Nine days after the election, the reaction to the narrow passage of Proposition 8 — eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry in California — continues to build. Major demonstrations are planned at city halls across the state this Saturday, and a series of grassroots organizations have sprung up to work to overturn this decision. Some advocate a complex appeal to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the voters overreached. (The explanation of how that might work is here). Others talk of another initiative in 2010, accompanied by far better outreach to minority communities and other groups who were neglected by the campaign against Proposition 8. My students are galvanized and excited; when the happy day arrives that gay marriage is restored in California, this time for good, we may well come to see this defeat as a “blessing in disguise.” But it’s far too early for that sort of reflection; the pain now is real and the work is great.
Many of my students and colleagues are involved in organizing boycotts of those companies which supported Proposition 8. Others, such as Roseanne, are urging a broader boycott of every organization which has large numbers of Mormons on its executive payroll. (The Mormon church gave heavily to the “Yes on 8″ campaign). I cannot support that effort.
I make a clear distinction between boycotting a company that takes a public stand in favor of marriage inequality and boycotting a company which may have certain employees or executives who have given privately to support Proposition 8. It would be hard to think of many large companies that don’t have social conservatives on their payroll somewhere, including folks who use some of their pay to contribute to political causes that I regard as discriminatory. Google and Apple both gave major donations to the anti Prop. 8 campaign, and their CEOs (Page, Brin, Jobs) are all staunch supporters of marriage equality. But it’s likely that somewhere, even in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, these major companies have well-compensated employees whose views and donations are diametrically opposed to those of their bosses.
Boycotts have their place; one need think only of Montgomery, Alabama, to be reminded that the conscious decision to withhold financial support for public or private entities is a powerful tool in the arsenal of justice-building. But indiscriminate boycotts have their limits, and I am sure I was not the only progressive pained by the story of Scott Eckern.
Scott Eckern, artistic director for the California Musical Theatre, resigned Wednesday as a growing number of artists threatened to boycott the organization because of his $1,000 donation to the campaign to ban gay marriage in California.
“I understand my supporting of Proposition 8 has been the cause of many hurt feelings, maybe even betrayal,” Eckern said in a written statement. “I chose to act upon my belief that the traditional definition of marriage should be preserved.”
On the one hand, I understand the outrage. It’s one thing to work closely with someone whose views on the capital gains tax are different from your own. It’s another thing to ask a gay or lesbian person to give time and energy to an organization led by a man who believes, deep in his heart and in his wallet, that your relationship is not deserving of the same fundamental awe, reverence, and societal approbation as his own. When it comes to mounting a stage production, it is perhaps deeply unreasonable to ask a gay or lesbian artist or actor to devote time and energy to working in the close, intimate proximity of the theater world with someone whose time and money goes to causes so fundamentally hostile to one’s very identity. It’s all very well for heterosexuals to protest that a belief in traditional marriage ought not to be misinterpreted as private animus to gays and lesbians — but the reality is that intent is at best only half of the truth. Perception is the other half, and it is not an unreasonable perception that those who voted “Yes” on Proposition 8 are unwilling to embrace gay and lesbian relationships as fundamentally equal. It’s also not unreasonable to expect gay and lesbian artists to be unwilling to devote time, talent, and treasure to supporting a theater whose artistic director — no matter how kind, hardworking, and talented he may be — uses his salary (derived in no small part from gay and lesbian labor) to support a cause so fundamentally inimical to their most basic human interests.
That said, it appears a good man has chosen to leave his job, a job he was good at.
Although many contacted by The Bee disagreed with Eckern’s stance on Proposition 8, they lauded his artistic contributions.
Adrienne Sher, who worked with Eckern for seven years on the League of Sacramento Theaters board, said she was inconsolable.
“He’s done more for theater here than anybody. He was the League,” Sher said. ” â€¦ He struggled morally over every issue that came up. I think he’s a hero, and I’m just crushed that this has happened.”
“I am stunned that this happened,” said Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of Capital Stage. “I don’t feel anger or hostility to either side, but I do feel great sadness and I think the Sacramento theater community has lost an important leader.”
Added Buck Busfield of the B Street Theatre: “We know that every political and social movement has casualties, and it’s really sad that it should be Scott, who is such an incredibly, decent talented man and a friend of ours.”
Busfield used a theatrical allusion to sum up the conflict: “You want your villains to be villains, and Scott’s not that.”
In the hurt and rage over Proposition 8′s passage, the temptation to “look for villains” is immense. On the other hand, the temptation to lament boycotts as “unfair” ignores the reality that the boycott has been and will continue to be an important component of any civil-rights struggle. The $64,000 question: how do we channel anger productively and generously? How do gays and lesbians and their allies engage against a monstrous injustice without stooping so low as to paint those on the other side as monstrous? How do we honor the truth that many of those who oppose gay marriage are not only well-intentioned, but have what is to their mind sound, well-thought out theological reasons for taking the stance they have? Can we distinguish between those who are genuinely hate-filled and homophobic (an admittedly not insignificant number) and those who sincerely agonized over this issue before casting that fateful “yes” vote?
Boycotts and marches have their place in civil society. Non-violent disobedience has its place as well. There is such a thing as righteous anger; those of us who are Christians saw it flash forth from Jesus on more than one occasion. But righteous anger finds a way to see the humanity in those on the other side; Martin Luther King was adamant on that point. As a consequence of righteous anger, a good man has resigned his post. The artistic community in Sacramento has suffered a real loss — but it is a loss no more real than the loss that has been visited on the gay and lesbian citizens of California. Those already wed must endure a hateful, anxiety-ridden legal limbo for who-knows-how-long; those who long to marry but did not do so before November 4 must wait indefinitely for their next opportunity. Justice delayed is justice denied, as we all know. And those who gave time and energy and money to support a cause that was fundamentally antithetical to justice cannot expect acceptance and bonhomie from their colleagues whose rights have been stripped away as a consequence.
Few of us come from families where everyone agrees on these issues. Many of us have had heated rows over this very issue of gay marriage, rows with those whom we love. Most of us have experienced that cognitive dissonance of having someone you love very much hold a view that is incomprehensibly horrid in your eyes. (Some of those to whom I am close are nodding their heads as they read this, thinking of me.) We mustn’t compromise principles for the sake of superficial harmony. At the same time, we’ve got to work even harder to not let righteous anger twist into hate or bigotry. The vast majority of the protests against Proposition 8 have accomplished this; outbreaks of ugliness have been blessedly, even miraculously few. Let’s keep it that way, and as we discuss boycotts, let’s do so with the thoughtful goal of using our dollars as votes for justice. As to how we best do that — well, let the conversation continue!
My friend Richard Mouw has a fine post in this regard here.