For Obama/No on Prop 8 supporters in California, delirious joy at Obama's election as 44th president of the United States was marred by huge disappointment that Proposition 8 passed. Adding to the despair? Nationally, every single anti-gay measure passed: Prop 102 in Arizona, Prop 2 in Florida, and a ban on gay parents adopting (Prop 1 in Arkansas).
Prop 8, or Prop (H)8, as I like to call it, changed the California State Constitution to define marriage as specifically a union between "a man and a woman." It thereby wrote discrimination against married gay couples into our constitution where there had been no such thing before. I was, and am, opposed to Prop (H)8's enactment.
Almost as bad as the deprivation of simple
civil human rights and the loss of legal recognition of the rights of married gay people were the horrible recriminations and finger-pointing among No on Prop 8 advocates. The racism of rightfully angry, mostly-white LGBT folks who'd seen their lives used as a political football yet again clashed hideously with the combined heterosexism/homophobia of various communities of color, and that scapegoating demanded refutation in posts like this one.
But, as I've said before, I feel feminism has the most to offer when we're confronted with divisions that are just too easy. The homophobia of black people single-handedly voted in a measure that should've gone down the drain? Hmmm. The racism of LGBTQ made gay rights and marriage equality a "white thing" only and drove away potential nonwhite allies? Again, hmmm. Like the feminism v. racism melodrama of the Democratic primary (see every other MOMocrats post deconstructing this between February and June of 2008), I refuse to believe that these simplistic categories are adequate to describing what's happening with any accuracy. And as usual, queers of color got completely left out of the equation.
But what the strong emotion from No on (H)8 folks does tell us is that our coalitions are fragile. We need to keep reaffirming our connections and our commitments to one another. This is not the time to scapegoat, or be surprised that there's racism among some in the LBGTQ community or homophobia among some people of color. That progressives on one issue are not uniformly progressive on all fronts should be a point of departure for future effective organizing, not an unpleasant surprise.
Indeed, the thousands of people who protested Prop 8's passing in cities all around the country put faces and bodies to the "scary bogeyman" that lesbian women or gay men are commonly held to be. Standing next to them were many straight allies, including married straight people who passionately believe in marriage equality.
In my community of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs), I played a tiny, though hopefully useful, role in trying to beat back the Yes on 8 lies. If it were true that expanded turnout among APIA Obama voters--or that nonwhite Obama voters--helped pass Proposition 8, I'd feel queasy indeed. (Uber-statistician/pollster Nate Silver argues that for African American voters, increased turnout by a supposedly "more homophobic" majority of AfAm voters is not the case.) But I do worry that African American, Latino, and APIA Yes on (H)8 voters, when aggregated, added to Prop 8's lead in the vote count, though ultimately I believe white Christians were the biggest swing votes of all.
In any case, it would only help to increase the number of allies in the APIA community and educate our persuadables. I don't feel comfortable speaking on behalf of anyone, but I do feel I know Chinese Americans and first-language Mandarin speakers--my neighbors in my new 'hood of the San Gabriel Valley--fairly well, having grown up with immigrant, Chinese-English speaking parents (but on the east coast).
And I know I was galvanized to step up my efforts to see Prop (H)8 defeated after two young (evangelical?) Asian Americans tried to register me to vote specifically so they could urge me to vote Yes on (H)8.
Without getting too bogged down in numbers, I know deep in my heart that Yes on (H)8's sticky sweet shell of heterosexist "yummy goodness" over a foul, religiously-driven, conservative and homophobic core has a powerful resonance among communities of color that perhaps white No on H8's organizers underestimated.
So it's this appeal I'd like to deconstruct now, in the hopes that we can avoid these pitfalls the next time the religious right--a truly unholy alliance of conservative Mormons and Catholics--start a culture war over this issue. (Big dollar donors to Yes on (H)8 and who to boycott here.)
In the few weeks prior to election day, when Yes on (H)8 grabbed the "family values" real estate of most people's overworked, inattentive brains, they won half the battle. We all know the function of "-isms": they short-circuit the need to think. Instead, just reach for the closest bias and hold that up instead of having to ask the troublesome question 'why.' Unless heterosexism is challenged, it's "self-evidently obvious" that marriage unites one man with one woman. The nature of heterosexism is to replace critical thinking or even empirical evidence to the contrary with a false premise.
Among Chinese Americans, Yes on (H)8 won another piece of the battle on superficial grounds alone--the number '8' is considered lucky by many in this community. If you think this is superstitious hoo-ha, just look around at how many Chinese Americans include at least one '8' in their email addresses, phone numbers, license plates, lottery number picks, or tried to get married or birth a baby this past August 8, 2008 (8-08-08). Geez, the entire People's Republic of China threw a huge opening day celebration for the summer Olympics they hosted on that date.
So asking Chinese people to vote *against* anything with an 8 in it is an uphill struggle. If I put on my tinfoil hat, I'd say that conservative Christians have been hungrily eyeing inroads into immigrant Asian/Chinese communities for some time now, and the church, or bogus "family" values, is their way to gain ground there. Richard Kim, writing in The Nation, confirms my tinfoil hattery:
This was always the intent of the Yes on 8 campaign. For years, the California Christian-right apparatus, long hampered by nativism and racism, had been unable to make inroads into the state's brown, yellow and black populations--a demographic gold mine in a state that is more than 50 percent minority and growing. Prop 8 may prove to be their gold rush. From the beginning they bought up ad space in Chinese, black, Spanish and Korean media; they hosted massive rallies for ethnic Christians. The Sunday before election day, I went to Los Angeles City Hall for the most celebratory, most diverse rally I have ever attended; it was organized by Yes on 8 Chinese advocates.
Another No on 8 activist, Karin Wang, told me at the [Los Angeles] City Hall rally that when Asian Pacific Islander groups went to buy ads in Chinese and Korean newspapers, they were informed that Yes on 8 had been renting space for weeks.
A lot of progressive API allies joined their voices to the mainstream No on (H)8 efforts. Some of us conceived, shot, and circulated online videos like the following:
Devoted dad Harold Kameya asked fellow APA voters to protect his gay daughters' marriage rights as well of those of his straight children.
In this ad, Hacienda Heights-La Puente school board member Jay Chen reassures Mandarin-speaking voters in his district and elsewhere that marriage equality means there will be no change in school health/human sexuality curriculum and this is true locally as well as across the state. He's countering lies in various other Mandarin-language videos disseminated by the Yes on (H)8 side. Furthermore, he ends with a brief appeal to Chinese Americans to remember their own history of discrimination and vote no to discrimination against all minorities.
We hoped to reach people who could be moved, APIAs who weren't totally brainwashed by right-wing churchy propaganda. Yet it was a source of frustration for me, personally, when I became aware that ad buys in ethnic media weren't part of the overall No on (H)8 strategy.
And to a large degree, the lack of a powerful and multilingual counter to disgusting, false, completely distorted information from Yes on (H)8 believers allowed Southern California Chinese- and Korean-language airwaves to be saturated with a pseudo "pro-family" message.
This San Francisco Chronicle article bears out these voting patterns as well:
Chinatown also voted differently than its usual politics might suggest, said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, which has done its own analysis of the results. The neighborhood voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for president and left-leaning David Chiu for supervisor, but also voted most heavily for Prop. 8.
Lee said immigrants who've been in the city for less than 10 years tended to vote for the ban, while those who've been here longer tended to vote against it. He said the Yes on 8 campaign took out full-page ads in Chinese-language newspapers, which influenced a lot of voters.
"It shaped the opinion of this population that wasn't being communicated to by the No on 8 campaign until very late," he said.
Yes on (H)8 gave nonwhites something to vote for: a certain very narrow kind of 'family values.' And this rhetoric resonated powerfully in these communities. To begin to understand why, look at the way 'nuclear family' has functioned historically for blacks, Latinos, and Asians.
For African Americans, a Cosby-show "Huxtable" family with upper-middle class mom and dad is something to feel nostalgic affection about, if not strive for. Given the injury racism and slavery had on African Americans' ability to form stable two-parent households with the permanent presence of a member of each sex, there's a historical legacy of tremendous emotional investment in nuclear family formation. When African American men and women are incarcerated at rates wildly disproportionate to their overall numbers in the general population, and straight African American women grapple with messages from a previous generation that urged them to look to African American men for romantic partner material, then you know a heterosexual nuclear family composed of a black woman with a black man carries a lot of baggage and can look like a privileged and desired state of existence.
In pushing the heterosexism button, Yes on H8 advocates activated the homophobia button at the same time and down came a steel door on any possible persuadability to take the marriage equality side. And the Yes on (H)8 people were ruthless in exploiting images of and out-of-context words by Barack Obama that appeared to lend credence to their cause.
Look at how race, class, and immigration has an impact on Latino and Asian families in the U.S. How many recent Latino immigrants have had to leave young children behind in Mexico or Central America, for example, in order to have the opportunity to work in America (often in seasonal/low-paying, or menial jobs) to send money home? Do the rest of us have any real grasp of what it means to have extended family raising your children in your country of origin while you endure separation from a spouse and/or children on the other side of the border? Again, an intact "nuclear family" consisting of father, mother, and child/ren looks like an exalted, privileged state. The economic realities of harsh, lengthy separations for transnational families can be papered-over by Yes on (H)8 wish fulfillment.
Or consider transnational families on the other end of the economic scale: more than a few San Gabriel Valley upper-middle and upper class Asians immigrate to give their children an American education. Mother plus children live in the U.S., while father lives and works in Asia. Sometimes the "parachute kids" live alone and attend school in the U.S. Again, the ability to have a nuclear family all in one geographic location begins to look like an ultra-privileged state which isn't automatic or easily achievable, even if the people in question are wealthy by most standards. (Take away that Asian context for the Asian male high-wage earner, and he's not likely to have the same class or professional status as he would if he started all over in the U.S.; ironically the richest of them all is the transnational father who is retired at an early age and lives with his wife and children in America.) APAs, if nothing a class-bifurcated community, also has its issues with family separation and reunification among working poor and inner-city poor APAs; it's a by-product of this bifurcation that the cultural invocation of family knits together both high-income and low income folks in their aspirations for family intactness.
These long-distance heterosexual commuter marriages, far from making nonwhites more sympathetic to "nonstandard" LGBT families that they more closely resemble, may in fact congeal sentimental longing around the idealized "nuclear family" that the yellow-and-blue Yes on (H)8 signs touted. The more disparate the reality from the ideal, the more powerful the ideal is even if only lip service is paid to the nuclear family.
Factor in that many of these people rely on their churches to help patch the cracks in their extended family networks, as mutual aid societies to new immigrants, and as powerful sources of inspiration in the face of deep, institutionalized racism, and it's clear that Yes on (H)8's invocation of "family" spoke to a need many nonwhite churchgoers won't easily surrender.
Given this seeming lock Yes on (H)8 has/had on the heartstrings of many nonwhite voting Californians, what can be done about reaching those persuadables and potential allies in the Latino, African American, and Asian Pacific Islander American communities?
We marriage equality activists will have to find another way; this emotional rhetorical appeal to a certain kind of "family" is deeply rooted. In fact, that's how nonwhite communities could simultaneously recognize the stubborn stain of racism and vote Obama to help remove that stain, AND at the same time vote for something sold as "pro-family"--nonwhite families are often an individual's important bulwark against racism. Which is why it's so hard to to uproot.
One proposition can't undo millennia of heterosexism or homophobia, or mitigate the effects of globalization on heteronormative families. We're getting closer to smacking down these wasteful, discriminatory, stupid, and hateful anti-gay marriage propositions, but we'd also have to undo the racism and economic disparities that cause people to immigrate to the U.S. and do more to challenge their "gay=white" false equivalencies.
You see why I've been quiet? Kinda bummed at the uphill battle here, and at the magnitude of the loss in highly symbolic California.
However, all is not lost. Here are some ideas that might give us purchase against a well-funded, well-organized opposition that has tasted victory on Yes on (H)8 and will certainly be attempting to repeat this political success in all states.
Progresssive faith communities: continued outreach to nonwhite churches. Interfaith community building efforts and working on reducing hate crimes (sparked by race hatred or gay-bashing) could be a powerful tool to emphasize linkages and commonalities.
Sandwich generation nonwhites: leverage your access to the supposedly more recalcitrant nonwhite seniors. I'm so proud of my Taiwanese American retiree parents-in-law, who both voted NO on Prop 8. That seed was planted long ago when my husband and I embraced our friend S., who came out to us in college. We always included him in any gatherings where my in-laws were also present--or should I say we always included my in-laws in any gathering where S. was also present (college graduation dinners, our wedding) and we never hid his sexual orientation from my in-laws. The capper was when I showed my mother-in-law a picture of the deliciously dimpled baby S. and his husband D. adopted earlier this year. For my parents-in-law, appealing to their sense of fairness and a giant achilles heel when it comes to adorable babies was a good strategy. I know I'm not alone in having primed my in-laws in this way--Gen X progressives of color, being the meat in the generational sandwich can be powerful if you're lucky.
Nonwhite youth voters: we need a "Great Schlep" or equivalent movement where open-minded youth voters use what leverage they can to persuade their parents and grandparents.
Green trumps Black, White, Asian, Latino: with our shredded economy, perhaps we missed good opportunities to show how marriages means weddings, which often means consumption. I'd never thought I'd be someone trumpeting the celebration of spending as a means of achieving social justice, but practically speaking, people getting married hire musicians, order cakes, rent banquet halls, and their guests often travel to help them celebrate. Perhaps ethnic small business owners need to be shown more dramatically how MORE weddings, not fewer, can help their bottom lines. I'm not convinced this is the strongest argument, but I don't think we can advance marriage equality on terms already defined and appropriated by Yes on (H)8 people.
Use straight marrieds, especially moms, more: nobody's afraid of a mom. That's both good and bad, but instead of focusing on how Rodney Dangerfield-esque, scarcely respected we are, we should use our "wholesome" and "harmless" appeal to broadcast our support for marriage equality. There are many of us straight allies who took this loss on Prop 8's passing hard. We want to help in a way respectful to and in partnership with LBGTQ leadership.
This beautiful ad was a start:
But there's room for much more allied work.
Gay parents with transracially or transculturally adopted children: it might be painful to contemplate or attempt, but now more than ever is the time to reach out to progressive allies who share the culture of your child adopted from China, Guatemala, or elsewhere. I see it all the time with parents who adopt girls from China--they rightly spend energy trying to give that child a connection to their country and culture of birth (China), but spend surprisingly little corresponding time or energy cultivating that child's sense of herself as a Chinese American and surrounding her with Chinese American children and adults. We cannot let the equation "people of color=homophobic" stand. It simply isn't true. Let's start with our allies and widen out the concentric rings of influence.
Reach out to allies among single-parent adoptive families and foster parents: As Dan Savage pointed out in his editorial on Arkansas' Prop 1,
That state’s Proposed Initiative Act No. 1, approved by nearly 57 percent of voters last week, bans people who are “cohabitating outside a valid marriage” from serving as foster parents or adopting children. While the measure bans both gay and straight members of cohabitating couples as foster or adoptive parents, the Arkansas Family Council wrote it expressly to thwart “the gay agenda.” Right now, there are 3,700 other children across Arkansas in state custody; 1,000 of them are available for adoption. The overwhelming majority of these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their heterosexual parents.
Even before the law passed, the state estimated that it had only about a quarter of the foster parents it needed. Beginning on Jan. 1, a grandmother in Arkansas cohabitating with her opposite-sex partner because marrying might reduce their pension benefits is barred from taking in her own grandchild; a gay man living with his male partner cannot adopt his deceased sister’s children.
When single men or women who want to adopt realize that they don't fit the state government's definition of heteronormative "family" either, maybe it'll finally reach others who'll understand how extreme, narrow, and exclusionary this kind of legislation is.
Finally, this may just have to be won in the courts. How can we use the initiative process to subvert either the national Constitution or a state one? I mean, if the voters of one state okay slavery or rescind universal suffrage through a proposition, we wouldn't stand for it, right? Though I'm not a lawyer, seems the same principle holds here, seems to me.
Coinciding with the big nationwide protests this past weekend was an announcement by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal defense fund, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC):
Civil rights groups today filed a petition with the California Supreme Court to stop the enactment of Proposition 8 because it would mandate discrimination against a minority group and did not follow the process required for fundamental revisions to the California Constitution.
"We would be making a grave mistake to view Proposition 8 as just affecting the LGBT community," said Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society. "If the Supreme Court allows Proposition 8 to take effect, it would represent a threat to the rights of people of color and all minorities."
Yep, a reminder to people of color of the legal blowback of Yes on (H)8. Second class citizenship singling out one minority group? Not a door we want to open.
Push the procedural, equal rights message hard in ethnic media: the allied groups also provided multilingual commentators with legal expertise to the ethnic media. If there's any fundraising to be done, it's to reach persuadable ethnic voters who respond positively when their heterosexist buttons but don't harbor any hard-core, religiously ingrained bigotry against gays or lesbians. We missed this the first time around, we can't risk losing the bilingual/immigrant groups of people again. Yes, there is heterosexism and homophobia in APA, African American, and Latino communities, and for reasons rooted in history as well as racism, poverty, and immigration--but not more or less than there is among whites.
The religious right can try to pervert state ballot initiatives to put their agenda across, but we can expose their toxic mix of church and state, their overreaching attempts to define what happens in people's bedrooms, and their concern for pricey culture-war battles while ignoring the real work of religion--to provide succor to the vulnerable, downtrodden and humble among us.
Cynematic really, REALLY dislikes it it when the religious right tries to hoodwink people and the result steps all over the unmitigated joy she should still be feeling about President-elect Obama's historic, decisive landslide win. She blogs at P i l l o w b o o k.