California Gay Leaders Assess Marriage Defeat

Last week's passing of Proposition 8 is the latest development in an ongoing battle among California voters over gay marriage. California's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in May. The new provision overturns the court's decision by amending the state constitution to specifically define marriage as being between a man and a woman. A roundtable of guests familiar with Proposition 8 discuss why the provision failed, sparking an emotional reaction.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, many reporters called it the most exciting presidential race of their professional lives. But for many African-American reporters, the 2008 race brought out some of the most complicated emotions of their lives. A roundtable with some of the country's most prominent African-American journalists. We'll talk about objectivity, being a reporter of color and reporting on a black president in just a few minutes.

But first, speaking of complicated emotions, in one way, election night was a bitter one for thousands of gay couples in California and across the country. California voters decisively approved a ballot measure called Proposition 8, which amends the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The ballot measure overturned a previous court decision that had legalized gay marriage in the state and prompted some 18,000 same-sex couples to marry in just the four months leading up to Tuesday's election.

We wanted to talk about the implications of Prop 8, as well as some of the political tensions that have arisen since it passed. To do that, I'm joined by Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal. It's a national gay rights organization. He joins us from our New York bureau. And Reverend Deborah Johnson joins us on the phone from her home near Santa Cruz. She's the senior pastor and founder of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel, California, and she was among those fighting to keep Prop 8 from becoming law. Also joining us from NPR West in Culver City we have Brian Watt. He is a reporter with member station KPCC who covered the story. Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BRIAN WATT: Thank you.

Mr. JON DAVIDSON (Legal Director, Lambda Legal): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Brian, I want to start with you because I think many people are surprised. They see California as a politically progressive state, and I think that some people were surprised that California voters would vote to do away with the right to marriage. So how do you analyze this? What happened?

WATT: Well, I think a lot of people are surprised here in California, as well. There was this sense shortly after June 17th when same-sex couples could begin marrying and did began marrying that no one would vote to take away rights that were clearly established. But the truth of the matter is, the Yes on 8 Campaign, they ran a very, very effective campaign, a very effective media strategy that got a lot of people thinking about it in a different way. I think that the No on Proposition 8 Campaign counted on Barack Obama's coattails to bring a lot of young people to the polls but wasn't quite ready for what was going to happen in some of the minority communities, particularly the African-American community, in the way that community would break in favor of Proposition 8.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that, if you would, because a lot of people - I think there was some discussion before the vote about what African-American voters would do. On the one hand, a big turnout was expected, as you said, to support Senator Obama. But there was a lot of activism on both sides of the issue. So how did African-American voters and Latino voters move in this?

WATT: Well, African-American voters, by a lot of exit polls, supported Proposition 8, seven African-American voters in 10. I even saw a number that said 75 percent of African-American women voters supported Proposition 8. And I kind of saw it starting to happen when I went out to Norwalk, which is the only place here in Los Angeles County where people could vote early. It was a largely minority crowd, a lot of African-Americans waiting hours and hours to vote. And when I interviewed particularly the older women, you know, one of them said, I would get out of my deathbed to come and do this vote. And I thought that she was talking about Barack Obama. But when I said, well, you know, tell me more, she said, oh, I'm here to support Proposition 8, and essentially started to tick off just about everything you had heard in the Yes on Proposition 8 Campaign's ads: educating school children about gay marriage and even the remarks by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whether they like it or not. It almost was if these notions had been sort of pumped into her while she slept.

MARTIN: So there was no doubt she understood what she was voting on. There was no confusion.

WATT: No. She was not confused at all. She was very, very opposed to the notion of same-sex couples getting married.

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson, let's turn to you. You've been a spokesperson for the No on 8 Campaign. You were working to get other African-American clergy like yourself to oppose Prop 8 and you, yourself, also just got married during this period. This must be very hard for you.

Reverend DEBORAH JOHNSON (Senior Pastor and Founder, Inner Light Ministries): It is extremely hard, and I'd like to do a friendly amendment to what we just heard about that the African-American community knew exactly what it was doing. I'm not sure that they knew exactly that they were doing a Constitutional amendment and what exactly that meant in terms of democracy and how that could turn around and in fact hurt them.

The election night was absolutely surreal. On the one hand, there was extreme elation from everybody all around, including myself, about President-elect Obama being elected, which I still am greatly appreciative of. And it was very, very hard to watch Proposition 8 win, especially the vote about the black community.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the black vote was decisive here, was dispositive(ph)? I understand that Prop 8 won by four percentage points. So do you think that the black vote made the difference?

Reverend JOHNSON: I think that the black community is getting scapegoated in that. The black community was not the one that put up the millions of dollars to put all of the distorted ads on the television. But what I think that we are seeing here is the evidence of a schism that now exists in the black community between its civil rights leaders and the state community. They used to be one and the same, but they aren't anymore. So you have the same people who are coming out to vote for Barack Obama, but Barack Obama was solidly as a constitutional lawyer against Proposition 8.

And what we're seeing now is that there's a greater influence that's happening in base communities that are aligning more with traditional-values coalitions, which are much more conservative, and they're not really listening to their civil rights leaders, their politicians, the media, the people who participate in the broader social-justice movement, who are trying to show them the interconnectedness between this and their own fate.

MARTIN: Jon Davidson, let's bring you into the conversation. What happens to all of those couples like Reverend Johnson and her partner who got married during this period? Are these marriages still valid?

Mr. DAVIDSON: We believe the marriages are still valid, and the California attorney general agrees with us. Proposition 8 did not say that it was retroactive, and there's a presumption against applying measures retroactively.

MARTIN: What about people who in Connecticut and Massachusetts still allow same-sex marriages? Does this mean that you can marry in those states but do other states not have to recognize them?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes. There's no residency requirement anymore in Massachusetts, and there's none in Connecticut, where same-sex couples will be able to get married starting Wednesday. Some states will honor those marriages. For example, New York clearly will treat those marriages as valid. But the majority of states have constitutional amendments or statutes that say they will not honor those marriages.

MARTIN: What about people who are married in California who move somewhere else? What happens?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Again, we believe those marriages are valid. They will be honored, we believe, in New York. Most states will not honor them. This is all going to end up in litigation at some point.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question, which is, what's the next step legally on both sides?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, right now, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit directly with the California Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8. We believe it is actually a revision of the Constitution rather than an amendment. California's Constitution sets up two different procedures, and for measures that make a fundamental change in the underlying principles of the Constitutional or change the governmental plan, it cannot go directly to a vote of the people. It has to first to go through the legislature and be approved by two-thirds of each House. That wasn't done here, and we believe, therefore, it is an invalid measure.

MARTIN: But presumably, wasn't that vetting done in advance of the measure being placed on the ballot or is it common for people to raise questions after the fact?

Mr. DAVIDSON: There have been a number of measures that have been struck down after the fact. We did ask the court to remove the measure from the ballot. It denied that request but not on the merits, and so we're free to raise it again. We believe the court previously didn't act because they thought the measure might not pass.

MARTIN: And I want to go back to Brian Watt and to Reverend Johnson on this question of sort of the tensions among - between African-American voters and gay voters over this question. Brian Watt, how is this playing out? I mean, you've seen on the message boards, for example, and some of the newspapers who've reported on this issue and some of the blogs that address issues pertaining to a gay rights and so forth, talking about the sense of hurt and anger over the feeling that African-American voters abandoned the gay community in this. How is this playing out politically in California?

WATT: Well, I definitely begin to hear a lot of what Reverend Johnson is saying. African-Americans don't want to be scapegoated. There is also this sense that maybe the African-American vote is not as sizable, as big of a percentage of the overall turnout that put Proposition 8 over. So there are African-Americans saying, now, wait. Wait. This is really not our fault. And you know, you can feel those tensions. I do even hear from inside the No on Proposition 8 Campaign, you know, insiders saying they're a little bit worried about where the language is going at anti-Proposition 8 rallies.

MARTIN: What do you mean? Give me an example.

WATT: Well, I mean, I can read - let's see, one thing that somebody said: Shame on you. You've been through the same thing. Same on you.

A little bit of worries about the N word cropping up in some of these rallies. I mean, this is stuff you hear privately. You hear it sort of below the line. It's not something that I'm seeing rise into the press, but you can feel it kind of either working itself out or starting to bubble over.

MARTIN: Reverend Johnson, I wanted to ask you - we only have a minute left. We're going to take a short break, and we're going to continue our conversation in a moment after that. But I don't know if you read that Jasmyne Cannick's piece in the L.A. Times over the weekend. She is a lesbian activist, a longtime sort of political activist and a blogger. And she wrote that she can understand why this measure was not successful, at least among African-African voters, because she feels that the people who are opposing Proposition 8 did not make an effective outreach to the African-American community. They did not effectively address the religious concerns that many African-American voters had. And in fact, that the face of 8, as it were, was not one that resonated in the African-American community. Thought about that?

Reverend JOHNSON: Well, unfortunately, I would have to concur, but the problem here is that it isn't just about Proposition 8. I mean, it's a problem that we have within the broader gay community where the face of the community does not reflect people of color. So what you have happening in the African-American community is a lot of times when they hear the word gay, they think white. So this was a referendum about race and privilege, in their mind, much more so even then it was about sexuality.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, as I mentioned. But when we return, we're going to continue our conversation about Proposition 8. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, we talk to African-American journalists about their experiences covering this historic campaign.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the passage of Proposition 8 in California last week. It defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman, making California one of 30 states to adopt a ban on same-sex marriage. We wanted to talk about what this means about the future of same-sex marriage in this country.

We're speaking with Jon W. Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal - it's a national gay rights organization; the Reverend Deborah Johnson, senior pastor and founder of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel, California - she fought to oppose Proposition 8; and Bryan Watt, a reporter with KPCC - member station KPCC. Thank you all again for staying with us.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Jon Davidson, I wanted to ask, what about a federal challenge? Would gay rights groups who want to see this go before the Supreme Court?

Mr. DAVIDSON: We don't think we're ready yet to go before the federal courts and particularly the Supreme Court. We're trying to move the country through education and to lead the way for the court to see that this is the right thing to do. We have a case going in Iowa right now that's scheduled to be heard by the Iowa Supreme Court December 9th, that Lambda Legal won at the trial court. We think there's going to be legislative advances in New Jersey, perhaps New York, and following that, perhaps Vermont.

MARTIN: What about - what about you, Reverend Johnson? What would you like to see happen now?

Reverend JOHNSON: What I would like to see happen is some real education. What we have seen for literally about the past two decades now, the black community being used as a pawn, being used as a wedge by the conservative right to try to carve gay and lesbian people out of the broader civil rights movement with the perception that the black community are the gatekeepers.

There's just been whittling away at traditional alliances to get the black community to turn its back on the gay community, creating sort of a sibling rivalry over oppressions and who deserves what and who deserves what right. And unfortunately, a lot of that has been working to the extent that there are measures like Proposition 8 that just passed where the implications of Prop 8 passing are so dramatic in terms of the ability for the majority to take away the rights of the minority that African-Americans are putting their own selves at peril because the people who are back behind these measures have had no love for black people.

You know, case in point, $15 million from the Mormon Church for Proposition 8. And they have not been known historically to be lovers and embracers of black people. And they're taking that exclusionary position and using it against gay people now, and African-Americans are following suit and in fact doing the same thing to the gay people that's been done to them historically.

MARTIN: Brian Watt, let me ask you - we're just down to our last couple of minutes, and I want to talk about where this whole conversation goes from here. But Brian, Reverend Johnson mentioned that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints contributed heavily to the campaign to support Proposition 8. What about supporters of Proposition 8? Where do they go next? There are already 30 states that have banned gay marriage. Arkansas also banned adoption by same-sex couples on Election Day last week. Where do supporters of the ban on gay marriage go next?

WATT: I'm not sure which state they go to next, but here in California it's really going to be all about beating back the legal challenges to Proposition 8, continuing to build a coalition that is sort of ready. What I thought was interesting as I sort of studied how the church community was sort of dealing with Proposition 8 before the election was that for every church that was out there - I mean, there's no doubt that the Mormon Church was extremely active, extremely, you know, lots of money, lots of activism, lots of phone banking, standing on street corners with signs - there was also a faction within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that protested the larger church's actions. The same was true with the Seventh Day Adventists. So there are little pockets inside these churches that say, no, you know, we're looking at this a very, very different way.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify one thing because I think it is the case that the church as an entity did not contribute, but individual members who are affiliated with the church were very active in the Prop 8 Campaign.

Finally, in just the minute we have left, Jon Davidson, I wanted to ask about what you think this means, this current situation in California means nationally. As we said, 30 states already have a marriage ban. Is this a situation where perhaps the lead opinion is simply ahead of what the public is willing to accept? You know, on the one hand, you see a trend in recent years of younger people being very much supportive of same-sex marriage rights or just the rights of gay people in general. So how did you assess what this means sort of culturally and politically?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think we are making progress, not withstanding the passage here. Eight years ago, there was statutory initiative that passed 61 to 39 percent. Prop 8 only passed 52 to 48. So we are making progress. There are ten states now that recognize same-sex relationships in some way, and seven years ago there were none. So I think we have to put this in context. There's a lot more educational work to do, and we need to do more education. Fifty-seven percent of college-educated voters voted no, whereas 58 percent without a college education voted yes. So clearly, we need to educate more people about why marriage equality is the right path for the United States.

MARTIN: And we're going to have to leave it there. Jon Davidson is a legal director for Lambda Legal. It's a national gay rights organization, and he was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. The Reverend Deborah Johnson is the senior pastor of Inner Light Ministries in Soquel, California. She was kind enough to join us by phone from her home. And Brian Watt is a reporter for Southern California Public Radio, and joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

Reverent JOHNSON: Thank you.

WATT: Thanks.

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