Blogger's note: This is the first in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. That DOMA and Prop 8 cases are soon to go before the Supreme Court is what reminded me of this piece.
Yesterday, Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, was struck down by a federal appeals court in San Francisco. Gay rights supporters erupted in celebration, though those paying close attention to the decision were quick to point out that,
“. . . the Ninth Circuit did not hold that same-sex couples have a It held that In California, a state court decision in 2008 had held that the state constitution required the state to allow same-sex marriage.”
I was living in California when Prop 8 was passed—in Oakland. It passed the same day Obama was elected president, making it a bittersweet day. Many in the Bay Area reflexively blamed Southern California for Prop 8. Yes, Southern California is more conservative than Northern California and yes, voters there approved the measure at a much higher rate, but according to the by-county breakdown data, nearly 25% of San Francisco voters and a little more than 38% of Alameda County voters, where Oakland is located, voted for it. Now those percentages are certainly low, but given the population and history of San Francisco and Oakland, I was surprised and reminded SoCal haters that maybe “no one they knew” voted for it but with one in four voters in San Francisco and one in three in Alameda County voting “yes”, somebody in their community certainly did.
Prop 8 passed in 2007 at least in part because its proponents were more organized and funded. For one, opponents of Props 8 did a lousy job with their ad campaign against it. Furthermore, if the numbers in San Francisco and Oakland were any indication, would be naysayers were complacent. Many people who might have voted against the measure didn’t even make it the polls. Especially powerful, however, was the myth perpetrated by Proposition 8 supporters that if it did not pass, children would be “taught gay marriage (whatever that means), or even to be gay, in public schools. So some voters who might ordinarily have voted with a “live and let live” attitude instead took exception to the possibility of their own children being taught to live as others might choose to live.
The American Prospect's Abby Rappaport holds up happenings in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, among other places, as another reason for hope beyond the Proposition 8 defeat. In this particular case, I would be far more cautious. The night before yesterday’s ruling, I happened to read this article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone about Anoka-Hennepin, which is about 30 miles north of Minneapolis and is part of Michelle Bachmann’s district. Before it came up for re-evaluation in 1994, health teachers in Anoka-Hennepin were allowed to teach that homosexuality was normal, but after reconsideration, the policy held the opposite. Any discussions or even mentions of homosexuality stopped. Despite student and parental complaints, students who intimidated and assaulted apparently LGBTQ and LGBTQ-perceived students went undisciplined. After an epidemic of suicides, lawsuits, and pressure, in 2009 the district modified the policy again to one of “neutrality,” which while better still came across ambiguously to educators. Finally, this past December, there was a proposal to eliminate the policy altogether. To note, the school district released a statement which disputes Erdely’s portrayal, calling it “grossly distorted.”
Anoka-Hennepin’s latest policy, which seeks to “prevent teachers from influencing students on controversial topics,” is merely a small step in the right direction, away from a policy that led to often brutal and shameful treatment of a certain class of kids. Educators couldn’t mention the word “gay,” couldn’t discipline students for bullying students for being gay, had to engage in de facto don’t ask, don’t tell about their own sexuality, and couldn’t teach about anyone or anything gay. Kids were beaten, abused, and killed themselves—neither Rappaport’s post or the Minnesota Public Radio piece Rappaport links to mentions any of these specifics. Certainly, the district should be applauded for finally taking this step and certainly, according to Erdely, some school board members and teachers union members there were against the policy from the get go, but that’s a far cry from district leaders being champions of civil rights for LGBTQ kids. Calling identifying as LGBT or Q “controversial” still implies that it could be wrong. Can it be said that being a girl is controversial? A Latino? A Muslim? Of course, students are free to think that being gay is wrong, but when they go through public school doors, they shouldn’t be allowed to behave as such, to discriminate against, threaten, or harm other students based on those beliefs.
That Proposition 8 was struck down is a victory for gay rights, but until we tackle the codification and teaching of discrimination against LGBTQ people—this after all was essentially how Prop 8 was passed, by tapping into people’s fears of their children being exposed to the concept of homosexuality—the struggle will continue. If teachers are not supposed to be impartial while mediating issues stemming from racism, then why should they be impartial in matters of homophobia? Hate is hate, quite objectively.