Monday, November 17, 2008

An Expensive Proposition

So there were nationwide demonstrations against Proposition 8 last weekend. Isn’t that just a wee bit of trying to slam the barn door shut after the horses have gotten out? (No, I didn’t attend the local demo.)

I gather from Sherry Wolf’s fine article at Counterpunch that the opposition to Proposition 8 in California was run by diversity-management professionals who preferred to avoid any grass-roots work, things like “knock[ing] on doors and hold[ing] rallies and actions to publicly denounce the bigotry of the measure – though in a few cases, activists took the initiative to do so on their own. … Adhering to the false notion that the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election due to the assertiveness of gay marriage activists, the heads of the No on 8 campaign avoided even using words like ‘gay’ or ‘bigoted.’”

It might be a good idea to remember some history. In 1978, California State Senator John Briggs introduced an initiative, which became Proposition 6 on the ballot, to ban gay men and lesbians from teaching. The initiative was so broadly written that it threatened the livelihood even of pro-gay heterosexual teachers, which was probably one factor in its defeat. But it was widely expected to pass: polls showed overwhelming support for the measure. Among the factors which prevented its passage, by a landslide, were door-to-door campaigning in San Francisco and possible elsewhere in the state, organized by San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. (You can see some of the campaigners in action in this clip from the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. See also chapters 13 and 14 of Randy Shilts’s biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street [St. Martin’s Press, 1982]; it’s a flawed book, written by a conflicted but openly gay reporter who covered the events it describes as they happened.) Milk was a controversial figure, but he was an aggressive and effective debater who wasn’t afraid to use the words “gay” or “bigot.”

(It helped that the Briggs Initiative was opposed even by an arch-rightist and homophobe like Ronald Reagan. That made it safe for a cowardly Jimmy Carter to follow suit, as you can see in the documentary clip linked above. Interestingly, according to Shilts in The Mayor of Castro Street, “it was stars with huge gay followings like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli who would not take a stand on the issue, following the old Hollywood dictum that taking positions on controversial issues can hurt audience appeal and, therefore, cut profits” [244]. However, that “dictum” didn’t inhibit other celebrities, including Shirley Maclaine, Dennis Weaver, Paul Newman, James Garner, Cher, and Carol Burnett, from opposing the initiative.)

No on 8 should have learned something from the success of the opposition to Proposition 6 thirty years ago. Even though No on 8 had a lot more money than their opponents – $43.6 million against the bigots’ $29.8 million, again according to Wolf – they lost an important vote which now puts antigay bigotry into a state constitution. There’s been a lot of yammering among GLBT folk about African-American and Latino support for Prop 8, which is enabling the expression of some nasty and drearily familiar racism among white gays. So much for the repudiation of hate! Not to stereotype – there has also been effective refutation of anyone who wants to assign all blame (or credit) for the passage of Prop 8 to racial minorities. The Homo-American professionals of No on 8 deserve more recognition for their own failure; they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to dodge their responsibility by blaming African-Americans, and stirring up a white gay population whose longstanding complacency about its own racism needs to be criticized, not encouraged.