Californians pride themselves on a state that even in hard times abides by an ethic of live and let live. But political campaigns and electoral outcomes often mock and undermine this ideal.
Few groups in California have felt the sting of contradiction more sharply than Latinos and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The statewide election on November 2 is a perfect chance for both populations to send a message that picking on us will be punished.
The passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s show-me-your-papers law aimed at rounding up undocumented immigrants, and California’s approval of Proposition 8 eliminating marriage rights for same-sex couples have something in common. The conservative Republicans who pushed both measures played on fear and distrust – of Mexican-Americans as law-breaking job stealers, of gay people as threats to morality and tradition.
Both drives raised the specter of government itself turning its back on the contributions and sacrifices of groups that make up a big slice of society. At least 5 percent of voting Californians are LGBT, and about 20 percent are Latino. Both policies could galvanize the people they scapegoat.
The Arizona law heightened anxiety among Latino Californians that our state might revert to the era of Pete Wilson’s experiment in backlash, Proposition 187. That measure would have denied basic services to undocumented immigrants and their children. Likewise, Prop 8 awakened LGBT Californians, from Yreka to San Ysidro, to the persistence of stigma and the urgency of mobilizing allies and influence more effectively in state politics.
Purists may say that immigrant rights are properly a federal issue, as the Obama administration asserted in its strong and timely brief in federal court in July challenging Arizona’s law. They would add that rights for LGBT partners are primarily a state issue, with the repeal of Prop 8 and restoration of marriage rights likely to reappear on a future statewide ballot.
They are only half right. The two matters are top concerns in state and federal elections this year.
Thanks to Arizona, immigration has become a state issue. In her opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this summer, labor federation leader Maria Elena Durazo noted a stark finding of recent union-sponsored focus groups. Latinos in California don’t care that it was Arizona lawmakers who passed the anti-immigrant law. They take the policy as an affront and a sign of possible danger ahead for themselves and their families, in California.
Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner tossed the issue like a hot potato in the GOP primary and fueled Latinos’ anxiety that Republican victories will lead California to repeat, and not reject, Arizona’s harsh example.
The rights of same-sex couples are now a federal issue, too. A U.S. district court ruled on August 4th that Prop 8 is inadmissible under the federal Constitution. A different federal court judge, in Massachusetts, had already ruled in July that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act does violate constitutional guarantees. The 1996 law, a cornerstone of anti-LGBT prejudice, will face louder calls in the next Congress for its wholesale repeal. Whether that Congress is disposed to listen to LGBT people and allies, or not, will be decided by who wins this Election Day.
November 2 is the first statewide general election since the passage of Prop 8 and the anti-immigrant Arizona law. Both issues are set to light a spark in the communities they targeted, LGBT people and Latinos.
Whether that spark ignites in overwhelming turnout by both groups depends on registration and mobilization by our own leading organizations. These include unions, whose endorsements even many non-union Latinos listen to and use as a voting checklist. Alongside them is Honor Pac, which stands at the intersection of the Latino and LGBT communities and aims to build support for marriage equality among Latinos and to win it back.
One basic truth should resonate through both of these large sectors of the electorate. In America, there are no second-class citizens. Our voice is our vote, with each person’s being equal.
This fall, we need to send a strong message when we cast our ballots. We should reward those candidates who would open the door to recognition and respect. We should reject those candidates who would open the door to discrimination and second-class treatment.
Dolores Huerta and Luis Lopez
Dolores Huerta is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and cofounder, with Cesar Chavez, of the United Farm Workers. Luis López is a founding board member and immediate past president of Honor Pac, a state political action committee to empower gay and lesbian Latinos.
An earlier version of this opinion piece ran in the Sacramento Bee on July 27, 2010.