Monday, November 10, 2008

Repetitive Motions

Moose spent part of Sunday afternoon raking leaves. She thought fresh air and some light physical activity might help her work through the complex mix of thoughts and feelings she’s had the past few days as she pondered the election results. For an hour or so, she moved steadily around the yard, clearing off decks and porches, shaking the crisp leaves out of bushes and shrubs, sweeping off the walks. Moose is not a gardener, but she enjoys the occasional bout of yard work, deriving from it the dual satisfactions of playing outside and tidying up. And yet, of course, in early November the project of raking leaves is a Sisyphean task. Every time she paused in her work, Moose noticed that the huge pin oak in the front yard was creating more work for her to do. As new leaves dropped silently to the ground, she put the rake away and urged Goose to join her in a walk. She still hadn’t figured out how to make sense of the triumph of the nation electing its first African-American president on the same day that voters in four states approved measures prohibiting same-sex marriage (in Arizona, California, and Florida) and adoption by gay couples (in Arkansas).

Tuesday’s results are only ironic, Moose realizes, if one imagines that all of the voters who support one candidate or another define equality or justice in precisely the same way and vote in accordance with that definition all the way down their ballots. That sense of irony is in play in the commentary Jon Stewart offered on Thursday night’s Daily Show, in response to a report that 69% of African-American voters had voted for California’s ban on same-sex marriage, suggesting that the large turnout of such voters in support of Barack Obama was responsible for the passage of Prop 8. “Ah,” Stewart quipped, “it appears the oppressee has become the oppressor! What’d that take, about 24 hours? ‘Free at last, free at last – Whoa, whoa, where are you two going?’” Moose has a hunch that joke probably didn’t go over well in communities of color, and it might have helped fuel anger within the white gay community toward African-American voters. Such anger has been evident in protests that have occurred throughout California since the election and in flame wars that have erupted in blog comments when the issue has come up.

Part of the challenge in making sense of Tuesday is to let go of a stubborn American belief in “the march of progress” – i.e., the idea that the nation is moving forward in linear fashion toward the perfection of itself, the fulfillment of its ideals. Such a framework narrates the history of civil rights in the United States as a steady movement from formal equality, first for African Americans (secured legislatively and judicially through the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning laws against interracial marriage), then for women (Roe v. Wade, Title IX) and, inevitably, for LGBTs (who now seek the freedom to marry and protection from discrimination in employment and accommodations). Within such a framework, it is impossible to imagine that a right achieved, as same-sex marriage was in California, might be taken away. It is also impossible to see that, far from being linear or inevitable, the movement of progress is ragged and uneven, its outcome never assured in advance. Finally, in its crude reduction of human beings to groups defined by only one characteristic (race, gender, or sexual orientation), the march of progress narrative does a bad job of accounting for how all three of those (and other) vectors of difference play out within individual lives and of how they operate simultaneously within the social field. To suggest that equality for LGBT people follows inevitably from the equality achieved first by blacks and then by women is to miss the ways in which race and sex/gender have produced one another as categories and been entangled with one another in law, in history, and in cultural logic.

At this point in her raking and walking, Moose realized she was ruminating not just on Obama and Prop 8 but on the much larger question of how race, sex, and gender had played out through the whole course of the 2008 campaign, from the Clinton cleavage kerfuffle to the Palin wardrobe malfunction, with a brief fainting fit over the New Yorker cover of the Obamas in between. She also realized she was having an internal colloquy with a friend who has written extensively on how the categories of race and sexual identity were imagined in relation to one another in the US throughout the civil rights era. What she wanted was an intersectional analysis of the presidential race that would more adequately account for, among other things, how Obama’s privileges in relation to gender and sexual identity might have overcome the disadvantages of race. She wanted a way of looking at the whole madcap adventure that would make its apparently contradictory outcomes explicable. She wanted not a blog post but a scholarly disquisition on the tangled roots and insidious branches of the American race/sex/gender system. I told her to brush the leaves off her shirt and scale back her ambitions. This is a humble dog blog, I reminded her, not a peer-reviewed journal, thank dog.

Her expectations adjusted, Moose went back to the internets and tuned into the lacerating postmortems that were taking place online. She read widely in Pam’s House Blend, which for most of the weekend was a forum for Prop 8 reports and assessments. She watched Rachel Maddow’s interview with Princeton poli sci prof Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who chastised No on 8 organizers for failing to do “due diligence” in communities of color by not going into the churches and arguing for the parallels between interracial and same-sex marriage. Butch PhD, as Maddow is fondly known around here, responds with a bit of concern about setting up equivalences between different oppressed groups, but Harris-Lacewell sticks to her guns, insisting that the separate-but-equal argument will resonate in the black community. (Moose has heard field organizers for Maryland’s state LGBT civil rights organization arguing exactly the opposite view on this point. See also next paragraph.) Richard Kim in The Nation concurs with Harris-Lacewell’s criticism of Prop 8’s opponents for being out-organized and out-maneuvered by the well-funded supporters of the marriage ban. He spoke to queer of color activists who said that outreach to the African-American community began very late in the game and to other critics who complained about slow efforts to raise money and a weak advertising campaign that seemed diffident about emphasizing LGBT couples and the impact a defeat would have on them.

Some critics said the failure of Prop 8’s opponents was about more than tactics or money. Jasmyne A. Cannick, an LA-based black lesbian journalist/activist, offers a broader, withering critique of the crusade for marriage as reflecting the values and priorities of a white gay community uninterested in deeper conditions of inequality affecting communities of color and ignorant of the history the black civil rights movement, particularly the role of the church in promoting social justice. “To many blacks,” Cannick writes, “civil rights are grounded in Christianity – not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.” The Angry Black Woman, though more sympathetic to the cause of same-sex marriage than Cannick is, suggests that framing same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue comparable to interracial marriage misses the crucial point that interracial marriage was a priority for predominantly white organizations such as the ACLU, not of black civil rights organizations focused more on the right to vote, work, and have access to a decent education. She notes that for older African Americans the effort to establish a parallel between same-sex marriage and black civil rights struggles feels like an arrogant attempt to “ride on the coattails” of those earlier struggles. Moose really appreciated TABW’s lengthy post, which acknowledges homophobia within African-American communities, expresses compassion about the anger being experienced in LGBT communities over the outcome on Prop 8, and nicely dissects some of the exit poll data to show that it is unfair to try to blame African-American voters for that outcome.

Sometimes Moose wonders if it isn’t time to shift the ground of the battle to something other than marriage, even if California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now urging supporters not to give up. She has her own anger toward LGBT political organizations that seem adept at racking up celebrity endorsements yet spectacularly bad at mustering votes. She wasn’t the least bit interested in marriage until majorities of her fellow citizens started telling her she and Goose were some big yucky threat to the sanctity of it. Child molesters, rapists, and adulterers were welcome to the party, but a couple of cranky old dykes with a nice house and a cute dog – Wow, that is some scary stuff! Still, if 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?

For all we don’t know or can’t make up our minds about, there is one thing about the marriage mess we know for sure: It is useless for communities of sexual and racial minorities to waste time blaming one another for the outcome of these votes. The real enemies are the groups and individuals that have funded and organized ballot initiatives all over the country aimed at subjecting the rights of a small and in some ways stigmatized minority group to popular votes. In the case of Prop 8, People for the American Way’s Foundation President Kathryn Kolbert helpfully reminds us of who would be the appropriate targets for our righteous anger:
Conservative evangelical leaders who are unremittingly hostile to the rights of gay people and who put Prop. 8 on the ballot and bombarded pastors, churchgoers, and the public with lies about gay people wanting to destroy their religious liberty and come for their children — even suggesting that Christians would be thrown in jail if Prop 8 passed.

Mormon Church leaders who turned Prop. 8 into a national religious crusade against gay couples, badgered Mormons nationwide to give heavily to the campaign, and recruited thousands of footsoldiers for door-to-door canvassing (special kudos to the courageous Mormons who challenged the Church leadership)

Conservative Catholic leaders who betrayed Catholic teaching about human dignity by enthusiastically joining forces with campaign organizers who portrayed supporters of gay equality as evil and satanic

“Yes on Prop 8” leaders whose view of the campaign as a battle between good and evil led to an “ends justifies the means” campaign that included grossly distorted ads, mailings, and robocalls directed at African Americans and falsely portrayed Barack Obama as a Prop 8 supporter.
The good news is that efforts are taking shape to take the fight to the organizations and institutions that brought us Prop 8. Roxie’s World urges its legions of loyal fans to stay mad, get engaged – and fight the real enemies. Be safe, beloveds, be strong, and bear in mind that an army of extremely clever fashionably dressed people cannot be defeated. Peace out.

(Photo Credit: Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times; Times caption: Police try to break up a confrontation between pro- and anti-Proposition 8 sides in front of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that drew hundreds of people, 11/6/08.)


  1. Wow Roxie. Simply put, I think this is the single best post you have ever written. Thank you.

  2. to assimilate, or not to assimilate: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stings and arrows of outrageous bigotry, or to take arms against a sea of ignorance and by opposing end them? To fight: to educate; no more; and by fighting to say we may end the heart-ache and the thousand "natural" mis-truths that ignorance is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To fight, to educate; to assimilate: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub. . .

  3. oh damn, I meant to end it "to assimilate: Perchance to marry: ay, there's the rub. . ."

  4. QTA -- Thanks. It nearly killed us, but we got it out. Glad you liked it.

    Kenton -- Love your fun w/ Shakespeare, though the logic is a little troubling -- since by the terms of your parody to choose not to assimilate is to choose not to be. Right? Or perhaps your amended "Perchance to marry" implies that that way lies un-being.

    Sigh. It's all so complicated. I need another nap. To sleep --

  5. Thanks Roxie, this post is incredible btw, I've sent it out through my online channels as the "post on prop 8 I've been waiting for." It gives the movement a logical and reasoned direction in which to venture that has been sorely lacking in the hurt, confused, and angry haze of post prop 8 dialogue.

    That being said, the Shakesparody was in response to the part starting at, [B]"does it matter if we call it “marriage"?"[/B]

    You're reading of it is a fair one, the logic of the parody was ambiguous at best. To clarify, the parody was my attempt at saying YES it matters that we call it marriage. And as frustrating, and seemingly wasteful the struggle might seem it's an important one.

    I think that tying the argument of assimilation to the fight over naming it marriage or not might limit the queer movement more than liberate it. To decide to reject the institution of marriage implies the ability to accept it. And what America (to my dismay) is telling us now is that you do not have that ability.

    Because of the way the argument has been framed nationally, it makes me feel like we have to fight for your right to call it marriage and then you can decide whether to accept or reject it. Unless the conflict can be re-imagined in a completely different frame, to accept civil unions is to accept a government sanctioned "othering" of the queer community that I simply can not accept.

    Maybe the logic can be fixed with a second draft:

    To call it marriage, or not to call it marriage: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stings and arrows of outrageous bigotry, or to take arms against a sea of ignorance and by opposing end them? To fight: to educate; and by fighting to say we may end the heart-ache and the thousand "natural" mis-truths that ignorance is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To fight, to educate; to marry: perchance to assimilate*: ay, there's the rub. . .

    *Stress on “perchance” meaning “maybe”

  6. Anonymous9:33 AM EST

    It's unfortunate that the "blame the black folks" canard is making the rounds at all. I realize Jon Stewart's job is satire, not conveying the real news, but still.

    Nate Silver, who has pretty much the best statistical information on this election, says no to said canard. Silver's a baseball stat guy, which makes it rather nice that he showed up all those highly paid polling group experts.

  7. Anonymous10:40 AM EST

    It is time to decouple benefits and rights from marriage. See Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage by AU law professor Nancy Polikoff.

    Value all typeso of families equally under the law.

  8. Anonymous7:20 PM EST

    Thank you, Roxie, for this.


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