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 1:00 AM ET

The following is the cover story from the December
16 issue of
The Advocate. Selected
stories from that issue will be posted
November 19 on Advocate.com; subscribers will
receive the issue the following week.
Accompanying Michael Joseph Gross's piece are photos
taken November 12 at New York City's rally against
the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which
rescinded the right of same-sex couples to marry.
For more coverage of the New York rally, click
here.
 Top Photo: Gregory Gillbergh

The night before
Election Day, a black woman walked into the San
Francisco headquarters of the No on Proposition 8 campaign.
Someone had ripped down the No on 8 sign she’d
posted in her yard and she wanted a replacement. She
was old, limping, and carrying a cane. Walking up and
down the stairs to this office was hard for her.

I asked why
coming to get the sign was worth the trouble, and she
answered, “All of us are equal, and all of us have to
fight to make sure the law says that.” She said
that she was straight, and she told me about one of
the first times she ever hung out with gay people, in New
Orleans in the 1970s. “I thought I was so cool
for being there, and I said, ‘You faggots are a
lot of fun!’ Well, that day I learned my lesson. A
gay man turned on me and said, ‘A faggot is not
a person. A faggot is a bunch of sticks you use to
light a fire.’ ”

The next day,
Barack Obama was elected president, and gay marriage rights
in California were taken away. At the same time, Arizona
voters amended their state constitution to
preemptively outlaw gay marriage. Florida went
further, outlawing any legal union that’s treated as
marriage, such as domestic partnerships or civil
unions. Arkansas passed a vicious law denying us
adoption rights.

NY Prop 8 Rally 05 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com The
combination of Obama’s win and gay people’s
losses inflicted mass whiplash. We were elated, then
furious. I’d spent the week in the No on Prop.
8 office in the Castro, a neighborhood where our
defeat was existential. For the next few days, wherever I
went -- barbershop, grocery store, gym, bars -- I
heard people talk of almost nothing else. Incredibly,
strangers on the street walked up to me and started
conversations about Prop. 8. Taking the long view, some
found hope and consolation: 52.3% of Californians
voted against us, but 47.7% voted with us, which was
the closest we’ve ever come to winning a ballot
measure for marriage equality in the state. Other election
results were even more encouraging: In New York State,
where a marriage bill is pending, we won enough
legislative seats to secure a pro-equality majority;
Connecticut voters rejected a constitutional convention that
could have reversed that state’s legalization of
marriage.

Still, the
election was a blindsiding reminder that the majority of
voters, even in a state as liberal as California, still see
gay people as second-class citizens. These past few
years we’ve made so much progress that
we’d begun to think everybody saw us as we see
ourselves. Suddenly we were faced with the reality
that a majority of voters don’t like us,
don’t think we're normal, don’t believe our
lives and loves count as much or are worth as much as
theirs.

History compounds
the insult and suggests hypothetical scenarios
rendering the mixed result of this election even more
absurd. If the California supreme court and the U.S.
Supreme Court decisions overturning antimiscegenation
laws -- Perez v. Sharp and Loving v.
Virginia
-- had been blocked by popular vote,
Barack Obama might never have been born. His parents would
not have been able to marry in several states (although
Hawaii, where they were married, had never enacted a
law against interracial marriage).

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.” 

 NY Prop 8 Rally 03 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com

We gave into
another post-election temptation too. Many drew a simple
parallel between our struggle and the black civil rights
movement. Signs at protests said, “I have a
dream too,” “Welcome to Selma,” and
“Gay is the new black.”

There’s
something to this, but it’s dangerous territory, and
we have to be careful not to lose our bearings here.
Gay is the new black in only one meaningful way. At
present we are the most socially acceptable targets
for the kind of casual hatred that American society once
approved for habitual use against black people. Gay is
the dark pit where our society lets people throw their
fears about what’s wrong with the world. (Many
people, needless to say, still direct this kind of hatred
toward black people too. But it’s more commonly
OK to caricature and demean us in politics and the
media in ways from which blacks are now largely
exempt.) The comparison becomes useful, though, in forcing
us to consider the differences between our civil
rights struggle and theirs.

Except in a few
statistically insignificant cases (the gay kid who
happens to be the child of gay parents), being gay begins
with recognizing your difference from the people with
whom you have your earliest, most intimate
relationships. As such, it’s an essentially
isolating experience and therefore breeds in many gay people
certain qualities -- such as independence and
perfectionism -- that can undermine our ability to
cooperate and compromise with others. Though some of us
were lucky enough to find role models, mentors, or gay
friends early in life, we weren’t born into the
kind of beloved community that the African-American
church aspires to be. Today, the church is still the
strongest black American institution, and though it is far
from a perfect place, for its members it’s a
cradle of love and shelter from oppression.

Our oppression,
by and large, is nowhere near as extreme as blacks’,
and we insult them when we make facile comparisons
between our plights. Gay people have more resources
than blacks had in the 1960s. We are embedded in the
power structures of every institution of this society. While
it is illegal in this country to fire an
African-American without cause and in most places
it’s still legal to fire a gay person for being gay,
we are more likely to have informal means of recourse
than black people have. Almost all gay people have the
choice of passing. Very few black people have that
option. Of course, we shouldn’t have to make that
choice, and our civil rights struggle is about making
sure that we don’t have to.

On a deeper
level, though, the gay civil rights struggle is about
preventing discrimination based on our proclivity to love,
as distinct from the messier foundation of racial
discrimination, which primarily has to do with
protecting white privilege and wealth. No one would deny
that fear of mixed marriages significantly inhibited
the progress of the black civil rights movement.
(Blacks won employment and voting rights a full three
years before the Supreme Court finally struck down
miscegenation laws in 1967.) But love and sex were
not, as is the case with gay civil rights,
unambiguously the heart of the matter. This is the reason
our progress has been slow: Love cannot be understood
in the abstract. You cannot understand it until it
touches you or you find your way into its orbit.

We have to stop
rage from getting the best of us right now, and keep love
at the fore of everything we do and say in this battle. We
are close to winning everything we want. We are so
close that we do not have time to rehash the
Malcolm/Martin struggle between anger and peace, force and
nonviolence. Let’s call the Mormons out on the
campaign of lies they funded, but let’s find a
way of doing it that steers clear of hatred. Enough
with the “Fuck Mormons” signs. Some Mormons
are gay, not all Mormons voted against us, and a few
of them publicly put themselves on the line for us.

We are taking to
the streets now -- while writing this, I received an
e-mail from a friend pointing me to an online organizing of
protests on November 15 in all 50 states -- and we are
angry, probably not least at ourselves for our own
complacency and cowardice, for not working as hard as
we could, for not giving as much as we could, and for
letting so much slip from our grasp. Let’s find
a way of channeling the passion of this flash point
and harnessing this energy for the long haul so we can do
the hard work of claiming the full rights and
realizing the full lives that we know we can have.

When you use
faggots to start a fire, you don’t just dump a bunch
of twigs on a few logs and hope something catches. You
choose your tinder carefully, you bundle it
vigilantly, you place it carefully -- then, and only
then, you set the fire.

On Election Day
the No on 8 campaign prepared statements for its website
to post in the event of a victory or of a loss. One of the
people in charge of this task left the office that
night with her eyes full of tears. “I am so
angry,” she explained, “that they dragged us
into this shit. And they shouldn’t have. We
already won, and still, they are making us fight for
what we already won.” She pulled herself together.
“But we’re going to win. We have to win.
I am 23 years old,” she said, “and this
is my civil rights battle.”

For a moment I
was overcome with admiration for this woman’s
passion, and at the same time, with a shiver of
thought that, if it were made of words, would consist
of something like the phrase You are going to die. It
was a keen intimation of mortality, of the sense in which
our lives, even in the moments of our most focused and
profound presence, are merely fragments of the endless
story of the human struggle for dignity. A friend in
Los Angeles said he saw a sign at one of the protests
saying, “Rosa sat so Martin could march so
Barack could run.” For us, as for the
African-Americans who lived through the ’60s, many
apparent failures will, in retrospect, clearly be
progress. We lost a lot on this Election Day, but we
gained a lot too. Not least was a president who has shown
almost every sign of goodwill we could wish for and a
Congress eager to follow his leadership where we are
concerned.

A lot of us have
been fighting for as long as we can remember, trying to
keep the world from seeing us as faggots. Maybe it’s
time to give up that fight and choose another one
instead. Go ahead and be a faggot, in a way that shows
the world that a faggot is a person. Start a fire, but let
your fire be a beacon. Let your fire burn away your hate,
and it will burn away the hate of your enemies. Let
your fire be the light that shows your love. If you do
that -- if we do that -- we will win the world, and
soon. 

NY Prop 8 Rally 04 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com

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