Monday, August 17, 2009

"But we're the taxpayers and they're the homosexuals!"

For a couple of years in the 90s I was a commissioner on a county-level human relations commission in California. At that time the state had not yet implemented the full-featured Domestic Partnership system it now has in place. Various local attempts had been made for years, and I found myself in the middle of one them.

The county board of supervisors in my area decided they would try to implement a simple Domestic Partnership (DP) registry. It conferred no rights or responsibilities; it was just a document that might help some committed-but-unmarried couples (both same-sex and opposite-sex) get insurance or other DP benefits from private employers that offered them. The supervisors didn't do a very good job of sounding out public opinion in advance or coordinating with gay community organizers. They surprised everybody, and the commission I sat on was the venue for the first rounds of public hearings.

The hearings were alternately uplifting and horrifying. I was not surprised that there was vocal opposition, but I was surprised at the viciously hateful and hurtfully bigoted things some people were willing to stand up and say in public. Bibles were quoted and the usual anti-gay tropes were repeated without critical thought. Paranoia ruled. One man begged the supervisors not to implement the registry because it would cause the extinction of the human race, since, apparently, people would stop reproducing.

The DP opponents began circulating a petition to force the issue onto the ballot at the next election. This resulted in both sides meeting face-to-face in grocery store parking lots and other public venues. In at least one situation, the police were called (I was never sure by whom). It was that one, small scuffle that opened my eyes to the mind-set of the DP opponents. The police officer was about to eject both sides from the grocery store parking lot when the one, lone, anti-DP petition gatherer shouted:
But we're the taxpayers and they're the homosexuals!"

Rarely in my life has so much been revealed to me in one, short sentence. And I've been reminded of that moment over the last few weeks, as I've examined the West Bend library debate. It seems to me that the would-be censors of West Bend share many of the neuroses of the anti-Domestic-Partnership activists I encountered a dozen years ago.

What did the anti-DP activist mean? Her "we" was far from inclusive. "We" are the taxpayers, but "they" aren't. "We" are a privileged class who have purchased special consideration by paying taxes to the government. "We" have the right to demand government services and "they" don't. "We" have the right to use the legal system, and "they" don't. "They" are less than full citizens. "They" aren't contributing members of "our" society. If anybody should be ejected from the parking lot, it should be "them," and not "us," because "we're" the white, middle class, heterosexual, protestant ascendancy, and "they" aren't "us."

In the short term, the anti-DP activists won. The issue never went to the ballot, because they demonstrated that the whole issue would be very messy and the supervisors backed down out of political expediency. In the process, though, they exhausted themselves. Many of the anti-DP activists felt their position was so right and obvious that they never expected organized confrontation, and were caught off guard. The uneasy alliances among the anti-DP factions were strained by the process, and the pro-DP activists had gotten better organized and learned a lot from the experience.

In the long run, the anti-DP activists lost. Within a couple of years the state passed a Domestic Partnership system with rights and responsibilities far exceeding anything our county supervisors had dared imagine. There was opposition and protest, but nowhere near enough to prevent its implementation. California's Domestic Partnership has been in place for almost ten years now.

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