(WOMENSENEWS)—This Sunday, June 26, is the one year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. This excerpt from the anthology “Love Unites Us” reflects on the how same-sex marriage gained support in California among Asian Americans.
In February 2004, the City of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and hundreds of gays and lesbians lined up to legalize their committed relationships. This provoked a backlash from opponents of marriage equality, including lawsuits seeking to halt the marriages as well as protests and demonstrations. Among the latter were several anti-LGBT rallies organized by Chinese immigrant churches, which attracted thousands of Chinese Americans—and mainstream media attention—in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As an Asian American civil rights advocate and staff member at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (the nation’s largest Asian American legal organization), I was shocked and dismayed by the protests and feared they would be viewed as representing all Asian Americans. Desperate to raise an alternative voice, I helped to form API Equality-LA, a coalition of LGBT and allied individuals and organizations united by the common desire to demonstrate strong Asian American support for marriage equality.
Although API Equality-LA garnered strong initial support from respected voices in the Asian American community, we encountered significant hurdles in expanding Asian American support for marriage equality. Despite having personal one-on-one conversations at community events and placing positive stories of Asian American lesbians and gays in Asian-language newspapers, we found that many Asian Americans dismissed marriage equality and LGBT struggles as being wholly unrelated to their own experiences.
Meanwhile, the legal challenge to the San Francisco marriage licenses (In Re Marriage Cases) was working its way through the courts. At the same time, marriage equality opponents were seeking to qualify a state ballot initiative that would constitutionally prohibit marriage of same-sex couples (Proposition 8). The possibility of such an initiative added urgency to our public education and community organizing efforts.
In particular, we wanted to lift up California’s shameful history of racist marriage restrictions targeting Asian immigrants. By highlighting how anti-miscegenation laws—along with governmental restrictions on immigration, citizenship and other rights—had isolated and excluded Asian immigrants for decades from mainstream American society, we hoped more Asian Americans would understand and support the LGBT community’s fight for the freedom to marry.
Isolated Bachelor Societies
In the 19th century, large groups of Asian immigrants were imported as laborers to build the West. Soon after these mostly male immigrants first began arriving in the 1800s, they became the targets of laws seeking to exclude or severely restrict them, including bans on immigration, citizenship and marriage. These laws undermined the formation of families and communities among these early Asian immigrants, creating isolated bachelor societies whose members had no hope of marrying, having families or integrating into American society.
The tactic of drawing parallels between the struggles of early Asian immigrants and those of modern same-sex couples proved effective. By the time we submitted the amicus brief in September 2007, we had rallied 63 Asian American organizations in support of marriage equality. These included many of the largest and most prominent Asian American civil rights advocacy organizations, bar associations, social service providers, and represented the broad diversity of Asian America (e.g., Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Southeast Asian).
Garnering the support of these groups advanced the issue of marriage equality within the Asian American community in several ways. First, focusing on the connection between Asian American and LGBT communities gave non-LGBT Asian American groups an opportunity to publicly “come out” in support of the LGBT community. For some groups, our request to support the amicus brief initiated complex conversations about the issue of marriage equality and the meaning of “civil rights” for an Asian American organization. Some who were not able to endorse the brief earlier did later voice public support for marriage equality.
Second, we successfully drew both mainstream and Asian-language media attention to our brief, expanding the influence of our message to a larger segment of the Asian American community. On the day we filed the brief, we held two simultaneous press conferences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, featuring diverse Asian American community leaders speaking about their support for marriage equality for same-sex couples.
With the California Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality in May 2008, and Proposition 8 (Prop 8), which challenged the basis for the ruling, qualifying for the November 2008 election—the groundwork laid by the amicus brief proved invaluable in subsequent marriage equality advocacy.
But the biggest legacy of the organizing in the Asian American community is the impact on views about marriage equality in the community. Prop 8 narrowly passed in 2008, and an exit poll conducted by Advancing Justice-LA found that Asian Americans in Southern California voted similarly to voters overall. However, in the years leading up to Prop 8, support for marriage equality shifted more rapidly in Asian American communities than in the general population.
In March 2000, California voters considered Proposition 22, an earlier ballot initiative to statutorily prohibit California from recognizing marriage between same-sex partners. In the eight years between Prop 22 and Prop 8, California made remarkable strides in building support for marriage equality, with the gulf between voters who supported and opposed marriage equality narrowing from 15 points (58 vs. 43 percent) to only four points (52 vs. 48 percent), during less than a decade. Asian Americans made an even greater shift during the same period of time—tumbling from a 36-point margin (68 vs. 32 percent) to eight points (54 vs. 46 percent).
While many factors contributed to this change, I believe the organizing efforts of groups like API Equality-LA and Advancing Justice-LA had a clear impact. By drawing a direct line between the experiences of Asian immigrants a century earlier and modern-day gay and lesbian couples, we made a compelling argument for marriage equality that our community could not ignore. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the freedom to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges, Asian Americans were among the most vocal and joyous celebrants, thrilled by the historic legal victory and the dismantling of a barrier to social integration that our own community knew too well.
Copyright © 2016 by Karin Wang. This excerpt originally appeared in “Love Unites Us: Winning the Freedom to Marry in America,” published by The New Press, and is used here with permission. The anthology is edited by Kevin M. Cathcart and Leslie J. Gabel-Brett.