My electoral shift map: a mound of denim. Late in the evening of November 4, 2008, the USA turned as blue as my pile of jeans. The morning after the elections, I was totally hungover—EMOTIONALLY HUNGOVER, that is. But before you read any further, lest you get the wrong idea about why I’m writing about the beautiful election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the U.S.A. through the idea of a “hangover,” let me clarify something:
THIS IS A DECLARATION OF OPTIMISM!!!
The bad part of the electoral hangover is: while still woozy from the high that we had elected the first AFRICAN-AMERICAN to be our president, that a nation of a caucasian majority with a history of slavery and segregation and racist violence had chosen an AFRICAN-AMERICAN as its leader...
(see, I still cannot get over it, it still steals my breath away)
...so while still woozy from that high, a lot of us woke up the next morning and with coffee to mouth, learned that in the same night, three gay marriage bans had passed in voter referendum, including the evil Proposition 8 in California. This was the vomiting bile and half-bottle-of-Excedrin-worth migraine part of the hangover. But does a hangover mean that you never enjoy the pleasures of cocktailing again? I hope not. Yes, a hangover is painful, but a hangover is important. It’s “sweet, sweet, sweet,” as Diana Ross immortally sang. A hangover is a visceral reminder of the joy you had the night before. If the night before made you feel as if you could explode the skin-boundaries of your body, the hangover reminds you of the very physicality that allowed you to experience the joy in the first place. I confess, sometimes I actually enjoy a good hangover. On another late night, many years ago, I drank way too much Johnnie Walker Black to dampen the extreme, sleep-preventing nervousness I had about an important event in which I had to participate the next morning. I felt like shit the next morning but I felt functional. The anxiety had made me all twitchy –paranoid-Virgo mind; the hangover put my brain—and myself—back in my body, and forced me to re-integrate myself. Like Beyoncé says, I got bodied, and got to work.
In this way, the gay marriage bans are a serious reminder that we have more work to do to become as blue a country as we can be. But I hope that people—particularly my tribe of homosexual humans—don’t get too overworked about this to an extent that they forget the joy of that was 11:00 PM EST November 4, 2008. But many are already letting the pain of the hangover define the experience of electoral euphoria. Many are already doing so. I—and my loved ones—were plenty upset about the passing of Proposition 8, but I was very much offended by Harvey Fierstein’s headline for his op-ed about this on The Huffington Post: “Historic for Some, Same Old Shit For the Rest of Us.” I dislike this marking gay people as “the Rest of Us” not because it is ghettoizing (I like gay ghettos) but because it assumes that the overall effect of 11-4-08 is NOT HISTORIC for those “of us” who are working for gay rights. I think that we must work very hard now to make sure these bans get overturned, appealed. And more importantly, we must work to shatter the cultural fiction that marriage is some religious-moral position, when it is really a romantic-social contract. But to suggest that the gay marriage bans cancel out or undercut the momentousness of Obama’s presidency produces a bitchiness (like Fierstein’s) that divides and provides fodder for racist homosexuals. There has been a disturbing sub-trend in blogsphere to blame blacks (and other racial minorities, but mostly blacks) in California for Prop 8’s passage. I’ve read some ignorant gays who have actually said things to the effect of: “The gay community has helped the black community and now they are ungrateful hypocrites.” This feeling is racist and evil, and it must be nipped in the bud. Yes, gay people have suffered a loss with these voter referenda, but should that then emotionally and politically exclude us from the historic momentum of electing our very first African-American president?
I answer NO. To me, this is akin to the kind of hypocrites I try not to be like: “Oh, I’m never drinking ever again because I’m so in pain from my hangover.” I refuse to be a political tea-totaler. The wine we drank was not some hallucinogenic. It allowed many Americans to forget their brainwashed racism for a vital moment and vote with their integral selves for a great leader...who happens to be African-American. There is no “us” that should feel “shitty” about November 4. We have a black president. We have a black president. We have a black president. (I’m smiling)
Celebrating the historic nature of Obama’s win doesn’t equal complacent ignoring of gay rights—and, by the way, other human rights issues disguised as “moral” issues. For instance: Californians resoundingly voted against Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act. Prop 5, in providing rehabilitation rather than imprisonment for drug-related nonviolent offenses, would have offered much needed prison reform and progressive judicial and law-enforcement policies. It would have worked to progressively deal with the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are prosecuted and imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. Why are not gay people going out in droves to protest the defeat of this important voter referendum? I would, and I will. But I don’t see any gay people writing heated opinions protesting the defeat of Prop 5.
What I’m trying to say is that Obama’s win does not need to be connected to every political movement that happened at the same time. So before we forget our joy, let’s remember that we have a black president-elect who is aware of gay people and their human rights. Obama not only fraternally mentioned gays again in his acceptance speech, he has gone on record against Prop 8. But he’s not going to let us just sit on our ass and bask in his awesomeness (as awesome as he truly is). My RISD students, who are not over 21, were totally inspired and dazzled by Obama’s utterly somber, serious sobriety during his acceptance speech. They are uplifted by the call for struggle, to do something to make things happen in this country, and so am I.
In fact, we don’t need that much prodding to come “down” from our elective high. Obama himself emphasized this with his serious (and not giddily celebratory) acceptance speech. I was also struck by the physical arrangement of the entire Obama family that night. No bright Democrat blues or firework-y jewel tones: Michelle, Sasha, and Malia were coordinated with their gentleman in black and red.
The sobriety of Barack’s speech matched the black stockings of his daughters, the black dress of Sasha (oh...black looks so good on a child!). And of course, there is Michelle’s black-and-red Narciso Rodriguez topped off with a black cardigan—for which she got pretty much roundly trashed (exception: the great Robin Givhan at the Washington Post). But I think the dress is Michelle’s reminder to us of the mutual work we had of us. The dress is a couture version of the New York Times electoral map that charts the voter shift, not from 2004, but from 1996, which shows that there are more Republican voters now than when I was an adolescent. The message of Barack and Michelle’s sparkling somberness is not lost: after all, while Obama had an electoral landslide, the popular vote was in fact much narrower. Obama had 53% (about 65 million votes), but there were still 57 million voters who cast votes against him, who voted for a campaign founded upon racist, sexist, and violent rhetoric. Blackness (of racial politics) and redness (of social conservatism) still do not go together.
But what does it mean that while the country has gone “redder” since 1996, it has accepted blackness as more transparent? As Michelle’s defiant wearing of Republican red with African-American black suggests, it means that the meaning of “red” might be changing. Enough Republicans cast aside racism in asking for an African-American leader; I personally never thought I’d see that day. They might still be homophobic. But they can be changed. Someday, maybe we will have a president-elect family wearing pink and red. But just as Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson and Carole Mosley Braun and Shirley Chisholm have fought bitterly and bleedingly and with superhuman tenacity so that 11-4-08 could happen, we must now take our post-election hangover as a reminder of joy, a joyful inspiration, to fight as African-Americans have fought ever since Plymouth Rock landed on them. The prospect of joining this history may feel like a migraine for some, but for me, it is joy, it is sweet, sweet, sweet.
no on prop 8
yes on prop 5