Gay Is the New Black?

In the wake of California’s passage of Proposition 8, protests are popping up around the country -- and so are comparisons between gays’ and African-Americans’ fights for equality. Is gay the new black? Michael Joseph Gross examines two struggles for civil rights. Plus: Photos from Wednesday night's rally in New York City.

BY Michael Joseph Gross

November 16 2008 12:00 AM ET

NY Prop 8 Rally 02 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com   

The morning after
the election I wanted to celebrate for Obama, and I
also felt an awful sense of loss. Then it hit me that my own
angry confusion was nothing compared to what my black
gay friends were probably feeling. Moreover, their
wound was inflamed by ugly speculation about the
racial implications of Prop. 8’s passage, which began
that day. Many commentators noted that 70% of gays
voted for Obama but 70% of blacks voted for Prop. 8.
From this fact, some drew a race-baiting, false
conclusion that blacks lost the election for us. Yet
African-Americans represented just 10% of Californians
voting, and the difference between full equality and
abject disappointment here was so small -- 2.3% of the
total vote -- that it would be possible to blame almost any
group of voters for it. Prop. 8 won by vast majorities
in many places south of San Francisco and among
Republicans; and according to figures available at
press time, less than two thirds of registered voters in San
Francisco and Los Angeles even bothered to show up to
vote, because polls so unambiguously predicted
Obama’s win.

Moreover, at the
eleventh hour, the “Yes” folks flooded black
communities with literature and phone calls falsely
suggesting that Barack Obama supported Prop. 8 (though
accurately stating that he is opposed to gay
marriage), adding significant confusion to an already
confusing ballot question. Some of my most liberal
straight white friends in San Francisco still
weren’t clear the day before the election that
“Yes” meant “No,” that a
vote for Prop. 8 was a vote against marriage equality.

To blame this
loss on black people would be a terrible mistake, and it
would only increase enmity between gays and blacks.
African-American leaders in the Congressional Black
Caucus -- particularly Barbara Lee -- and state
leaders such as former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown
worked hard on our behalf; many of them were quicker
to come to our defense than their white peers. And
they did this even though white gay people have never,
en masse and in force, showed up to support them and their
issues. The work of our black allies created an
immense reservoir of opportunity and possibility for
the movement going forward. It should not be
squandered for the cheap satisfaction of finding a
scapegoat.

It’s
impossible not to imagine what might have happened if the
civil rights of African-Americans, Hispanics, women,
or any other minority had been reversed by public
referendum. If any other group of people in America
had their fundamental rights subjected to popular vote,
there would be universal outrage in this country.

We voiced our
rage ourselves. In the days following the election there
were protests, including some involving minor violence, in
places as small as Laguna Niguel, as large as Los
Angeles, and many other locations, including San Jose,
Oakland, Sacramento, Palm Springs, Long Beach, Santa
Barbara, San Diego, several Orange County communities, and
Salt Lake City. At press time, another was planned to take
place outside the Manhattan Mormon Temple in New York
City. Like the protests at temples in Los Angeles and
Salt Lake, this was aimed at heightening awareness of
the role of Mormon money in this race. (Reliable estimates
suggest that more than 40% of the funding for Prop. 8 came
from Mormons, and much of that money came from Utah.)

In San Francisco
the protest on November 7 was oddly joyful. It came
together virally on Facebook and via blogs, and drew a crowd
of people who were on the surface pretty much
indistinguishable from what you’d see in any
suburban church on Sunday. News reports mostly showed the
same types of images the media insists on using when
covering gay pride parades. A marching band played
show tunes -- “If My Friends Could See Me
Now” -- and a drag queen screamed, “The
problem with living in a bubble is that bubbles
burst!” She was fierce, and I was moved, but I also
wondered why she was the one on the news that night, why
this movement still doesn’t have a Martin
Luther King Jr., a telegenic, brilliant spokesperson
to whom all of America can relate. The dedication of
movement organizers has brought us a long way, but we are
now in desperate need of a willing leader with solid
media sense, a palpable inner core, an ability to
navigate the game of hardball politics, and the balls
to step forward and be our public face.

Whoever you are,
it’s time to come out. Because, as I was reminded the
morning after the election, it’s faces -- not
arguments -- that will close the deal on marriage
equality. I was in a taxi on Market Street, and as we
passed City Hall the driver mentioned the protest and asked
me what I thought of gay marriage. I flipped the
question back to him. “I used to be against
it,” he answered, “and then I saw it. When I
saw it I understood.”

The driver, whose
name was Ali, told me he was from Yemen and he’s
straight. When a friend recently came to visit him, the two
went sightseeing. “I took him to City Hall and
we saw all these people getting married. We saw men
marrying men and women marrying women,” Ali said.
“I was really surprised. They were so
happy.”

His voice was low
and unsentimental, but the first syllable of
“happy” was so full of amazement it shot
almost an octave higher than the second. The word
seemed to crash down through a roof. He kept repeating it.
“I have seen a lot of things,” he went
on. “I have seen bisexuality, gay, lesbian. The
sexy parts. I had never seen the love before. But I saw
these two guys get married and I realized, This is
their happiness.
” As he turned onto Castro
Street, Ali said, “Everybody has a right to
their happiness. Nobody should have the power to take
your happiness away.” 

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