“Would you rather have your birthday presents before we go, or after we come back?” le domestique asked last Friday. She was about to whisk me away for a weekend at the El Morocco Inn, a gay-owned spa resort in Desert Hot Springs, a tiny desert town situated over a bubbling natural mineral oasis about 15 miles outside of Palm Springs.
“After,” I said, because I’m all about the delayed gratification.
That said, we took off for Riverside County, a part of California we’d given serious thought to boycotting for the foreseeable future in response to its lopsided support for Proposition 8, which its voters passed by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points (compared to Los Angeles County, where it passed by a margin of 1 point). Kiss our money goodbye, assholes! was our immediate reaction to the vote. If we need to pass through your county to get somewhere else, we’ll make sure we head out with plenty of cold drinks and a full tank of gas so that all we spend in your hellhole is toxic emissions.
But here’s where le resistance gets complicated. If you look at the county-by-county vote, represented here in the Los Angeles Times’ handy electoral map (use the pull-down menu to access the Prop. 8 stats) in green (where the majority voted yes) and purple (where the majority voted no), you’ll see that we gays don’t have a lot of wiggle room if we want to patronize only gay-affirming counties. While the purple parts are certainly among the loveliest parts of the state, there’s a whole lot of icky to avoid—including every county bordering Los Angeles, with the two most decisively God-loving, homo-hating counties, Kern and Tulare—which each passed the measure by a staggering margin of 50 percentage points—stacked one above the other north of L.A. County, like tiers of bile and spite atop California’s anti–gay wedding cake. (Kern, immediately bordering L.A. County, was particularly notable among California’s 58 counties for being the only one whose clerk defied the court’s marriage equality mandate by poutily ceasing all marriages through her office when she was told she couldn’t selectively deny them to same-sex couples.) When I was younger my father was fond of saying that people in Kern County “would just as soon shoot you as say hello.” His was a cautionary tale, as I was a teenager given to spontaneity, including frequent half-cocked solo driving trips in search of beauty and solace among the High Sierras, which rose majestically—and nonjudgmentally—over the Kern divide. I shrugged off his seemingly hysterical pronouncements about the locals as I drove through their towns to get to California’s most spectacular national parks, preferring to think of rural Californians as quieter types who just craved a little elbow room. Now I’m forced to rethink my position: Maybe they really would just as soon shoot me as say hello.
And then there’s our southerly neighboring Riverside County, another hotbed of conservatism. Yet Palm Springs, residing squarely within the county, has more gays and lesbians per capita than San Francisco—estimated at nearly 50% of the permanent population—has elected two consecutive gay mayors, and regularly seats gay city council members. And there are dozens of gay-owned resorts and businesses that damn well deserve our patronage. Boycotting Palm Springs because it’s surrounded by Riverside County would be like picketing the Episcopal Church—which has gone out of its way to welcome, affirm, and even consecrate gays—because its worship services reference the same Bible fundamentalist nut jobs thump in their crusades to condemn us.
Besides, Palm Springs residents have perfected an über-laidback vibe that makes the rest of California seem practically uptight by comparison, and my need to decompress has achieved Trauma Level I in the days following the election.
I’ve been taking the Prop. 8 vote hard—personally even. “It’s not a referendum on you,” le domestique has said more than once, but that hasn’t stopped me from losing sleep at night. The anxiety and dread I had felt for months before the election has evolved into a state of mourning, with the sheer indignity of having my rights put up for majority vote compounded by the cruel echo chamber of loss. Every morning since Election Day, my mind is struck on awakening by thoughts of Prop. 8—before I know whether it’s a workday or a weekend, before I remember anything interesting that might have happened the day prior, before it even occurs to me whether I need to get up and pee—and every morning I have to reprocess feelings of sadness and disbelief and anger all over again.
The few days immediately following the election were the worst, when I felt simultaneously numb and raw. I don’t know if it’s possible to fully express to anyone who hasn’t experienced it directly what it’s like to finally feel like a first-class citizen in her own state after a lifetime of being held separate, only to lose that status five months later by a simple majority vote of her fellow citizens, citizens who were allowed to vote on the scope of my rights in a way that theirs have never been negotiable, citizens who considered the scope of gay rights on the same ballot and in the same manner that they considered the scope of the rights of farm animals, citizens who chose, in the end, to expand the rights of farm animals—passing an initiative to mandate larger cage sizes for egg-laying hens and other livestock by a statewide margin of more than 26 percentage points—even as they opted to diminish the rights of gays by a statewide margin of 4 points.
What saved my sanity most those first few post-election days was seeing the outpouring of emotion among my community—all that sadness and anger and passion and exhilaration that spontaneously hit the streets and came marching right past my office building the day after the vote, shutting down Wilshire Boulevard for hours; if the folks below look a little exhausted, it’s because this protest started at 2 o’clock that afternoon in front of the Los Angeles Mormon Temple, then morphed into a peaceful march around the city that lasted well past sunset.
Two and a half weeks later, I’m still waking to thoughts of Prop. 8 every goddamn morning, but while many of the same feelings of hurt and anger and loss are stirred, the emotions already feel partially processed, and it’s such a relief not to have to start from scratch each day.
My therapist and I have agreed that I’m going through a fairly typical mourning process, as though I’ve suffered a death of someone dear, and though I’m able to seek respite from my grief in sleep, or in brief moments of distraction, my consciousness is otherwise haunted by the constancy of this loss that seems to consume all the oxygen in the room. The good news, we’ve agreed, is that the mourning process eventually resolves and life returns to normal, and I see that happening for me—in fits and starts and by small degrees, with steps backward in between.
The evening before my birthday I sat in a perfectly heated Jacuzzi under billowing sheer canopies and a starlit desert night at our magical, intimate inn—and despite the beauty and comfort and peace I found myself surrounded by, my core was again weighted down by the constant sadness of these past two weeks.
“We got married!” le domestique said, trying to cheer me. “No one can take that away from us.”
“We haven’t even received our license in the mail yet; it could get annulled before we have it in hand,” I countered glumly.
“We got married, and nothing changes that,” she said firmly.
“Even if our marriage stands, so long as Prop. 8 is valid, don’t you think ours will always be a marriage with an asterisk?” I asked. “Like we’ll always have to explain it somehow: ‘Yeah, we got married during that five-month window in 2008.’ Don’t you think people will think of these as fake marriages, like the San Francisco couples in 2004?”
“No, we got married legally, and there isn’t anyone alive right now who won’t remember this time,” le domestique said.
The next day we went to Palm Springs City Hall to participate in the nationwide coordinated city hall demonstrations. (Sure, I went to a protest on my birthday, but after the demonstration we would return to the spa resort for scheduled massages—perhaps marking us as softies among the civilly disobedient.)
The mayor spoke, along with a number of city council members, ministers, organizers, and activists, including Harvey Milk campaign worker and AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and thanking for his inspiration. Ahead of the curve as usual, Jones proposes that we focus our energies on the federal government, not individual states, to overturn all 30 of the existing constitutional marriage bans legislatively, and that we don’t stop there but insist that the incoming administration of Pres. Barack Obama together with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid act with appropriate speed to address LGBT inequities in military service, adoption, immigration, employment discrimination laws, hate-crime protections, and access to social services. Visit Seven Weeks to Equality and read what he has to say—and sign the petition. I promise it’s worth the click.
Attending the demonstration lifted my spirits. (It was our second, after one the week prior in Anaheim, in another conservative hotbed, Orange County, my old stomping grounds. Though my battle cry was “Let’s storm Sleeping Beauty’s castle!” sadly, we got nowhere near Disneyland.) Later that night, instead of speaking only of innocuous things at the inn’s circular bar amid all the straight couples at happy hour, we chatted gamely with the innkeepers about the demonstration, Prop. 8, and the fate of our marriages. A couple who was celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary—and who the night before had asked a fellow straight couple of eight years for tips on staying together—overheard us talking to the innkeepers and remarked, “Wow, 14 years! Do you two have any tips for us?” It was a good moment.
The next morning we were sad to leave our little gay desert hideaway in the middle of “red” California, but we had jobs to get back to—not to mention those birthday presents.
On arriving home, le domestique retrieved the mail and sang out, “Hey, look what we got!” And there it was, an envelope from the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office of birth, death, and marriage records. Having neither celebrated a birth nor suffered a death—despite my grieving—this seemed indicative of a rare and precious thing. The envelope was unexpectedly hand-addressed, like a highly personal gesture of goodwill directly from the registrar-recorder. And inside was our certificate of marriage—with no obvious asterisk denoting the state of limbo in which we’ve felt so cruelly suspended—engraved with the Great Seal of the State of California.
I needed that reminder that, essentially, the state still had our back, because I’ve lately come to realize that in part what I’m mourning is the loss of California. I grew up here. This is my state, one that I’ve always felt proud to live in—perhaps insufferably so in the eyes of some of my friends. And while I was stressed and anxious about Prop. 8 having made it to the ballot, and while I fully realized that I should brace for the worst, in my heart I thought, Not here. Not in my fucking state.
Ours was the first state to pass a marriage-equality bill legislatively, in 2005, and the legislature passed yet another bill in 2007, after the first one was vetoed by our movie star governor, who reasoned, against the din of Republican angst over “activist judges,” that our rights were a matter best left to the courts. When our rights did come before the state supreme court, the justices made marriage equality the law of the land, which boded well for gays in the rest of the country—but also made our state’s constitution a national battleground—since it was the California supreme court that trailblazed the eventual overthrow of anti-miscegenation laws nationwide with its Perez v. Sharp decision in 1948, a full 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which found that the right to marry is a basic civil right and that the infringement of that right violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Sixty years later, the California court referred to the Perez case in its same-sex marriage ruling repeatedly and compellingly, only to see its ruling overturned five months later by “the will of the people.”
On November 19, California’s supreme court justices announced that they had decided 6–1 to hear an appeal on the constitutionality of Proposition 8. We’re not disputing the result of the vote or trying to subvert the democratic process, as our opponents would have their unthinking followers believe; we’re contesting the validity of the proposition itself, asserting that it never should have made it to the ballot in the first place without prior approval of the legislature—a case we tried to get heard prior to the election. It is frightfully easy to mount a citizen-driven ballot initiative in California: It took just 1.1 million petition signatures to get it on the ballot—in a state with over 25 million registered voters—and it required a simple majority of 50% + 1 to pass. Good enough when one is deciding whether to increase the size of cages for egg-laying hens. Not so humane when asking an electorate to weigh in on the rights of a historically unpopular minority. Had the citizen-driven initiative process existed at the time of the Perez ruling, I’m quite certain that an anti–interracial marriage amendment would have been placed on the very next ballot and that it would have passed resoundingly, because in 1948, “the people” weren’t any more ready for a Mexican-American woman to marry an African-American man than they are ready in 2008 for me to marry the woman I love.
Every U.S. citizen should be concerned about what the church lobby has been able to accomplish with voter-driven initiatives. Gays may bear the brunt of attacks from those who wish to legislate morality, but propositions aimed at curbing gay rights in Florida and Arkansas this election cycle also affected straights. Domestic-partnership benefits for couples of all sexual orientations were wiped out in Florida, forcing many senior citizens to choose between continuance of the pension and Social Security benefits they earned during their first marriage and basic relationship recognition, including hospital-visitation rights, with the partner they’ve found a new life with. And all unmarried couples, gay and straight, were barred from adopting or fostering children in Arkansas, which is pretty tough luck for the approximately 1,000 children currently languishing in orphanages and group homes in the state. Do you suppose the folks who voted to keep all those kids safe from sinfully cohabitating couples will now step up and take on an extra charge or two to make up the difference?
It’s funny, in the days immediately following the election, I was worried about legal challenges by our side. I felt that the Yes on 8 crowd had gotten exactly what they wanted: a mandate from “the people” proving that they still weren’t ready to accept us as fully equal citizens; they could now point to Prop. 8, just as they’ve long pointed to Prop. 22, to say that “the people” want to enshrine heterosexual hegemony in California law. We could bring lawsuits, I thought, but we’ve already lost in the court of popular opinion, so could we ever really win our rights back in the near term?
My thinking has evolved since then, as I’ve reminded myself, as I’ve so often reminded those who tirelessly beat the “activist judges” drum, that it is among the court’s most sacred duties to protect persecuted minorities from the tyranny of the majority. I also reminded myself that 5,796,637 Californians—nearly 48% of the electorate—did vote against Prop. 8. Exit polls calculate that self-identifying lesbian, gay, and bisexual voters make up just 6% of the California electorate; that accounts for 727,162 of the no votes, assuming that all LGB voters affirmed their own right to marry. That leaves 5,069,475 self-identified heterosexual voters who joined our tiny minority and voted to protect our rights. Compare that to 2000, when only 2,909,370 voters—38.4%—said no to Prop. 22′s call for heterosexual dominion. Subtracting the 6% of the total number of Californians who voted on Prop. 22 whom we can assume were LGB—451,682—all from the con side, leaves us with 2,457,688 straight allies in 2000. It’s nice enough to think that we’ve moved the needle in our favor by nearly 20 percentage points, from a 23-point loss on Prop. 22 to a 4-point heartbreaker on Prop. 8, in eight years, but it’s astounding to confront the sheer number that represents: In 2000, 2.5 million straight Californians stood up for our equality; in 2008, 5 million did.
And I have a message to those 52.2% of California voters who, when it came time to cast their vote, were too blinded by lies or homophobia or plain narrow-minded disgust to envision equality for their gay neighbor or coworker or cousin—because if you think you don’t know anyone gay at this point in your life, you’re just being willfully ignorant: You’ve stopped the marriages, for now. You’ve put us on notice that, the way you see it, our relationships aren’t like yours. But you’re on the wrong side of history, and one day not very long from now you’ll either lie about how you voted November 4, or you’ll scramble to justify your positions, digging yourself deeper and deeper into your unknowing, incurious, paranoid world as you trot out all the discredited arguments about the myriad ways you felt threatened by our simple plea to be treated with dignity and respect.
Or maybe you’ll just blame your vote on your preacher, because it’ll be easier to admit to blind allegiance than bald bigotry.
In the meantime, le domestique my wife and I are one of the 18,000 couples who got married between June 17 and November 4, and you may threaten my tenuous grip on first-class citizenship and seek to demean me in myriad ways. But the wind is at my back, and from what I’ve seen in these past couple of weeks, Prop. 8’s passage has done more to galvanize the forward momentum of gay rights than any event in my lifetime.
We’ll get same-sex marriage back in California, all right, but we might just get it back as a result of federal legislation overturning all 30 of these embarrassing, un-American, criminally offensive constitutional amendments.
The final lines of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America seem particularly apt here:
“The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
Sign hand-painted by the talented Treecup, who also officiated our wedding, because she’s full-service like that.