On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, I had class at 8am. I remember this because throughout college my top priority was meticulously scheduling my courseload to ensure that I never had class before 10am, and no class at all on Fridays (Thursdays, too, if I could help it). However, for a now lost-to-history reason probably related to Berkeley’s overmatched, comically deficient TeleBEARS registration system, this particular semester I had failed spectacularly at my mission. And since I lived on the southeast corner of campus, a good 45 minutes away from the my classroom located at the northwest extreme, I routinely was up at 6:30am, an hour that may as well not exist on a college campus. On November 4, 2008, though, I was marginally less furious about this great injustice that the world had wrought upon me, because it was Election Day, and it was the first of those in which I would get to participate. Being a good bleeding-heart liberal, I was at my polling place just a few minutes after it opened at 7. A trio of smiling older ladies, no doubt proud to be in the trenches in the ongoing BATTLE against the scourge of voter fraud, checked my ID and pointed me to a row of voting booths draped in worn blue curtains, which I decided was a good omen. I didn’t have much time, because acquiring enough coffee to kill a small- to medium-sized horse was a non-negotiable pre-class errand, but I also didn’t need much time, because the decisions in front of me just weren’t that hard. I was ready to get in, exercise for the first time my right as a U.S. citizen to democratically elect my leaders and policymakers and make sure that my voice is heard so that God willing I will leave for my children a country that promises an even better future to them than it did to me, and then get out and get on with my life.
The November 2008 elections were sort of an odd duck in California. Two years prior, voters had doubled down on their post-Gray Davis recall election terrible idea factory and re-elected world champion bodybuilder, franchise-carrying action star, and serial philanderer Arnold Schwarzenegger to a second term as governor; his signature graces my state-university-issued diploma, and hopefully soon all of my friends will forget the fact that I ever owned this and willingly wore it in public. Neither U.S. Senate seat was in play, and in what was then California’s Ninth District, voting for a congressional candidate not named Barbara Lee (who won her most recent election with a hilarious 84% of the vote) was like putting money on the Washington Generals. Thus, the only Really Important Decisions to be made were a grab bag of state ballot propositions, oh, and also President of the United States.
The latter call was the easiest for an unapologetic guzzler of hope-and-change Kool-Aid like me. I had spent the previous summer at an obligatory summer internship in Washington, D.C., eating subway, writing memos that no one would ever read, and sweating. One Tuesday, I got an e-mail inviting interns to ditch work for the day (hahaha, like our services were missed) and help with logistics at a conference sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens. Senators McCain and Obama were the guests of honor. Was I interested? Of course I was interested; lunch would be provided, and I was really tired of Subway. And in between showing donors to their seats, trying and failing to authoritatively ask reporters for their media credentials, and spilling au jus on my khakis, sure enough, I watched both men speak. Senator McCain went first, said some boring things, and earned polite, respectful applause. Senator Obama was a fucking rock star. I have never seen a crowd lit quite like they were for him, and by the time he strode out I half expected the lights to go all the way down and for smoke machines to kick in like he was being introduced in an NBA Finals game. For my part, I remained calm and composed and made sure to stay at my post, by which I mean I frantically sprinted down to the handshake line and, in a stroke of brilliance, pushed a chair up right behind the first row so that I could reach over the suckers below me, only to be ordered down by a very scary-looking suited man wearing his sunglasses indoors, which was probably for the best, since falling on the Democratic nominee and breaking his wrist would have probably caused the D.C. Interns blog to implode. My failed attempts at glad-handing aside, by the time November rolled around, “BARACK OBAMA / JOSEPH BIDEN, JR.” had been an easy pick for me for a long time.
Meanwhile, below that, the 2008 ballot presented a crowded field of twelve propositions to each voter, though to be honest I only even sort of understood three of them. Blame for this can be share approximately equally between the facts that 1) I can only process so much information in the six seconds that it takes to transport a flyer handed to me on Sproul Plaza directly into the nearest garbage can; 2) I lived in Berkeley, where only the most batshit insane liberal causes manage to enter the public consciousnesses, and any “reasonable” or “practical” proposals might as well not exist; and 3) look, it was my first election, and I was a dumb 21-year-old, and you really just couldn’t expect much from me at that point. But even so, those three were easy calls! Prop 4, requiring parental notification and a mandatory waiting period for minors who seek an abortion? No, I can’t see that going well for anyone. Prop 6, imposing comically harsh penalties on very loosely defined “gang” crimes, the perpetrators of which just happen to be disproportionately African-American and Hispanic? Not for this dedicated Social Welfare major. And Prop 8, which would amend the California constitution (again: amend the California constitution) to provide that the state recognizes only those marriages between a man and a woman? No, no, and no, though if the scantron system had afforded me the option to add expletives and/or exclamation points to the last one, I would have certainly exercised it.
In the months before the election, I remember a dizzying array of portmanteaus that mocked supporters’ not-even-trying-to-hide-it homophobia (No H8, Prop H8, Love Not H8; supporters must have been furious at their unfortunate numerical assignment), all of which pretty accurately summed up the collective dissmissiveness with which people treated it. I don’t remember any actual concern about Prop 8, as if it were a threat to actually be enacted, and I certainly don’t remember ever meeting anyone who suggested that Prop 8 was a good idea. Come on, right? Not here, not in California, and most certainly not in our San Fransisco Bay Area. Not when the California Supreme Court in In re Marriage Cases had decided only six months earlier that an existing state statute that prohibited same-sex marriage denied same-sex couples equal protection under the law, and that marriage was a basic civil and human right, and that the statute could no longer stand. After that, as happy wedding followed happy wedding in the shadow of San Francisco City Hall, Prop 8 appeared no more than a bemusing anachronism, a kind of sad, impotent last stand spearheaded by religious zealots and your cranky old neighbor who always talks about how he just doesn’t care much for the queers, but hey, he’ll be dead soon anyway, so I guess posting a few “YES ON 8” signs in his yard is a pretty harmless way to ensure that he gets some fresh air.
Ballot completed, I proudly slapped my first “I Voted” sticker on my frat-mandatory messenger bag and headed out. Because I am nothing if not the embodiment of upper-middle-class white privilege, this day was of course capped with a four-hour LSAT class from 6-10pm. Those always seem to be held in the weirdest locations, probably wherever the shady test-prep outfit could secure temporary space for the cheapest on that particular day: spare conference rooms in hotels, empty storefronts with a few tables moved in, basically anywhere but an actual classroom. This particular day, we were in a hotel meeting room directly across from campus near Telegraph Avenue. I didn’t have a smartphone, and there was absolutely no reason for my laptop to be out while we were painstakingly diagramming logic games and marking up reading comprehension passages, so the only way anyone could approximate what was going on was by tracking the crescendo of foot traffic, whooping, and blaring car horns outside. And as we got closer to 10, they seemed to tell an increasingly happy story. The class keep going, but no one was really paying attention anymore. Everyone was ready to celebrate, and whether Tim finished the race before Jane if Arnold finished after her but before Bill would still be a totally unsolvable problem tomorrow.
I didn’t bother going home to drop anything off at the top of the hour, but instead went straight to the intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft Avenues, where the greatest university in the world meets a perpetual state of 1972, because where else would the party be? The roads were closed for four blocks in either direction, teeming with people who could not stop smiling, singing, whooping, and crying. Oh, and chanting: after months of thinking about how cool it would be, a lot of “yes we can” refrains finally, triumphantly, and and faux-spontaneously morphed into “yes we did.” Everyone sported the same ecstatic, punch-drunk look, like if they were alone or anywhere else they wouldn’t quite be able to believe it, but since everyone else around them seemed to confirm it too, hell, I guess we can keep on cheering. Cops showed up eventually, but not to do anything other than set up roadblocks, direct traffic, and exchange high-fives of their own with anyone who offered them up. The loudest roar of all was reserved for an intrepid soul who shimmied up a lightpole in front the of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union and somehow managed, with one arm, to vigorously wave a sizable American flag back and forth above the crowd. Twenty minutes later on Sproul Plaza, the heart of campus, a girl with a bullhorn hushed the crowd for the Cal Band, which had somehow managed to assemble on 30 minutes’ notice and find little paper flags to tape to the ends of their French horns, as they played interpolated the Cal fight song with “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
On Sproul Plaza, not far from where the band played, there’s an almost-invisible monument to the campus’ 1964 Free Speech Movement, a patch of concrete with a circle in the center about the size of your first, and an inscription encircling it that states: “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” It’s a very appropriately Berkeley absurdity, kind of like the brown taxpayer-funded signs at the city limits that proudly declare Berkeley to be a nuclear weapons-free zone. The nationless, jurisdiction-less territory isn’t even big enough to allow for something cool to happen, like if a fleeing suspect were to happen on Sproul and ingeniously plant himself on the memorial as cops helplessly stand by fretting over their next move (and, probably, students seize upon it as a cause célèbre and bring the guy food and water for months). But that night, it didn’t seem like such a ludicrous anachronism. We had elected a black guy to be president. For the hottest of seconds, no challenge seemed quite so insurmountable.
The celebration was going strong by midnight, but a quiet, uncomfortable murmur had also started to slip its way into the formerly unadulterated jubilation, changing the mood as quickly as an important work email does when you’re drunk and happy and vibing to the “Cruise” remix. As national news broadcasts featured shot after shot of frenzied crowds, in Times and Lafeyette Squares and in Lincoln and Centennial Parks, the on-screen ticker gave it to us quietly, almost apologetically, like it hoped it could unobtrusively deliver the news and otherwise let everyone have their moment. But there it was. Prop 8: “Yes — 52%, No — 48%.” The night so far had been characterized so much by victory that for a moment I actually couldn’t remember what yes and no meant in that particular context. But. Shit. “No” was the good guys. “No” was the way the script was supposed to go tonight. And “No” had lost, and all the polls were closed and votes were counted and the margins for error were shrinking and then shrunken and then all the way gone, goodnight.
In Berkeley, euphoria over the presidential election quickly gave way first to hushed, incredulous conversations and then to a horrified silence, like when the hero looks down at her hands for the first time and realizes that they’re covered in blood. Wait. What have we done? How could this have happened — worse yet, how could we have done this — to our friends, our classmates, our neighbors, our fellow humans? Advertisements paid for by the NO H8 campaign had repeatedly reminded voters that Prop 8, if it were successful (hahaha! imagine that!), would mark the first time in U.S. history that citizens had used the ballot for the sole purpose of taking away a civil right that the law had granted. I still have no idea if this was true, but it was a brilliant talking point that perfectly captured just absurd Prop 8 had seemed. Whoops. An hour earlier, Election Day 2008 had seemed poised to smash everything we thought possible about politics in the United States. Now, it seemed like it had cruelly betrayed us.
What have we done? The results appeared even more infuriatingly inexplicable when final tallies for the other dependable liberal causes began rolling in: sure enough, Californians had soundly rejected the evil abortion restrictions and the sinister “gang crime” designations. How could the voters who so resolutely stood up to protect women’s rights and combat racial profiling also tell gay people, sorry, not here, not on my watch? In the days leading up to the election, my mom, who counts as her proudest achievement transforming my dad into a fellow Democrat over their three-plus decades of marriage, quietly told me several times that her worst fear was that voters who proclaimed their support for Senator Obama would, in the privacy and anonymity of the voting booth, allow their prejudices to cast their ballots. Pre-election polls had showed more opponents than supporters of Prop 8 by a small but comfortable margin; Mom picked the wrong election, but forecast the right dynamic.
I thought a lot about that night a year later, when, after pretty much every state official had vowed not to defend Prop 8 in court, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker (who, incidentally, came out promptly after retiring, which, good on him) ruled in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that Prop 8 violated the federal Constitution and could not stand. I thought about it even more five years later, when the Supreme Court in Hollingsworth v. Perry upheld Judge Walker’s findings on the grounds that where California officials decided not to enforce a law, the law’s private-citizen supporters did not have standing to do so on their own. These rulings felt happy but hollow: Schwarzenegger was immediately stayed by the Ninth Circuit for the duration of the appeals process, and Hollingsworth, while certainly a victory, strenuously avoided deciding what Prop 8 opponents really wanted to hear: an unqualified declaration that state-sanctioned discrimination against committed same-sex couples could not stand. And even more simply, it was hard to celebrate these cases as hard-fought victories when the only reason they had to be fought in the first place was because the voters — us — had troublingly managed to use the democratic process to take it away. Even in victory, that’s a point of shame.
But I thought about that Election Day the most last week, when Obergefell v. Hodges came down and your Facebook news feed and mine suddenly looked like a collection of headshots of people killed in a tragic crayon factory explosion. This time, there were no more state-specific holdings, no more incremental steps, no more technical findings that carefully avoided rulings on the merits. I kept reading the opinion to find the asterisk, the ominous footnote that explained that the question that the opinion fleetingly seemed like it had just answered was in fact not an issue before the Court. But page after page, I found nothing of the sort. By the time I was six paragraphs deep in Justice Scalia’s homophobic diatribe, and before I arrived at Chief Justice Roberts’ bizarre reliance on the traditions of the Han Chinese (whose leaders kept binders full of concubines) and the Aztecs (who sacrificed humans) in his nonsensical defense of traditional marriage, I realized that this time, the celebrating could begin in earnest. I loved every minute of the delirious crowds (and the delirious cops) in what I assume were the sickest Pride parades in history; I loved the couples who very tentatively started lining up for marriage licenses in states that previously didn’t allow same-sex marriages, like they were afraid it somehow wasn’t going to be true, only it was, and they broke down in tears; and I loved the dawning realization that one day our grandchildren will ask about the time before same-sex marriage in the same confused, incredulous voice that I used when I asked my grandparents about Jim Crow laws and women’s suffrage.
I realize that this ruling does not represent the achievement of equal protection writ large for LGBT Americans, particularly where violence against transgender individuals is more frequent than ever and an incredible 29 states still allow employers to fire their gay employees without legal consequences. But celebrating success and eyeing the future are not mutually exclusive. Seeing President Obama’s White House illuminated in a rainbow, hastily yet happily transforming itself the perfect backdrop for the coveted selfies of everyone who had spontaneously gathered at Lafayette Square to celebrate, was the most satisfying sight of all. Seven years earlier, I voted for this outcome, prayed that it would occur, and mourned when it didn’t. It felt really, really good to finally close that loop.