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California’s Politics Can Be Generous or Bigoted

The victory of Barack Obama was muted in California, as his historic election was accompanied by the passage of Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage. While lots of other states have outlawed marriage between same sex couples, this is … Read More

By / November 20, 2008

The victory of Barack Obama was muted in California, as his historic election was accompanied by the passage of Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage.

While lots of other states have outlawed marriage between same sex couples, this is the first time that the rights of gays have been rolled back. More than 18,000 couples got married this spring and summer after the California Supreme Court overturned an earlier amendment that banned on same-sex marriage. Those marriages are now in limbo, and future gay marriages are again taboo.

Now I have many friends who are gay and who have been involved in long term relationships. Many of them had filed for domestic partner status with the state or various cities. Some of them had even rushed down to San Francisco’s City Hall in 2004 after Gavin Newsom ordered the city government to start marrying people.

Some of these people took advantage of the brief opening in California law to get legally married. And as a straight person, it seemed strange at first to refer to the partner of a friend as her wife. But seconds later, it was wonderful, because she really was her wife. She wasn’t some other kind of semantically-challenged partner — but an actual wife. It seemed revolutionary and obvious at the same time.

That right is now gone. And it has hit people hard. While much of California is delighted over Obama’s election, residents here also have a sense that we are a state of bigots, of one group willing to deny others their rights.

http://www.gender.no/News/6263/ekteskapsloven.jpgOf course California has a long history of denying people their rights. In the mid-19th century, the Chinese who had come to the west to build the transcontinental railroad were vilified. They were called “Celestials” and were ascribed horrible habits and morals. In 1871, in fact, residents in the small city of Los Angeles rioted against the Chinese. They lynched and killed 19 Chinese men, even hanging some of them from a gate post. California – and the country’s – history is littered with violent and mean acts against minorities. The passage of Proposition 8 is one more example of American intolerance.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court decided to review the legality of Proposition 8 using that rationale. The court wants to determine if the proposition uses majority rule to strip rights of a minority group. That action is considered discrimination and it is outlawed in the state constitution.

As soon as the judges indicated they would consider the case, however, conservative activists threatened to start a recall election against any judge who voted to overturn the gay marriage ban. That is blackmail.

Part of California’s problem is that it opened up the workings of government to its citizens in 1911 when it elected the Progressive Republican governor Hiram Johnson. He had run on a platform that criticized the dominance of the Southern Pacific Railroad and other business interests. To lesson the grip of industry, California offered citizens the right to recall politicians and circulate petitions and submit them to become law. Johnson also backed women’s suffrage and the direct election of U.S. Senators,

But the system has gone haywire in California in so many ways. Legislators now shy away from making hard decisions and passing tough bills. Instead, they punt and put the issues on the ballot.

Citizens can circulate initiative petitions. If they collect enough signatures the petitions are placed on the ballot to be voted on. This process has become an industry in California. Professional organizations hire people to collect signatures. All it takes is enough money. Now if you go to the grocery store, chances are that you will be approached by someone carrying a batch of various petitions on a variety of subjects and asked to sign.

But when these petitions are approved by voters and become law, they cannot be changed by elected officials, so bad laws stay on the books forever. The only recourse is the courts.

It will be at least six months before the California Supreme Court decides the legality of Proposition 8. We have the inauguration of Barak Obama in January to look forward to. I just hope that the generous nature of California, rather than the bigoted one, ultimately prevails.

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.

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