When toddlers attack

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Still an island

Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called
California very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise

Sergas de Esplandián, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, 1510

Or so went one of the early Spanish novels of adventure and chivalry, the sort that Cervantes later wrote so obsessed Don Quijote that they drove him mad.

When I was a kid, I thought Spanish explorers were similarly loco. I used to get a big kick out of the old maps that showed California as an island. It was obvious that the cartographers were just making shit up, since anyone who actually bothered to sail to the top of the Gulf of California would discover that it ended at the mouth of the Colorado River, and that Baja California was a peninsula. Duh.

Well, maybe those cartographers didn't have it all wrong. On Tuesday, while the rest of the U.S. indulged in an orgy of stupidity voting into office people who deny evolution as a scientific reality, who seem to suspect Hawai'i is a foreign country, and who believe free healthcare is bad for you, California swept Democrats - in some cases quite liberal Democrats - into every major statewide office. The "GOP wave" broke on the eastern flank of the Sierra (though it was good to see that Sharon Angle, one of the Tea Party's more astonishingly stupid candidates, foundered in Nevada).

Here in California, we got a Democratic trifecta: voters rejected Meg Whitman, a billionaire who looks like Miss Piggy in a pantsuit and spent $140 million in an attempt to buy the governorship and instead elected former Governor and current AG Jerry Brown; they reelected Barbara Boxer, defeating millionaire Carly Fiorina, the evil ex-head of Hewlett Packard who ran as a shrill conservative; and it appears that San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris MAY defeat Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley to become Brown's replacement as Attorney General (though the votes are still being counted and this all could change). This is important to me, the Spaniard, and the 18,000 other gay and lesbian couples who married in 2008, because Cooley and Whitman both said they'd seek to appeal the recent court decision striking down Prop 8 (the ruling is already on appeal by the supporters of Prop 8, but since the state has said it won't participate, the big question is if anyone has legal standing).

But I've done a similar Californian happy dance before, following the 2002 and 2004 elections, only to have later events put an abrupt stop to the joyful music: the moronic 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis, which installed Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Republican-engineered coup d'etat; and of course, Proposition 8 in 2008, which as we all know stipulates that -- say it with me here -- "only marriage between a man or a woman is valid or recognized in California."

I helped do media relations for the "No on 8" campaign, and for about a month before the election, I went on full-time loan from my dayjob. I ended up handling a lot of the media for the field offices of the campaign, so it fell to me to chase after a bus tour the opposition organized, stopping at churches in some of the state's most conservative areas. Rather than hold counterrallies, we just arranged for some gay-friendly clergypeople to come out and stand with me to greet reporters and let them know that not all people of faith are narrowminded bigots.

Here's a rundown of the more interesting stops:

Sacramento - a teenaged girl came up to us, trying to make sure no one spotted her, and told us she and her family thought we were great, and that she couldn't stand the rest of the congregation.

Chico - a woman driving by said "sorry, I have too many kids to vote no on this." Really, a red herring, but messaging about the kids worked for the "yes" crowd. I've never understood why the "No" campaign ran screaming from any mention of children learning about lesbian and gay couples getting married. I wanted to say "what, and we don't have kids?"

Fresno - a woman from the "Yes" rally told me how presentable I looked and wondered what I was doing with "this mess," meaning the handful of hardworking local activists. I told her it was quite the backhanded compliment, and that she could be sure I did belong with them. Yes, lady, gay people wear ties, too.

Bakersfield - ever and deservingly the butt of jokes within California and beyond, I brought my mom with me to this one. We were surrounded by a torch-and-pitchfork crowd screaming "Yes on 8" while trying to talk to a reporter. I was happy they played that tape on the evening news.

Fullerton - "It's all about sex," a "Yes on 8" woman said to me.

"Uh... what do you mean," reluctantly ignoring my own rule not to feed, touch or otherwise engage.

"Women need to have sex with men. They need nutrients that semen provides."

Okay, so now I'm dumbfounded. I assume she wasn't talking blowjobs, either. I doubt she'd ever come within 20 feet of a blowjob.

"You know," I said, "I really have no response to that. You have some very interesting ideas about human anatomy, though. Have a nice day."

Fullerton was also the first time I had a conversation that I think may have opened a tiny crack of understanding in one of the church people. It seemed news to a young woman there that I had a happy life, support of my family, a profession. Then her pastor came over. Somehow we got onto the discussion of whether or not a "gay gene" was responsible for homosexuality. I told him that most studies seem to suggest that while there may be some genetic component, there may be a stronger link to development in the womb. "Oh, like a birth defect," he said. Lovely people, these "Christians."

San Diego - And then there was San Diego, or rather La Mesa, home to Skyline Church. It's where Pastor Jim Garlow, one of the biggest and most vocal backers of Prop 8, has his lair. Adrian went with me this time, and we stood with local clergy at the foot of the megachurch's driveway with our "No on 8" signs. As usual, rally-goers soon joined us and outnumbered us. I stood next to an older guy who tried to engage me, but I resisted. At one point, a guy stopped at the light started screaming at him. "Fuck you guys," he yelled, "why can't you leave us alone?!?" I stepped over to his car and calmed him down.

"See how your people are," old guy said when I stepped back on the curb.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "We get screamed at all the time."

"No you don't," he responded. "Our people don't do that."

"Yes they do. I've been called a sodomite and worse."

"Oh, but that's true."

Okay, so I wasn't enjoying the conversation much. Another few cycles of the traffic light. A scruffy old guy with a white beard pulled up, passenger window open and cute little dog with forepaws on the windowsill, looking at us. As Adrian and I started to smile, the driver suddenly scowled and spat out "What are you, a couple of COCKSUCKERS? Are you going to suck each other's COCKS?"

This time it was old guy's turn to step into traffic. When he came back, I just kept a smug smirk on my face. And then two young guys showed up with some very creative signs. One of them stood next to Adrian and elbowed him. "Hey," he said, "what do you think of this?" holding up this sign:
That's old guy's elbow, trying to wedge himself between the young Christian and my camera. Meanwhile, another Hitler Youth was exhibiting more artistic talent nearby:

I sent this photos to newspapers and TV stations, but unfortunately, they never ran. This sort of thing was far from uncommon at the rallies, but somehow never made the news. It made it possible for "Yes on 8" to claim that, why, they didn't hate anyone and were just trying to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, and it also enabled Californians to undo the civil rights of their neighbors and still feel good about it. If they had actually seen what Prop 8's most fervent supporters were up to, they might have changed their minds.

Or maybe not. Turns out California is a long way from the Terrestrial Paradise. But it beats the hell out of living under the banner of the Tea Party.