Since the day the votes were counted by midnight on November 5th, 2008, Ari Gutíerrez has been fighting day and night in East Los Angeles, and other Latino communities, to overturn California's voter approved same-sex marriage ban called Proposition 8.
“I feel like the problem with Proposition 8 is that it gave people permission to treat us differently,” said Gutíerrez, an openly lesbian Latina. “Overcoming and overturning Prop. 8 will hopefully work in the opposite way…helping people realize that ostracizing members of our community is unfair.”
A federal appeals court decision to declare California's voter approved same-sex marriage ban, or Proposition 8, to be unconstitutional has revived the gay marriage debate in a state with the country's highest Latino population.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that Proposition 8, which says that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California, was a violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The decision by the panel upholds a California lower court’s ruling in 2010 that the ban violated the constitutional rights of gay men and women.
"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California," the judges ruled. “The Constitution simply does not allow for 'laws of this sort.’”
Though the legal decision is far from being final, it has brought the gay marriage debate back into the forefront of the minds of voters – giving guarded hope to gay activists like Gutíerrez, chairperson for the Latino Equality Alliance, a Los Angeles grassroots openly and “unapologetic” gay organization.
Since the decision, Gutíerrez has dedicated her life to her organization which aims to provide the education and resources needed in Latino communities that previously all but ignored LGBT issues. She says organizations like hers have helped bring LGBT issues to the forefront for Latino civil rights organizations. Providing Spanish language counseling over the phone, offices for support and information in Latino neighborhoods, and work with non-profits dedicated to helping homeless children.
Gutíerrez, who has a 1-year-old child with her partner of 11 years, has been fighting Proposition 8 since the day 52 percent of California’s residents voted to make the referendum law in November of 2008. Exit poll data also shows that the majority of Latinos, 53 percent, voted in favor of the same-sex marriage ban.
Gay activists and opponents of Proposition 8 face their toughest battles against strong proponents who point to their religious beliefs as the primary reason they support same-sex marriage bans. The U.S. Census says more than 50 percent of Latinos are Catholic and are considered the movable middle when it comes to gay marriage. It's the Protestant vote that tends to be against same-sex marriage.
In 2010, the Public Religion Research Institute released a study regarding California’s same-sex marriage debate that underscored the impact of religious beliefs on Latino views on the issue. That study showed that 57 percent of Latino Catholics in California would vote for same-sex marriage, compared to 22 percent of Latino Protestants.
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Proponents of Proposition 8 like Evangelical Rev. Miguel Rivera, president and founder of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC), which represents 20,000 churches in 34 states, believes the decision against Prop. 8 will be overturned because it is undemocratic.
"We are talking about a democracy which overwhelmingly decided to vote against gay marriage. What the ninth circuit court has done is unconstitutional," Rivera said. "This is going to set a harmful precedence for other referendums in the future of any other issue or matters."
Despite the legality of the decision, Rivera and his Evangelical organization, believe that civil unions are acceptable because they pertain to state-sanctioned action. Marriage, however, is a holy institution that should not be touched by legislators, he said. Rivera even went as far to say that he would hope to see civil unions be given the exact same legal rights that marriage brings to citizens.
"In Latin America there is a better understanding of how it should be. If you want to get married you go to city hall then you are legalized as husband and wife," But then you come to the church to fulfill the spiritual aspects of a holy matrimony."
Rivera, who is a friend of Sen. Rev. Rubén Díaz, who spearheaded anti-gay marriage rallies in New York, said he regrets having taken part in the rallies and will not do so anymore. He told Fox News Latino that he is actually happy to see the issue of same sex marriage being brought up again because it's an opportunity to work together in peace. He believes he and his fellow Evangelicals can do a better job of "uniting" by changing the discourse.
"I truly believe our main responsibility is to preach the gospel," he said. "The truth is I believe that gay people have the same opportunity to come to God. Without any concern with the lifestyle that's a personal decision. Our position should be to keep preaching the gospel and don't get involved that is a private issue."
Other proponents of Proposition 8, however, are disappointed but remain steadfast in their belief that the decision, by what they refer to as a “liberal” United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, would fail before the Supreme Court.
"With the sponsorship of the Hollywood elite, this lawsuit has been pushed forward as an assault on traditional marriage, with the help of a judge who failed to disclose his own long-term homosexual relationship while presiding over a case seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage," said Andy Pugno, general counsel for the ProtectMarriage.com coalition, the main proponents of the ban.
Pugno’s attack referred to retired Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who had been the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California in 2010 who asserted that barring same-sex couples from marrying was a violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.
Regardless of whether the case will now go to a second panel in California or to the Supreme Court, opponents of Proposition 8 like Andrés Duque, 42, a Latino LGBT rights advocate and blogger, believe the latest court decision. it's a sign of things to come.
"Yes, there is momentum," Duque said sighting active debates in Maryland, Illinois, and the latest same-sex marriage bill that passed in Washington state. "For me it's the same as Interracial marriage - I think eventually this will be seen as discriminatory like that."
As for Gutíerrez, she will not get married until the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned. But she is hopeful that the eventual overturn of Proposition 8 will send a message to Latino families who are struggling to accept their gay sons or daughters as individuals.
“It can go a long way in helping our community to begin to recognize and to accept them as apart of the family,” she said.