Friday, November 6, 2009

2009’s Proposition 8, or First Wednesdays in November

First Wednesdays in November are starting to become something of a tradition in split personalities for me – I wake up feeling relieved as a progressive, and troubled as a gay man. This year was no different, with Maine’s voters repealing the state legislature’s gay marriage act, yanking the right to marry from waiting couples for whom it finally seemed close. This rebuke came amidst a wash of other special elections results that, while not good, were probably the best Democrats could reasonably expect during a heavy recession and after two landslide cycles.

So what happened in Maine? The inability of the LGBT movement to make headway in the wake of the most progressive election cycle since FDR is more than frustrating and hurtful, it is deeply troubling. And it demands introspection, into the heart of the LGBT movement itself.

Unfortunately, little of what I read this morning would seem to meet this standard. Instead, the finger-pointing is already off to a roaring start. Some of these topical analyses do, of course, raise some very pertinent questions. With results showing a 7 point spread in Maine (54% in favor of the ban to 47% against), and with 28% of Obama supporters in Maine supporting the marriage repeal, the administration’s silence cannot be ignored. Not only did Organizing For America (Obama’s campaign arm) and the DNC fail to make an endorsement against Maine’s marriage ban (it ignored the many requests for statements and financial support), it even had the chutzpah to email Maine’s voters Monday asking them to help get out the vote in New Jersey. Obama, speaking to the Human Rights Coalition (the U.S.’s premier LGBT organization) earlier this fall, did not mention the word “Maine” once. So it’s not a question of “did the White House do enough?” but rather, “why did the White House do nothing?” This goes beyond benign neglect; Obama found plenty of time in recent weeks to stump for other elections.

Such tactical analyses are, of course, important. Many of these ruminations, however, are quickly devolving into the aforementioned finger-pointing. First up for castigation are those who actively oppose equality. I have no interest in defending them, but as I don’t expect right-wing America to disappear anytime soon, blaming this segment doesn’t strike me as the most productive response. We can blame them all we want, yet until we find a successful formula to organize against bigotry, the problems will remain.

So next up, recriminations normally fall on the “disloyal” left. And let’s be clear here: we’re mostly talking about race, and to a lesser extent, class. In California last year, it was the blacks and the Hispanics. It would seem more difficult to blame these demographics in a state as white as Maine, but, shockingly, some are trying. Why else would David Mixner bother to point out that “56% of 'non-white' voters said they planned on voting against marriage equality”?

From the other side, there are those within the queer movement blaming the pro-marriage LGBT elite for hijacking the queer movement and making it so focused on marriage in the first place. In this narrative, the national queer leadership is allegedly at fault for co-opting a radical movement by trying to normalize queers, making them less threatening by broadcasting scenes of happy couples raising children in the suburbs.

As somebody who eventually hopes to raise kids with the help of a loving partner, the radical agenda tends to fall a bit flat on me. I’ve never fully bought into critical and post-structural theories that these personal goals are merely another form of oppression. Myself a queer kid of a queer parent, I’ve seen first hand the anguish of second class citizenship. My father was left with no rights in the wake of his partner’s sudden death nine years ago – relegated at the funeral to a status somewhere below the ex-wife.

On the other hand, I can’t deny that those same radicals make some pretty valid points. National LGBT organizations have become so focused of late on a handful of issues like marriage and military service, that there has been no room for socioeconomic issues. The healthcare debate and access to education affect queer people too – just consider the large subset of the nation’s homeless youth (20 to 40 percent) whose plight is a result of coming out. Racial divides within the queer community have also been pretty absent from the mainstream discourse. On closer look, it becomes blindingly obvious that the marriage agenda is not the logical top priority for many in the queer community.

Instead of looking at who is voting against gay marriage, we might consider who is pushing it. It’s a pretty white crowd, and fairly affluent and to boot. So yes, I am disappointed by Tuesday’s vote in Maine. As a white and middle class male, I enjoy a substantial set of privileges that give me the luxury to make marriage a priority. Yet I also recognize that for many, it’s understandable if marriage falls lower in Maslow’s hierarchy of priorities.

Absent frank introspection, marriage’s success at the polls will only take longer. As long as racial divides permeate our own community, how can we ever hope to convince other minority communities to support our causes? When I hear LGBT strategists blaming the blacks, or the Hispanics, or whoever, the inherent sentiment is that of, “Those damned minorities…when are they going to hop on board with my minority’s agenda?” It would be nice if all the oppressed groups could get together in shows of solidarity, but minority politics just don’t work that way. (How many LGBT organizations have official positions on racial issues?) The reality is, people have to be convinced of our cause. And we’ve spent an awful lot of money convincing white people in the suburbs to support our cause. Yet so far, there’s been less of an effort to reach out to black or Hispanic churches. If marriage advocates go to the white middle class, why should impoverished communities of color be expected to come to us?

As clichés must be honored, those lobbing the first stones will prefatorily proclaim infighting to be unhelpful. I would think the past few years already reveal such platitudes self evident. Despite the mantra, however, it remains difficult to find alternative solutions in the organizational and grassroots structures of the queer movement.

There’s not a ready-made solution to that last point. Certainly, these won’t be painless discussions, and it won’t resolve all the divides in a community as diverse as the queer community. But I do know that I’m tired of waking up the first Wednesday of every November only to be again denied the same rights as straight people. So we have to try – marriage advocates have to at least attempt to make room for a more inclusive platform that can connect with all non-LGBT individuals. The present strategies have already failed.

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