On November 4th, 2008, Proposition 8 passed in California, eliminating the right to marry for same-sex couples. One year later, the rights of the LGBT community are again up for a popular vote, in Maine, Washington and Michigan.
As a straight ally in the fight for marriage equality, I am often asked why I work on the issue of marriage equality.
It was not something that I planned, and – honestly – it was not even something that I chose. As a civil rights lawyer, I have learned that our battles often choose us. And five years ago, when hundreds of Chinese Americans protested gay marriage in the San Gabriel Valley, which is the heart of the Los Angeles Asian American community, I was drawn into this particular battle.
The Chinese American protest was striking to me because 100 years ago, California had anti-miscegenation laws, banning marriage between different races. At that time, Asian immigrants were the largest minority population in the state – brought here to work on the railroads and in the fields. So California, unlike most other states, singled out Asian immigrants in its interracial marriage ban.
For me, knowing this history of discrimination against Asian Americans, it was difficult to watch members of my own community advocate discrimination against gays and lesbians – especially when the arguments used against gay marriage are nearly identical, word for word, as the arguments used against marriage to Asians not that long ago.
But perhaps more important is why I am still committed to this work, five years later, with no clear end in sight.
For public interest lawyers, the common theme running through what we work on is “how difficult is it to win” – the more difficult the issue, the more likely we are to work on it. One year ago, after Proposition 8 passed, I would have put marriage equality at the top of the list of “really, really hard issues to win.”
But amazingly, the same election results that are still so difficult to accept – because we really should have won – also offer a great lesson of hope and progress.
A few days after the 2008 election, my colleague at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center showed me the exit poll data he had gathered. The Legal Center has polled voters in Southern California for more than 15 years, tracking Asian American voting trends. In 2000, we polled Asian American voters on Proposition 22, the ballot measure that created a statutory ban on marriage equality.
The results were so abysmal – Asian Americans were split roughly 70/30 in favor of Prop 22, significantly worse than the general voters who were split 60/40 – that we never released that data.
Last year, California voters narrowed the gap between those that support and those that oppose marriage equality to 52/48, an impressive shift in eight years. Well, imagine our shock when we looked at our Prop 8 data and saw that Asian Americans voted 54/46 or nearly equal with all other voters – dramatically down from the 70/30 split in 2000. We quickly dug up our “forgotten” data.
For the non-math majors, here’s what happened: Overall, California voters narrowed the gap by 14 points in eight years – but Asian Americans narrowed the gap by 30 points in the same period of time.
It’s hard to pinpoint all of the causes for the dramatic shift – but it’s not a coincidence that during that 2000 to 2008 period, Asian American organizations like API Equality-LA, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and many others were engaged in a public education campaign to change hearts and minds in our community.
Every time I am disheartened by the setbacks on the road to equality – not just in marriage equality but in other social justice struggles – I look at that data and I realize that not only is change possible, but that together we can make change. And most importantly -- we as Asian Americans can make change.
For more information about API Equality-LA, a coalition of LGBT and allied organizations working on marriage equality, see www.apiequalityla.org. For more information about Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a civil rights and legal services organization, see www.apalc.org.