Proposition 8 and why the gay community failed to protect its own rights

31 May 2012
5:07 pm

In the third part of my beleaguered recycled content series, I resurrect an article I originally wrote back in 2008 about the then-recent passage of California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in the state. In the wake of Obama's announcement that his beliefs on gay marriage have 'evolved' into a creature more befitting life in the 21st century, I have seen a number of discussions herald this as "the beginning of the end" of Obama's presidency — the logic being that with Bush's politicising of LGBT issues in 2004 potentially contributing to his re-election, Obama's support of gay marriage will cause a similar surge of conservatives rushing to the polls before they manage to get any gay on their clothing. More specifically, I have seen a number of references to the fact that gay marriage was banned in a liberal state such as California, so evidently this can happen anywhere. As I discussed in the article below, however, Prop 8's passage had less to do with a swelling of conservative ire than simple lazy complacency on the part of those in the LGBT community who didn't take the issue very seriously until it was too late.

The big deal in the gay community right now is the unfortunate passing of California's Prop 8, a nasty piece of legislation in line with other attempts at restricting or preventing gay marriage across the country. As a bit of brief primer, Prop 8 came about as a response to California's Supreme Court striking down a previous ban against gay marriage as unconstitutional. At its heart Prop 8 is an unfair attempt at using ballot initiatives to modify California's constitution and should stand as a frightening bellwether for all minorities. The campaigns for and against Prop 8 have raised a record amount of money defending their positions; in the "for" camp a significant portion of that money came in donations from the Mormon church. With the publication of a list of individuals and businesses who donated to Prop 8, boycotts have broken out all across the state as the LGBT community seeks to flex its muscle in reaction. Saddest of all is the determination by the pro-Prop 8 campaign in seeking to nullify the same-sex marriages that took place between the Supreme Court ruling and the ballot's passage.

In the face of all this, it's very easy to say Prop 8 passed because of the concerted effort of a bigoted majority to curb the civil rights of a minority they dislike. Unfortunately that is a cop-out that refuses to acknowledge the responsibility that the LGBT community itself had in things.

America's growing apathy to all things political is nothing new, and no where have I noticed it more than amongst my own age demographic. In the gay community this is something that I have repeatedly complained about, and with Prop 8 being ratified into law I hope this serves as a wake up call. Prop 8 did not pass because a coalition of religious institutions raised more money and awareness and crushed the gay competition. On a purely financial basis they were evenly matched, with the No on Prop 8 campaign actually raising more. In terms of endorsement, the No campaign solicited the likes of Apple, Google, The California Teachers Association, various religious institutions and the whole of Hollywood. In a year that elected the first African American president, ending eight years of abysmal Republican rule, with a sitting president fast on his way towards earning the lowest approval rating in history, how could something like this happen?

Rolling Stone ran an article touching on just that, but in the end they simply blame the campaign against Prop 8 itself for this bankruptcy of justice. Not living in California and being in Australia at the time Prop 8 passed I can't effectively state whether or not the campaign against it was a "failure." Certainly raising thirty-seven million dollars and receiving endorsements from some of the largest institutions in California seems like an accomplishment to me. But I think that's ancillary: the real failure can be explained by the apathy of the specific people intended to vote for their own rights.

Prop 8 passed on the back of 400,000 to 600,000 votes depending on what data you loom at. By all accounts across the country voter turnout for the presidential election was high, and a breakdown of exit poll data showed that first time voters supplied 83% of the votes that got Obama elected. While some have tried to draw a correlation between high black voter turnout in support of Obama being the rationale that got Prop 8 passed, evidence doesn't support that accusation. What was behind it then? A cursory look at the then-real time official twitter feed of the No on Prop 8 campaign demonstrates that even while record turnout was electing a historic president, polls in highly gay-friendly areas of California like LA and West Hollywood were slow or non-existent.

The simple truth is that those most threatened by Prop 8's passage were the ones least involved in fighting it. California's stereotype as being a bastion for liberalism and gay rights specifically led many to believe that such a law simply could not be passed, even despite California's legal system setting the threshold for such propositions frighteningly low. In the days following Prop 8's passage, activists who donated their time and money raising awareness lamented the outright boredom on display whenever they tried to motivate people to vote against it.

I am a 21-year-old Cal State Fullerton graduate, and I work full time. Living as a young gay male in Los Angeles is difficult. The "scene," as it is often referred to, is a huge part of the gay culture. It dictates the popular trends of gay society. One fad that apparently is not fashionable in the scene is activism, even if for a cause directly affecting them. I guess when you're a scenester you tend to be oblivious to the issues around you. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Every Saturday night, as I stood along Santa Monica Boulevard, I would walk up to strangers and ask them to volunteer with the campaign and/or donate money. Some would stop and listen to me plead my case, but more often people would see the No on 8 sticker on my shirt and completely ignore me as they hurried off. Some would stop, listen and act interested in the cause, but when it came down to asking them to get involved in the campaign there was always an excuse. Asking for donations was pointless at times. Scene-sters would rather buy an overpriced drink at a trendy bar then donate to a cause. Defeating Prop. 8 was not a priority to them.

Election Day was especially difficult and truly demonstrated the ignorance of the gay scene. The day began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call, followed by hours of organizing volunteers at polling places, negotiating with poll workers on where we could solicit, handing palm cards to supporters and getting heckled by detractors. The last hour before polls closed was spent knocking on doors in neighborhoods near polling places, urging residents to vote.

After 14 hours of work, I and other No on 8 volunteers and staff headed to the No on 8 celebration party at the Henry Fonda Theatre, only to find a line around the block to get inside. These people, who failed to volunteer even for an hour, filled the theater to capacity, making it impossible for volunteers and staff of the campaign to join the party. The young gay crowd wanted to celebrate an anticipated victory it mostly had not worked for. It reminded me of when all the regular parishioners have stand in the back of the church during Mass at Christmas because all the seasonal parishioners fill up the front pews. It was a total shock to see many of the same people who had ignored me when I asked them to volunteer, standing in line to celebrate with us.

It's upsetting to admit that the result could have gone an entirely different way if not for the assumption that someone else would vote, so there was no need to get involved.

In my time dealing with gay rights activism apathy is consistently the largest monster I've come up against, worrying me far more than organized religious institutions possibly ever could. The repeated mantra of "hey, we'll get marriage eventually, what's the fight over!" rings in my ears even today. It gets difficult trying to explain that in civil rights struggles, the minority doesn't get tossed equality "eventually," it happens after unrelenting demands for it. Yet so many in the world are content to let others fight the battle for them and lift no finger of their own. I have been asked why there's such outrage over the California law when Florida passed a similar one this year, and the last election saw the passage of several more bans on gay marriage. I think the reason is California, like New York, are considered "gay strongholds," and with the critical mass in places like Los Angeles and San Diego the passage of a discriminatory law like this seemed unfathomable. "It couldn't happen here, so there's no reason to get worried." If anything, Prop 8's success showed that it can happen, and it will happen, if we give up for even a moment in our fight for equality. While numerous concerns abound regarding the boycotts against Prop 8 supporters, the one good thing is that it has roused the gay community out of a mess of apathy that they retreated into in the late 90s after groups like ACT-UP successfully managed to secure us a life beyond the AIDS virus.

The gay community failed to protect themselves against Prop 8 and have no one else to blame for that. Their failure was in assuming that record voter turnout and a popular charismatic Democratic candidate for presidency coupled with a place like California made it "no issue." November 4th showed that there's no such thing, no safe haven, and no reason at all to assume a place is safe from bigotry. And while this loss has rallied the community together in solidarity unlike anything I've seen recently, the real test will be what the result is the next time the homophobes feel emboldened to strike out against us. Apathy and "eh, someone else will vote against this, I don't need to" cannot be allowed to stand if we're ever to elevate ourselves beyond second class citizens.

3 Responses to \'Proposition 8 and why the gay community failed to protect its own rights\'

    Thank you for the well-worded post…now if only the message can get to the people who don't want to be seen as supporters (usually due to concern of job or neighborhood discrimination) but would be willing to vote anonymously for it – that is what we need to look at: how do we reach them without endangering them ?

    We need to have a safe database in a news site for LGBT supporters to be able to access, along with a broadcast message advertising it on major media networks, that won't be accessible to 'tracking networks' to be able to put them on a list for their opponents to use against them.

    Thank you… Sadly voices like ours are often hated. Sadly I actually hate the gay community and I am gay! I am not hip enough, skinny enough, and slutty enough to ever fit in, and then to make matters worse; I am a "open activist." That's right an "open-activist." Because as your quote mentioned, being an activist is so not a cool thing to do. To those people they feel the end of life for them is 30, and that relationships are for straight people and weirdos. Since much of the LGBT community is the Scene where I live, I have grown to outwardly hate it the more I have direct contact with it. My disgust has gotten to the point where when we have activist meetings and set up tables in some gay clubs for signatures or for donations I want to take a shower several times. Not because the place is dirty but just because the people can be so disgusting and degenerative.

    I understand the frustration, but I think that's taking the problem and going in the opposite extreme. Unlike the civil rights movement in the 60s, or the greater struggle women have had to deal with for centuries, LGBT people generally have the luxury of passing for the default whether they work on it or not — it's not surprising that this generates a lot of complacency. The generation growing up now has role models in the gay community that even the generation before lacked, so it's easy for people in their teens and twenties to look around and not understand that things haven't always been this easy. While discrimination is still widespread, LGBT teens can easily go through life for a while before they encounter it directly. Being called a fag at school is not treated with the same gravity as being called one at work.

    There's no doubt that this causes a headache, but it's unfortunately a testament to how things have improved — one drawback of that is that people who came out in an environment that was more welcoming than the one before it don't have to grapple with the same issues that others did. It desensitises them to the problem.

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