Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Feeling Not So Gay?

The great, big U.S. election is over and my blog has been silent for a week. Like many people across the political spectrum, I felt an exhausted relief after a winner was announced.

I'll begin with the caveat that some have said that the election was not really determined by gay rights and the backlash against them. "Moral values" was the top criterion for an estimated twenty-one million Bush voters, leaving about thirty-eight million others. Bush won Ohio by around three points in 2000, and did so again; the heterosexual marriage initiative in that state had the support of one third of Democrats as well as most Republicans. This was more or less true in most places. An earlier California referendum banning gay marriage passed with sixty-one percent, as is typical of "blue states." In "red states," such laws pass with seventy percent. Vive la difference?

The Democrats should not abandon gay rights, but no one should be suprised that there was a backlash. The fact that courts and local governments were the only effective bodies that could support gay marriage underscores that overwhelming numbers of voters opposed it. State and federal executives and legislatures have no popular backing in favor of extending marriage rights, and we all knew that going in to this election.

According to gay Massachussetts' US Rep. Barney Frank, it was not so much a question of "closeting" these reforms as it was a question of timing and strategy, i.e., would it have killed my mayor Gavin Newsom to wait until 2005? Or for civil unionism to have been used piecemeal toward marriage? (Notice how Bush said states should determine civil union laws right before the election? Even if he was being insincere, that's a startling cosmetic concession.)

Considering how much the SF Greens and more immoderate Dems hate the guy, Newsom pushed for same sex marriage licenses in order to guard his own Left flank as much as anything else. True, as a West Coast liberal it was only natural for him to oppose Bush's plans to ban the same, and as a politician to for him to take a stand against the President's goal. Could Newsom have just sued California first, rather than using the city and county against the state and then litigating as a second choice? (I'll leave aside the slippery slope of usurping authority: what if some right-wing township copies Newsom and puts creationism in the public school curriculum? Is ideological mutiny a good trend in government?) Although Newsom took a brave stand for civil rights--on the correct side of history, and all that--he may have helped to mobilize the measure's currently more numerous opponents. A brilliant tactic to undercut Newsom's local rivals might have been a great disservice to the party nationally, perhaps even to the cause as well.

On a happier note, the opposition to gay rights is predominant among the elderly and attracts only a minority among the young. It is "only" a matter of time, but that means also that it is truly a matter of time. It is one thing to support gay rights because they are correct; it is quite another to assume that doing so will suddenly win over large numbers of people who view gays with antipathy. If anything, that's just stupidity about strategy.

The Democrats supported desegregation and civil rights in the 1948 presidential platform but they and the non-partisan movement could not pass a bloody law until 1964. Times changed, and the blessed court intervened along the way in 1954.

The future of gay rights will go the same way: state by state, court by court, before reaching a critical (i.e., federal) mass. As a moderate Republican who supports gay marriage, I expect to see inroads through the courts in the more liberal states. I expect the whole process will take a decade or two. Furthermore, fence-sitters will be more comfortable in the short term with granting gay couples marriage rights under a different name. This is a shame, but also an opportunity to push for civil unions far and wide as a major step. Pretending that it will happen much more quickly because we the young are so enlightened is vanity: not only self-deceptive, but electorally self-destructive.

Which leads to my general observation on recent elections: if one is progressive enough to have even flirted with liking Nader (without voting for him), OR to have assumed that America would applaud San Franciscan daring from coast to coast with no obstacles, then one is in no position to judge "what is needed to win" in national politics.