The Villain Uncloaked: The Prop. 8 Story as Gothic Novel

A “page-turner,” “better than any novel you could be reading.” Such was the praise Rachel Maddow bestowed on the Proposition 8 ruling by Judge Vaughn Walker, issued last week at the conclusion of the historic federal trial. She might have added that the 136-page decision has many of the features of a summer blockbuster: an action-adventure story complete with heroes trying to obtain their heart’s desire and villains blocking their way; a love story in which misunderstandings resolve into the happy ending the protagonists so richly deserve.

As an English professor and specialist in the history of the novel, I got to thinking of how the Prop. 8 trial might look if it were cast as a work of fiction, and I realized it would make a terrific Gothic novel. Gothic novels emerged in Europe alongside the French and American Revolutions. They pit the past against the present and are obsessed with dark, irrational forces that try to control and enslave individuals. Often set in medieval castles, such novels frequently hold a mysterious secret at their core that must be disclosed in order to clear up the atmosphere of horror that has pervaded the book.

Like a Gothic novel, the Prop. 8 trial was all about getting beyond the smoke and mirrors, the lies and distortions, of the anti-gay marriage campaign and revealing the truth in bright daylight. After you read  Walker’s ruling, you will never think of the marriage equality debate the same way again.

Using a forceful word in the final pages of the document, very much in the tradition of the Gothic imagination, Judge Walker writes,

The evidence at trial regarding the campaign to pass Proposition 8 uncloaks [emphasis mine].the most likely explanation for its passage: a desire to advance the belief that opposite-sex couples are morally superior to same-sex couples.

What the evidence “uncloaks” is the villain of the tale–a campaign based on lies and fear-mongering. Lest you think villainy is too harsh a label for the Prop. 8 proponents’ campaign tactics, consider what Hak-Shing William Tam had to say on the stand. Testifying as an adverse witness for the plaintiffs, Tam, we are told, “encouraged voters to support Proposition 8 on the grounds that homosexuals are 12 times more likely to molest children” and warned that same-sex marriage “will cause states one-by-one to fall into Satan’s hands.” Tam also claimed that legalized same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and incest, citing the source for his misinformation as “the Internet.”

During the Prop. 8 campaign, the villain twirled his mustache and swirled his cape. Boo! Straight people will stop getting married! Boo! Children will be taught about gays and lesbians in school! Boo! Civilization will come to an end! As summarized in Judge Walker’s ruling, pro-Prop. 8 advertisements “conveyed to voters that same-sex relationships are inferior to opposite-sex relationships and dangerous to children.”

Our heroes are two couples–Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo–who uprooted their lives to stand up for the right of gays and lesbians to marry and be counted as full citizens of this great country. Judge Walker writes, “Perry testified that marriage would provide her what she wants most in life: a stable relationship with Stier, the woman she loves and with whom she has built a life and a family.” Marriage would also, he notes, “provide access to the language to describe her relationship with Stier.” Perry’s own testimony speaks volumes:

I’m a 45-year-old woman. I have been in love with a woman for 10 years and I don’t have a word to tell anybody about that.

[Marriage would be a way to tell] our friends, our family, our society, our community, our parents and each other that this is a lifetime commitment…we are not girlfriends. We are not partners. We are married.

Fighting to defend these heroic couples and their constitutionally guaranteed rights is the equally heroic legal team assembled by Ted Olson and David Boies. They amassed an impressive body of evidence and brought an illustrious list of highly credentialed witnesses to dismantle the bugaboo fictions of the Prop. 8 proponents. As Judge Walker put it, “Proponents’ evidentiary presentation was dwarfed by that of the plaintiffs.” When given a chance to tell their side of the story, the marriage-ban advocates “failed to bring a credible factual record to support their claim that Proposition 8 served a legitimate government purpose.”

In the pages of the Prop. 8 ruling, you can witness the triumph of reason over irrationality. The architecture of past intolerance crumbles when exposed to sunshine and close scrutiny.

The proponents of the ban said that same-sex marriage harms the institution of marriage itself, but when asked to provide evidence for this in a court of law, they had nothing to show. They said that centuries of tradition stand behind them, but when asked to explain to a judge why the past should dictate how we live now, it’s clear that their ideas were based only on old biases and prejudices. Or, to quote Judge Walker once more:

The evidence shows that the tradition of restricting an individual’s choice of spouse based on gender does not rationally further a state interest despite its ‘ancient lineage.’

This particular Gothic novel has a classic happy ending, with the promise of weddings on the way. In no uncertain terms, Judge Walker rules in favor of marriage as a right belonging to all Americans: “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.” He declares California free once more to “issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples,” adding that “it has already issued 18,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples and no harm has ensued.”

The Prop. 8 trial ruling is a must-read text for anyone who supports the cause of marriage equality, and I promise you will enjoy reading it. And it will arm you with facts you can use while responding to the ongoing scare tactics and distortions of the anti-same-sex-marriage forces. (Don’t have time to sit down with it? I started a Twitter feed, @Prop8Fail to tweet key excerpts from the document.)

At the end of the trial, the villain stands uncloaked for what it is: an unjustified hostility against gays and lesbians. Whether clothed in the robes of church doctrine  or presented in the Halloween costume of fear, this hostility has been revealed as irrational. Whether you hear this villain howling from the dark corridors of a medieval castle or on Fox News, remember: You have nothing to fear. Judge Walker has ruled and a new era has begun. Heed the words of his decision and step out into the clear light of day.

Photo of Gothic castle in Second Life, from Flickr user Torley, under Creative Commons 3.0 license


Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.