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One Year After Prop 8: Why Asian Americans Should Support Marriage Equality

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. 


Your rating: None Average: 4.6 (11 votes)

Val L Jacobo on Tue, 11/03/2009 - 10:56

Really appreciate this thoughtful writeup Karin. You're an amazing leader and a strong voice in our community.  I'm grateful to have met you at the Advancing Justice Conference and to see this blog is just icing on the cake. 

We look forward to helping to 'make that change.'

Val and EPIC brethren.

karinwang on Tue, 11/03/2009 - 11:17

Thanks for your comments, Val. 

One thing I didn't say in the post is that we as Asian Americans AND Pacific Islanders must "make that change" together.  APALC's polling from the 2008 election did not include a large enough sample of Pacific Islanders to draw conclusions but we know that this and other social justice struggles face both of our communities. 

Obi-Wan Kenobi (not verified) on Tue, 11/03/2009 - 18:43

As always, thank you for your eloquent and compelling thoughts.

Seyron (not verified) on Tue, 11/03/2009 - 18:55

Amazing. I think Karin deserves another award. =D

Will (not verified) on Thu, 11/05/2009 - 12:30

Beautifully written and highly emotional, Karin.  I especially like how you brought the issues to a personal level, and drew a link between the denial of rights to same-sex couples and the denial of rights to Chinese Americans.  I think you should run this as an editorial.

I do have a question, however; is there a reason that Asian Americans in particular are so against marriage equality?  At the risk of stirring controversy and kicking open a hornet's nest, I have always thought that it was due to the fact that a sizeable portion of Asian Americans are Christians of the evangelical, conservative tilt--those who are wholeheartedly against marriage equality and abortion, amongst other things.

Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and I do not wish to offend anyone.

spamfriedrice on Fri, 11/06/2009 - 16:21


Where is your empirical evidence to support your claims of the population being "so against marriage equality"?  The exit polls in the election last year had the overall vote very close with White voters just barely voting against Prop 8... the other group that also voted just barely against Prop 8 were... ASIAN AMERICAN VOTERS! 

I'd imagine that all voters of color would have gone more against Prop 8 if the statewide coalition against Prop 8 had listened to communities of color  about ways to educate our communities about the issue. Instead, the largely white male led organization decided to just brush aside people of color as "homophobic" and a "lost cause."

AFter this week's loss in Maine, I could ask, "What is it about White voters that are so anti-marriage equality?"

But... what's the point of seeking scapegoats?

Xander Skyrien (not verified) on Fri, 11/06/2009 - 17:15

Hey Karin,

I really appreciate this post, not necessarily for the content but the attitude. For those working towards political change, it's often easy to get disheartened by the outcome of things year after year, but focusing on the change that has happened, even if it's not outwardly evident and mainstream news outlets obviously dont care, definitely shows that progress can happen, despite outcomes that may initially indicate to the contrary.

Thanks for sharing your numbers, and giving hope for all causes where change is slow and coming.

karinwang on Fri, 11/06/2009 - 18:36

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments!

Re whether Asian Americans voted against or for Prop 8 -- this is a rather complex issue.  On the one hand, Will is right about certain segments of the Asian American community -- for those who are regular church (or temple) goers, and those who are older or speak little to no English, they votee significantly in favor of Prop 8 (and against marriage equality). 

But on the other hand, younger, English-speaking Asian Americans as well as those who only occassionally or rarely go to church or temple were solidly against Prop 8 (and for marriage equality). I think spamfriedrice cites exit poll data from CNN which captured English-speaking Asian Americans -- that poll DID show a small majority of Asian American voters against Prop 8.

For more info, see demographics.apalc.org. 

Rick Eng (not verified) on Fri, 11/13/2009 - 09:14

Hi Karin,

Sorry for the delayed response to your blog; I’ve been terribly busy with other projects but I also wanted to make sure I thank you and praise you for your post.  Your leadership on the issue on marriage equality has been inspiring.

I think we share similar experiences about our interest in working on behalf of marriage equality.  Friends and family do wonder why I have a public stance when it doesn’t directly impact me.  But it does.  I think we all should be vigilant against any forms of discrimination.  As you point out Asians in America have been subjected to some of the most brutal forms of bigotry; we should be sensitive to those struggling for equality and opportunity.  So, the numbers you present are alarming but very telling.

How disappointing to see a setback for marriage equality when voters in Maine rejected gay marriage as they opted to repeal legislature-approved gay marriage, 53 percent to 47 percent.  Just one year after California passed Proposition 8. 

But it reveals some fundamentals for developing a workable strategy.  Maybe in addition to educating the electorate and plotting election strategy there needs to be the coordinated escalation in the sort of forums/focus groups that you and I participated this past September.  Ignorance and superstition seem to be the allies of the opposition, which they exploit to a high degree of unscrupulousness.  Their tactics border on systematic obscurantism, a practice that thrived in the Dark Ages before the Renaissance.  It needs to be challenged with ongoing encounters between both sides and those on the fence.  The opposition thrives in the dark and it’s time we dragged them into the light.

It seems to me that the true victory/the true aim is to have gay marriage legalized by the vote of the populace and not by court order or by legislative vote.  While the latter two have pushed for necessary changes in this country as was the case with school desegregation and civil rights, true acceptance must come at changing hearts and minds where opponents and distracters no longer use that argument of “drawing the line in the sand.”  For us, the proponents of marriage equality, it will rely on unity, discipline and patience.

Karin, thanks again for your efforts and leadership.

Eric (not verified) on Tue, 11/17/2009 - 02:33

Great post. As someone who is part of the "younger, English-speaking Asian American" group, I can say that I felt particularly triumphant when I had talked my parents into voting NO on Prop 8 (as well as voting for Obama). Surprisingly, it did not take as much of a miracle as I thought it would. I am lucky enough to retain enough of my native language to communicate with my immigrant parents and so all it took was some discussion about the issue. The points Karin raise about the discrimination faced by those that have come to America before us is a great place to start.

Though I don't think its possible (nor is it our job) to entirely brainwash the older Asian American generation, I do think that as young Asian Americans, we have an obligation to let the older generation know the issues we face and the work that can be done to address those issues. GPA, SATs, and MCATs are important but so are our social rights!

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