Lessons from the Fight for Gay Marriage

One organizer reflects on what the movement needs to move ahead.

By Leticia Miranda Apr 09, 2009

After voters passed Prop. 8 in California last year, overturning the court decision that had legalized gay marriage, LGBT organizations came under attack for not organizing communities of color around gay marriage. Equality California, a statewide organization advocating for same-sex marriage, has now hired Andrea Shorter as their coalition coordinator and raised hopes that change may be on the way.

Shorter, who’s the former director and co-founder of And Marriage for All, a Black same-sex marriage advocacy group, will help the California group create and strengthen alliances with other LGBT organizations, communities of color and faith groups. Shorter will be working on the group’s Let California Ring, a multi-media public education project, to improve perceptions of gay marriage. The project presents the stories of families who were strengthened by California’s legalization of gay marriage.  

What are you hoping the Let California Ring project communicates to people?
We have to get past this idea that all LGBT people are white. If you look at people of color in California, we are really the majority. If we’re not the majority already, we’re getting there. If about 10 percent of the world population is LGBT, then the majority of LGBT folks have to be people of color!

The issue of LGBT people of color is paramount not just because of the numbers, but if we fall prey to this false dichotomy that you’re either LGBT or a person of color—I mean how silly is that? That’s really a dynamic that is unhealthy and not productive. It’s nonsensical and we really need to stop that thinking.

The passage of Prop. 8 was painful. What lessons did you take away from this fight and particularly the lack of outreach in communities of color?
Organizers of the campaign acknowledge there were opportunities missed to engage communities of color in a better way and not just African American communities, but Latino communities, Asian and Pacific Islander communities. But there were, however, a number of alliances and coalitions that were definitely happening and taking shape during the campaign and we need to acknowledge that as well. Chinese for Affirmative Action, California NAACP, La Raza, MALDEF and other folks stepped up to be a part and take leadership in this effort to defeat 8.  

I think what’s important now is that we learned from those lessons: why were opportunities missed? How do we create new opportunities? And why is it important we work together?

Now the issue is bigger than marriage equality. The issue is about whether or not we’re going to be in a state where basically anyone with the means and wherewithal can basically take the initiative process and impose the tyranny of the majority over the minority. So any of us who hold minority status are even more vulnerable.

What was your reaction to the media frenzy about Black voters after Prop. 8 was passed?
My reaction to Prop. 8 was really similar to other people—anger, frustration, disappointment. Then I thought, “What could we have done differently? What were we up against?” And I also felt in an odd way, optimistic. My optimism rested on the fact that we were really close…A decade ago with legislation that involved LGBT rights, we were down by nearly 20 points. This time we were about 4 points away. So what that means is that people are moving much closer to our court. That’s something we have to take pause and really understand how and why that’s happening so we can build on that.

As far as the Black vote piece, that was particularly frustrating. As we were watching the numbers throughout the debate on Prop. 8 we knew that there was sensationalism going on already about the Black vote. From my perspective, the narrative about the Black vote was already being constructed months before Election Day. If you go back to a couple months before in a New York Times article, it really started to look at: what would the Black vote mean with Obama’s long anticipated election? What would it mean if Black people went to the polls and voted for the first Black president but then California took away the rights of LGBT people?

Now there are many errors to that. One, it presumes that African Americans are more homophobic and resistant to LGBT liberation than any other racialized community in the state and that’s not necessarily so. Certainly in the past, and there were polls that have indicated that, yes African Americans have had issues and have polled rather negatively around civil unions and certainly same-sex marriage. We were for some time lingering around 63 percent “no” to same-sex marriage and “no” to civil unions. And I said that’s not only a “no”; that’s like a “hell no!” People were just reacting or responding from what they felt to be the appropriate and the only appropriate interpretation of biblical doctrine and beyond that they didn’t have any other information. We knew that we had to do some work.

We also knew that numbers were trending our way. African Americans and other communities of color had actually improved their perception of same-sex marriage and their level of acceptance of same-sex marriage by about 5 or 6 percent within I think seven years. We could also see that numbers were moving our way just before the election. One of the last field polls showed African Americans were about 50/50 on voting yes or no on 8. So that was actually consistent with what we saw on at least the public education side.

So when the 70 percent number came out, it was very frustrating and alarming because it didn’t seem consistent with our experiences in public education. It was being so sensationalized like it was the gospel truth. No one questioned the narrative and it makes sense because if it was already being said that African Americans are more homophobic than anyone else, then no one would question it. And that to me was even more problematic.

And those of us who were questioning it, we got a little bit of backlash “Why are you defending them? Obviously they’re homophobic. Why are you defending them?” So once the research had been done in a much more reliable way, we found that around 57 percent of African Americans voted yes which indicated there is still a lot of work to be done, but it also said that African Americans didn’t vote yes more than some other communities of color. So it really wasn’t race. It was mostly frequency of church attendance, adherence to a particular doctrine, party affiliation and age. So at it turned out, race did not hold the potency of factor in terms of how one voted…

How did you become involved with LGBT rights work?
I was one of those kids who came out in that “Silence Equals Death” era… My first LGBT activity I ever engaged in was I snuck away from my college to Los Angeles to attend a meeting at a library in West Hollywood and folks there were organizing some kind of a march. From that point on, I started the first LGBT organization at Whittier College that has now reincarnated itself into the third generation of another organization. Now that I look back on it, it took a lot —African American lesbian in a predominately white college community, small college community. But nonetheless a group of friends and I formed what we thought was necessary.

How do you see coalition building in the fight for gay marriage?
I think a part of coalition building is really getting a different worldview where we see ourselves as partners in the larger framework of civil and human rights movement and social justice movement. In the 21st century, isn’t it time that we talk about LGBT liberation and rights in the same breath as we talk about other civil and human rights? Instead of having our issues being seen (or us presenting them) as secondary to other issues, coalition building is about working together in a larger movement and seeing all of our issues as essential and core to each other. 

Leticia Miranda is a regular contributor to ColorLines.