The Political Is Personal

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The image that I will always carry with me from last night is not the Obama family striding onto the stage in Grant Park, or the throngs of Seattleites celebrating in the streets, but the shot of Jesse Jackson, standing in the election rally crowd, tears rolling down his face, his finger pressed to his mouth as if to dam the sobs threatening to burst out.

After a two-year campaign that has been intertwined with identity politics, used both for and against the candidates, for good and for evil, it was so moving to listen to Obama’s acceptance speech calling for us -- the real, multicultural America -- to set those politics aside to face the economic and political crisis together.

As flooded with relief and hope as I am today, I know those emotions can’t compare to the force of emotion that must be coursing through the African American community. The phrase “President-Elect Barack Obama” makes concrete centuries-old dreams and gives birth to a hundred million more. So much is possible. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.

But I have some idea.

In February 2004, the news that Mayor Gavin Newsom was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples electrified San Francisco. I lived five blocks away from San Francisco's City Hall, and walked over almost every day to watch the line and see the thrilled couples descending the steps, showered in applause and cheers. Even though I knew the marriages would probably be annulled, even though many of us in the LGBT community feared the backlash that has since come to pass, even though I’d read about couples being wed in Amsterdam and Copenhagen for years, I found myself bowled over.

Like most of my friends, I broke down over and over that first week. Everything set me off -- a picture in the paper, watching a couple walk down the street. The greatest shock for me was to realize how much a part of my emotional architecture had been formed by the knowledge that my romantic partnerships, as well as those of my entire community, would never be acknowledged as equal. Suddenly, so much was possible.

That’s why today, as thrilled as I am by Obama’s victory, I’m also feeling bludgeoned by the news that California’s Proposition 8 prohibiting same-sex marriages is probably going to pass, and that the multicultural coalition that helped sweep him into office was in part responsible for the ban’s success. I had hoped that California’s decision to marry everyone who wanted to be married might spread north up the coast. And, while I feel such joy at the huge civil rights victory represented by America’s first African American president, I can’t stop thinking of the 18,000 married couples -- some of them friends and acquaintances of mine, some of them people who have done this twice -- who will now see their marriages invalidated again, as well as the millions of Americans who must dam our own dreams back up. That loss feels more concrete than I imagined it would.

I wish I could revel in this great day, unselfishly and expansively. Instead, I’m finding it bittersweet.

 
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