President Obama affirmed how most gay Americans view our cause when he traced the LGBT rights movement along the esteemed lineage of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” This historical positioning may be appropriate for the century-and-a- half-old concept of gay liberation, but our recent advances for marriage equality are starting to feel more befitting a future installment of VH1’s “I Love the [Insert Decade].”
Same-sex marriage has become as much a cultural fad in 2014 as Candy Crush Saga or “Gangnam Style” were in preceding years. The progress we’ve made at the U.S. Supreme Court and in states from Pennsylvania to Utah has been historic, but it also undermines our claims that we are engaged in the human rights struggle of our lifetime.
Exhibit A is “The Case Against 8,” a new HBO documentary that chronicles one of the most significant developments in the marriage wars: the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8. It is a charming and insightful film, and a feel-good profile of the attorneys and plaintiffs who overturned the hateful ballot initiative that was approved in 2008.
What it didn’t seem to be was a story about a human rights struggle.
For one, the pinnacle of most liberation movements is not usually reached over catered lunches and iced coffees, and such struggles tend to encounter more resistance than a half-hearted cross-examination or a homophobic voicemail left by an intoxicated caller. I’m not sure anyone can or should be blamed that the course of our movement involves legal strategy and public relations rather than hunger strikes and guerilla warfare, but we should at least practice restraint when thrusting our plight atop the rankings of global oppression.
In one scene during “The Case Against 8,” an expert witness for the pro-gay litigators reminds us—once again—that the scope and severity of the legal discrimination that LGBT folks encounter is incomparable, as if he were unfamiliar with Jim Crow, the War on Drugs or our nation’s vile history of immigration policies.
During a testimony practice session, neo-con-turned-queer-loving attorney Ted Olson asks namesake plaintiff Kris Perry to describe the instances she has been discriminated against due to her sexual orientation. To my memory, Perry offers not a single anecdote.
The documentary itself is a heroic tale that desperately needs a villain, as it’s never quite clear who the oppressor is.
When the legal challenge to Prop 8 was filed, the state government of California refused to defend the law. When the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal government refused to defend the law, with the Obama administration intervening on behalf of the gay rights litigants. The movie’s primary antagonist was the uber-obscure Hak-Shing William Tam, who lobbied for Prop 8 among the 10 percent of the California electorate of Asian descent, a group that narrowly defeated the ballot initiative.
Rarely has a Goliath so meekly surrendered; yet the makers of “The Case Against 8” never stray from their against-all-odds story arc.
Today’s same-sex marriage wins are vital, and are largely an aftershock of the gratuitous bigotry of the past decade. It was the issue our opponents challenged us on, and after absorbing early bruises, we are annihilating them.
But it’s a shame how the fight for marriage has devoured the rest of our movement, to the point where many LGBT folks and outsiders consider it to be our ultimate goal. A piece of paper and a pretty ring do not protect transgender riders on MARTA, or prevent a gay man from being assaulted at Detroit’s Gay Pride, or guarantee that same-sex couples can show their love in public without being attacked.
There is indeed a revolution awaiting us once we’ve finished toasting champagne and eating wedding cake.