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Prop. 8 and the Misery of the Law
Posted on Jun 4, 2009
By Scott Tucker
I got the news of the San Francisco uprising in the television lounge of a bathhouse in Philadelphia. On the other side of the country, and in all the big cities between both coasts, gay people knew another milestone had been passed. Not the ideal history we might have chosen, but instead the real events that mark every serious social struggle. As we watched the street battles between police and gay people in San Francisco, we wept with anger and cheered with pride. Reducing police violence against gay people also meant sending the police and the politicians a message they might finally understand. But no one had any illusions that street fights with cops could be any shortcut to real democracy.
In late May of 2009, there were rumors online that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had asked the California Supreme Court not to publish its Proposition 8 decision on May 21, which was the 30th anniversary of the White Night Riots. The mayor’s communications director, Nathan Ballard, published a press release on May 20 denying that Newsom had made such a request. (As previously noted here, the court’s decision was released May 26.)
All of the California politicians who intend to run in the next gubernatorial race will have to tackle the issue of gay marriage head on, because 2010, the year of the election, is also the year for which a referendum challenge to overturn Proposition 8 is planned. By that time, more states will probably have joined the six already permitting legal marriage for same-sex couples.
In the meantime, gay couples who wish to marry legally have the human right and political duty to seek the most strategic sites of protest and civil disobedience. There will be disagreements about choosing our sites and methods. But the bureaucratic gay groups, with all their money and managerial pretensions, made a mess of the first campaign against Proposition 8. This time around we would do well to bypass those groups entirely and act on our own.
We do not have to be of one mind to act in concert. We might learn a few lessons from the minority of militant suffragists who helped to win all women the right to vote in Britain. They tried all the sweet arts of persuasion, of course, but they also kept hammers in their handbags so they could smash the windows of government offices. They chained themselves to railings in Parliament. They hounded and heckled politicians. They burned the slogan “VOTES FOR WOMEN” into the grass of golf courses where politicians went to play. When they were jailed, they pursued a policy of hunger strikes. During all their confrontations with male officials and all their selective attacks on property, they kept to the strict rule of respecting human life. Emmeline Pankhurst summed up their spirit and their methods in the speech she gave to a mass meeting at Albert Hall: “There is something that governments care more for than human life, and that is the security of property. And so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy. … Be militant each in your own way. Those of you who can express your militancy by going to the House of Commons and refusing to leave without satisfaction … do so. Those of you who can express your militancy by facing party mobs at Cabinet Ministers’ meetings … do so. Those of you who can express your militancy by joining us in our Government by-election policy—do so. … And my last word is to the Government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!”
If we look back to the Clinton years and then forward again to the present, there is a great deal of unfinished business. President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into federal law on Sept. 21, 1996. That single piece of legislation was a signal victory for bigotry and theocracy. Clinton may have thought this was a minor concession, but it proved to be a great encouragement to ongoing far-right crusades. His administration also abandoned gay soldiers and sailors to right-wing demagogues and military courts, and the Democratic apparatchiks even gave cover to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy as an honorable compromise. Many AIDS activists were already campaigning for a thorough reform of the whole health care system, while the Clinton administration was stuck in the quagmire of bargaining with health insurance companies.
Members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) joined others in demanding that travel restrictions related to HIV-positive immigrants be lifted, but the Clinton crew again took a pass. ACT UP and harm-reduction activists demanded funding and legalization for clean-needle exchange programs for injection drug users, but once again the Clinton administration ran for cover. Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, Donna Shalala, was often confronted by ACT UP protesters demanding full health care and needle exchange programs. She granted that the science was on the side of harm-reduction programs, including needle exchanges, but she also refused to do her job as a health care advocate. Instead, she followed the classic Clintonian triangulations and the party line. Sometimes we were able to push the politicians forward. More often, we had to go over, under and around the corporate media and the party bureaucrats to set up independent needle exchange programs and community health programs.
Barack Obama promised gay people a better deal when he was on the campaign trail, but now that he’s in power the main job of the Democratic Party gay liaisons is to defuse and dampen any impatience among communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Obama sent mixed messages about Proposition 8, sending a note to a gay Democratic club saying he opposed the measure. That note kept a handful of partisan operatives happy, but otherwise had no political effect. Obama had already used the megaphone of the media to announce that he favored traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Guess which message the right wing borrowed from Obama, and placed on glossy brochures delivered to conservative congregations and thousands of households in Los Angeles?
After the Rev. Rick Warren used his megachurch in Southern California as one more political base from which to launch Proposition 8 into the public sphere, Obama rewarded him by inviting him to give the prayer of invocation at the Inaugural in Washington. As an afterthought (and after a storm of gay protest), Obama invited a gay Episcopal bishop, Eugene Robinson, to join the party. Getting the guests seated evenly at an ecumenical round table should be someone else’s job, but this was a badly botched political balancing act.
As for health care reform, the leading Democrats in Congress used security guards to remove from hearings any doctors, nurses and other persons who dared to speak up for a single-payer national health plan. And there is still no bold and coherent message from Democrats about harm-reduction programs and needle exchanges for drug users.
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