Here we are, kiddies, living through a profound moment in history. Not only did Barack Obama win, he won by a massive landslide. He will take office as the first African-American U.S. President thanks to the hard work of a multi-racial coalition. All it took to achieve this victory was 232 years of constant political struggle and the near-total collapse of the nation and global economy.
Only the most cynical would argue that Obama’s victory lacks significance in terms of race in this nation. In many ways, his win will also up the ante in the global fight against racism (and it is global). Canada, Australia, and the European nations will have to reconsider their own presumptions about leadership and race. Many of those nations have deflected attention from racism within their own borders and government through the argument, “Well, at least we aren’t the U.S.” That has currency for undeniable reasons, but they are going to be hard pressed to explain why their leadership does not reflect the realities of their populations or the majority populations of the globe (Newsflash: the majority of the earth’s population is not white).
Only the most naïve, likewise, would argue that the Obama victory has meant the end of racism in this nation or that we are entering a “post-racial” moment of U.S. history. Those individuals might be surprised to learn that people of color don’t imagine an Obama presidency as the conclusion of the fight against racism. Rather, they see it as an opportunity to renew discussions about how race continues to impact our nation’s economic and social relations. Expect some difficult moments of national soul searching ahead for both the political right and the left.
What is most on my mind these days, however, is the related issue of sexuality. Like many of my queer brothers and sisters, my happiness from the Obama victory could not overcome my frustration and hurt created by voters in California, Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas. In those states (Two “Red,” Two “Blue”), the majority of heterosexuals declared that queers are less valuable citizens who have no guarantees to their basic civil rights. Arizona, which had previously turned down a similar measure in 2006, disappointingly defined marriage as only possible if penis-vaginal sex occurs. Shockingly, the citizens of Arkansas declared that children are better left unloved than placed with gay and/or single parents. Read here for a critical reaction to that state. Perhaps most disappointing for many queers and their loved ones, though, was that California’s Proposition 8 enshrined homophobia into the state constitution, thus taking away a right that had already been won.
Longtime readers of CoG know that I was never particularly thrilled that marriage had become the centerpiece of GLBT rights activism. To my mind, there were (and are) more important and pressing issues that needed our attention first. I also think that the institution of marriage needs to be reevaluated for everybody (heteros and homos alike) as to whether it really serves our needs and expectations. It has become too easily presumed to be positive and “natural” in a way that I think actually limits people’s options and imaginations.
Nonetheless, the radical right has made it our priority because they see it as the touchstone for defining our place in this society. Currently, marriage enshrines a number of basic rights that gays (outside of my beloved Massachusetts or Connecticut) are denied. We have no guarantees to inheritance, tax breaks, immigration, health insurance, pensions, social security, parenting/adoption, and numerous other forms of cash and prizes. Being denied the right to marry, in other words, has real consequences in real people’s lives.
Based on my personal experience, I would say one of the most important things about legal gay marriage would be legal gay divorce. Obviously this is not something that most supporters of gay marriage want to bring up (Much of their strategy has depended upon the image of durable, life-long same-sex unions that only stop when death does them part. I am sad to report that gays, as much as heteros, are likely to make a bad selection from the spouse shelf). Still, we shouldn’t discount why divorce is also an important “right” that gays are deprived.
Several years ago, an eight-year relationship that I was in ended quite badly. When my Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies) decided that he no longer loved me, he also decided that I warranted as much consideration as a used Kleenex in a wastebin. Though certainly imperfect, legal mechanisms exist for heteros to divorce in ways that provide mediation and balance to an otherwise emotionally impossible event. I did not have access to any of that legal recourse.
Therefore, I was left to either battle it out with the Liar Ex on my own (something that I was too hurt and tired to do) or to bow to his decisions and whims. He saw nothing unfair in the fact that I struggled to pay both rent for my own place and also half the mortgage in the house where he lived (and where I didn’t reside for over 1.5 years). On the contrary, he astoundingly imagined that he was the real victim in that situation. Isn’t it interesting that, no matter how outlandish and hurtful our actions, we never can see ourselves as the villain in the story of our own lives? When it came to the division of our meager positions, his notion of “fair” was that anything I owned before we met was “mine” and anything that we bought after we met was “his” (unless he clearly didn’t want it). We won’t even get into the question of ownership of debt. Had the state recognized our relationship in the ways that it recognizes equivalent hetero relationships, institutional structures would have existed that would have protected me from a truly callous and self-centered ex.
I don't bring this story up for pity -- anymore. Rather, I hope that it points to my basic humanness. Like everybody, I make mistakes, sometimes have bad relationships, and usually try to make my life better. It's that humanness that the majority of voters don't wish to acknowledge.
Since Obama’s victory, I have been more than a little obsessed with the President-elect. Like many people in the nation, I hungrily await news about his cabinet posts (Bill Richardson really should be Secretary of State). I even took time to watch his first press conference this past Friday. What a sea change in terms of leadership! Bushie was basically unwatchable in press conferences as he always looked like a school-boy who knew that he hadn’t studied for the test that day. Obama, meanwhile, is confident and thoughtful in his answers, always delivering a measured response.
One of my great fears about the future, though, is that Obama will follow in the steps of Bill Clinton, tossing aside gays and lesbians as “too hot to handle.” Obama has already publicly stated that he does not support gay marriage (opting instead for “separate, but equal” civil unions). He did reject Prop 8, but rarely discussed it.
Conservatives are already mobilizing the anti-gay successes in California and elsewhere as a means to argue that Obama can’t govern “too left,” despite his sweeping victory. It seems entirely likely that they will use gays as a means to threaten the new president. How will he respond? Will he see us as too small a minority to affect his next election? Are we therefore expendable to him? Will he imagine us as a political liability? Will we be the sacrificial lambs to achieve his “greater good?”
The problem with all of those scenarios is that I, as an individual, don’t imagine me or my rights as either “expendable” or a “liability” to the nation. As a citizen, I am not out to hurt anybody or to dictate how others should live their lives. All I want is to go along and build relationships with men who interest me without the threat of social, legal, or economic penalties. Because there are so few of us gays, we need a leader who will defend us against a clearly mean-spirited majority. Given the tremendous pressures that he already faces, we have no guarantee that Obama will be that leader. It is for this reason that none of us should imagine Obama’s inauguration as the end of our work. Quite the contrary, we are going to have to fight even more resolutely.
It will require the queer community to consider why the majority of whites, Latinos, and African Americans voted in such a hateful manner. We will also have to think about the ways that race and class are being deployed/upheld in fights over queer rights. Like ProfBW, I have been deeply concerned by the ways that some of the follow-up analysis of California’s Prop 8 has subtly placed the blame for its victory on people of color. Newspapers and others have focused attention on the fact that a simple majority of Latino voters and 70 percent of African-American voters decided to take the rights away from GLBT people while also voting for Obama.
The implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that it was people of color’s “fault” that the measure passed. This fits within a long-standing discursive strategy that makes Latino and African American communities appear dysfunctional and “out of step” with modernity (I told you that discussions of race weren’t over yet). Claiming that Latinos and African Americans are “more homophobic” or slaves to their religious institutions displaces homophobia onto those populations and avoids considering how it pervades all elements of this nation. It also ignores that the majority of white voters, 53 percent, also hate gays so much that they were willing to deprive them of their rights. It was, after all, predominantly white institutions, like the Mormon Church, that provided the majority of funding for the measure. Yet, unlike the debates about Latinos and African Americans, few news organizations have pondered how the white community could be so “dysfunctional.”
For minority communities, the queer community is implicitly figured as white in an "us" and "them" mentality. Because the queer community cuts across all racial and economic categories, though, the "them" is the "us." Indeed, many leaders within Latino and African American communities urged the defeat of Prop 8.
I have argued elsewhere in this blog that the marriage fight is really about the “wages of straightness,” to borrow a phrase from African-American scholar W. E. B. DuBois (and the more contemporary historian David Roedriger). DuBois perceptively argued that nineteenth-century white workers had willingly given up the fight to increase their real wages in favor of a “public and psychological wage” of white superiority. Rather than organizing with African Americans and other workers of color, white workers bought into the myth that their status as “white” improved their lives and set them into a higher social standing.
So too I think that the modern emphasis on the “sanctity of [heterosexual] marriage” is a means to distract the majority of citizens from the alienating and exploitive economic and social relationships that have defined this nation for the past eight years. Right-wing religious and government institutions argue that contentment (and even eternal salvation!) can be achieved by depriving gays of their rights. As long as gays are disempowered, than heteros are empowered (regardless of their actual living conditions or economic viability).
Proponents for the fight for gay marriage, however, have largely focused their message to the middle class (and I would suggest that marriage within the gay community is a middle-class issue (but that is another entry entirely)). While we can understandably be angry at their decisions to enshrine bigotry into state Constitutions, we will also need to understand why those voters wrongly imagine that doing so will improve their lives. It will require that we continue our politics of visibility, particularly in working-class communities. And it will require us to commit ourselves to fighting for social justice beyond issues of sexuality. We will need to show how equal rights for the minority will actually improve the rights of all.