Last Tuesday, our pride turned to shame as my fiancé Corin and I watched the results on Proposition 8 roll in with our gay friends – James and Alan – who had just been married the week before at a city courthouse in Oakland, for fear the San Francisco courthouses would be overflowing with other couples rushing to beat the election. James, a teacher at a special education high school, began to tear, while Alan, a lawyer at a prestigious firm, tried to comfort him with hollow sounding admonishments to wait: "only 2% is reporting…. it's likely the rural counties," Alan said without conviction. And with only 2% reporting, the gap was already so wide that it was clear that a majority of Californians, who moments ago placed the first African-American in the White House by a landslide, were ready to dissolve the marriages of our good friends.
And once it became clear that Prop 8 would win, Alan, pointing to Obama, reminded James "we will overcome." After all, only 50 years ago, Obama would have had to sit in the back of the bus – now, he is the most powerful man in the world.
Alan appears right, even if progress for gay rights appears to have stopped with the Prop 8 win. Gay rights advocates may have lost the battle, but are winning the war.
In 2000, California voters passed a similar ban on gay marriage, Prop 22, by 62% - a full 10% more than Prop 8. This suggests that in a scant eight years, tens of thousands more Californians are warming to gay marriage.
And 30 years ago, another single-digit California proposition – Prop 6, also known the Briggs Initiative – attacked gay rights, making these propositions tame by contrast. The 1978 Proposition would have barred James from teaching in public schools because of his sexual orientation. And much like the ad campaign for Prop 8, which relied heavily on children to exploit fears of homosexuality, politician John Briggs claimed Prop 6 was needed to "defend your children from homosexual teachers." As the election neared, one poll showed well over half the public at the time supported Prop 6, according to the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization for gay and lesbian republicans (or " masochists," as James joked).
Up until 2003, there were still anti-sodomy laws in the United States - in other words, laws which made gay sex illegal. And it wasn't until 1986 when homosexuality was entirely removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by psychiatrists. These draconian values are tame in contrast to some other places in the world: in Iran, a country in which President Ahmadinejad famously said there are no gays, a top ranking official said that homosexuals should be tortured or receive the death penalty (or possibly both), according to Fox News.
In this light, the narrow loss of Proposition 8 could be seen as a success, a sign that homosexuality is slowly gaining status, and that one day, James and Alan will the same right to marry that Corin and I have. This hope, though, is little consolation to those like our friends, stuck in history.
And working on behalf of gay couples should be a duty not for not only liberals but especially conservatives. Ronald Reagan, the Republicans' Republican, staked his political career on gay rights. According to the Log Cabin Republicans and other sources, then Governor Ronald Reagan became a strange bedfellow in this movement towards gay rights in California, coming out of the conservative closet against Prop 6, even though he was reportedly told it would be "political suicide" in his bid for the 1980 presidential election. Reagan said that Prop 6 had "the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights," and ultimately, he helped turned the stop the passage of the measure.
(Please look at the comments below, which expand on Reagan's (not so positive) legacy to the gay community)
Reagan, I hope, would have stood with liberals and other social progressives against Prop 8, which goes fundamentally against his conservative values of small government: "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."
And Prop 8 is clearly a case of government going beyond its limits, and interfering in the private lives of the citizens – a clearly un-conservative, and "un-American" value. In particular, as author and lawyer James Brosnahan astutely claims: "Now the religious beliefs of some Californians are in our Constitution and, until overturned, govern us all whether we like it or not." And America was created precisely to escape what Brosnahan describes – to escape the religious persecution aimed to control the private choices, and ultimately, the freedom of our friends. And whatever your politics, whatever your private or religious feelings about homosexuality, we can all agree to stop government interference in our private lives.
Ultimately, we are all James and Alan. And their battle for equal rights is ours.