On November 5th, the heady buzz of election night had faded to a throbbing headache. My beloved home state, California, had at once voted to demand more legroom for chickens and pigs on factory farms (Prop 2) and to deny the state's many gays the right to marry (Prop 8). In the past five days, thousands of people from Palm Springs to Long Beach to Los Angeles to San Francisco have hit the streets to protest the constitutional revision; several were arrested, and at least one was beaten prior to arrest. There are already three lawsuits headed to the California courts to challenge Prop 8, and both supporters and opponents of gay marriage have vowed that the fight is far from over.
Prop 8 adds the following language to California's constitution: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." News of its passing left many shaking their heads, wondering how a state like California could give its votes to Changey McHoperson and at the same time approve a socially regressive constitutional revision. But in spite of its hippie radical reputation, California's voting trends generally look a lot like the rest of the nation's: a wide red middle, book-ended by blue. And though change has been the watchword of recent months, we sometimes forget that with change comes an inevitable backlash from those who fear becoming displaced in society.
Still, Prop 8 is on the losing side of history. The sex-panic button regularly gets hit in response to social change, racial tension, economic instability and foreign wars. The majority gets majorly freaked out when other people win the rights that they already enjoy, as though rights are finite and should be stockpiled like so many cans of beans in case of nuclear fallout. These regressions are frustrating and hurtful, but a study of history can put them in perspective.
Until 1977 the California Civil Code didn't have a specific gender requirement for marriage. The clause about marriage was actually gender-neutral from its ratification in 1850, defining marriage only as "a personal relation arising out of a civil context, to which the consent of the parties capable of making that contract is necessary."
Of course, the switch from gender-neutral to gender-specific didn't happen because Californians suddenly and randomly got their panties in a damp tangle. In 1977 the nation had just disengaged from the deeply unpopular war in Vietnam. Stagflation and the oil crisis were taking turns punching the American economy in the kidneys. Just four years earlier, Roe v. Wade had overturned all state and federal laws restricting abortion. And eight years earlier, the Stonewall Riots in New York City sparked a three-day uprising, arguably turning gay rights into a full-on movement. In this upheaval America's pre-war gender expectations needed a manly, normative pat on the back. Enter the first repeals of gay-rights ordinances (in Dade County, FL; thanks Anita Bryant!) and the spankin' new nouns in the California Civil Code.
For a parallel, look to the 1950s. The same decade that saw the Red Scare and snuck the phrase "under God" into our Pledge of Allegiance also saw the first major legal gains for the African-American civil-rights movement. Desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education itself ignited a sex panic; segregationist leaders rallied their supporters to "protect our women" or prevent the literal (and figurative) "mixing of the races." To them, a move towards social justice was a move towards a sexual apocalypse.
Panic usually accompanies change. Regressive leaders sometimes deliberately manipulate this panic to conservative ends. Just ask Karl Rove, who in 2004 whipped up anti-gay hysteria to keep his unpopular client in the White House. (He must have studied his Orwell; in 1984, Winston Smith observes "a direct intimate connexion between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?")
But more often, regressive sex panic is ingenuous, an honest voicing of base-level sexual insecurity. When anti-equality activists argue that gay marriage somehow hurts straight couples — damaging their marriages, their children, the moral fibers on the couch cushion of our great society — they're not really talking about gays getting married. They're talking about their own vulnerability.
Their arguments are ultimately reactionary, and cannot win in the long term. In fact, Proposition 8 uses the exact same language as 2000's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 22 — language found this year, by the Republican-dominated California Supreme Court, to be unconstitutional and invalid. In May, the Court ruled in no uncertain terms that bans on same-sex marriage violate the state's constitution and that civil unions don't qualify as equal protection under the law. Justice Ronald George, writing for the majority, concluded that "in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples." So unless the State Supreme Court forgets itself, Prop 8 has a decent chance of going the way of anti-sodomy laws and bans on interracial marriage.
Note too that eight years ago, Prop 22 passed by a margin of nearly 23 percent; this time around, Prop 8 won by only 5 percent. Equally telling is the fact that the voting bloc most in favor of the ban (61 percent "yes") was people older than sixty-five. The young'uns voted the exact inverse: 61 percent "no." For supporters of same-sex equality in California and elsewhere, this is a heartening indication that social perceptions are shifting, albeit slowly. This wedge issue, so divisive in 2004, gets less so with each passing year.
Progress is never easy — it moves forward and often, maddeningly, back. But from a distant viewpoint, we can recognize that progressive change is both slow and inevitable. That's not blind optimism — it just means we fight all the harder, even if progress seems glacial. By doing so, we honor the reformers who labored endlessly against seemingly insurmountable wrongs. Many of these, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Martin Luther King, didn't live long enough to see their efforts fully rewarded. That's all the more reason we should give the last word to King: "The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends towards justice."