This is the fourth in a five-part series on the “California Marriage Protection Act,” Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot. Parts one, two, and three appeared earlier in the week.
California’s Proposition 8 seeks to amend the state Constitution by adding a section which would read: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
Such an addition to the state Constitution would discriminate against gay and lesbian couples because they would no longer enjoy the equal rights they now share with heterosexual couples, namely, the ability to marry in civil ceremonies, have that marriage recognized by civil authorities, and enjoy the public recognition and benefit of being married. This is, of course, the rub. People who support the measure do not want parity between gay and lesbian couples and heterosexual couples. They “celebrate” the “legal equality” of the state’s domestic partnership regulations with the state’s civil marriage ones, but still disagree with the legality of same-sex marriage, an even “more equal” move. What is beneath the seemingly contradictory stances?
Simply put, support for Pop. 8 is about homophobia. It is about a largely irrational fear of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in our world. Its supporters are engaged in a move to maintain a social system which embodies homophobia, what many call heterosexism.
When it comes down to it, this is the basic position of the “Yes on Prop. 8” effort. They view the increasingly public visibility of homosexuality and its accompanying rising levels of tolerant acceptance as an attack on their vision of a society based on their conceptions of right and wrong. And for once, they’re right. Unlike those other moral questions (like murder or crime, like democracy versus fascism) this one does not threaten the larger social contract, except when we do not preserve equal marriage rights. When your vision includes having to dictate “morality” for other people rather than protect their freedom to decide for themselves what is “moral,” then history shows your vision will, eventually, be dismantled.
Where they’re wrong is not in their analysis but in their chosen position, a reflection of the some of the most destructive kinds of cultural arrogance and fear which have marked our history with pain, death, and oppression instead of fostering in it freedom and equality.
I will be among the first to say there is a contextual and historical difference between being nonwhite in U.S. society and being lesbian, gay, or transgender. That isn’t because of biology or levels of oppression (what Chicana writer Cherrí Moraga called the “oppression olympics”). This is an analysis based on the role played by whiteness in U.S. history and in the way it continues to work as a definitive element of both our national culture and social formation. Racism and homophobia have differences, rooted in the past and present, which are worth understanding. That said, the tactics of oppression, inequality, and discrimination used in a system of racism compared to those used in a system of heterosexism are like different instruments in an orchestra, each playing their own part of a grand symphony. They are connected, and often reliant upon on another, building with each other in one common cause.
The eloquent and critically sophisticated Martin Luther King expressed this in the previously quoted “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” when he wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” His sentiment was itself a reincarnation of the sense of unity and common struggle expressed in the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.” That mantra came from the International Workers of the World (IWW), one of the most radical labor unions in U.S. history, who first worked to mobilize all workers despite their job or job status. One was rooted in Christianity; the other in labor theory. Both are a bold recognition of mutuality–of the ways in which all of us, our hopes and our struggles, are interconnected.
This same fundamental analysis is reflected in the grand narrative of the U.S. past, but in its inverse. That story has been expressed as one of increasing and expanding liberty and freedom for all, from the extension of voting rights to the end of legal sex/race discrimination. At the heart of this narrative structure is the assumption that “democracy” can only be real if it truly involves those who are governed. When the U.S. began as a nation, roughly 15% of the population had the right to vote. That’s it. Restrictions based on wealth/property, gender, race, and age, to name a few, made this the case. In time, this became proof of the lack of democracy in the nation. Accordingly, in this framework, the extension of rights to African Americans, to women, to Native Americans, were all connected, even to the rights of the landed, white male. The vote of one made the vote of all the others more real, more meaningfully democratic.
What we are faced with in the proposed measure is the antithesis of this humanistic truth, observable in the struggles of our past. Homophobia–like all fears–is isolating and reductive where humanism is expanding and interconnecting. It rests on the rejection of our commonness and mutuality. It requires a person to define those whom they fear as so different from themselves as to be “other,” foreign, dangerous, or immoral. Their threat is that they are not you. Conversely, the homphobe selectively defines their “self,” as well, choosing a set of ideas and constructs that make them who they are, facilitating the delicate game of identifying “us” and “them.”
This homophobic measure forces an historical comparison with the other kinds of oppression which nurture it and, in turn, which it nurtures. The most obvious is with the diverse and sustained effort in our shared past to maintain racism as a system of exclusion and inequality. Towards the end of its institutional decline, the supporters of racial inequality had reached a point where they recognized their cause was no longer popular enough to assure its blind support by the public at large. The United States has become increasingly “infected” with the notion that black people were as equal as whites. They had also become increasingly conscience of the ways racism, as a system of exclusion and oppression, ran against the idealized tradition of this nation.
At that moment, the historical record is increasingly filled with examples of racists trying to justify racism on grounds other than race. They used arguments about state’s rights to say it was the will of the people in th South for Jim Crow to be the law. They celebrated “separate but equal” saying it was not about inferiority, just difference. They accused the federal government of trying to force social change when “the people” were not ready for that change. They did what they could to make the rational argument for their irrational fear, all the while strategizing to sell it to the larger public. Does any of this sound familiar?
One of the topics I cover each year in my introductory Latino history class is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law effectively barring a racial group from immigrating to the U.S. After its passage, people from Latin America continued to immigrate to the U.S. and had no legal impediment to their movement. So why is it important to Latino history? Well, in short, it was the first legal step in a course that nurtured racial hatred and violence against all workers of color; that led to outrages like the deportation of over one hundred thousand United States citizens because of their Mexican heritage; that even, in many ways, fostered the kinds of draconian ICE raids we suffer today.
When the irrational fear and hatred of homophobia is allowed to continue to exist in institutional and systemic ways, then we are all inured by it, whether we be gay, lesbian, transgender, or straight.
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