Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

Yearning for a Just Democracy: From Prop 8 to the 14th Amendment

Filed By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz | August 09, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: marriage equality, movement, Prop 8, racial justice

I am celebrating the overturn of Prop 8 but not for the reasons you might think. Although I have strong objections to the fact that the mainstream LGBT movement has made marriage a priority above and beyond so many other issues that impact our communities, I believe that no community should have to fight discriminatory legal or Constitutional attacks on their lives and identities. Yes, my friends, the Constitution is supposed to have safeguards that protect marginalized communities from the tyranny of the majority.

That's the way it should be because that's how a democracy should work.

I'm going to digress for a second and tell you what I think a true democracy is because it's germane to my assertion that a true democracy requires solidarity, self determination and truth telling. When we all have self determination over our bodies and land, particularly those of us who are most marginalized in society, the power that institutions have to decide for us can shift into the hands of people and community so that we decide for ourselves.

I think Brazilian educator and organizer Paulo Frèire said it best when he stated that "any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;... to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects."

In a true democracy women and gender queer people would be able to make reproductive choices and decisions without interference from the state. People with disabilities would be free of the institutionalizing or medicalizing of our bodies simply because they may not conform to society's definition of a normative body. First Nations people would have the right to live on their land without interference from the government. This would ensure federal recognition of all indigenous ways of decision making pertaining to issues of community and land. Immigrants would be able to live in a country that does not police them as punishment for single handedly building this country though generations of labor. All people of color would be able to live in a country that not only took responsibility for its history of racism, but also proactively committed to racial justice as one of our primary democratic principles. Now that would be a democracy worth living in and fighting for!

I agree with Dr. Cornel West when he states that we cannot build a just democracy without deeply engaging in self scrutiny. In the following video he asks if we have the courage to deeply question the kind of nation we are without relying on lies and revisionist history:

Dr. West calls this deep questioning "Socratic questioning" and he asserts that we must engage in dialogue and truth telling with one another rather than being lulled into a market driven society. He urges us to understand that our market driven society isolates us from one another and, therefore, from the truths of our lives. He calls upon us to grapple with the work entailed in building a just democracy including: acting with courage, telling the truth about our individual and collective histories and deeply engage across communities and issues. In my view, the wisdom and interdependence that can be gained by creating a society that engages in this way would have exponential benefits for all of us because an us vs. them approach would cease to be the dominant and rewarded way of operating in the world. Sign me up for "Socratic questioning" Dr. West!

Although I am happy about the overturning of Prop 8, I also believe that our LGBT movement has to engage in its own Socratic questioning about its future. We must ask ourselves what kind of democracy do we, as LGBT people, want to promote. We need to engage in dialogue across communities in order to create a vision for the future that takes seriously all of the issues facing LGBT people. We must have the courage to do the necessary bridge building work it will take to create an interconnected movement that represents us all. None of this will happen unless we make individual and collective commitments to make it happen!

Let me give you an example. Over the past few weeks as Judge Walker was writing his opinion in the Prop 8 case, another deeply disturbing issue was brewing around immigrant rights. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell started working to build support within the GOP to change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. He is being joined in this effort by Minority Whip Jon Kyl who stated during an interview with "Face the Nation" that "there is a constitutional provision in the 14th Amendment that has been interpreted to provide that, if you are born in the United States, you are a citizen no matter what. ... And so the question is, if both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior?"

An article recently published in The Hill reveals that high ranking members of the GOP are seriously exploring how to change the US Constitution to ensure that children of undocumented immigrants born in the US will not be considered citizens

If our queer community was heeding Dr. West's call to engage in Socratic questioning, I am pretty confident that we would be outraged by the latest attempt by these right wing fuckers to write more discrimination into the US Constitution! Yet, I've seen very little in the mainstream LGBT press about this proposed change in the 14th Amendment. Wouldn't you think a community that has faced so many constitutional assaults from the right wing would be one of the first communities to speak out in solidarity? Not so much... and therein lies the problem.

I believe this has to do with whether or not our LGBT movement is yearning for and willing to work for a true democracy. I also believe it has to do with the fact that racial justice is not central to the mainstream LGBT agenda. If we had a movement wide commitment to democracy and racial justice, we would deeply understand the connection between all of the anti-LGBT constitutional amendments that have been passed on the statewide level, the attempt to pass the ill fated Federal Marriage Amendment, the plethora of anti-LGBT ballot initiatives across the country and this latest attempt to change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. We would get it! We would speak out against it! We wouldn't stand for it! Yet, instead, there is mostly silence from our LGBT movement when other communities are facing similar attacks.

Silence is not always what we hear from other movements when it comes to LGBT issues. Check out this video from the Applied Research Center on racial justice and LGBT alliances in the wake of Prop 8.

It's a shining example of how People of Color led movements and organizations do a better job of making the linkages and standing in solidarity. Why? Because we often understand that LGBT people live our lives across all lines of difference and that we can't separate our People of Color identities from other parts of who we are. For many of us, this means that we find ourselves out of sync with a mainstream LGBT movement that does not see issues like the oil spill in the Gulf or other economic, disability and reproductive justice issues as LGBT issues.

As we celebrate the overturning of Prop 8, we must remember that the backlash against the African American community, as well as other communities of color, continues to be profoundly painful. It further exposed the depths of racism in our movement and is a major reminder of how much work still needs to be done. In the spirit of Socratic questioning, I have to ask whether or not our movement has turned the mirror inward and reflected upon how seriously we must take racial justice work? If we had learned everything we needed to from the Prop 8 fight, I strongly believe our mainstream LGBT movement would be speaking up and out about the attempts to change the 14th Amendment, the frontal assault on Shirley Sherrod, the anti-immigration law in Arizona and the hateful copy cat legislation pending around the country, the oil spill in the Gulf and much more.

I have to ask...what have we learned? What is our vision for a just democracy? What kind of a movement are we yearning for? My answer to these questions is that I want an LGBT movement that takes its commitment to racial justice and democracy seriously. In order to do this we must engage. We must have the hard but necessary conversations it takes to build bridges across communities. In the words of Audre Lorde "change means growth, and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves although sharing the same goals."

My hope is that we heed the painful lessons of Prop 8 by committing ourselves to racial justice. In order to work towards a transformed and just society our LGBT movement has to learn from the past, proactively and thoughtfully engage in bridge building in the present and hold a vision of the future that fosters more interconnectedness across all aspects of our democracy. The LGBT community can be a 21st Century movement but first we need to turn to one another and ask three necessary questions: Are you willing to engage? Can you commit to truth telling? Can we build individual and collective relationships in ways that ensure we are working towards our mutual liberation? My hope is that the answer to these questions is YES! Si se puede!

Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales


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Michael Mann | August 9, 2010 10:33 AM

I agree with most everything you said except "that's how a democracy should work." Actually, this is how a "republic" should work. In a pure democracy, there are no checks and balances or safe guards for minorities- its majority rules. So, I prefer to stick with our republic of united states.

I like that saying before the jump. I'm going to remember that the next time I hear that saying about fishing!

How funny! I was going to comment on the graphic too. I love that. I've swiped it to use elsewhere on the site.

It's a good argument, however, at this juncture in my life, I am TIRED. I can barely get the energy for LGBT causes much less others. I have been fighting this fight for 35 years, if we don't get equality within the next 10, I am leaving for greener pastures to retire. America can stay in the dark ages.