It's been a week now since America elected Barack Obama, and I've never felt such a sense of relief and gratitude over a political election. The results were bittersweet, however, for gays and lesbians, as three states (Arizona, California, and Florida) passed measures denying same-sex couples access to marriage, and another (Arkansas) made it impossible for all but married couples to adopt children - a measure aimed squarely at gays and lesbians.
I'm not discouraged by the state of gay civil rights in this country - we've made great progress since the first time I voted in an election (1988), and exit polling indicates that attitudes about GLBT rights fall sharply along generational lines. Younger voters favor gay marriage, older voters don't. Over time, sexual orientation will cease to be a factor when it comes to employment, housing, marriage, and adoption - at least officially (prejudices will always manifest themselves, even if subtly, regardless of what laws dictate).
At the moment, however, gay rights are a contentious issue over which Americans are deeply divided, and the passage of Proposition 8 in California has stirred the passions of both sides. Before last Tuesday, most states had already passed legislation defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and several have gone so far as to ban recognition of even same-sex civil unions. In 10 other states, gay marriage, civil union laws, or domestic partnership legislation confer upon same-sex couples all or some of the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. In fact, California's Proposition 8 will - if successfully implemented - eliminate gay marriage, not domestic partnerships.
Not all foes of gay marriage oppose civil union legislation - according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted early in 2008, 51% of Americans favor civil unions, but only 38% approve of gay marriage. Even many in the gay community are more adamant about obtaining civil union rights than they are access to gay marriage. I personally have no interest in ever getting officially married, and my pragmatic side believes that same-sex union legislation is a more tenable and less divisive goal than legalized gay marriage.
But I'm also sympathetic to the argument that the core issue here is about equal status before the law - that "separate" but "equal" never represents true equality. I've yet to hear a reason-based, compelling argument in favor of defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman - if defenders of the "sanctity" of marriage were genuinely concerned about their cause, they'd focus their efforts on reforming Nevada's laughably lax marriage and divorce laws, not obsessing about the genders of those who seek stable, committed relationships.
In the bigger picture, gay marriage is - like abortion rights - a critical battleground in America's culture wars. That, to me, is reason enough to sit up and take notice, and throw my weight behind legalized gay marriage.
California's Proposition 8 is particularly disturbing on a few levels. It's a measure that removes rights that have already been granted, meaning that the status of the 18,000 same-sex couples who have already married is now in limbo. It's also a measure that passed by a very thin margin in a state that voted overwhelming in favor of Barack Obama - a dichotomy that has gays and lesbians feeling egregiously slighted by many whom they previously believed to be on their side. The campaign to pass Proposition 8 was funded massively by religious organizations based outside of California, including the Knights of Columbus (Catholic), Focus On The Family (Evangelical Christian), and the American Family Association (Evangelical Christian). Furthermore, out-of-state individuals of Mormon faith heeded the aggressive call of the Church of Latter-day Saints and donated more than half the money used to fund Proposition 8.
If you're a supporter of gay rights, or more broadly, you're a social moderate or progressive who favors a separation of Church and State and civil rights for all people, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, you may be wondering how best to fight back.