Sunday, November 16, 2008

What It Felt Like to Be Equal

Judith Warner, NYT: I had barely finished sniffling over Barack Obama’s victory when I received an e-mail message from Amy Silverstein, the wife of my best friend from high school, Angela Padilla.
She had been glad to read last week’s piece on “the groundbreaking immensity of the election of our country’s first African-American president,” she said.
Up to a point.
“I wanted to make sure you knew and appreciated that despite this seeming like an amazing step forward for all who have suffered discrimination and/or who are deeply committed to eliminating it, this election was anything but that for G.L.B.T. people and our families,” she wrote. “Especially in California, but in three other states as well, the electorate convincingly voted to deny us basic civil rights and made clear that we are a long way from being seen and treated as equal. Protecting traditional marriage is simply code for discrimination. There is no ‘triumph’ for us, and the long period of pain, indignity and injustice continues."
There’s nothing worse than being told you have a major blind spot. That your self-assured joyousness is built upon exclusion.
Particularly when the person telling you this is right.
Now, I hadn’t exactly ignored the spate of anti-gay ballot initiatives that had passed — in California, Arkansas, Florida and Arizona — on Nov. 4. I’d read about the success of Arizona’s long-attempted gay marriage ban and California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited gay marriage just six months after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry was fundamental, and constitutionally protected, for all.
I’d read about how voters in Florida had decided to target not only same-sex marriage but all relationships that were the “substantial equivalent” of marriage, like domestic partnerships and civil unions, and how in Arkansas, where gay marriage was already banned, voters had decided to deny anyone “cohabitating outside a valid marriage” the right to adopt or be a foster parent.
How strange, I’d thought, reading about how, on the day of progressive victories — Obama’s historic win, South Dakota voters’ rejection of a wide-ranging abortion ban, Californians voting down a ballot initiative that would have required parental notification for abortion — these states had passed such uniquely reactionary and discriminatory measures. How ugly. That’s really too bad.
And then I’d moved on. As most people who were not directly affected by the anti-gay rights measures did. There was just too much else to feel good about.
“I think the country was like, ‘Look, you get Obama, call it a day and go home,” is how Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic state representative in Arizona, who’d opposed her state’s anti-gay ballot initiative, put it to The Times last week.
Ed Swanson couldn’t move on.
The day after the election, the San Francisco lawyer and his husband, Paul Herman, a stay-at-home dad, had had to face the fact that Proposition 8 could mean that their marriage would be invalidated. They’d also had to go to parent conferences and tell the teachers that their five-year-old daughter, Liza, might be struggling in school because she was scared that her family might fall apart.
Liza, who has a twin sister, Katie, had peppered Swanson and Herman with questions once she’d realized that marriages uniting “a boy and a boy” were no longer allowed.
“They can’t take yours away, right?” she’d asked her parents. “They can’t take yours away when you have children, can they?"
“That’s when we realized she was afraid something would happen to us,” Swanson told me by phone on Wednesday. “We said, ‘They can’t take us away from you. We will be here for you forever.'"
“It’s difficult to explain to a five-year-old why it is people don’t want your parents to be married,” he continued. “They’re young enough that there was a chance they could have grown up thinking all their lives that their family was equal and accepted. Now they’re not going to have that chance. They’ll have to spend at least part of their lives knowing that their family is something that people don’t feel is acceptable."
Jeanne Rizzo, the C.E.O. of the Breast Cancer Fund, can’t quite move on either. She spent election night in a reception room at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel. She and her long-term partner, Pali Cooper, were married in September, one of 18,000 California couples who managed to wed in the short space of time between the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage and the passage of Proposition 8.
In one room, Obama supporters were jubilant. In another, opponents of Proposition 4 — the parental notification initiative -– shouted their glee. In hers, the opponents of Proposition 8 saw their joy at Obama’s election turn quickly to “absolute disbelief and pain” as the results of the ballot initiative came in. “It was such a kick in the stomach. The whole hotel was just rocking with joy. We felt so disconnected from it,” Rizzo recalled when I talked to her on Wednesday.
It wasn’t that she begrudged Obama his victory. It was just that his historic triumph made the insult to her community all the more painful. An awful thought came to her that night: Now we’re the designated cultural outcasts. “It’s almost like we’re the last group you can be openly bigoted about,” she told me.
“You look around and you think more than half of the people in this state voted to take this away from us? At a time when we’re celebrating the election of an African American to the White House? I don’t know how you heal from it,” she said. “It’s hard to get it out of your bones.”
It’s easy, if you’re straight, to file away the gay marriage issue in a little folder in your mind, to render it, essentially, inessential. It can fall into the category of “bones you throw the religious right because things could be so much worse.” Or “things that would be great in a perfect world.” Or “what’s the big deal?” because you don’t actually get what a big deal it is to be able to get married when you’ve never had to consider the alternative.
Many of the gay men and lesbians I spoke or e-mailed with this week didn’t fully realize what a big deal it was to be married either. Until they were.
“I don’t think I had realized until then what it felt like to be equal,” Swanson told me. “Paul and I went on a honeymoon in Santa Fe. People would ask and we’d say we’re on our honeymoon; we just got married. We could say it not because it was a political statement but because it was a fact.
“I don’t feel equal anymore. It was a great feeling, while it lasted.”
Judith Warner's book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" (excerpt, NPR interview), a New York Times best-seller, was published in February 2005.

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