For gays, it was hard not to take it personally.
On election night an overwhelming majority in 11 states -- red and blue -- voted to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriage and, in eight of those states, any legal protections for gay couples and their children. This after a summer of jubilation with gay couples in matching tuxedos and white gowns emerging from courthouses in San Francisco, New Jersey, Oregon and Massachusetts, waving at the cameras, weeping with joy. It was in that historic but fleeting moment that gay Americans glimpsed the possibilities of mainstream acceptance.
But that notion proved to be far more radical to many Americans than most gays ever dreamed. Suddenly, optimism was replaced with a devastating sense of alienation, betrayal, sadness, fear, even confusion. After all, gays are more visible than ever in TV, film and politics. And last month, even President Bush said he agreed with the idea of same-sex civil unions. Still, this election showed that America, at its core, isn’t ready to embrace them as equals.
“It’s getting harder and harder to live in a country where you’re considered by the majority of the people to be a scourge rather than an asset,” says Seattle resident Eric Thom, who married his partner in a Canadian ceremony and plans to move to British Columbia in the near future because of the election. “We are tearing down Western civilization, according to these states.”
Exit polls offer a stark picture of the results. Voters in Arkansas (by 75%), Georgia (by 76%), Kentucky (by 75%), Michigan (by 59%), Mississippi (by 86%), Montana (by 67%), North Dakota (by 73%), Ohio (by 62%), Oklahoma (by 76%), Oregon (by 57%) and Utah (by 66%) approved constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. Political analysts believe the issue was so volatile that, according to estimates, it boosted voter turnout significantly in all but two of these states -- Oregon and Utah.
The reaction in the gay community was swift and emotional: around the country, many gays spoke about leaving the U.S., reviving last-resort plans to move to Canada, where unions are recognized in all but four provinces and two territories, and the Netherlands, where gay marriage is legal.
Atlanta resident Marci Alt says she, her pregnant partner, Marlysa, and Alt’s 10-year-old son are headed to Amsterdam. Nearly 20 years ago, Alt founded the Gay Community Yellow Pages, a business directory targeting gay communities that is now in 18 states. She and her partner were among the thousands of people to marry last spring and, although Georgia doesn’t recognize gay marriages, they spent six months setting up their domestic partnership. They also worked hard to rally support for gay marriage in their community. Then, on election night, they cried as they watched Georgia vote not only to ban gay marriage but to deny couples the right to civil unions as well.
“When I saw only 700,000 people voted against the amendment, it was devastating to me,” she said. “I’ve been working for 17 years in Atlanta against discrimination. Not only is it not better, it’s worse than it was when I started.”
In the days following the election, many gays coped by firing off angry e-mails to friends and relatives, blaming Bush and his conservative supporters for using religion to defend bigotry, motivating voters to make gay marriage a “moral issue.” They circulated a map of North America with everything but Canada and the U.S. coasts labeled “Jesusland.” And they asked how TV shows that mock the sanctity of marriage, like “The Bachelor” and “Wife Swap,” can be tolerated by most Americans but committed gay relationships cannot.
“I keep thinking, ‘Why are they picking on us?’ ” gay New Mexico economics professor Sue Stockly wrote in one e-mail. “For ‘man to lie down with man’ is ‘abomination,’ but so is eating shrimp. Why aren’t shrimp-eaters denied legal rights?”
Gays in large liberal cities felt particularly isolated by the election results because few experience such passionate opposition to their lifestyles in their own communities. (In California, a newly expanded domestic partner law, which goes into effect in January, will grant registered gay couples most of the same legal protections as married couples.)
“Frankly, I feel like a second-class citizen at the rear of the bus and I’ve just been spit on by many self-righteous, intolerant, ignorant, redneck, so-called compassionate, Christian bullies!” gay native Arkansan Mark Jackson, who now lives in New York, wrote in another e-mail.
Some in the community blamed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for providing Republicans the perfect wedge issue to mobilize their evangelical Christian base when he defied state law and issued more than 4,000 marriage licenses to gay couples in March. “I think he jumped the gun a little bit,” says gay L.A. resident Cookie Look. They say overenthusiastic activists set back the movement -- and gay civil rights -- by years by insisting on the term “marriage.” Nationally, only 4% of voters identify themselves as gay.
“I think gay people should be more respectful of other people’s beliefs and not forcing their lifestyle and identity,” says Mark Oleszek, a gay Wisconsin native who now lives in New York. “They could have obtained the same rights by just using the word ‘union’ or ‘partnership.’ ”
Others said Newsom’s civil disobedience helped humanize gay couples. “He personalized the issue in a way that’d never been done before,” says Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.
Now, however, most gays are struggling with a profound sense of rejection by their nation. “It’s saying somehow my family is not a family,” says Los Angeles software developer Chris Angelli, who is raising her two children with her partner of eight years. “I don’t want them to feel like everybody hates them because of the family they were born into.”
Gay activist Jasmyne Cannick, the spokeswoman for the National Black Justice Coalition, didn’t sleep on election night. Instead she and her colleagues cried to one another over the phone. After a year on the road spent lecturing black congregations on tolerance for gay marriage, Cannick was exhausted and overwhelmed by the defeat. “You always would like to think that people are more fair-minded, especially African Americans,” says Cannick, who is black and gay. She wondered how blacks “who have been discriminated against for a long time dare even put that same sort of hatred on another group of people.” After all, she noted, it wasn’t that long ago that most Americans used “abomination” to describe marriage between blacks and whites.
Still Cannick and other activists tried to see the silver lining. They heralded the election of 40 of the 64 publicly gay candidates who ran in local, state and federal elections. They quoted Martin Luther King Jr. They talked about the “big picture” and compared their battle to the decades-long civil rights struggle of blacks and women.
They promised to challenge the marriage bans in court, further publicizing their cause. And they vowed to increase public outreach, to make gay America more visible. Some went so far as to call the initiatives a benefit to the movement. “The subject of gay families is no longer taboo,” says Massachusetts gay activist Josh Friedes.
At a post-election strategy meeting Friday at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, representatives of 40 progressive social and political organizations agreed to join forces to help battle the perception that the nation is anti-gay. “That loud, vocal and extremely well-funded minority of religious extremists have influence that does not reflect their numbers,” says Jean. “We need to take a page from their book.”
But for most in the gay community, spirits are still quite low. Many recall last summer’s celebrations with bitterness. They fault themselves for being naive, for overestimating both their gains and the nation’s tolerance. “Finally, I thought that all the fighting was starting to pay off,” says Alt. “It was just a big slap in the face.”