Proposition This

Has California's marriage amendment rekindled the gay rights movement?


It’s been three years since Texas voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, glomming a strictly heterosexual definition of marriage onto the state constitution. But just as in the rest of the country, the shock of the passage of a similar measure in California-California, for goodness’ sake!-appears to have re-energized the gay-rights movement in Texas, jolting people back to direct action in unprecedented numbers.

Three of the country’s largest protests spawned by Proposition 8, which overturned a court ruling that had permitted gay marriage in the Golden State, took place in Texas on November 15. In Dallas and Houston, crowds estimated at more than 1,000 rallied at their respective city halls, while an even larger bunch-considerably more than 2,000-gathered on a chilly, blowy afternoon to chant, shout, cheer and jeer at Austin’s City Hall. Around the state, at least six protests-organized mostly through word of mouth, text-messaging and social-networking sites-were timed to coincide with hundreds of rallies in small towns and large cities in all 50 states.

“Our civil rights should not be a matter to be voted on,” Allyson Mays, one of the organizers of Austin’s shindig, proclaimed to whoops that rang across the City Hall complex. “The rights of a minority should never be in the hands of the majority.”

The mood in Austin was equal parts frustrated and festive: half protest, half celebration of an impressive show of solidarity that included hundreds of straight allies. Attendees reinforced gay folks’ reputation for cutting wit with a multitude of handmade signs bearing such messages as “This Mary Wants to Marry,” “All My Life I’ve Dreamt of Being a Second-Class Citizen,” and “Can We Vote on Your Marriage Now?” While a handful of counterprotesters materialized in Dallas, only to be drowned out by the crowd on the other side, the Austin protesters had City Hall to themselves, accompanied only by supportive, honking horns from passers-by. They made the most of it, with speeches that transcended the usual political-activist clichÈs and chants, cutting to the heart of the moral and constitutional arguments that underlie the pro-marriage case.

The star of the show was Mason Marriott-Voss, a floppy-haired 10-year-old who skipped an afternoon of football with his friends to speak up for his parents’ rights. “My moms were together 10 years before they had my brother and me,” Mason said. “And now they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary this month. Yet some people may say we aren’t a real family. I think what they mean by a real family is like lots of my good friends’ families-a married mom and dad and kids. But did you know that that kind of family only makes up 23 percent of the United States? According to my math teacher, that’s a minority!”

Mason talked about being the ring bearer at his moms’ California wedding last summer, recalling a protester at West Hollywood City Hall who confronted them with a sign reading, “Smile-Satan Loves You.”

“Personally, I think he fell on his head,” Mason said. Holding aloft his moms’ marriage certificate, he said, “Now, just a few months later, this certificate could mean nothing.” (California Attorney General Jerry Brown believes that the 18,000 gay marriages performed prior to Prop 8 will not be invalidated, but other legal experts are not so sure.)

Several speakers challenged the inequities inherent in civil unions and domestic partnerships-concepts that inspired a chorus of boos and hoots. “Marriage for same-sex couples is important because it’s a validation of our love and our lives,” said Austin’s Heidi Vance. “But marriage is also important because we, as Americans, deserve to have equal civil rights under the law. Because we can’t marry, gay couples are unfairly taxed. We can’t inherit a spouse’s Social Security benefits or pensions. Because our relationships are not recognized, we must spend time and money creating carefully worded wills and powers of attorney just to protect our families. And then we have to cross our fingers and pray that they will be honored if the worst should happen.”

The personal toll of such inequities was highlighted by Austin’s James Gorka, a dignified fellow whose dark suit and tie whipped in the brisk winds as he recounted what happened 15 years ago when his partner learned he had terminal cancer. Gorka began by reciting a marriage vow and kissing his deceased partner’s portrait. “Those would have been the vows that Dale and I would have exchanged, had gay marriage been legal in the state of Michigan some 15 years ago,” he said. Instead, when Dale Engler became ill, Gorka said, his partner’s biological family-bitterly opposed to the relationship-took out a restraining order and eviction notice barring Gorka from the house he and Engler owned together. He was unable to visit his dying partner in the hospital, though he managed to sneak in one morning at 5 a.m. His belongings were tossed unceremoniously into the snowy driveway of the house by Engler’s parents, siblings and three children.

“I ended up in a cheap motel on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan, with hardly a dime in my pocket,” Gorka recalled. “Meanwhile, while my beloved Dale was in the hospital, I’ve heard, secondhand through his brother and sister-in-law who were the black sheep of the family [partly due to their support of the couple], that Dale said this to his family: ëI will always love you kids, and at one time I loved your mother. But the past four years I’ve spent with Jim have been the happiest years of my life. Now where is he?’ And they lied to him and said, ëWe don’t know. He just ran off,’ never telling him the truth, all the way up to his dying breath.”

In California and elsewhere, some gay activists have been busy assigning blame for Prop 8’s passage, particularly targeting the Mormon Church, whose members poured an estimated $22 million into the “Yes on 8” campaign, and African-American voters, 70 percent of whom supported the measure. Others have pointed a finger at Barack Obama. The president-elect opposed Prop 8, but he’s also made clear that he believes “marriage is between a man and a woman.” The latter stance was used (without reference to his stance on Prop 8, of course) in a flood of advertising targeted to African Americans in California. But when Obama’s name was invoked at the Austin rally, one of the loudest cheers of the day broke out.

Speakers repeatedly urged a cessation of the blame game. Targeting other minority groups as anti-gay bigots, said Vance, would mean that “we’re choosing to fight bigotry with bigotry, and hate with hate. That’s a battle in which everyone loses.”

Vance’s spouse of eight years, Alison Little, noted that “in 1967, a Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. And the Supreme Court said, in Loving vs. Virginia, too bad: Marriage between a black person and a white person is marriage.

“Would it have been OK,” Little asked, “if the Supreme Court had said a black person can marry a white person, but we’re going to call it an interracial union? No, it’s not OK. And it’s not OK for the government to create separate-but-equal institutions for us, either. We know that separate-but-equal is never truly equal.”We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going to settle for second-class citizenship, and we’re not going away!”

Some might consider that a threat; others, a promise. But in the wake of Prop 8, the truth of that well-worn slogan has never seemed more evident. In Texas and elsewhere, the gay-rights movement had lost a bit of the moral force and street-fighting vigor that it attained during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s-partly because, however slowly and haltingly, GLBT Americans have made measurable progress toward social acceptance, political influence and legal rights in the years since.

The vote in California-like the ban on gay adoption and foster-parenting that passed in Arizona on Nov. 4-was a clear, bracing sign of the fragility of those gains. For the first time, civil rights that had been granted to gay people were being stripped. The response, from gay and straight human-rights advocates alike, has been more fierce and determined than anyone on either side could have anticipated. Maybe the “Yes on 8” brigade, who made the California amendment campaign the most expensive non-presidential race in the country in 2008, should have been careful what they wished for.