I wake up before 6:00am, with the alarm. Dress fast, leave the house before the kids come to bed. I could count on two hands, maybe one, the number of times I’ve done that before.
Daylight savings time at least enables me to pull away from the house in the rosy-fingered dawn, and not the pitch-darkness.
I nab one of the last parking spots at the First Congregational Church, a good thing, since I don’t know where I’ll be going during the day, and there is precious little easy parking in town. Coffee and donuts arrayed on a table outside the church. A long line stretches outside for people who hadn’t attended the weekend Election Day GOTV trainings there. The rest of us go right up to the door, sign in. Name, cell phone number (to be contacted while out in the field, redeployed, what have you). Where would all this work be without the cell phone, one wants to know.
Folks of all sorts there. Young, old, men, women. All races, but mostly white. But this is Berkeley. I wonder what the other “hubs” look like. Across the room I see a man I met eighteen years ago at an LGBT youth activists’ training conference. Two thoughts: one, he’s aged well. Same mustache, even. Two: thank god he made it through the epidemic.
I’m sent off with two fresh-faced young men to a Presbyterian Church in a professorial neighborhood. It’s none of my business, but I think both of them are heterosexuals. It dawns on me: this is just a straight-up civil rights issue to the young people. Each of us has a grocery bag containing a sign, a stack of “palm cards” with No on 8 essentials on it to distribute (Opposed by: Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dianne Feinstein, and on down). Included is a small spool of stickers, should anyone want any.
I position myself exactly where the poll captain directs me, and over the course of several hours distribute a handful of cards. It’s quiet at my poll, and I’m grateful. Before 10:00am it’s clear that this battle knocked the wind out of me long before election day. I am there to help — really, have to be — but I have no spirit with which to do it. Many people smile on their way in. As many studiously avoid eye contact. But it feels like we’re tired of it all. Maybe I’m projecting.
One white-bearded man sporting a hippie-batik kufi cap chats with me at length while his wife remains inside voting. He tells about the vote he regretted, back in 1968. He chose not to vote at all. Humphrey vs. Nixon. “Johnson was supposed to end the war. We didn’t think Humphrey was clear enough anti-war. But he was a good man. In hindsight, we were wrong. We were crazy back then.” he says.
We share hope and budding confidence about Obama’s prospects, about how dearly we all need him in office. He volunteers that he hopes Proposition 8 is defeated. I tell him about the gay Bradley effect. About how typically, in these sorts of battles (and we have 29-odd battles to go by), preachers stir up a lot on the Sunday before election day, and a surge in Yes votes is not unexpected. Polls didn’t put us ahead by enough to counter both of those things.
“Still, I hope it fails,” he says. After a pause long enough to indicate that this kind of statement might still be new for him — the speaking openly of gay family members — he adds, “For the sake of my granddaughter and her partner.”
I’m solo in front of the church for about an hour, ’til the next “shift” arrives. I chat with the third Election Observer I’ve seen that morning. This one was taking a break for lunch, and felt at liberty to speak. Said she’d never volunteered for something like this before, but this election was different.
When I go back to the “hub” at the First Congregational Church, I ask whether there’s anything else I can do that doesn’t involve opening my mouth and trying to speak to anyone about this anymore. Like, can I get people sandwiches.
“They also serve who go and get sandwiches,” I say to Allie, one of the tireless No on 8 workers, and a longtime member of the church. She draws a blank. Riffs onÂ Milton sonnets are unexpected adornments on a day like today.
Back at the hub after my deli run, eating my tuna on wheat, I learn that two of the four young people deploying and redeploying the raft of Berkeley volunteers are from out of state. One: New Orleans. The other: Massachusetts. (I can’t resist quipping to him, “Aha! Been there! Did that!”) This fight feels to them like the front line of social justice battles in the US right now, and that’s where they want to be. Can’t tell if either is straight or gay. Clearly it doesn’t matter.
A woman comes in and says she emailed to volunteer some weeks earlier, but was out of town when she was contacted back by the campaign. Wants to know whether there’s anything she can do today to help. She says it’s particularly important to her, as a Mormon. She goes on to speak quietly, confidently, about fellow Mormons who support marriage equality in particular (and LGBT civil rights in general). Several of us lean in to listen.
I slip home to vote. Our polling station is located in a small building on the grounds of our kids’ favorite local playground, a place I’ve spent countless hours, celebrated numerous birthdays. Once inside, I am so tired (so many late nights, so much lost sleep, so much stress) that I’m worried I’ll louse up my vote. I pull out the ballot, and first thing, carefully, deliberately, ink in my presidential choice. Then I flip the page and find and vote “no” on Proposition 8. Double and triple check it. In case I can’t keep my focus for anything further, I’ve done my job.
I nap in the car for a little before returning to the “hub” at the church. The sandwich has not revived me, and there are hours yet to go. I doubt I’ll be much good for anything, but can’t not keep trying to do what I can. It’s just that what I can keeps getting smaller and smaller.
I’m redeployed again, this time with a large group, to the university’s family and international student housing complex on the other side of town. Everyone but me goes off in a different car, since my childcare ends before the polls close, and I’ll need to leave early. En route to the poll, I see two women about my age with No on 8 signs taking up positions at a busy intersection. It’s coming on rush hour, and I decide to go AWOL and join them. The thought of saying more words to anyone is too daunting.
The women are thrilled to see me, and we agree I should take up the northwest corner of the intersection. I hold up my sign, hum quietly to myself, rock back and forth. I reposition myself to face oncoming cars in the north-south street first, then the east-west one crossing it, depending on the traffic light. Periodically people honk. I flash my fingers in a “V,” which feels to me more a peace sign than a victory sign. I hop from foot to foot as the light fades and the chill picks up.
Images of a 300-person melee at a Southern California intersection some days before come to me (a sea of Yes signs, energy befitting a drunken post-football game frat party; the reporter finally gave up reporting from the scene). I’m glad it’s just us here. This whole thing has been utterly insane.
I see the women on the other side of the intersection cheering and hopping up and down. Obama has Ohio now, and there is now no plausable scenario standing between him and victory.
The darker it gets, the easier the work becomes. I can no longer see the expressions on the faces of the drivers. Which is all just as well. This whole Proposition 8 battle began so long ago, and my own part in it — limited as it was by constraints on my time and on my emotional capacities — had now narrowed to a simple point. Months ago, the introduction of the issues. Then explanation, illustration, persuasion. An attempt to proliferate support. Earlier this election day, face-to-face reminders. A last opportunity to answer questions of confused or fence-sitting voters (we were expressly not not dispatched to hardcore Yes strongholds; no point today in wrangling with entrenched opposition). Now, in the late rush-hour dark, while state after state falls to Obama, my contribution is reduced to that of human sign. A mute reminder. Don’t forget about us.
The women on the other side of the street gesture me to come over. Rush hour traffic has died down, and they’re heading to a nearby poll. I wish them well, and head off to my originally assigned poll, where I find they haven’t missed me. Just what I wanted to hear. All I needed to do (and I needed to) was to have lasted twelve hours today. I’m pretty sure I didn’t change one person’s vote; probably didn’t even remind anyone who wasn’t going to vote anyway. But I had to do something.
Back home, elation downstairs amongst the brother-in-law’s family over the certain Obama victory. West Coast polls close in another hour, but they have the champagne out already. A friend of theirs is over, after coming up from a socialist party down the street. (“You know, not a Socialist Party, but a socialist party,” she deadpanned. The joke really had to be made.) I consent to a sip of champagne, but I am a wet blanket printed with “battle-weary Prop 8 pessimist” on it. It’s my only champagne of the night. The kids are wound up, the beloved is off at rehearsal ’til late. Fiddler opens in three days, and historic election or no, the show must go up.
Upstairs, I wait ’til the kids are in bed before turning on the television to watch the news. An old friend has come with pizza and a bottle of wine. I know that our new president is being announced as I sing to the girlchild in bed. I take my time. When I leave I’ll begin hearing news of how the state propositions fared.
I join my friend and turn on the television just as Obama is striding up to the podium at the Grant Park rally. Amidst the majesty of his victory speech — every note pitch-perfect, equal parts graciousness and sobriety and humility and vision, more eloquence than we’ve heard from a leader in more than a generation — the local election results crawl across the bottom of the screen.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Mayoral race results, state representative race results, all with the percentages listed.
“It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled Â – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.”
Proposition results now. 1A: high-speed rail. 2: humane treatment of farm animals. 3: children’s hospitals.
“It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
Proposition 4: abortion notification. 5: drug offenses. 6: criminal justice. The crawl goes so fast, and it takes a bit to figure out how to read it. The majority vote-getter is listed on top, whether Yes or No. Percentages listed to the right.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
Proposition 7: renewable energy. Proposition 8: gay marriage ban. I think I read the results I dreaded, but then my mind plays tricks on me. They flash so fast on the screen. For one cycle of results crawls I’m not sure if I read right.
Back to the mellifluous voice of our new president, the footage of thousands crammed shoulder to shoulder to witness one of the finest moments in American history. Next time the proposition results crawl across the bottom of the screen, I confirm what I thought I saw. Yes votes leading 54% to 46%. Voters in California sucessfully write a ban on gay marriage into the constitution. The first time in the nation’s history that discrimination was written into, rather than out of a document whose chief purpose is to protect the fundamental rights of the minority against the whims of the majority.
I watch the remainder of Obama’s speech with a mixture of marvel and shock, my hand covering my mouth. My friend and I share only a few words about the scene, a note about one or another gracious or impressive remark. Then the crawl of the state and local results again.
My pizza grows cold.
The beloved calls from the theater; rehearsal was interrupted with the election results. She says she doesn’t want to know about 8 until she’s home. I’m glad. She says she relayed to the cast when Obama took Ohio (her brother texted her: “Game. Ohio. We have our next president.”). “But they’re high school students,” she says. “They’re waiting for the real drama. They want the official call.” They were rehearsing “Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles” when he was officially declared the President-elect. The music director wept as he played the piano.
The kids wanted to know the results of 8, too, though. Propositions 4 and 8 strike close to home for them, even though not a one is old enough yet to vote. Their time will come soon.
Downtown Berkeley is a mob scene Â – Â a happy one — and the beloved has to take a circuitous route back home. The sounds — car horns honking, shouts and cheers, firecrackers — are audible from our front porch over a half mile away. New Year’s doesn’t sound that loud. The Big Game. Nothing has.
When the beloved walks in the door, she searches our faces for the answer on 8, and finds it right away.
The live coverage of Grant Park is done now, and footage of African American communities celebrating the Obama win are now cycling on the television. This is what drives home the Obama victory to me, bringing me first to my knees, then to tears. Our President-elect’s eloquence stirs, but these images pierce to the heart of his election. The media white-out, for all these months — the mutually agreed-upon avoidance of race talk — is belied in the hours following his victory by how powerfully the black response resonates, from coast to coast.
The beloved says her mother and her partner got in a car just to drive around town (Oakland) and mix with the jubilant crowds. It is impossible not to see the enormity of it all in the faces of the people.
A friend from New Jersey calls, desperate to know any Prop 8 news: his internet is down, and he’s stuck with local network news. He, like many other people far more heterosexual and far less Californian than I am, cared deeply about this. For the first time, my own voice cracks when I tell him that I don’t believe my father will live to see the day that this fight is over. My kids will for sure; I probably will. But my dad: no.
The beloved’s brother calls to say that the results we were seeing were those of inland counties, that Sacramento, LA, and San Francisco counties weren’t even in yet. Don’t give up hope yet, he says. I tell him, it’s a big gap to make up. I can’t afford to hope. He says he understands.
I call back my chum in New Jersey and update him. We exalt Obama and fulminate about constitutionally recognized civil rights going up for a popular vote. In one night, our democracy is burnished to a brilliant sheen it has never yet seen, and then dented. “Cue up the funeral dirge,” I say. “But I guess don’t drop the needle down on it ’til tomorrow morning.”
By midnight, I am spent. I turn in, barely saying goodnight to our old friend. I brush my teeth, and go look in on the kids one last time before bed. The whispery filaments of their eyelashes. Their relaxed bodies, fully trusting in sleep. Unaware of the import of the day’s events. Our daughter knew Obama won, before she went to sleep. That much was clear. She knew that was a very, very good thing.
We never really explained the other thing to her, though. What were we going to say? What are any of us going to say?