What It Felt Like to Be Equal
by Judith Warner
I had barely finished sniffling over Barack Obama’s victory when I received an e-mail message from Amy Silverstein, the wife of my best friend from high school, Angela Padilla.
She had been glad to read last week’s piece on “the groundbreaking immensity of the election of our country’s first African-American president,” she said.
Up to a point.
“I wanted to make sure you knew and appreciated that despite this seeming like an amazing step forward for all who have suffered discrimination and/or who are deeply committed to eliminating it, this election was anything but that for G.L.B.T. people and our families,” she wrote. “Especially in California, but in three other states as well, the electorate convincingly voted to deny us basic civil rights and made clear that we are a long way from being seen and treated as equal. Protecting traditional marriage is simply code for discrimination. There is no ‘triumph’ for us, and the long period of pain, indignity and injustice continues.”
How strange, I’d thought, reading about how, on the day of progressive victories — Obama’s historic win, South Dakota voters’ rejection of a wide-ranging abortion ban, Californians voting down a ballot initiative that would have required parental notification for abortion — these states had passed such uniquely reactionary and discriminatory measures. How ugly. That’s really too bad.
And then I’d moved on. As most people who were not directly affected by the anti-gay rights measures did. There was just too much else to feel good about.
“I think the country was like, ‘Look, you get Obama, call it a day and go home,” is how Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic state representative in Arizona, who’d opposed her state’s anti-gay ballot initiative, put it to The Times last week.
Ed Swanson couldn’t move on.
The day after the election, the San Francisco lawyer and his husband, Paul Herman, a stay-at-home dad, had had to face the fact that Proposition 8 could mean that their marriage would be invalidated. They’d also had to go to parent conferences and tell the teachers that their five-year-old daughter, Liza, might be struggling in school because she was scared that her family might fall apart.
“They can’t take yours away, right?” she’d asked her parents. “They can’t take yours away when you have children, can they?”
“It’s difficult to explain to a five-year-old why it is people don’t want your parents to be married,” he continued. “They’re young enough that there was a chance they could have grown up thinking all their lives that their family was equal and accepted. Now they’re not going to have that chance. They’ll have to spend at least part of their lives knowing that their family is something that people don’t feel is acceptable.”
Jeanne Rizzo, the C.E.O. of the Breast Cancer Fund, can’t quite move on either. She spent election night in a reception room at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel. She and her long-term partner, Pali Cooper, were married in September, one of 18,000 California couples who managed to wed in the short space of time between the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage and the passage of Proposition 8.
In one room, Obama supporters were jubilant. In another, opponents of Proposition 4 — the parental notification initiative -– shouted their glee. In hers, the opponents of Proposition 8 saw their joy at Obama’s election turn quickly to “absolute disbelief and pain” as the results of the ballot initiative came in. “It was such a kick in the stomach. The whole hotel was just rocking with joy. We felt so disconnected from it,” Rizzo recalled when I talked to her on Wednesday.
It wasn’t that she begrudged Obama his victory. It was just that his historic triumph made the insult to her community all the more painful. An awful thought came to her that night: Now we’re the designated cultural outcasts. “It’s almost like we’re the last group you can be openly bigoted about,” she told me.
“You look around and you think more than half of the people in this state voted to take this away from us? At a time when we’re celebrating the election of an African American to the White House? I don’t know how you heal from it,” she said. “It’s hard to get it out of your bones.”
“I don’t think I had realized until then what it felt like to be equal,” Swanson told me. “Paul and I went on a honeymoon in Santa Fe. People would ask and we’d say we’re on our honeymoon; we just got married. We could say it not because it was a political statement but because it was a fact.
“I don’t feel equal anymore. It was a great feeling, while it lasted.”