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.”