On a cold rainy evening I watch a long line of men and women, most of them young, march down San Francisco’s Valencia Street, chanting and yelling. One of them waves a poster that says, “F*** Bush: He Ain’t My President.” Cars honk in support. People smoking near the doorway to a taqueria holler back.
I have little energy to join them and let off some steam. I feel like such a misfit. Many people feel like they don’t belong to the countries they are born in, the families they grow up in. It’s somehow much more painful to feel like a misfit in the country you chose to live in.
I didn’t come to America from India because I was gay. But America had a lot to do with my coming out. I was never naïve enough to think the United States was some sort of a paradise for homosexuals. Yet it amazed me that homosexuals here were fighting for the right to serve in the military, to have their marriages recognized. Even when those fights were lost, they were a beacon of hope—of a society debating issues that went beyond just coming out of the closet.
But on Nov. 2, as I saw state after state passing anti-same-sex marriage amendments, dismantling even the notion of civil unions—with margins like 86 percent to 14 percent in Mississippi—it startled me into realizing how deeply America fears me. We thought that dragon had been slain when Americans recoiled from Pat Buchanan’s infamous 1992 speech about a religious war for the soul of America. After all, now we were in the age of Will and Grace.
My gay activist friends had called the state constitutional amendments some cynical Karl Rove-inspired brainwave to get evangelicals out to the polls. But evangelicals are not sheep who can be brainwashed by cunning campaign advisors in the White House. The fact that they voted in millions showed that somehow the amendments tapped into some dark corner of primal fear that I in my San Francisco cocoon could blissfully ignore, even scoff at.
I knew some of those same evangelicals when I first came to the United States as a graduate student in the Midwest. In a small university town in the middle of cornfields, they were the ones who took the foreign students grocery shopping, helped them get their bearings in America, even invited them home for their first Thanksgiving turkey. Yet now those same people fear gay people like me so much that they have made “moral values” their No. 1 issue, above Iraq, ahead of the economy.
When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the doors of City Hall to same-sex couples wanting to get married, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts warned that America was not ready for the debate. Did the images of women who had been together for 50 years, weeping as they got married, fill honest, God-fearing people with so much dread that they elected homophobic senators and passed every anti-gay amendment along the way?
Did the “gay issue” cause significant chunks of immigrant communities to desert the Democratic Party? As the Democratic Party does its post-election soul-searching, will it find gay rights its Achilles heel? The Democrats’ traditional base of labor and African Americans is not growing. The one area that is booming is the new immigrants flooding in from Latin America and Asia.
But in San Francisco, it was Chinese immigrants and their churches who staged massive rallies against same-sex marriage. In Florida, it was Latinos who were riled up about granting adoption rights to lesbian couples. Can it be long before Democratic politicians start calling for the heads of “gay-positive liberals” like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the gay Log Cabin Republicans couldn’t even endorse President Bush this time, and find themselves homeless.
Where does that leave me, a gay immigrant, not at home anywhere? With the right wing consolidating control over the House, Senate, presidency and even the Supreme Court, the space that allowed me to be different, to be myself, to be an individual, is shrinking in America. It’s a new “fit in or get out” America, the domestic incarnation of Bush’s “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” rhetoric. And the horror is, it’s perfectly democratic.
We will shake our heads at the bigotry. We will rail at mean-minded preachers. But I could have come out over that Thanksgiving dinner in the Midwest all those years ago. This election proved that beyond people of color voter registration and immigrant voter guides, the only recourse is to go back to churches and temples and mosques to try and understand that wellspring of fear, instead of arrogantly ridiculing it. Otherwise we will be marching around and around our San Francisco bubble with our anti-Bush placards, as the city morphs into a de facto gated community of blue misfits in a red nation.
PNS contributor and editor Sandip Roy-Chowdhury hosts the UpFront, a weekly radio program on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco. He also volunteers as editor of Trikone, a magazine about South Asian LGBT issues.