For many of us, 2008 will mark the last time we vote for a candidate who does not favor same-sex marriage. Hopefully, this will be because at least one candidate from a major party will support those rights, but we should also be prepared that, as in this year's presidential election, both people running are against marriage rights, and that neither will receive our vote.
This year, it was especially painful when, close to the election and to the California vote on Proposition 8 to rescind the rights of gay couples to marry, Barack Obama said he believes "marriage is between a man and a woman." This was nothing new, but certainly not uplifting, even as he reiterated his opposition to changing the California constitution.
This starkly illustrated Obama's contradictory attitude towards gay rights: he says he deems gay and straight people (all people, in fact) to be equal, but he is "against" same-sex marriage. It begs the question: if these relationships are equal, why not treat them equally under the law? In many ways, it is far easier to accept hard-core Christian conservatives' position: they think gay relationships are evil, and therefore certainly not equal to straight ones, and should absolutely not be granted marriage rights. They are of course homophobic, but so are all other opponents of gay marriage, for isn't it the essence of homophobia to say that the love between a man and a woman is different than the love between two people of the same gender?
Surely Obama knows that when he says he believes civil "marriage is between a man and a woman," he is being inconsistent, harmful and sounds (is?) bigoted. He made the calculation, as did Hillary Clinton and countless other self-styled supporters of gay rights, that taking a position that is consistent would do him more political damage than good. That is his right, of course, but it is also ours to point out the inconsistency, and to vote and contribute accordingly. Ultimately, either these relationships are equal, or they are not.
The issue is not one of semantics and, in fact, for gay couples, marriage overwhelms all else from a legal and financial perspective: the penalties that come from not being able to marry are countless and dwarf any "middle-class tax cut" promised by Obama. For instance, few people realize that health insurance granted to domestic partners by some companies is taxable income. This means that this "benefit" is out of the financial reach for many same-sex couples, a situation that would immediately be remedied were they allowed to marry and receive health insurance in a non-taxable manner the way straight married couples do. This alone would represent hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, in savings for each couple, far outweighing anything else that an Obama administration would be able to achieve in terms of "middle class tax cuts."
One particularly misguided lesbian wrote on another blog that marriage equality was an obsession of wealthy gay white people, that she was too busy canvassing for Obama in California (a state he won by 24 points) to think about Proposition 8, and that in her community, there were bigger problems than gay marriage, including poor access to health care. Leaving aside the fact that electing Obama and opposing Prop 8 were hardly mutually exclusive, does this writer not realize that marriage equality would in one fell swoop grant health insurance to thousands of uninsured partners who cannot afford to pay anything for the benefit, or do not even have the option of such a benefit because they are not married, including many couples in her community? That the writer accurately points to gay racism and to the poorly run campaign against Proposition 8 does not negate the real benefits marriage equality would bring to all communities.
The availability of health care benefits is just one example among many of the rights that straight couples completely take for granted and do not give a second thought to. And no, civil unions are not the answer. First of all, why go through the trouble and expense of creating an entire parallel bureaucratic universe to cater to the squeamish prejudice of, basically, older generations, those most likely to oppose marriage? Secondly, as New Jersey's failed experiment vividly demonstrates, civil unions do not grant the same rights in practice. Again, some companies reluctant to grant benefits to same-sex couples are hiding behind the fact that these couples are not married, just "civil-unioned." In hospitals, there are instances of couples being denied visitation and other rights because staff didn't even understand the concept of a civil union; in an emergency, do you really want to have to explain the legalities of domestic partnerships, or would you rather just say "I'm the wife?"
A striking fact of the anti-marriage assault in California and elsewhere is that it was mostly conducted by referenda, giving voters a direct say in whether a minority should be granted a right heretofore denied it (or, in the case of California, taking away a right previously enjoyed). If, in fact, the voice of the people is that informed and important, why not put a whole bunch of other issues to the test? Why not see what voters think of, say, late-term abortion? Why not see what voters in, say, Louisiana think of abortion, period? How about whether the United States should officially be an English-speaking country? And what should happen to illegal immigrants? Whether prayer should be legal in public schools? Affirmative action banned in all cases? Sexual harassment and discrimination laws curbed? Whether Christianity should be the official religion? In fact, whether Protestantism should be the official religion? It would not be a pretty sight. Perhaps, one can dream that in its devotion to the sanctity of marriage, the heterosexual majority would ban divorce, and severely punish adultery. That way, hypocrites from Larry Craig to Newt Gingrich to John Edwards to the Clintons (basically 90% of Washington's ruling political class) could truly show their commitment to marriage.
The quandary over same-sex marriage has also presented an opportunity for politicians from both parties to rediscover the greatness of states' rights, suddenly no longer the dirty concept it had been in the decades following the civil rights battles of the 50s and 60s. Here too, though, the appeal of letting individual states decide what will happen to their own citizens is very selective, seemingly limited, in fact, to the fate of its gay population. Of course, comparing the fight for same-sex marriage to other civil rights battles is often intellectually lazy and historically inaccurate, especially as it is nearly always the facile association with the rights of African-Americans that is cited (some white gay activists are to blame but, to be fair, a number of prominent African-Americans, including Coretta Scott King have made the link). That the comparison is unfortunate does not mean marriage is not a civil right, just that it stands on its own merits. It should also not be forgotten that in Washington the Congressional Black Caucus is among the staunchest supporters of gay rights, including marriage, and that the only two black governors in the nation, David Paterson in New York and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, are the most prominent elected politicians in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage.
The debate raging in California after the narrow passage of Proposition 8 focused uncomfortably on the role of two minorities: Mormons and African-Americans. The former financed much of the campaign to repeal marriage rights, and the latter, according to exit polls, were the ethnic or racial group supporting the proposition by the largest margin. Seemingly forgotten in the discussion was the role of the Catholic church, an opponent of gay rights in any form. Where was the outrage when Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he was "grateful to the Catholic Community of Los Angeles for your commitment to the institution of marriage as fashioned by God and to work with such energy to enshrine this divine plan into our state's Constitution?" Where is the disgust at an institution far more powerful, organized and global than any other anti-gay forces? And for that matter, where is the revulsion at mainstream Protestant churches who played a quieter, but no less important role in passing Proposition 8? And, one last time, what the hell was Obama doing at Saddleback Church, a bastion of homophobic bigotry, before the election? This is not to say that the Mormon church and the black churches who actively supported Prop 8 should not be held seriously accountable, but they were far from alone in their gay-bashing. The result: in California and Florida, about 20% of Obama voters also voted to ban same-sex marriage. Not quite in the spirit of the day, right?
And so the time has come to put our votes and our money where our mouth is, and to promise ourselves, those around us and politicians of all parties that while we will especially fight the hard homophobia of the Christian right, we will also no longer tolerate the malleable bigotry of those who profess to be our friends, but also say we are not quite worthy of the same rights. We want to believe, in our hearts, that Obama does not mean it when he says he is against same-sex marriage: he is too smart, too compassionate and too open-minded for that. And, as he put it with his usual eloquence in New York this summer: "It is not for me to tell you to wait for what you deem to be your right."