Monday, November 10, 2008

Tyranny of a Straight Majority?

by CODY LYON-Opinion

On the day after the historic election of Barack Obama as President of the United States and once the tears of joy had stopped flowing from eyes across the nation, a dose of sadness and disillusionment settled upon many members of the country's LGBT community.

Proposition 8 had passed in California. The amendment essentially overturns an earlier California State Supreme court decision that had extended the rights provided by legal marriage to same sex couples.

Leading up to the election, the hopes for an Obama victory were enhanced by the belief that another high profile pothole might be filled on the highway to true equality for gay and lesbian people. Publicly, blame for Prop 8 passage is being directed at a number of entities like the Mormon Church, well organized and moneyed efforts by conservative and right wing organizations from outside California while some have engaged in unfortunate knee-jerk tactics , laying blame on the heavy African American turnout and the tremendous influence of the Black church has in that community.

Before the vote, disturbing whispers of infighting among LGBT organizations who were attempting to lay blame for worrisome poll numbers on various interests, organizations and individuals for not staying focused, careful and on point so as to sway public opinion.

But, after some pause and reflection, one could in fact argue, that despite some truths in the above, most of these charges are simplistic, maybe even lazy but motivated by understandable, justifiable and reactionary anger at what the voters themselves wrought.

The massive No on 8 public relations campaign that sought to impact the California majority's attitudes about same sex marriage was somewhat hasty, perhaps idealistic and maybe even too hopeful. That despite the newfound sense of activism bubbling throughout the LGBT nation, the gay community was set up for disappointment especially since the battleground was California, a state most see assumed to be more socially liberal, a place many assumed to be more tolerant and accepting.

In the end, despite the joy of Obama's landslide, millions of gay people found themselves feeling let down, left behind, it was as this vote was a referendum on all gay people, as if the inclusive mosaic the election seemed to paint along with the supposed more compassionate and progressive tidal wave the election signaled, did not fully include them.

Truth be told, deep inside the souls of countless gay people, little voices were whispering, you, gay person, are still a second class citizen. And, the voices doing the talking were the people, at least the majority so far, who have shown in state after state, they are unwilling to accept the idea of same sex marriage.

The fact is, what happened in California was a reality check. California, the west coast trend setting home of Hollywood and the gay promised land of San Francisco, proved that despite how far the gay rights movement has come and attitudes changed, the majority is, at least now, not willing to extend the legal rights conveyed by marriage to same sex couples. No matter how one spins it, no matter who one seeks to lay blame on, the facts are what they are.

True, the Right played dirty, and no doubt the hyperbole they spewed played a role in the outcome. Funded by millions of dollars from across the right wing stratosphere, all manner of insidious ads, pulpit pleas and viral campaign tactics attempted to spook, prejudice and misinform voters into doubt on Tuesday. There was even the always reliable Anita Bryantesque use of the children, as rumors and lies were spread that, if Prop was not passed, the state's schools would be teaching students about the joys of gay coupling.

But, does all of his beg a greater question about who and how equality is dispensed in America?

Most supporters and experts have said that the road to full marriage equality will be a years long process that travels a highway of state by state activism and struggle. The consensus being, that the courts will pass it off to an eventual federal solution, most likely the Supreme court, provided there is an evolution of public opinion in the ballot box.

But, as indicated by the sobering California vote on Proposition 8, the majority is not always willing to take the necessary steps towards full equality.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, imagine if it had been left up to the majority white population to dispense equality to African Americans in America.

While it would be wrong to equate efforts to secure full marriage equality and the tremendous years long struggle for individual equality, dignity and the ladders of opportunity that were built as a result of the 1960's civil rights movement, there are are clues from history that might be worth studying.

First, it took heroic efforts, foot soldiering and the activism of black leaders who along with thousands of individuals, bravely stood up through countless marches, beatings, demonstrations and tragedy which along the way forced America to look in the mirror and confront the cancer of racism and all it had wrought. Every square inch of the Southern United States region, was essentially segregated.

History shows, the majority of whites, stirred on by segregationist leaders coupled with a fundamental sense of denial that was cushioned by the false comforts of separate but equal, were unwilling to take it upon themselves and tear down the barriers the segregated South presented. It was not until the courts and judges took on cases and allowed morality to rule over what had become the tyranny of the majority in the South.

In 1956, at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, there was no state wide vote, after then US District Court Judge for the Middle District of Alabama, Frank Johnson, ruled in the Browder v Gale case that Brown v Board decision applied to public transportation as well as public schools, effectively integrating the state capital's bus system.

Subsequent decisions by Judge Johnson led to the integration of Alabama's public accommodations, libraries and agricultural services.

But, it was a later decision that brought out the true rage of many white Alabamians at the time,

After the 1954 Brown v Board Supreme Court decision ruling that separate but equal public schools were un-constutional, throughout the South, individual school districts continued to take their time on full integration. In 1963, most districts in Alabama were still balking at the ruling. But, when faced with the Lee vs Macon County Board of Education case, Judge Johnson issued Alabama's first statewide desegregation order. Johnson bravely endured death threats and other insults as he went against the majority of his home state.

Had it not been for the sense of urgency and the thirst for equality and justice by activists and leaders of the movement coupled with the actions of courts and judges of that time, America may have taken a slower path to the moment we witnessed in this years election.

Interestingly, the very idea that Judge Johnson's decisions would have ever been put before voters is nothing short of laughable.

There are plenty of Southerners, who today, will seek to explain, why, in all the years preceding the Civil Rights movement, they simply believed this was the way we lived, we knew nothing else and sometimes, they will say in no uncertain terms, we were in a state of denial about how difficult it was for a black person to exist with any sense of dignity in the deep south much less to get ahead in a white world.

But, they will also share, that they were taken aback, when they had to be forced to accept that that this way of life, was no longer acceptable, that everything segregation in America stood for, was in fact, the antithesis of what this nation supposedly stood for, that it was in fact unconstitutional. Black people in the south were living in a society where the tyranny of the majority stood firm. If it had not been for the efforts of the movement's soldiers, but also what today might be called by certain politicians, activist judges and courts, the majority may have maintained that un-just status quo even longer.

It appears that most Americans support the injustice of denying same sex couples the almost 700 federal rights and privileges that marriage conveys. But, it also appears that vast portions of the lesbian and gay community have been slow to recognize what passage of amendments like Proposition 8 say about the nation we call home. Perhaps California was a wake up call. Perhaps too, the California decision offered evidence that this section of the fight for full equality may not be won in the public's courtroom of opinion. Instead, the Prop 8 decision might be a call for more intense activism that seeks to challenge the status quo through the courts with the goal being an eventual Supreme Court ruling.

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