On an election day when civil rights took a breathtaking leap forward, it was disconcerting to see the cause also fall abruptly back with the passage of Proposition 8. Some supporters of same-sex marriage look at the ballot results and understandably conclude that California voters, with their passage of the humane farm rules in Proposition 2, care more about the rights of chickens than of gays and lesbians.
There is a more helpful and hopeful way to observe the balloting. If the election of Barack Obama as president teaches us anything, it is that the road to civil rights is long and rough but eventually leads to the right place. African Americans probably understand this better than any group; what they did not seem to perceive, as a demographic that tended to vote for the same-sex marriage ban, is how wrapped up their experience is with that of gays, the group most recently struggling to have its rights recognized.
Partly that was the result of the canny "Yes on 8" campaign, which told the black community, accurately, that Obama did not favor same-sex marriage, but did not mention that he opposed Proposition 8. Partly it was because the "No on 8" side never matched such tactics with an effective counterattack. And in part it was because many African Americans, who tend to have strong ties to their churches, believe that same-sex marriage is immoral.
It's especially meaningful today to reflect on Loving vs. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that ended laws against interracial marriage in this country. The state judge who ruled against the Lovings had reasoned that a marriage as nontraditional as that between a white man and a black woman was ungodly. "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents," he wrote. "The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
The high court banished that argument with these transformative words: "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival. ... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state."
Even the justices probably did not foresee that these two events would transpire 41 years later: The nation would advance so far in its rejection of racism that the child of an interracial marriage would become the 44th president of the United States, and the California Supreme Court would closely echo the earlier case in affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry, even if the beliefs of the majority held such nontraditional unions to be immoral. As Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote, "These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish -- with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life -- an officially recognized and protected family."
Right now, the disheartened gay community might feel unconvinced that society will ever support the right to same-sex marriage as it came to embrace Mildred Loving's right to marry her white husband. But voting patterns are encouraging. In 2000, 61% of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage; on Tuesday, that figure was 52%. Further, the strongest support for Proposition 8 came from the oldest voters; the most opposition came from 18- to 29-year-olds. Just as it seemed natural to younger generations that a man of mixed race could become president, each year will bring new voters who realize that civil rights belong to all previously rejected minority groups.