14 October 2013

Movie Review: Inspired the Voices Against Prop 8


I have to admit that after watching this movie I feel like I am somewhat from a different epistemological epoch than the current popular culture when it comes to political activism.

The documentary is not about the political action leading up to the vote in the U.S. state of California on the constitutional amendment known as "Prop 8". Instead, this is a documentary about the seemingly spontaneous street demonstrations expressing rage and dissatisfaction over Prop 8 passing after the elect. In fact, the documentary doesn't seem to really get involved in the legal challenges to Prop 8 that occurred after either.

When I was younger, I always assumed the "story" about a political action was generally the actions various tactics taken by the masses agitating for some change by the targeted decision-maker. In this story, however, the story is about protests after the decision-maker (the voters of California) had already made their decision.

It was only on the fringes that some of the real issues with American LGBT communities and political action come to light and only marginally. The main coordinating groups opposing Prop 8 were highly centralized, were not connected to the grass roots and suffered from elitism and insularity (of that professional, educated, upper middle class gay variety).

Like the first two U.S. state constitutional amendment ballot processes involving same-sex marriage (Hawai'i and Alaska in 1998), the same sort of insularity guided the process. While the right wing extremists made strictly emotional appeals to common sense of the average voter, the professional upper class gay "political strategists" were busy executing a two-part strategy of lecturing voters on seemingly irrelevant historical analogies and invoking highly abstract philosophical arguments. Apparently, this political organizing strategy persisted for a decade in the culmination of defeat of protecting California's constitutional right to same-sex marriage in 2008.

As soon as defeat was clear, these same insular out-of-towners packed up their bags and headed back to Washington and New York to leave the grassroots enraged with the collective decision of their communities.

I kept thinking to myself, as I saw the various video of the after-the-fact street demonstrations, where the hell were these people before the election? In Alaska and Hawai'i of 1998, although polling seemed to indicate the constitutional ballot questions outcome would be close, I think everyone involved in that time thought the chances of preventing a ban on same-sex marriage was remote. Polling firms did not account for substantial minimization of reporting opposition to same-sex marriage in their poll designs.

Prominent community leaders failed to clearly and unambiguously express their support for same-sex marriage. And the right wing extremists who acted as proponents of the bans pulled out all of the stops in the final week leading up to election day in Alaska and Hawai'i. Who can forget that one catchy ad in Hawaii comparing same sex marriage to incest marriages and marrying one's dog? It was not a surprise that 69% of voters in Alaska and Hawai'i voted to ban same-sex marriage in 1998.

But in California, in 2008, same-sex marriage as a constitutional right had been recognized in US courts since 1993 (in Hawai'i). Massachusetts and California were actually performing same-sex marriages at the time of the election (with Connecticut set to "go live" a week after the election). Several other states had civil unions for same-sex couples.

So the biggest moral of the story for this documentary is that entitlement is the biggest obstacle to political progress in this world. It seemed by the end, though, that these somewhat spontaneous protests in the streets did get channeled into efforts that would lead to real goals, like repealing Prop 8. I shouldn't let my pessimism about the disorganization of the group get in the way of the fact that I'm happy that the producer of the film took as its primary subjects, activists of color who had been and were organizing the grass roots and had been shunned by the professional, insular upper class elites of the No on Prop 8 movement.

Of course, back in 1996, if you asked me, I would never imagine that same-sex marriage would become the lightning rod issue for the American LGBT movement. In fact, if someone were to recount this story to me, I would have criticized it as being reactionary science fiction with a internalized, homophobic religious twist! In the 1990s, the American LGBT market was just consolidating as a niche market and local and regional community newspapers were folding in favor of glossy national ones and it was only vaguely becoming clear that revolutionary sexuality was yielding in favor of the gay version of "normal".

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