There are two sides to every coin. On Nov. 4, even as the nation elected its first black president, California was banning same-sex marriage. The seeming juxtaposition of the two events the collapse of one barrier to equality and the erection of another left many of us shaking our heads in confusion. Had we stepped both forwards and backwards at the same time?
As home of environmentalism and the free speech movement (not to mention hippies, Ronald Reagan and suntans), California is seen as a trend-setter for the rest of the country: as goes the West, so goes the rest. So when the states highest court ruled in May that same-sex marriage was lawful, it seemed like the beginning of the end for the traditionalist movement it was only a matter of time before bells would be ringing across the country for groom-groom and bride-bride weddings.
But now, with the passing of Proposition 8, same-sex marriage in our biggest state is dead. What are we to make of this sudden reversal on gay rights?
The question is tied inextricably to our characteristically American notion of progress. From the very founding of our country, Americans have viewed history as a straight line towards the bigger and the better. Take the wildly popular 19th Century notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the West belonged to the United States simply by fate, or the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, which held as one of its basic assumptions that equality was inevitable.
This same notion is at the heart of the pro-gay rights movement. Same-sex marriage is seen as the next logical step in the chain of progress that began with the Emancipation Proclamation and continued through the 19th Amendment and the March on Washington: the question is not if, but when. Scott Tucker, communications director of the gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans, said it best when he warned in September that conservatives were at risk of being on the wrong side of history.
But what exactly does it mean to be on the right or wrong side of the history? Such an idea assumes that the progress of history is inherently good, that the changes made from one generation to the next will always be for the better. Is this really true?
The evidence, at least in Americas case, seems to be overwhelming. Compared to the United States of 1908, our nation today is exponentially freer, richer and more connected. Despite the negative effects that an obsession with material goods and an ever-more dubious foreign policy may have wrought, one would be hard pressed to argue that our society is worse off today than it was in the past. This is a generalization, of course: history has not been kind to the Native Americans, for example, and the progress of time has certainly been detrimental the environment. If we turn our gaze to the rest of the world, we need only look at Africa to see that change can be awful.
But gay rights activists are not theoreticians of history. Their concerns are limited to the arena of political change, and in that arena at least the positive influence of time seems obvious. To paraphrase an unusually poetic passage from Obamas victory speech, the arc of history is bending the activists way. Parallels between their struggle today and the civil rights efforts of the past century (specifically the fight for interracial marriage) are strong. In both cases, the prejudice of the majority was slowly worn down by continuous agitation until the once-unthinkable seemed normal and just. (Civil rights supporters often find themselves in the odd position of wanting at once to destroy the prejudice and ignominy of the past and to embrace historical patterns). Consider the issue from a purely statistical standpoint: According to a CBS poll, only 17 percent of Americans age65 and older support gay mrriage; for the 18-29 demographic, the rate is 40 percent. The last number isnt stunning, but its a sure sign that the gay marriage movement is on the right side of history. Such a belief quickly turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why, then, the defeat in California? One of the sad ironies of this years election was that the very people excited by a chance to elect a minority like themselves as president, namely blacks and Latinos, were likely the ones who made the difference in the 52-48 vote. The chance for a previously underrepresented group of voters to realize one dream of the civil rights movement inspired them to hit the polls and destroy another.
But theres still hope for the future. John Steinbeck, that quintessentially American (and Californian) writer, once argued for the belief in the perfectibility of man. Although there may be some hiccups along the way, were getting closer; even if the agents of discrimination and bigotry carried the day this time, the odds are against them. And whether they like it or not, we are all perfectible.