The vote on California’s Proposition 8 in the November election shocked and dismayed the gay community—and surprised others who thought it was a shoo-in vote for the liberal state. Prop 8 amended the state constitution to read, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California”; the measure was approved by a majority of the voters (52.3 percent). If the measure is upheld by the court, it will rescind a May 2008 California Supreme Court decision sanctioning same-sex marriage. (Since November 5, same-sex marriages are prohibited in California; those that took place between May and November 2008 are in litigation.)

Though it shares the liberal tendencies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where courts also legalized gay marriage, California has a robust referendum system that allows the voters to have their say. When voting yes on Proposition 8, over 7 million Californians said no to gay marriage; conversely, 6.4 million who voted no said yes. (Language confusion is one of the characteristic flaws of a politicized referendum system.) It was a costly electoral battle totaling $83 million, second only to the presidential campaign. What happened? Who opposed gay marriage and why?

In a contest predicted to favor same-sex marriage, the initial surprise was the overwhelming percentage of African Americans who voted to oppose it—an election-day exit poll reported 70 percent. There was shock and anger among gay activists that such a proportion of blacks opposed their efforts, yet their expectations rested on some doubtful assumptions. First: that the black community, being liberal in its politics, is also liberal in its social values; thus a huge turnout of black voters for Barack Obama would help opposition to Proposition 8. Second: that the fight for gay equality is of a piece with the struggle for racial equality; ergo, African Americans are the natural allies of gays. The gay-rights movement sees itself as the heir of the civil-rights movement that began with Martin Luther King’s battle for racial equality, moved on to equal rights for women and other minorities (including the disabled), and is now working to achieve equal rights for homosexuals.

Disaggregating those assumptions is not easy, but Peter J. Paris (professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary) took on the task at a forum at Boston College organized by the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities. When it comes to African-American churches and their members, Paris sees limited usefulness in labeling them as liberal or conservative. These churches are “of one mind when it comes to their opposition against racial reasoning which has captivated historically the white churches and the white political domain.” But “does that make them liberal?” No. The churches are opposed to racism, and are “advocates of justice and equality on issues pertaining to race, but on issues pertaining to sexuality, they are to the right of Attila the Hun.” Summing up, he likened black churches to Roman Catholicism in their opposition to homosexuality and the ordination of women (though they take the latter position for different reasons).

Paris’s comments highlight another factor in the vote—religion. A postelection re-analysis of the vote absolved African Americans from voting disproportionately against same-sex marriage. Rather than the 70 percent that the exit poll reported, the study (by Patrick Egan and Kenneth Sherrill and released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) concluded that only 58 percent of African Americans and 59 percent of Latinos supported Proposition 8. The real opposition to same-sex marriage, the authors contend, came from those who attend religious services once a week (70 percent of that group voted for Prop 8). Egan and Sherrill argue that religiosity rather than ethnicity accounts for African-American and Latino opposition to gay marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received the bulk of criticism (and protests) for the passage of Prop 8, but logic would suggest that if religion is the leading factor, Catholics, Baptists, and Evangelicals played a strong role in fostering opposition to same-sex marriage. (See Robert K. Vischer’s “Bad Faith,” Commonweal, January 16.)

So was it religion or race that rallied the vote? Writing in Slate (November 14), Richard Thompson Ford, professor of law at Stanford and author of The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, argues in favor of a third factor—sex. In stating the obvious, Ford makes a point often lost in the controversy: “Same-sex marriage directly involves sex, and so popular attitudes about sex and gender—not race—are the ones that are most relevant to whether same-sex marriage bans rise or fall.” Again stating the obvious, he observes, “Traditional marriage isn’t just analogous to sex discrimination—it is sex discrimination: Only men may marry women, and only women may marry men. Same-sex marriage would transform an institution that currently defines two distinctive sex roles—husband and wife—by replacing those different halves with one sex-neutral role—spouse.” Ford speculates that “widespread opposition to same-sex marriage might reflect a desire to hang on to these distinctive sex roles rather than vicious antigay bigotry.” His thesis is supported by recent polls that show increasing support for equal rights for gays in employment and in the military, and in favor of same-sex unions, but continuing significant opposition to same-sex marriage (two-thirds of those polled were against it). “Gay rights in employment and civil unions don’t require the elimination of long-standing and culturally potent sex roles. Same-sex marriage does.” Though Ford favors legalization of same-sex marriage, he rejects the notion that opposition to gay rights is analogous to racism.

Legal resolution of deep-seated moral differences doesn’t always end moral conflict. U.S. history is rich in examples of this. The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery but not the oppressive conditions in which African Americans continued to live. The Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, resulted in the growth of organized crime, the sale of illegal alcohol, and ultimately repeal by the Twenty-first Amendment. Roe v. Wade hasn’t ended the political battles over the status of prenatal human life; if anything, the acrimony has grown since 1973.

Today, same-sex marriage stands in that queue awaiting legal recognition. Most Americans under sixty-five support legal recognition. If that trend holds, a change in the law is inevitable—at least in states with the liberal tendencies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. How the battle is fought will shape how the change is received. California’s divisive and ugly postelection controversy shows all the reasons why proponents ought to consider their expectations and assumptions while carefully examining the multiple factors that went into the yes vote.

Richard Ford offers sound advice: “Many same-sex marriage advocates have been talking past the people they need to convince: the large, moderate opposition that voted for sex difference, not homophobia. Dropping the oversimplified analogy between racism and homophobia would help same-sex marriage supporters make their case more effectively.” So would dropping the equation of religion and homophobia.

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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