whether particular tacticians can manipulate a vote by a sufficient few percentage points to eke out a narrow win in the next few years.

The reality is that to a very large part of the country, and even in the bluest parts of the bluest states, homosexuality is not seen as normal and gay relationships are not seen as healthy and contributing to a society’s well-being. Whether that’s because of religion or because of the “ick” factor or some combination of the two, it doesn’t much matter. It’s there and it’s only grudgingly and slowly giving up ground.

The smartest leaders of the gay-marriage movement know this. That’s why gays were invisible in the No on 8 campaign. The “No” literature talked in generalities about “discrimination” and about how it was “wrong” and “unfair” to take away marriage from some unnamed group of people. There was no reference to “gays.” The No on 8 ads featured almost no gay couples, and especially no male couples, who are especially repugnant to many people.

This may have been the only strategy that had any chance of winning under the circumstances. If the campaign had frankly presented the case for gay families and marriage, we might have lost by a much larger margin. No on 8 leaders were trying to dislodge in five months what people have been taught for a lifetime about homosexuals and marriage. Given the size of the task, it’s amazing we nearly succeeded.

Mostly, my heart breaks for the gay couples and their children who had a five-month window in which their families could celebrate the ultimate expression of commitment and love our culture knows. Now they have no idea whether they have just been divorced by their fellow citizens.

On the Sunday before the election, I spoke to a rally of about 100 of them in Vallejo, east of San Francisco. It was held in a park bordered by rolling and largely barren, brown hills, which funneled a chilly wind onto us. The park was empty except for gay and lesbian couples, many of them with young children. Some had gotten married already and others were planning to do so before the vote, just in case. They were wearing red and carrying signs. They were full of hope. They would be heading out that day to form a human sign constituting the words “No on 8” by the side of the freeway, trying to capture the attention and hearts of a few thousand passing motorists in a state of 40 million people. It seemed an impossibly small group taking on a lot for themselves.

We are going to get gay marriage in this country, but that day is now a little farther away.

Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.

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