Last November, 7 million Californians voted for Proposition 8, which amended that state's Constitution to make the legal definition of "marriage" as being between one man and one woman. It was shocking to many, especially since Californians also voted for Barack Obama in large numbers (although Obama has steadfastly said that he does not support gay marriage, but rather fully protected civil unions).
Several years ago, I was on a bus heading to exotic Ajo, Ariz., for a basketball game. One of my players, Nora, was writing a paper and asked me what I thought of gay marriage. I will admit that my absolute first reaction was, "'Marriage' doesn't mean that. It means something else. Words have specific meanings." (All writers are at least amateur etymologists.)
Nora gave me this incredibly disappointed look, second in intensity only to the time I said that the United States was right to have dropped those bombs on Japan to end World War II. I really do believe that, along the lines of, "They started it, but we finished it." I'm kinda street like that. (Note the ironic misuse of a noun as an adjective there.)
We talked about it all the way to Ajo, and through her clarity of youth and strength of conviction, she did a good job of stating her case. I asked her why they can't just call it something else, like "gay-rriage." (For a picosecond, I thought that was clever.)
I presented her with the dreaded, "Yeah, but what about that guy?!" argument. What about polygamists? Personally, I'd have no problem with that if the adults all entered into the arrangement freely. But what if it's one of those man/boy love creeps? I never said this to Nora, but I remember thinking at the time, "You can just hear the old guy saying, 'We're two human beings, and we love each other; age and gender shouldn't matter. Timmy agrees with me, and I'm sure he'd say the same thing, even if I untied him.'"
Those trips to Ajo are brutal on the mind.
A few years have gone by. Nora's now a senior at St. Mary's in California (the one with the good basketball team). She is studying in Argentina this semester. We recently went back over that conversation we had on that bus. She had been right, and I had been stodgy. Since that time, there have been great strides forward—and more than a couple of shocking steps back.
The vote in California was a substantial 52.3-47.7 split, with a winning margin of about 600,000 votes. That's not a fluke. If you want to see something really amazing, Google a map of county-by-county results of Prop 8. More than three-fourths of California's counties voted in favor of it, some by whopping margins. Moreover, Los Angeles County—home to Hollywood, West Hollywood and all those wannabes—voted in favor of Prop 8 (though it was very close).
The millions in California who are in favor of gay marriage now face a quandary. There is a nasty split between those who want to get right back in the fight next year, and those who want to wait until the presidential election year of 2012 to put up a ballot proposition to repeal Prop 8. It's a tough call either way.
Nearly $80 million was spent by the two sides in the fight over Prop 8, and any way you look at it, that's a sickening number. The total for any future rematch could hit nine figures. Also, if history holds, the Democrats are likely to lose congressional seats in the midterm elections next year. (Bush bucked that trend in 2002 after Karl Rove convinced him to make all of Congress sign off on the Iraq invasion before the elections; the gutless Dems should have told him to shove it.) It's unclear what effect another gay-marriage proposition on the ballot would have.
The more-pragmatic gay-marriage backers are urging an all-out fight in 2012. They argue that the tide of history is in their favor, and many voters will have changed their minds by then.
In strict political terms, it probably would be better to wait until 2012, to plan a better campaign, to not be over-confident, to realize that the opposition does not consist of 7 million gay-bashers, and to get San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to shut up instead of alienating fence-sitters with remarks like, "This is coming, so you'd better get used to it."
However, it's hard to look at this in "strict political terms." These are people's lives here, and if justice delayed is justice denied (which it is), then so, too, would it be for rights delayed. Muddying that argument is the fact that the California Supreme Court not only upheld Prop 8, but also said, in response to California Attorney General Jerry Brown's claim that gay marriage is an inalienable right, "No authority supports the attorney general's claim."
It's easy for me to say that in 20 years or so, we'll all look back and wonder what the big deal was. But it's not fair to ask gay people to wait that 20 years with the rest of us.