Yes, Prop. 8 passed in California as we're all aware, and the sky is falling. Gay marriages have been outlawed in the state in a blatant display of homophobia infecting politics. This is the worst possible thing to happen to the equal rights movement for gays and lesbians in at least ten years or more.
Or is it?
Sure, there are a lot of reasons of to be upset Prop. 8 passed in California. I do not need to spell them all out for you here. Many of you are already aware of the consequences of writing discrimination into the state constitution because it has already happened in your state. But while on the surface it looks like we were dealt a setback in our quest for marriage equality, I am beginning to realize that Prop. 8 may yet turn out to be a good thing. Before you think I'm some self-loathing homophobe myself, let me explain.
First we need to look at overall public opinion on gay equal rights. According to some statistics provided to me by the fine folks at the Human Rights Campaign:
- 62 percent of Americans believe "homosexual couples" should have the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples regarding health care benefits and Social Security survivor benefits.1
- 60 percent of Americans believe there should be health insurance and other employee benefits for gay spouses.2
- 55 percent of Americans think there should be Social Security benefits for gay spouses. Since 1994, support for spousal Social Security benefits for same-sex couples has ranged from 47 percent to 68 percent.2
- 60 percent of Americans believe there should be inheritance rights for gay spouses.2
- 57 percent of Americans believe gay or lesbian couples should be allowed to legally adopt children.4 Support for allowing gay or lesbian couples to legally adopt children has almost doubled over the last 15 years.3
Here's the biggie though:
- More than half of Americans - 54 percent - agree that "homosexual couples" should be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions, giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage.5
Looking at these polls (which were all done before Prop. 8's passage by the way), it is easy to see that the majority of Americans do believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed the same basic legal rights as their straight counterparts. It would seem that the hang-up comes down to the word "marriage".
In the days following the election as the giddiness over Obama's victory began to subside, America began to realize just what happened in California and what the implications of it were. I received messages from straight friends all over the country expressing dismay that such a measure could have been approved by voters especially in California of all places (and also Arizona where I live). Being heterosexual and not having their marriage rights threatened, many of them didn't realize what the situation was for us. They thought we would always have liberal safe places like California and New York where we could live without discrimination. Prop. 8 opened their eyes to the power of our opposition. Not that we were looking for it, but we finally won our fair-minded straight peers' sympathy. Their eyes were opened to the bigotry that exists, and we now have new allies in our equality fight from coast to coast.
Prop. 8 has also fired up the gay community like never before. While I still am a bit miffed that there wasn't a national outrage when similar anti-gay marriage measures passed in other states, the anger over this particular defeat has united the GLBT community in a way that I haven't seen since the 1993 march on Washington (I should remind those blaming the black community for Prop. 8's passage that Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at that march). Now I am witnessing gay friends of mine who have never been active with any cause getting involved, and if the rallies taking place all over the nation are any indication, they show we are indeed a force to be reckoned with. We will not be silenced or ignored.
When I take into account the media attention this issue has been getting, the overall public opinion on legal rights for gays, and our righteous indignation and determination, I feel we have a chance to push for and win real and lasting equality. Come January there will be a new President and Democrat majorities in both the House and the Senate. We need seize this opportunity to press our newly-elected government to pass a bill that establishes nationally-recognized civil unions providing the same legal protections of marriage to same-sex couples.
Why civil unions? Why not marriage? As Prop. 8 has proven, as long as the word "marriage" is involved it will always be a contentious issue and one that our opponents will bitterly fight. In true equality shouldn't we be able to call it marriage? Yes, I fully agree that we should have the right to marry the one we love, but let's be practical. Legislators in the new Congress are much more likely to pass a bill for civil unions whereas they would probably vote down one allowing same-sex marriage. Wouldn't it be better to have nationally-recognized civil unions whose legal protections won't change from state to state than some states offering marriage, some offering civil unions, and most offering absolutely nothing at all? Besides, once civil unions are in place and straight America sees it did not destroy their marriages or bring about the collapse of western civilization, we should revisit the issue and show them that changing the wording to "marriage" really would have no effect on their lives.
I do not advocate that we give up the fight for marriage, but let me give you my perspective as someone who has skin in the game. Nearly thirteen years ago my partner and I met, fell in love, and shortly thereafter made a lasting commitment to one another. Our relationship has been no different than that of a marriage. We laugh and fight like any other couple, and we don't need the government or any religion to tell us our bond to each other is valid. Calling what we have a "civil union" or "marriage" isn't going to change a thing between us, but we still do seek the legal rights marriage provides. With each passing day I worry more and more that something might happen to one of us where the lack of laws protecting our relationship will become an issue. I'm not willing to wait another ten years or more for those rights while people quibble over the terminology. Civil unions may not be the ultimate answer, but they are something real and within reach now.
I then hereby call on the leaders of the gay community, those in places like the HRC, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other such organizations, to drop the strategy of fighting for marriage equality on a state by state basis. Prop. 8 in California proved that strategy does not work. Instead I ask them to petition Congress and President-elect Obama to enact a national civil unions bill. This is what I personally will be fighting for, and I urge the readers of The Bilerico Project to do the same.
We are one community, one nation, and we need justice and equality for all of GLBT America.
Special thanks to Emelia Ingersoll at the Human Rights Campaign for providing the figures cited in this post.
1November 2003 L.A. Times poll
22004 Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates
3Princeton Survey Research Associates and Newsweek
4May 2007 CNN and Opinion Research Corporation poll
5December 2007 ABC News/Facebook poll by TNS