Elation tinged with sadness: Processing my contradictory feelings in the wake of last night's election... from San Francisco.
Yesterday, Californians voted overwhelmingly to elect the first African-American president of the United States. They voted to extend the rights of farm animals. And they voted to take away rights from human beings who happen to be lesbian or gay. What's wrong with this picture?
I'm trying not to let my deep sadness about Proposition 8 overshadow the elation I feel about Obama's historic victory. But it's tough. It feels like we took a giant step forward and a great step backward at the very same time.
When I first heard that Fox News had called Ohio for Obama, I knew the race was over. But I wouldn't let myself believe it just yet. Not until 7:59 Pacific Time, when Wolf Blitzer said he was moments away from making a projection "of a historic nature," did I enter into a state of shock. I had spent the whole day making phone calls to swing states to get out the vote for Obama, and now--finally--the reward had come. I was elated. It was the moment I had been dreaming of for months. I had imagined this moment, longed for it, recalled it every time I got motivated to make some phone calls for Obama or make another donation to his campaign.
I fought back tears as I watched crowds of people celebrating on the TV all over the country. It was not just that Obama was a great candidate who I supported on the issues, character and judgment, but he was also going to be the first African-American president of the United States of America. The significance of this historic fact cannot be overstated. I am only 33, but I did not think I would live to see the day it would happen. Though I had often said, cynically, that the first black president would have to be a staunch conservative like Clarence Thomas, because an African-American branded as "liberal" would just not fly. Yesterday I was happy to be proved wrong. It was a great day for the United States of America.
After watching the acceptance speech at home, my spouse and I felt the urge to go out and celebrate the victory in community with others. We went to a bar we knew would be showing election coverage. We were eager to see the results of our state and local races as they came in. I was so pumped up with optimism from Obama's win that I imagined celebrating with a bar full of exuberant San Franciscans when we heard the good news that California had resolutely rejected Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban. It would be the first time a state ballot measure would come out in support of gay marriage, and it was about time. It would send a clear signal that our state recognized the human rights of all people, including the basic human right to choose a person to spend your life with.
As the results of the state ballot initiatives started to show up on the muted TV at the crowded bar, I was slowly overcome with deep sadness. I tried to stay positive by reminding myself of Obama's win. And there was other good news to focus on too: a ballot initiative that would have chipped away at a woman's right to choose by requiring parental notification for abortion was soundly defeated; a ballot initiative that would have allowed 14-year-old children to be prosecuted as adults was overwhelmingly defeated; and a ballot initiative that improves the living conditions for farm animals was approved by a healthy margin. So how was it possible that Proposition 8, which literally writes discrimination into the state constitution, was winning? If it passed, this proposition would amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Amending a constitution by a simple majority vote? What's up with that?
Maybe it's because I'm a newlywed that I feel personally injured by the passage of Proposition 8. I had spent most of my twenties ridiculing the idea of marriage, but when I met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with it changed everything. Getting married was a defining moment of my life, much more so than I ever could have imagined previously. It wasn't just because we decided to stay together into the indefinite future but that we made this commitment public and we did so in the presence of our families and friends, and that our union was made official through recognition by the state. My spouse happens to be of the opposite sex, so I am on the privileged side of this discrimination coin. But that is mere chance. I didn't "choose" to fall in love with a man; I just did. It could have been different.
Getting married made me realize that it does matter what we call it, and it does matter that calling it "marriage" is a choice available to any couple who chooses this path. I can remember when my spouse and I received our marriage license, the paperwork explicitly stated that we had to be "one man and one woman." This statement--written in all its official-ness and with the California state seal on top of the page--gave us serious pause. It reminded us that, by getting married, we were validating a discriminatory institution. We might as well sign up to join an all-white country club. (Forget that my spouse is not actually white; the metaphor holds.) Neither of us could really accept that we were about to be complicit with this form of discrimination. We seriously considered making our marriage symbolic but not official. We would have a commitment ceremony, even call it a wedding, but never actually submit the paperwork to the state. To do otherwise would be hypocritical. But to pull it off, we would have to hide it from our parents. No way would they fly out from the East Coast and foot the bill for a major ceremony that wasn't a "real" marriage.
We played through all the scenarios. If we had a commitment ceremony and not a legal marriage, what would it mean in terms of benefits, rights, and privileges? How would it affect responsibilities and privileges with regard to children we might have together? Property we might own together? Debts we might share together? What would happen if one of us died or was sick in the hospital? We sought information to all these questions. At first I thought we could just hire a lawyer to write up a contract between us that would effectively look like marriage on all these counts, but I learned that we would have to write a zillion different contracts to cover them all and it would never be exactly the same as marriage. Besides the fact that it would be an expensive and time-consuming hassle, we would never have the same basic rights and privileges that just come automatically with marriage. So in the end, for selfish reasons, we decided to join that metaphorical all-white country club. It was not without some ambivalence that we made this decision. We included words in our marriage ceremony that made it clear we believed this right should be available to all loving couples who choose it. Then we signed the official paperwork and returned it to our local courthouse, making it "official." Our ability to do this was an immense and unfairly earned privilege.
All I could think about last night, as the results of Proposition 8 started looking more and more pessimistic, was how many loving couples would once again be denied this basic human right that I myself had so recently exercised and taken for granted. It seemed to go against the whole message of change and unity that defined the election. I was also in disbelief, kind of like I felt when George W. Bush won re-election in 2004. Back then, I just couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that Americans would voluntarily re-elect that man. I thought it had to be a stolen election; how could it be otherwise? I didn't know a single person who didn't despise the president, let alone one who would vote for him. I was simultaneously saddened, outraged and incredulous. A huge part of me simply refused to believe that he had really won for several weeks thereafter.
My feelings are similar with Proposition 8 this year. Gay and lesbian couples have been getting married in California for four and a half months now and nothing has happened to heterosexual marriage, as far as I can tell. I personally don't feel my own heterosexual marriage challenged or threatened in any way. No one is harmed. The sky hasn't fallen. I would think that Californians would realize this and do the right thing, voting against this discriminatory proposition. And since I don't actually know anyone who voted for it, I'm still somewhat incredulous that it won.
Trying to look at the bright side, I asked myself: Would it be worse if McCain had won but Proposition 8 had lost? Yes, that would be worse. Obama's is a national win, not just a state one. It is symbolic of all kinds of broader change and marks a new direction for our country, not just on social issues but on economic and foreign policy issues as well. It is my strong belief that people all over the country and the world will benefit in meaningful, tangible ways from Obama's win, when compared to a hypothetical McCain win. That is reason to celebrate.
But there is more. Even though Proposition 8 managed to pass, it was a relatively narrow victory in a huge state, showing that public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing. Eight years ago, Californians voted 61 percent for a measure that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This year, it was 52.4 percent. Voters under the age of 30 overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 8, so we can expect public opinion to continue shifting on this issue as long as the twenty-somethings keep their opinions in tact as they age.
But there is more still. Across the country, three anti-abortion initiatives were defeated--not just in California but also in Colorado and the so-called "red" state of North Dakota. This suggests a dramatic shift in public opinion on abortion has already occurred in my adult lifetime. In fact, the issue of abortion hardly came up in the presidential campaign at all this year. Some would say that was because Americans were more interested in "bread-and-butter" issues like the economy. But I think the results of the three ballot initiatives suggest something else: that abortion is no longer the key wedge issue in the culture wars. There is just too much consensus for the pro-choice position. We have moved on, and a new social issue will take abortion's place as the primary culture-war ammunition. That issue will be same-sex marriage. I am trying to think of this as progress.
The passage of Proposition 8, along with two other anti-gay ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona, was a significant step backward for one of the key civil rights struggles of my generation. But the arc of history is long. Yesterday was a major victory for the key civil rights struggle of my parents' generation, and arguably, the defining civil rights struggle of America's existence. It doesn't mean that racism or white privilege have gone away, and it doesn't mean that "now any black child really can grow up to be president!" as some of the pundits are saying. But Obama's win does represent a giant step forward--both materially and symbolically. Let us hope that Obama will take an active role in moving this country toward real equal rights for gay and lesbian couples too.