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Gay Marriage: An Electoral Liability

California's vote against same-sex marriage was one negative consequence of Obama's victory

Aaron Hicklin

Amid the euphoria around Obama's tremendous victory, gay men and women across America will find it difficult to contain their disappointment, anger, and a painful sense of betrayal. The success of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that amends California's state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, shows that despite all the gains we still rank low when it comes to the struggle for equality.

Six months after the California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, unleashing a wave of gay weddings, it's like waking up to find that we're still the misunderstood problem child that other kids shun in the playground. There will be a lot of soul-searching in the weeks to come, but the fact is that gay Americans remain an electoral liability for Democrats whose support remains largely tepid, often crystallising only after they've left office.

That's why it was safe for Bill Clinton to lend his support to the "no" campaign in the last few weeks, despite his advice to John Kerry in 2004 to back local bans on gay marriage, and the Defense Of Marriage Act that he signed into law in 1996. And it explains why Obama played such an awkward dance of being for equality, but against gay marriage. On MTV last weekend he said he Proposition 8 was "unnecessary" (gee, thanks!) while reiterating his opposition to marriage equality, a stance that played into the hands of Proposition 8 campaigners, who used his words in their TV ads and campaign literature. We kvetched about that, but who can blame them? That's politics.

For months, pro-gay marriage campaigners fretted that a big turnout for Obama would tip the scales in favour of Proposition 8 because it would bring out record numbers of African-Americans, who tend to hold more conservative social views. A CNN poll seems to suggest that's exactly what happened, with African-Americans voting 69 to 31 in favour. It goes without saying that we wouldn't be seeing the election of a black American today had the civil rights battles of the 1960s been decided by public referenda - a message we would do well to play up more.

And like those civil rights activists in the 1960s, we need to be both angry and organised. We could do worse than take a page out of the playbook of Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician murdered 30 years ago; he recognised the power of the ballot box as well as the crowd. An elected official, he was nevertheless prepared to let his supporters riot in 1978 had Proposition Six - which would have made firing gay teachers and their supporters mandatory - passed. We're more comfortable, more secure, than we were in 1978, but less than we believed yesterday.


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But for all that we consider ourselves more politically savvy these days, the campaign against Proposition 8 sometimes lacked the passion and emotion that galvanised the opposition. In their painful diplomacy, the "No on 8" TV ads were often a snooze, the few examples of real gay people creating an impression that we were ashamed of ourselves.

Late tactical changes were welcome, but too late. And yet to blame ourselves when the real culprit is intolerance, ignorance, and old-fashion bigotry, would be misguided. And what the ballot box has taken away, it will surely one day give back again. So far all the ballot initiatives (and there have been many) have come from those opposed to same-sex marriage, putting gay Americans on the defensive. Is it too much to ask that we take the lead next time in creating a ballot proposal that is for marriage equality, thereby draw up the terms?

Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic Magazine columnist and blogger, and a long-time advocate of gay marriage, said it best at the end of a long, moving, and bittersweet night: "We must never let popular votes affect our own internal sense of our worth, our equality, our dignity as human beings. Our marriages are real; all that is at issue is whether a majority will recognise them in law. The next generation already does. We shall overcome."

It's an old refrain, but as fresh and relevant as ever.

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Aaron Hicklin joined Out magazine as editor in chief in 2006. He is based in New York

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