Last week I spent a considerable amount of time watching videos about Barack Obama. The BBC has quite a few on iPlayer. Admittedly his inauguration hasn’t sparked quite the fever pitch of video hits that his election did: I dimly recall a catchy Obama themed song on Youtube by the imaginatively named ‘Obama Girl’ that I couldn’t dislodge from my waking mind for love nor money. Nonetheless, everyone is still drunk on the euphoria that the word ‘Obama’ now seems to induce. I won’t kill the good feeling just yet. Rhetoric about the ‘historical’ nature of his election has become platitudinous; superfluous but nonetheless true.
I live in hope that the next four years will be a time of immense positive change. God knows the world needs it. I was present on Wednesday at the start of Warwick’s first round-the-clock sit-in for roughly seven years. Its aim being to show solidarity for the victims of the Gazan conflict, whilst providing an opportunity for debate, education and discussion. The determination encapsulated in this action –lecture theatres are, after all, not comfortable places to spend the night- is matched by the desperation of the situation in Israel and Palestine. If ever a more arduous foreign policy issue presented itself it would likely be accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Indeed, Israel is just one area in which Mr. Obama will be tested; our precious and ephemeral hope could yet evolve into cynicism or vindication.
Now let me kill the good feeling, if I haven’t already. Obama enjoys the luxury of a sympathetic House, so he may yet manage to invoke some much-needed social reform in the USA’s healthcare system, or in education. All of this is positive. But amidst the glow of hope, positivity and change there is an insidious fault-line of bigotry. This statement is neither profound nor shocking, but usually when we think of social barriers like sexism, racism and homophobia it is accompanied with a sense of progress; the sense that we are, albeit incrementally, winning the fight; moving in the right direction; taking a sledge hammer to the glass ceiling. In a legislative sense this is historically borne out.
Unfortunately, history was made on November 4 for more than one reason. The second being altogether less savoury than Obama’s resounding victory. Admittedly it was two months ago now, but do you remember Proposition Eight? Proposition Eight was a proposal for a constitutional amendment in the state law of California. It aimed to stipulate that marriage be limited to heterosexual couples only. It would add a meagre fourteen additional words of text, though its impact would undoubtedly be huge. Alas, as the USA shattered one seemingly impervious glass ceiling, Californian voters surreptitiously repaired another by voting ‘yes’ on Proposition Eight. The margin was close –over six million voters amounting to forty-seven percent voted against the measure- but ultimately meaningless; the end result is the same.
By withholding from gays and lesbians the right to marriage they are essentially being denied equal rights with heterosexuals, and treated as second-class citizens. The fact that informal discrimination is being legitimised and codified in the state constitution suggests we have not come nearly as far we thought in attempting to eradicate prejudice. According to a number of ‘yes on eight’ websites, around sixty percent of Californian voters had already been recorded in previous ballots as considering the term ‘marriage’ applicable only between a man and a woman. The sixty percent figure would seem to overstate the numeric force behind the opinion though, given the November 4 ballot was so close.
It is sad to think that democracy is still wedded to a horrendously sub-standard level of voter education. It is hard to see how, even in America –where deeply ingrained Christian conservatism holds strong- this measure could have passed, if only the myths that surrounded it had been exploded. I offer a choice few, none of which had any grounding in reality:
That children would be forcibly taught about same-sex marriage in school; that churches and ministers refusing to condone or perform the ritual itself would have tax-exemption benefits revoked; that it is inherently un-American. To the first charge, Californian law holds sacrosanct the right of parents to remove their child from ‘health and family’ education. To the second, a recent court decision regarding marriage specifically states that ‘no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.’ The final charge is merely absurd. Equality under the law is a constitutional right. Surely the epitome of American values?
More recently, anti-gay groups have been pushing for the amendment to be made retroactive, affecting any same-sex marriage prior to its introduction. It sickens me that so little outrage has been voiced at this shameful abrogation of civil rights. How will Obama be able to help solve a Middle Eastern humanitarian crisis when constitutionally guaranteed rights in his own country are eroded before his eyes? I suppose that given his message of being a uniting force, an issue that could very well dig up the sordid State Rights v. Federal Government intervention debacle will be anathema. We can only hope that it doesn’t get swept under the carpet in a bid for superficial national ‘unity’. To ignore this matter is to stumble at the very first hurdle, and undermine the goal itself. Unity of a people, -their cooperation and affinity- cannot be built without the equality under law of that same people. If Obama is to be the modern day Messiah that many see him as, his first mission must lie inside America. Genuine calls for justice demand more than lip-service answers.