Saturday, November 08, 2008

Happiness and Gravitas

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.


vuboq said...

wow. lots to think about in one post, GayProf. I have been thinking about the politics of visibility and may be making some big decisions soon.


Roger Owen Green said...

I don't think you're wrong, comparing sexuality with race. I thought it was pretty evident that the thing that kept poor Southern whites sane post-Reconstruction is the sense that at last they felt better than "them", who were returned to a state not unlike slavery.
Still, the marriage issue IS the issue that has traction, so you take the fight to where the fight is.

rosmar said...

Wow. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. You are hella smart. And funny.

On the "marriage is a middle class issue," I disagree because many of the benefits of marriage (as it is structured right now, and I'm down for restructuring it and for taking many of the benefits of marriage and making them rights everyone automatically has) are more crucial for poor people than for middle class people. I'm thinking of things like social security survivor benefits and a greater chance of having health insurance.

Mel said...

Somewhere, a few years back, I read an article about the elimination of indentured servitude and enfranchisement of landless whites as a move expressly designed to manufacture a sense of superiority among poor white folk living alongside their enslaved counterparts. Divide and conquer, and it worked frighteningly well.

Fortunately, my extra-legal divorce went reasonably well, considering, but I likely let the bastard off too easily and can certainly see the need for a legal framework.

Apropos of nothing, my verification word is "cathy".

pacalaga said...

Euw, can't you block that troll? Yuck.
Anyway, I didn't realize that LE(WTML) was my former brother-in-law.
My verification word is "flings".

Anonymous said...

My hat-tip to this post is on my own site. Thanks for this.

Vila H. said...

Marvellous post. Thank you.

Frank said...

One question I have that I haven't seen answered is just what "outreach" MEANS. What do we mean when we say we have to "reach out" to the working class and minorities?

GayProf said...

General Comment Policy at CoG: Commentators who are here as trolls will have their comments deleted. Freedom of speech does not mean "freedom to harass" nor does it guarantee a venue to spout off on personal obsessions. If you have something to say, start your own blog.

VUBOQ: Visibility is the easiest, most important means we have to fight for our rights.

ROG: Of course, I would argue that many whites are still committed to using race as a means to create a "them," even when it is still against their own economic interest.

Rosmar: You raise important points about marriage and economic class that I had not considered. I guess I was thinking that many working class individuals, especially young people, are more concerned about having safe places to live and work.

Mel:Going through a legal framework would not be much fun. Nonetheless, it would provide institutional protections.

Pacalaga: I really need to put out several boxes of D-Con to get rid of the trolls.

112YearsOld: Thanks for the hat tip.

Vila H. Thanks for still reading.

Frank: That is a good question. So good, that I don't have a really solid answer.

I think that the work on Prop 8 started to move in that direction. Drawing on established civil rights leaders, like Dolores Huerta, was a good start. Another important element is for all queer people to educated themselves on issues facing working-class communities. I am often disenchanted by the number of middle-class queers who wish to eliminate taxes that pay for social services for the poor.

Moreover, I think that queer rights organizations need to be involved in bigger fights for economic and social justice. We ask other groups to join with us, but when was the last time a group like HRC campaigned for an issue facing the UFW?

tornwordo said...

I'm just going to stop writing about this, you do it so much better.

I wish Obama would make a speech like the leader of Spain did.

pacalaga said...

YAY for general comment policy! That dude was harshing my buzz. (I think. I'm not nearly hip enough to know what that means.)

Paris said...

I'm with you on becoming entirely obsessed with post-election Obama while still maintaining my severe ambivalence concerning his commitment to LGBT equity.

The hopeful part of me assumes that Obama's waffling on same-sex marriage was a holding back of opinion (of sorts) to see what happened with the various state consitutional initiatives. Their success or failure would determine whether it gets kicked up to a federal level. Unfortunately for him, it is now coming at him like a freight train.

I would, however, forgive him a lot if ENDA is part of his first 100 days program. That would provide a useful leverage tool for the marriage fight, but also help out the significant corner of the LGBT community who are in no danger of getting married but do have to go to work every day.

(How come I never get real words for my word verification? Pledriza?)

prof bw said...

thanks gay prof. I think the more of us that write not only about the numbers game but also the nuanced issues of race, sexuality, class, and citizenship the more likely the race baiting that is distracting us all at this critical moment will end. I'm also glad to see so many of us weighing in on the marriage issue itself as we critique these post-prop 8 times; maybe there will be more room to really talk about what our priorities are and how to be more nuanced with them and our activism in the future in the same way that AIDs cocktail allowed us to revisit the decision to buy into a particular definition of "acceptable queer" in the 80s.

(and also thanks for sharing the ex story again b/c I know many people who staid in bad relationships or lost their actual "true love" to stay in a rapidly dissolving relationship b/c they had no legal protections of way to resolve economic and social enmeshment and some of them are not just emotionally miserable they are being physically or emotionally hurt . . .)

David said...

You make many valid points but I still believe that 70% and 53% are two very different numbers and we need to acknowledge this.

We need to create real partnerships with the African American community to work together, supporting each other on various issues of importance, and once these relationships are in place, we need our allies to step up in the AA community and denounce homophobia just as we in the gay community must continue to stand up and denounce racism when we encounter it.

Homophobia certainly does exist in the white community but there is at least the show of disapproval when it rears its head. I could be wrong, but I don't get the same sense of group disapproval in the African American community. It seems to get more of a "it can't be helped" shrug.

GayProf said...

Torn: Sigh, to live in Spain. Well, at least after they solve their own anti-immigrant hysteria.

Pacalaga2: No welcome mat for the trolls.

Paris: One of the best things about Obama is that he seems like somebody with whom queer activists can work. Alas, though, so did Bill Clinton (who ultimately had a very irregular record).

Prof BW: I am actually hopeful that the Obama win will reinvigorate many groups to fight for social justice.

David: I wasn't suggesting that we shouldn't be concerned by the 70 percent number; however, I would argue that those statistics have been put into a context that blames minority communities rather than seeing Prop 8 as a multi-racial vote (in the same way that they are eager to see Obama's victory as multiracial). So, 70 to 53 might seem striking, but not if you consider that the "white" voting population is 60 percent of the state's population, while African Americans only account for 7 percent of the state's population. 53 percent of 60 percent means a lot more whites voting against us than 70 percent of 7 percent (if that makes any sense at all).

It seems to get more of a "it can't be helped" shrug.

That is how I often feel about discussions of racism within the queer community. It is clear that all sides are going to have rethink how we grapple with these questions.

jeremy said...

Hey, at least Rodney King has our back!

ReggieH said...

Oh Gay Prof, what a wonderful post. Can I marry YOU? (Just don't tell my husband....or perhaps we should just move to Utah where such a multiple marriage would blend in...ur..almost!)

BTW: I too am troubled by the word 'outreach' from the gay community to communities of color. Since I fit into both categories, I sometimes wonder if I'm supposed to reach out to myself. There has to be a less potentially offensive word for the kinds of work across communities that's needed to counter the Right than "outreach"

Doug said...

Amazing how a simple idea like "All men are created equal" can't just be said and done. Organizations and individuals get on a power and money trip by the need to suppress and repress someone, anyone. We're just the flavor of the month (or decade).

Anonymous said...

It seems the phrase "All men are created equal" is so cyclical no matter how much we think we may have learned from past mistakes. After what this country went through during civil rights unrest, we seem to be back at square one all over again.

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