The news flashed on the grainy Jumbotron screen in the Oakland Convention Center ballroom: Barack Obama elected president of the United States. A howl erupted, and then we were in each other’s arms, hundreds of Obama volunteers, young and middle-aged and old, black and white and Latino and Asian.
“I can’t believe it,” I choked out, weeping into the neck of the man I was hugging, the man I’d been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with on the ballroom floor, watching and cheering as the electoral votes mounted on the screen.
The man put his hands on my shoulders, his tear-filled eyes gazing into mine. I felt him sizing me up, and then I felt him decide to trust me, black man deciding to trust white woman, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? This triumph? All of us deciding to trust each other, starting now, on this new American day.
“You know what black folks are saying?” he confided, shouting to be heard as the crowd around us roared, “Yes! We! Can! Yes! We! Can!”
I leaned in close, keeping my eyes locked on his, not wanting to miss a word.
“Rosa sat, so Martin could walk,” the man said. “Martin walked, so Barack could run. Barack ran, so our children could fly.”
I dissolved again, and he hugged me again, and I reached out and pulled my wife, Katrine, into our embrace. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to this country,” I sobbed.
“That’s right!” the man cried.
“This country really is changing.” Beaming at Katrine, then back at the man, I added proudly, “Just yesterday, we got married.”
I felt it in his arms. And then I saw it on his face. The snap of our bond breaking. The no.
“Uh-huh,” he mumbled. And then he slipped out of our three-way hug and disappeared into the crowd.
Around us, the ecstatic volunteers updated the chant. “Yes! We! Did! Yes! We! Did!”
When we got home from the celebration, we got the news about Proposition 8.
There was dancing in the streets — Castro Street, at least — six months ago, when the California Supreme Court overturned the ban on gay marriage. Citing a 60-year-old precedent that reversed a ban on interracial marriage, on May 15, 2008, the court ruled, “An individual’s sexual orientation – like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”
For those of us who had been waiting a lifetime to see those dots connected (discrimination is discrimination — duh!) we barely took notice when, approximately 10 seconds after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the state’s Catholic bishops and other usual suspects started organizing a ballot measure to overturn it.
“They won’t stop us this time,” we gloated, dusting off the wedding gowns and tuxes we’d hung up when our 2004 San Francisco marriages were halted or annulled. After all, it was 2008, and the world was changing fast. A woman and a black man — with the middle name of Hussein, no less — were competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. Homophobia was going the way of the disco ball: The Supreme Court ruling had proved it. The California Supreme Court had made gay marriage constitutional.
Katrine and I revived our “discussion” of the pros and cons of taking advantage of our new legal right. As I did in 2004, the first time I wrote about gay marriage for Salon, I felt like a commitment-phobic Bad Boyfriend.
“I don’t believe in legal marriage,” I told the woman I’d loved, lived with and extralegally married three times in our 12 blissful years together. “If we were straight,” I added, “we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. We’d just live together happily ever after like the, um, rogue mavericks we are.”
“But we’re not straight,” Katrine said. “And they’re finally letting us get married, and I want to marry you.” Caving, I did a quick calculation in my head. “Let’s get married on our anniversary,” I suggested.
“Which one?” Katrine asked. Every month we celebrate the 18th (the day we met); and the 21st (the day we fell in love). On Feb. 2 each year, we also celebrate the anniversary of the public “wedding” our loved ones threw for us in 2003.
“Our February anniversary,” I said. “That’ll give us nine months to break it to everyone that they have to buy us wedding presents again.”
As the election neared, Katrine and I, like many of our once-cynical friends and family members, threw everything we had into electing Obama: phone banking in Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Oakland; gathering food and wine and campaign speakers and wealthy friends for high-priced fundraisers, easing our political expectations out of reverse and into hope’s high gear.
On Oct. 2, we sat on our couch watching the vice-presidential debate with our friend Steve and a bottle of wine apiece. Biden was mercifully tethered to planet Earth; Palin was being Palin. What more could any Obama Mama hope for? Until … until.
GWEN IFILL [to Joe Biden]: Do you support gay marriage?
JOE BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that.
GWEN IFILL [to Sarah Palin]: Is that what you said?
SARAH PALIN: My answer is the same as his, and it is that I do not.
GWEN IFILL: Wonderful. You agree. On that note, let’s move to foreign policy.
The next morning, in response to my daily dose of Obama fundraising appeals, I didn’t send money. I sent a letter instead. “Hearing Joe Biden say with such certainty that he and Barack don’t support gay marriage was a knife in my heart,” it began. “Would Joe Biden have looked into the camera and said that he and Barack don’t support interracial marriage?”
It would be two weeks before I received a response from the campaign. (“Senator Obama supports full civil unions, expanding hate crimes statutes, fighting discrimination at work and in housing and other places of public accommodation, and wants to increase adoption rights. He opposes any Constitutional ban on gay marriage. Thank you again for writing.”)
In the interim, at a fundraiser, I met a staffer for the Obama campaign. A small crowd of donors, most of them heterosexual couples, gathered around as I told him about the letter I’d written, the sense of betrayal I felt.
“Barack opposes Prop. 8,” he told me.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “And if I didn’t, who did?”
“Biden said they oppose gay marriage,” the host of the fundraiser interjected.
“Barack supports civil unions,” the staffer replied.
“Not good enough, ” I said. “I really want to believe this guy is different, but this sounds like typical politician doublespeak.”
“I give you my word,” he looked into my eyes and said. “President Barack Obama will be a friend to gay people.”
I remembered hearing those same words from David Mixner, Bill Clinton’s gay campaign advisor, at a D.C. gay rights demonstration in 1991. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid again, a voice in my head warned me. And then the staffer talked some more and the lust in my heart for hope took over, and I fell in love with Obama again.
A few weeks later, the campaign opened its Northern California headquarters — two blocks from our house. At the jubilant opening ceremony I was surprised to see a few of my old lesbian activist friends signing up for shifts on the phones. “There was a time you wouldn’t be in a room with a man, let alone campaign for one,” I teased one of them.
“This is different,” she said.
“I hope so,” I said.
Suddenly Proposition 8 supporters were everywhere. I swear it happened overnight. One day it was all about Obama, and the next day, it was all about the November ballot initiative that would overturn the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
They appeared at freeway offramps, on street corners, on overpasses, most of them teenagers, most of them kids of color, many of them wearing oversize crosses on thick chains, all of them pumping their yellow and blue signs gaily, as if they were drumming up business for a high school car wash.
I had my first personal encounter with them as I was pulling up to a stop sign at a busy Oakland intersection. My jaw fell open at the sight: Five or six boys and girls on each of the four corners were holding posters featuring stick figures of one man, one woman, two children, and they were shouting, “Vote yes on eight!” I leaned my head out the window, made eye contact with a young Filipino girl and beckoned her over.
She danced up to my car. “Would you like some information?” she asked, waving a flier.
“I’m happily married,” I said. Her eyes darted across the street to her friends. Whoever planted these kids on this corner, I thought, forgot to give them a script for actual conversation. “To a woman,” I added.
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “May God forgive you,” she said. The driver behind me honked, waving at me to let him pass. “See?” the girl snapped. “He’s honking to show he’s on our side. He knows what you’re doing is a sin.”
As I drove through the intersection, I watched as one lone man injected himself into the crowd of teenagers, waving his lone “No on Prop 8″ sign. I honked to show him that I was on his side, that I didn’t think he was a sinner. He smiled at me, lifting his sign, looking determined and forlorn.
Suddenly Proposition 8 wasn’t an insignificant, sour-grapes ballot measure destined to fail. It was a bellwether campaign in a bellwether state — and the wrong side was winning. An onslaught of commercials portrayed horrified parents whose children had been or might be “taught about gay marriage” in elementary school and wide-eyed children begging, “Vote yes for me.”
The barrage seemed to go on, unabated, for weeks. Finally the pro-gay-marriage forces mounted a response. In California and across the country, activists and celebrities, already stretched thin by their contributions to the Obama campaign, diverted their attention, time and money to No on 8. A host of high-profile personalities — the California school superintendent, Ellen DeGeneres, Dianne Feinstein, the president of the California Teachers Association — appeared in an endless loop of rebuttal commercials. By Nov. 4, the Proposition 8 campaign would break the national record for money spent on a ballot initiative, with “No on 8″ spending $37.6 million and “Yes” spending $35.8 million.
A week before Election Day, Katrine and I started getting invitations to the “shotgun weddings” of our gay friends. And then, the day before Election Day — wearing our “No on 8″ T-shirts, accompanied by my happily tearful mother and our beaming friends Steve and Victor, surrounded by dozens of other gay couples, male and female, pushing strollers and dressed in drag — Katrine and I stood before a deputy marriage commissioner in the Alameda County Recorder’s Office chapel and said, “I do.”
We came home to find a few mixed-message surprises on our porch. A festively wrapped bottle of champagne from our dear friend Jane. Two bottles of Grey Goose from my dad and stepmother. Two pairs of wool socks from my mother (“To keep you from getting cold feet”). And a bunch of fliers from the Proposition 8 campaign.
“I’m not that comfortable with gay marriage,” a gray-haired white woman proclaimed on the first flier. “But I’ve asked myself the tough questions about Prop 8 — and the answers are NO.”
“You know me,” an adorable girl-next-door announced on the second. “I am the neighbor who waters your lawn when you go out of town. I am your second cousin. I am gay. People you know are asking you to VOTE NO ON PROP. 8.”
When I saw the picture of Barack Obama on the third flier, his image elicited my usual Pavlovian response. How great, I thought. He’s finally going public with his stated, but not publicized, opposition to Proposition 8.
“I’m not in favor of gay marriage — Barack Obama, MSNBC, 4-2-08,” the headline read. I rubbed my eyes, read it again, turned it over. Four African-American pastors smiled out at me, urging me and the others in my predominantly African-American neighborhood to “uphold the sacred institution of marriage by voting YES on Prop. 8.”
Katrine and I put the gifts and the fliers on the kitchen table and enjoyed a delicious, sacred marital kiss. Then we took off our “No on 8″ T-shirts, and she put on her work clothes and went to see a client. And I put on my “Yes We Can” T-shirt and went to Obama headquarters to make some calls to undecided voters in Pennsylvania.
At the table just inside the front door I found a stack of door hangers that hadn’t been there yesterday. “Should we eliminate the fundamental right to marry for our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers?” it asked, and answered, “Barack Obama says no.”
But not so loud that anyone can hear him, I thought.
For months I’d wondered how I’d feel on Nov. 5, 2008, but still I was surprised. The pinch-me wonder of watching those words, “President-elect Obama,” appear on that Jumbotron; the “Yes-we-can-all-get-along” glow that lighted the spontaneous celebrations in the downtown Oakland streets; the high-fives we’d exchanged with people whose eyes we might have avoided the day before, who might have avoided ours — all of it paled in comparison to the passage, by a margin of about 52 percent to 48 percent, of Proposition 8.
As the day and the pundits wore on, much was made of reports that 70 percent of African-Americans had voted to end gay marriage. The faces of the Obama volunteers I’d phone-banked with and hoped with and celebrated with flashed before my eyes. Which of them had voted to protect my civil rights? Which of them had voted to protect “the sacred institution of marriage” instead?
“Am I crazy to feel so bad about Prop. 8 when something so great just happened?” I asked my dear friend “Joseph.” Like Obama, Joseph is in his 40s, was raised by a single white mother, had an absent black father and has worked all his adult life as a community organizer in the poorest of black neighborhoods. Unlike Obama, Joseph is a Christian minister. Also, Joseph is gay — and concerned enough about the consequences of that fact to be quoted here pseudonymously.
“I feel exactly the same way,” Joseph answered. “Sixty-seven percent of my state voted for a man who looks like me. Fifty-two percent of my state decided to deny me the right to live the life that’s natural to me. It’s really strange to believe that so many people could support me on the one hand and deny me on the other.”
“Including a whole lot of black people, apparently,” I said glumly.
“And 53 percent of Latinos, and 49 percent of Asians, and almost 50 percent of whites, if you believe the pollsters,” Joseph said. “But yes,” he added, slipping into his preacher mode. “The church, and the African-American community in general, has a very dark stain on it in terms of homophobia. It has to do with the emasculation of African-American men in this society.
“From the beginning of this country’s history, black men have been the target of white male fear. We’ve been hyper-sexualized to mythological proportions, stripped of our place as leaders of our families — starting with slavery, when our families were sold away from each other, right through Jim Crow and the welfare system.
“Black folks are afraid that homosexuality will further degrade the family, and the man’s status as the progenitor,” Joseph said with a sigh. “Everything that slavery took away from black men, they’re afraid that homosexuality will take away as well.”
“How strange,” I said. “The reason Obama grabbed me so hard was his push for compassion and understanding as a path to unity. But I’ve been so busy feeling rejected by black voters, I haven’t even thought about where they were coming from.”
“Obama’s election means there’s an opportunity, at least, for change,” Joseph said. “If folks can vote for someone who looks like me and comes from the same background that I do, even if they voted for Prop. 8, it opens the possibility that someday they’ll accept all of me.” There was a smile in his voice. “And all of you,” he added.
I recalled aloud the Sunday morning a few years ago when Joseph brought Katrine and me to his church and introduced us to the congregation as each other’s partners. “Everyone was so nice to us,” I said. “I wondered how they really felt.”
“I’m seeing change in the church,” he replied. “More and more ministries are starting to validate who gay people are: the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Churches, the Unitarians. The UCC congregation in San Francisco is led by Bishop Yvette Flunder, an African-American lesbian!”
“But how is the rest of the world ever going to change?” I asked.
“Slowly,” Joseph said. “Very, very slowly.”