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Elation over Barack Obama’s victory two weeks ago was dampened by less good news for left-leaning voters, as same-sex marriage bans passed in Arizona, California, and Florida. For many gay activists, the new bans in Arizona and California were particularly disheartening, given that Arizona voted down a similar ban two years ago and that California has been allowing same-sex marriage since this summer. Over 40 states have now passed bans on gay marriage, leaving Connecticut and Massachusetts as the sole states allowing the practice.
Proponents of gay marriage have been quick to respond to this setback. In recent days, an estimated one million people in around 300 cities have taken part in protests against same-sex marriage bans. Many of these protests have stressed first and foremost that opposition to same-sex marriage (incidentally, the position publicly held by the much-beloved Obama) stems from hate rather than from political sensibility. “5,419,478 Bigots Stole Our Civil Rights,” read one sign at a rally in Chicago. “No More Mister ‘Nice Gay’,” read another. This strategy—declaring that opponents of gay marriage are bigots and threatening retribution—is exactly the sort of tactic supporters of gay marriage should not be using.
Since most American voters oppose gay marriage, the question of how to proceed on the gay rights front now hinges on whether or not same-sex marriage bans constitute an act of tyranny of the majority—in other words, whether or not gay rights are minority rights. Many activists have described the gay rights debate as the most important civil rights issue of our time. This is not an apt description, as gay Americans are not being denied rights. This was not the case in previous civil rights movements. African-Americans living in the sixties were granted fewer rights than their white counterparts. Women living in earlier decades were granted fewer rights than their male counterparts.
Gay Americans are not being granted fewer rights than their straight counterparts—technically, a gay man does have the right to enter into a marriage with a woman. The push for same-sex marriage is a rally for additional rights. While this characterization of the movement strikes most gay rights activists as harsh, it is a useful distinction to be made when devising ways to advance the cause effectively. Yet gay rights advocates have not taken the appropriate cues from their defeats earlier this month, as reflected in their continued ignorance of their opponents’ thoughts and motives. They seem unable to face that democracy has spoken, and it has said “no” on same-sex marriage.
One major problem with the gay rights movement is that it simultaneously champions democratic government and rejects it. The movement views marriage as a civic institution rather than a religious one (this is one distinction between marriages and civil unions), but only so long as government functions from a pro-gay marriage position. Once the cogs of government have turned to an anti-gay marriage slant, gay rights activists cease to be tolerant of the democratic process. Cue the banners decrying opponents as hateful and intolerant. Is this unfortunate divide what activists seek? Certainly that sort of culture of separatist intolerance is what arises when advocates take this approach.
Another problem for the movement is that the unchecked judicial activism that had recently propelled the cause forward is part of what is pushing it back. A major reason that Proposition 8 passed in California this election-cycle is that voters were responding to a decision that had been made quite suddenly by a handful of activist judges on the California Supreme Court. California has always been at the frontier of gay rights, and the state may have been well on its way toward ratifying same-sex marriage statewide. But the lack of patience on the part of gay marriage proponents sent the message to California voters that popular opinion was unimportant. It is little wonder voters sought a constitutional ban in the state, as it was seemingly the only means to make their voice heard.
The reaction among gay rights advocates to their recent electoral setback is damaging in that it serves to confirm their opponents’ fears that the movement is positively anti-democratic. In addition to being in poor taste, the aggressive reaction to Prop 8 will ultimately prove self-destructive. As recent history has shown us, popular opinion on the gay marriage front is fluctuating, and it will likely be a central issue in the next election as gay rights supporters seek to overturn marriage bans.
Activists will need to lure some opponents into their corner in order to advance their cause. In light of this, the gay rights movement should focus on building acceptance, rather than falling back on divisive politics. They should seek to demonstrate that they are reasonable, that their cause is reasonable, and that they hope to achieve it through popular democratic processes.
Lucy M. Caldwell ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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