What a difference four years makes. In 2008, the thrill of the nation electing its first African-American president was accompanied for many of us by the bitter disappointment of seeing voters in four states, including California, approving measures that prohibited same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples. A few days after the election, I wrote that perhaps it was time for those who cared about LGBT rights to abandon the cause of marriage and to seek protections for same-sex relationship by other means or at least by other names. I was tired of watching my community waste its limited energies and precious resources on what felt, after dozens of defeats at the ballot box, like political insanity — doing the same losing thing over and over again and expecting different results. Here is what I proposed as an alternative:
[I]f the issue is gaining legal protections and economic benefits for queer households, does it matter if we call it “marriage”? If the straight majority is dumb enough to grant us all those things – and I do mean all, including the full panoply of federal benefits extended to married couples — as long as we call it anything other than “marriage,” then maybe we should take the deal and throw ourselves a victory party. I know, I know, separate is still unequal, but, but, but – Aren’t we tired of going through these motions over and over again and never really getting anywhere? Aren’t we sick to death of seeing the collective energies and resources of our small community sapped by the ridiculous effort to prove we deserve access to an institution that has been oppressing women and stymieing the relational imagination for centuries?
Yeah, I was tired. And more than a little frustrated. You have to admit, though, that plenty of folks seem willing to extend those benefits to the gayz as long as we call the institution, say, poop on toast rather than marriage, so, hey, why not? Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh, right?
So, anyhoo, fast forward to Tuesday, November 6, 2012. There are four marriage measures on ballots in four cobalt-blue states, including my home state of Turtle Country. Incredibly, they all win (though we are still waiting on full, final results from Washington State). Just like that, the tide of history is turned! Suddenly, the impossible has become the achievable — indeed, the achieved. Insanity has become like, hey, no big deal, are you guys registered at Pottery Barn?
How did we get here in just four years? Heck if I know. I’m an English prof, not a pundit or a data nerd. My hunch is that generational change and President Obama’s endorsement have done a lot to change the climate of opinion on marriage equality. The losers in Tuesday’s battles claim they were outspent three to one in the ballot campaigns, so perhaps spending money can help win elections, though that obviously wasn’t the case in a lot of the races on Tuesday. On the ground in Turtle Country, I think we can credit smart organizing and good messaging for increasing support, particularly in the African-American and Latino communities. Equality Maryland, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights organization (on whose board I happen to serve) worked in coalition with Latino groups to help pass a state Dream Act. About a quarter of registered voters in Maryland are African American, so a lot of pro-6 ads featured civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond and NAACP president Ben Jealous, as well as faith leaders such as the Rev. Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD. This time, supporters of marriage equality didn’t hesitate to frame the cause as a civil rights struggle, and the message seems to have helped drive up support in the African-American community. Question 6 lost by just 4000 votes in Prince George’s County, which is 64.5% black, and African-American support throughout the state was close to 50%.
A couple of weeks ago, I mused here on how deeply estranging and uncomfortable it felt to know that my friends, neighbors, coworkers, and countless unknown fellow citizens would be voting on what felt like a referendum on my humanity. I told you that I was feeling reluctant to talk to my neighbors about Question 6 because I wasn’t sure I could bear to know that they might vote against me. I never could bring myself to knock on their doors and initiate those conversations, but because the universe is small and endowed with a perverse sense of humor, I ended up spending much of election day handing out pro-Question 6 materials at my own polling place. Which meant, of course, that I saw all of the neighbors I had been avoiding talking to. Minutes before my shift at the poll was scheduled to end, a group of women drove up together in a large, spotlessly clean SUV that I instantly recognized. In the bright sunshine of a beautiful November day, in the parking lot of an elementary school, we smiled and greeted one another warmly, with that giddy kind of excitement those who participate tend to feel on election day. I asked if they would like a Question 6 flier, and they all accepted one. Then I hesitated for just a moment before deciding to make a little leap of faith. “Now,” I said, “we haven’t talked about this, but I’m hoping we can count on your support.” To a woman, they nodded affirmatively or said yes, I could. Mine was the last face they saw before they stepped inside the school to vote.
Look, I’m no fool. I know people lie in social situations in which the truth would be awkward. I’ve been smiled at a million times by those who believe they can love me while condemning the sin of my lifestyle. I know it’s possible my neighbors were merely being polite, but as I walked home on Tuesday afternoon I promised myself that if equality prevailed in the election I was going to believe that my experience at the poll was the universe’s way of telling me I should never have doubted the hardworking people who share my lifeworld.
And I do believe that. Because this week, things that felt impossible four years and even six months ago have suddenly become real. This week, it is no exaggeration to claim, as the coalition who helped to pass Question 6 declared, that We made history. We did, and it feels good. The weirdness referred to in my post title is the weirdness of winning after so many losses. After 32 defeats, you begin to feel like Charlie Brown’s baseball team or, you know, the Washington Mystics. You can’t imagine winning and you try not to as a way to protect yourself from the disappointment of yet another defeat. When victory comes — or four victories in one astonishing night! — you hardly know how to react. You laugh, you cry, you hold tightly to those who are close to you, you shake your head in a mixture of joy and disbelief. Two days later, it still feels slightly unreal. Two days later, I think a message I put up on my Facebook wall after a few hours of not very restful post-election sleep best captures my feelings about this delightfully strange moment:
Friends, my heart is so full and my body so weary that I can’t speak yet about what last night meant, here in Maryland and all across the country, for the nation I love and the values I hold dear. For now, all I can say is thank you, to everyone who worked so hard and so faithfully to bring about so many large and small victories for fairness, equality, and inclusion. We are not a perfect nation this morning, but we are better than we were yesterday. And if we keep working the way we have these past few months, then by golly we’ll keep getting better, bit by bit, together.
Yes, we can — because we have. Thank you for your hard, good work.
The nation I love and the values I hold dear? Yeah, sometimes a girl just wants to wave a flag. Deal with it, darlings. And don’t ask me when the wedding is. This queer against marriage but for marriage equality ain’t budging on that point. Yet.