“I felt as though a baseball bat had hit me”: a community prays, reflects, on Prop 8
on November 4, 2009
On Monday evening, nearly a year after California voters approved Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to bar same-sex marriages, a gathering of people who had hoped for a different outcome exchanged hugs and how-are-you’s on the steps of Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. “This time last year I felt as though a baseball bat had hit me in the stomach, in the gut,” said the Reverend Roland Stringfellow, the presiding pastor and an African-American gay man.
The interfaith worship service, the pastor said, was intended to provide healing those disappointed by last year’s election results. But it was also meant to offer “prayers of solidarity for our brothers and sisters in Maine and Washington,” where similar bills were on the ballot on November 3. Despite demonstrations like this vigil in Oakland, on Tuesday Maine became the 31st state to prohibit gay marriage through a voter initiative. (The measure in Washington failed.)
The history of gay marriage in California is a path strewn with legislation—created, revoked and re-phrased. In 2000 California citizens voted for Proposition 22, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Four years later, mayor Gavin Newsom permitted the city of San Francisco to issue same-sex marriage licenses, although these weddings were halted by the California upreme ourt one month later. The unions were declared “void and of no legal effect” by the state Supreme Court that fall. The California Assembly tried to approve same-sex marriage in 2005, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the decision because of Proposition 22.
Then in June 2008, the state Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22, ushering in a five-month period in which same sex marriage was legal in California. Finally, the passage of Proposition 8 a year ago today made it illegal again, although marriages conducted earlier that year have been allowed to stand.
Proposition 8 enjoyed strong backing from some secular political groups like the National Organization for Marriage, which on its web site states that although “gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.” But much support for Proposition 8 was mobilized by religious groups and leaders, including both the Mormon and Catholic churches. In an interview this summer with Catholic Radio International, the Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, Bishop of the diocese of Oakland and an influential supporter of Proposition 8, said, “The ultimate attack of the Evil One is the attack on marriage — if you take marriage apart, everything comes unraveled.”
A local Catholic leader reached by phone this week elaborated on the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “There are two different views of marriage,” said Bill May, chairman of Catholics for the Common Good, a religious policy and citizen group based in San Francisco. “One is that it’s an institution for adults in committed relationships for the benefit of adults. The other is that it unites—it’s a relationship between—a man and woman, with children that spring from the relationship. These two views are incompatible. And we think there’s a public interest in promoting traditional marriage.”
But there is conflict within religious communities over the issue of same-sex marriage, and the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church owes its current existence to this tension. Pastor Jim Hopkins says that the church, which was founded in 1860, split from the American Baptist Church in 1996 when it decided that not welcoming gay people into the congregation was against its identity of “welcoming all people” Hopkins said.
“We preach grace. We practice mercy, and we pursue peace,” he said. “This evening is an extension and a representation of that.”
The church’s Roland Stringfellow is the leader of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations, a group of more than 200 Bay Area congregations that actively welcome gay and lesbian worshipers. Stringfellow said that the paucity of religious leaders visibly opposing Proposition 8, during the run-up to the election last year, partly explains why it passed.
At Monday’s service, about a hundred people gathered at the church to pray with, and receive blessings from, representatives of more than a half-dozen religious faiths, including Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Native American and Buddhist traditions. A gospel choir sang as the crowd clapped along, readers shared passages from different scriptural materials, and the crowd joined in a moment of Zen meditation.
Zoe Holder, speaking on behalf of the Native American traditions, described a different “American traditional” marriage. She spoke about the idea of the “two-spirited” person found in many tribes, and said that transgendered and gay people living in California 200 years ago could live openly in the manner that they chose. She said tribes in California supported their gay and transgendered members when early Californian settlers tried to change the lifestyle of these people. “This land contains many memories of struggles,” she said. The congregation responded with open applause.
The service aimed to celebrate love, several of the speakers said, but it was also a reconciliation reconciliation aimed at what is so frequently framed as a “religious” issue. Perhaps more fundamentally, it asked whether being openly gay is incompatible with being religious. “At the center of the oppression and bigotry against homosexuals and transgendered individuals are faith-based arguments,” Stringfellow said. “We want to stand up on behalf of faith traditions, and uphold the humanity of all people to love who they choose.”
For Emeryville resident James Morris, the articulation of spirituality and gay rights has been a personal journey of redefinition. The graying, bespectacled man grew up in a Mormon family in the Bay Area, he said, when he stood before the congregation to share his testimony. “When I came out of the closet as a graduate student at UC Berkeley and began living openly as a gay man, part of me went into the closet,” he said. That part was his religious faith.
Being gay in the Mormon Church was regarded as a sin, he said. “I had no idea there was another gay Mormon. I thought I was the only one,” he said. A boyfriend introduced him to Affirmation, a group of gay Mormons and their allies who now campaign for gay rights across America and the world. For Morris it offered community, but it was also a way to “reclaim those parts of my faith that I still found precious.” It helped him look at “what it was to be gay and Mormon and re-define that,” he said.
For other supporters of gay marriage, like Progressive Jewish Alliance regional director Rachel Biale, the central issue is social justice for the whole society. “Part of the problem with the campaign is that we did not talk to enough people who disagree with us,” she said about the passing of Proposition 8 last year. Last year, Biale reached an impasse when she spoke with Orthodox Jewish communities, who – unlike reformed Jewish sects – disagree with same-sex marriage on religious grounds. But she hopes this year, by framing the issue to Orthodox communities as a legal issue rather than a religious one, the communities might reconsider their position.
But currently, only five states in the nation have made same-sex marriage legal. And although Oakland residents overwhelmingly voted against Proposition 8 last year — 69 percent voted against, with only 30 percent in favor — statewide the initiative’s supporters carried the vote by 52 to 47 percent.
Several religious groups hailed Tuesday’s vote in Maine to ban same-sex marriage as a step in the right direction. In Louisville, Kentucky, regional Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chairman of the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, hailed Maine’s decision by declaring, “The voice of the people in this country has spoken once again on the side of justice, in favor of the truth about marriage.”
Yet some East Bay residents hope that in time, gay marriage will once again be legal in California. Speaking after Tuesday’s vote, Morris said that although he’d been disappointed by the news from Maine, “at least Washington came through.” He added, “You and try and take it as an indicator that we need to get out there and do something. But it takes time.”
California supporters of gay marriage hope to put the issue before the voters again either in 2010 or 2012. A San Francisco trial date has also been set for January 2010, when a lesbian couple will challenge Proposition 8 on the grounds that it violates the women’s right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The group Catholics for Marriage Equality will also hold a rally this Saturday outside Oakland’s Catholic Cathedral, to confront the bishop over his vocal stand against gay marriage.
Back on Lakeshore Avenue the final chords of the church gospel choir’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” died away and the smiling singers returned to their pews. Seated in the front row, a baby with dark curly hair gurgled, and Martha Rynberg, her mother, moved to quiet her giggles as congregation members bent their heads in prayer. Her spouse, Mary Going, sat beside her, an arm protectively wrapped around the shoulder of their ten-year old daughter. This couple has been together for eleven years, the women said, and have been married for just over a year.
“Last November I learned two things,” Rynberg said, “Proposition 8 can’t touch my family. It can make things difficult, but it can’t touch the love that we have.”
Rynberg said, she also learned that those who voted for Proposition 8 should not be seen as evil or bad. “These people are afraid,” she said. “We must reach out to them–from our fears to theirs.”
Additional reporting by Lindsay Wasserberger and John Grennan.
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