The Political Strategy of “H8”

In the aftermath of Proposition 8's victory some within the queer community have been overheard by their brothers and sisters in struggle complaining about how a particular “they” voted anti-gay, and how “they” are ignorant and backward. “We voted for their president! How dare they stab us in the back like this.” The “they” in question was Black and Latino voters and the outraged activists were mostly white gay rights activists. Since November 4, pollsters have been keen to point out that although the average white voter rejected the initiative, the average Black and Latino voter marked a yes on their ballot. This realization, isolated from its context and a wider political analysis of the Proposition 8 campaign has led to some faulty assumptions about why the initiative passed and why many Blacks and Latinos supported it. One message now making its rounds in the media and by word of mouth is that while most of California's white voters are progressives committed to equal rights, Blacks and Latinos cling to the ignorance of their fundamentalist religious beliefs, so much so that they are responsible for passing what is in all meanings and effects a piece of anti-civil rights legislation. The reality, however, is far more complex (for example).

While the poll figures are correct, it appears that they're correct for somewhat different reasons than are widely assumed. Black and Latino voters did cast their ballots mostly in favor of Proposition 8, but when reporters started interviewing people based on these poll figures, they found the reasoning most Prop 8 supporters gave to be somewhat different from what is widely assumed. Instead of finding a vehement religious attitude that homosexuality is a sin or disease and that gay rights must be opposed at all costs, many voters began talking about children. What do children have to do with Prop 8, a mere 14 word addition to the state Constitution reading: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”?

As it turns out, among the demographic groups that voted mostly in favor of the marriage ban were parents with children under 18-years of age in their household. The yes on 8 campaign made a brilliant tactical decision when they decided to imply that a no vote for Prop 8 would lead not only to marriage rights for same sex couples, but that it would also fuel an aggressive anti-heterosexual educational campaign in schools. In this imaginary world being conjured up by pro-8 organizers, California school children would be taught that marriage is between and man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and woman, and so forth. Not that children shouldn't be exposed to reality – homosexuality is an identity just as heterosexuality is – but the recent movement to legalize same-sex unions in California has made virtually no efforts to try to introduce gay and lesbian issues into public school curriculum. Not that they shouldn't, but the claim that by not passing Proposition 8 schools will be forced to teach a non-heteronormative definition of marriage has been entirely fictitious and besides the point. That's the brilliance of it.

The reason the yes on 8 campaign made this claim was that it was a coded means of rallying deep seeded anti-gay prejudices in people, but accomplished in a way that didn't overtly call on people to hate others. In this way the Proposition 8 campaign succeeded in playing off widespread homophobia and hatred without actually having to make an unambiguously hateful claim such as “gays prey on children,” which is what they really meant for people to think.

One yes on 8 commercial featuring “Julie,” a self-described “California mom,” explains that “unless Prop 8 passes school children will be taught that marriage is a relationship between two people regardless of gender,” and that “in Massachusetts, a same-sex marriage state, schools use a book entitled, 'Who's in a Family?'” Viewers learn that Massachusetts schools teach same-sex marriage to children “as early as the first grade.” The commercial's Golden State mom concludes by stating what sounds like a simple issue of her rights and power over her own child's education: “I want to be sure that my children are taught that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Those of us who are outraged by the passage of Prop 8 can critique the flawed logic and total disconnect from reality demonstrated in this kind of argument all we want, but then we miss the point entirely as to why this argument succeeds. It's not designed to make logical sense or hold up under the reality of what California families are actually like. After all, the reality is that most families include gay and lesbian siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, etc., and only a great deal of homophobic repression creates families in which there are no queer members. Rather, this argument is designed to invoke hatred and homophobia without doing so in a straightforward manner. It's a psychologically profound tactic and astute political tool that has been used for years by Republicans and Democrats to stoke white racial fears without explicitly referring to racist beliefs. Indeed, we saw much racial coding in this year's presidential campaign directed at Barack Obama.

“California mom's” concern about what her children are taught turned out to be more crucial for Prop 8's victory than the supposed ideological backwardness of Blacks and Latinos, and “California mom,” at least in the campaign's commercial, was white. Other yes on 8 commercials give a flavor of how sophisticated this anti-civil rights effort was in soliciting the votes of men and women, Blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians. One commercial opens with a young Asian woman sitting in a park in San Francisco of all places. She explains to us that “if Proposition 8 fails there's a whole bunch of consequences.” We are told that churches could be forced by the state to rent their holy grounds for use by same sex couples for their wedding ceremonies. Another clip features a young white man who tells us that as same-sex marriage becomes recognized by the state, “legal defenses based on religious freedoms are less likely to succeed.” Seconds later, “Suubi,” a young black woman, tells us that religious adoption agencies will be forced to hand over babies to same sex couples or discontinue their adoption services altogether. Again the trope of innocent children being abducted and perverted by sinners, but this much is only implied for it cannot be said. “Geoff” from Brentwood tells us that “based on past experiences, those who oppose same sex marriage on religious grounds will be increasingly labeled as intolerant and subjected to legal penalties or social ridicule.” Geoff even tells us that it's already happening in the debate over Prop 8 with its supporters “having their careers threatened”

It was through careful messaging like this that the yes on 8 campaign was able to succeed in a truly amazing feat: they convinced a majority coalition of the California electorate that the issue wasn't civil rights for untold numbers of Californians who have been discriminated against based on their sexuality and gender, but that it was instead about protecting the religious freedoms, beliefs, and even the safety of their (intolerant) Catholic-Mormon-evangelical Christian communities, “freedoms” and “beliefs” that only exist because of the internal repression of their own loved ones who may not fit their norms. For millions of Californians they made it appear that it was in fact religious communities and even simple traditional parents who were under attack by an aggressive lobby of gay and lesbian advocates who not only want their rights, but want to push what Prop 8 proponents call “their lifestyle” on everyone else in the state, from first graders to the Priest of the local church. This make-believe attack on the church quite possibly resonated with Latino and Black voters, for many of whom the church is a key mobilizing organization in any election, thus explaining their proportionately higher support.

It was all the more amazing that the yes on 8 campaign asked and succeeded in getting voters to forget the massive violence and hate directed at queer communities on a daily basis, and instead entertain a make believe world where straight Christian and Mormon men and women are being persecuted because their identities. The reality is so bad that it's necessary to summarize.

The California Attorney General cites 1,426 hate crimes reported in 2007. Of course reported crimes constitute only the tip of the iceberg with usually much higher proportionate numbers going un-reported for a multitude of reasons (one reason being that many victims of hate crimes do not feel they can trust the police to help them because of institutionalized forms of discrimination and homophobia built into the justice system).

Here's the facts; The vast majority of hate crimes in 2007 were racially motivated with the second and third largest categories being motivated by hatred of religion and sexual orientation respectively. Most racially motivated hate crimes targeted Blacks and Latinos – about 70%. In the two categories that were made issues by the yes on 8 campaign (intolerance directed against heterosexuals, and hate crimes against Catholics, Mormons, and fundamentalist Protestants) we see a startling disconnect with the campaign's rhetoric and the reality. Thus while yes on 8 proponents invoked fear of religious persecution from a Catholic, Mormon or evangelical Christian perspective, we find that the overwhelming majority of attacks against persons based on their religion were directed instead at Jews – 66%, with Muslims experiencing the second highest incidences of hate crimes – 6.4% of the total. Anti-Protestant and Catholic crimes together account for only 10.3%. What about hate crimes and intolerance directed at people because of their sexuality? In all of last year there were only 2 such reports of attacks against straight men and women because of their sexual orientation (this in a state of 36 million mind you). Even if we multiply this by a large factor as we should to account for under-reporting, we remain with a small figure. Hate crimes against gay and lesbian men and women virtually monopolize the statistics of hate crimes based on sexuality – hundreds reported in all – with gay men experiencing about half of all attacks and lesbians about 10%. In other words, violence and discriminatory acts directed at queer communities is epidemic, even in the supposedly liberal California, with the new ban against marrying being just the latest institutionalized form of inequality.

That the yes on 8 campaign so effectively turned the tables and portrayed their coalition's own religiously motivated bigotry as victimhood is all the more astounding given the California Supreme Court's decision back in May of 2008 dealt solely with the civil rights issue of marriage, not the issue of whether church's could be forced to recognize and perform same sex marriages or what children in public and private schools would be taught about “who's in the family.” It was through these speculative non-issues that the yes on 8 campaign was able to mobilize an anti-civil rights majority vote by invoking unspoken tropes of gays and lesbians as mortal threats to society.

However, in the Court's decision the justices did inadvertently provide the seed for this psychological strategy when they wrote correctly that same sex marriage was an issue of “respect and dignity”:

“Our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation.... 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.”

No doubt the ability to raise one's children is just as fundamental a right as marriage, just as is any other right extended by our society, but herein lay the poison of the yes on 8 campaign strategy. Anti-gay and lesbian organizers know that in this post-civil rights political era a winning campaign can never be based on rhetoric that openly embraces the discriminatory goals they seek. This is true across the spectrum of civil rights, from race and religion (real religious rights issues that is) to civil liberties, and struggles over sexuality and gender. Knowing that they would have to couch their campaign's rhetoric in the language of the very movements they have traditionally opposed, the conservative churches and fundamentalist non-profits behind Prop 8 built their message around fears that all parents have about the content of their children's education, the upbringing of children who are adopted, the rights of churches to continue their own traditional interpretations and practices, and so forth. By casting the issue as one of tradition and civil rights for God-fearing Californians, and as a protective action against a recklessly aggressive cultural movement led by homosexuals that is supposedly undermining the moral fabric of all communities in California through state fiat, the yes on 8 campaign was triumphant.

Herein lay the political theory behind the yes on 8 campaign that was never successfully deconstructed by the rest of us. It was not enough to call their bigotry out for what it really was because their campaign's rhetoric and talking points were suited to avoid precisely this sort of confrontation and allow supporters to state their supposed tolerance for diversity. Nor was it enough to demonstrate the flawed logic and hypocrisy embedded in their positions because they were never designed to hold that much water from the very beginning: they were instead vessels for a more temporary destination – November 4, not the indefinite future. For the long-term more overtly patriarchal and anti-gay values could be supported, but for episodic electoral struggles a much more broadly appealing and coalition building strategy was required.

Mobilizing Black and Latino voters to support prop 8 in higher proportions than most whites is really just an ancillary fact of the ballot proposition's passage. The yes vote delivered by majorities of Black and Latino neighborhoods had not so much to do with the possibility that these communities are inherently more homophobic than whites, and had everything to do with the ways that the yes on 8 campaign both played to their religious and traditional values, but also to the rhetoric of civil and religious rights so effectively invoked by the yes on 8 propaganda. When someone says your religious freedoms, your church community, and family cohesion are threatened by something, Blacks and Latinos respond to this somewhat differently than whites, and their perception has a lot to do with historical and contemporary assaults against their families and churches by a white supremacist society.

Viewed from this angle we can see how both civil rights movements (concerning race and sexuality) have been co-opted through a verbal commitment to their ideals and simultaneously undermined with aggressive counter movements against the real legal and institutional gains they have made or attempted to make through reforms of the state. For example, affirmative action is banned in California based on a flimsy but appealing logic of colorblindness that selectively summons up the highest ideals of judging not a single person based on the color of their skin. Sounds great, right? The effect is incredibly racist in that it perpetuates the now structurally enforced exclusion of non-whites from higher education and all other institutional channels of economic and civic advancement, and no one has to state that this is what we're doing. It's a racism that need not see, speak nor hear the word race ever uttered. Proposition 8 seems to have thoroughly ushered us into an era of post-civil rights homophobia whereby hatred and fear are projected by a similar means, and power relations are maintained.

One final politically significant point about the passage of Proposition 8 that has been obscured in a lot the reflections on the campaign, especially the more misguided attention being paid to Black and Latino voters, has been a lack of attention and research on the key people and organizations that crafted the yes on 8 campaign strategy. The biggest single reason that Prop 8 passed is because of white fundamentalist Protestant churches, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Catholic Church and a network of right wing, socially conservative political organizations in and around California, the overwhelming majority of which are run by white men. Again, the similarity to the opposition against racial civil rights movements are many. Just as some of the most public political faces and organizer, even the voters themselves, who are responsible for passing racist legislation and rolling back civil rights can often be Black and Latino (e.g. Ward Connerly), or else whites who present themselves as non-racists, the public face of the yes on 8 campaign has been very diverse, and the coalition of voters they mobilized was genuinely diverse, at least in terms of race. However, the real motivating forces who do the political strategizing, raise or contribute the war chests for expensive ballot propositions or electoral campaigns, or else provide the core grassroots foot soldiers for voter mobilization/suppression are typically very straightforward with their values, politics, and prejudices. They purposefully work behind the scenes of ten for this very reason. So while white racists have often been the propelling forces behind the misleadingly diverse facades of anti-Black and Latino political efforts of the past forty years, so now the less conspicuous foundations of the anti-queer political movement are openly hostile and hating institutions and individuals, hiding behind a fake tolerance. Understanding who these individuals and institutions are should be a much more pressing concern for social justice organizers than speculating as to why so many Blacks and Latinos were capably mobilized to vote in favor of Prop 8. Along these lines, however, it may prove more useful for social justice organizers to unpack the complex ideological workings of the Right's devastatingly effective rhetorical strategy utilizing the language of civil rights to take rights away, than it is to bemoan the homophobia that exist in Black and Latino (and white) communities and that was so effectively mobilized against queer folk this past November.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Nice analysis, as far as the "official" pro-8 campaign goes, but there's some evidence that the rhetoric wasn't so subtle in some quarters. For example, members of a church that some of my family members attend were told by their priest that if they didn't vote "yes" on 8, there would be "a return to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah" - and these family members quite happily cited this as the reason they were voting "yes." It seems like we've come far enough that campaigns like "yes on 8" have to be cautious about being openly bigoted in mainstream media outlets, but there are still plenty of places where the more blatant forms of homophobia still have currency.