Review: 8: The Mormon Proposition

(Dirty secret of the Prop 8 campaign #1 – not discussed by 8 the documentary:  despite the attention LDS spending has received, the “No on 8” side actually raised and spent more money than the “Yes on 8” side. It would be a fascinating study – and more productive for the pro-gay marriage side going forward if they wish to learn something from the Prop 8 experience – to analyze in detail the incompetent campaign that the “No on Prop 8” side ran in California in 2008, despite having the advantage in money. The “No” side showed a lethal mix of apathy and overconfidence early on, had no public spokesperson to provide an emotional and human connection to their side, and allowed the “Yes” side to completely define the terms of the debate from the beginning.)

Intellectual Dishonesty

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary for a documentary to be objective and unbiased, only that it be accurate. You can argue, in fact, creating a purely objective documentary is impossible. (A relevant quote from co-director Steven Greenstreet’s 2006 documentary This Divided State says, “There is no such thing as an objective viewpoint – we all see things through filters.”)

It’s acceptable that the co-directors of 8 have a ‘bias’ — a specific opinion on the question of legalized gay marriage — that becomes obvious to viewers during the film.  Only accuracy matters.

However, there’s “accurate” and there’s accurate.  There are a number of areas where 8 conveniently skips facts that are directly relevant to the film’s topic (but not the film’s thesis), and deliberately misleads viewers by implying things that aren’t true.  Scenes are designed such that viewers ignorant of the facts will receive a mistaken impression, even though the filmmakers will still have “plausible deniability” to say they didn’t directly say anything that was untrue.  Ironic, since the makers of 8 accuse the “Yes on Prop 8” campaign of doing the exact same things.

To understand 8 in its proper context, let’s review the timeline of events in California related to gay marriage.

1999: California passes a basic “domestic partnership” law for same-sex couples with a package of benefits that include hospital visitation and inheritance privileges between partners.

2003: California passes the Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act, to take effect January 1st, 2005.  This law greatly expanded the benefits for same-sex couples, filling in the gaps between “domestic partnerships” and “marriages”, and is still in force today.

Now, domestic partnerships in California are still not strictly equivalent to marriage.  There are two primary differences:

  • Partners have to be 18 (technically you can get married before you are 18)
  • Partners have to share a residence (not a strict requirement for marriage).

Other than how the paperwork is filed, those are the only major differences between domestic partnerships and marriages in California…other than the name.

For couples over 18 who live together, the benefits and privileges — health care, power of attorney, adoption, hospital visitation, inheritance, state income tax, etc — are the same between same-sex couples and opposite sex couples.  (Even the minor differences are arbitrary.  In Vermont, for example, civil unions are exactly equivalent to marriage in all respects other than the name. Follow-up legislation in California in 2009 and 2010 has already started to eliminate these differences.)  Currently, there are approximately 58,000 registered domestic partnerships in California.

May 2008: The California Supreme Court rules that gay marriages must be allowed in California.

June 2008: Following this ruling, marriage licenses become available for gay couples starting on June 17th.  Approximately 18,000 gay couples will receive licenses between now and November.

One of those couples is Tyler and Spencer, the primary focus of 8: The Mormon Proposition.  They are an ideal couple to be the ‘face’ of the documentary for a number of reasons: they seem like really nice guys, are commited to each other, and (most suitably for the documentary) they both come from Mormon families.  (8 doesn’t specify whether the two of them had previously registered for a domestic partnership or not.)

At the same time marriage licenses were being allocated, filings were made to overturn the California Supreme Court’s verdict through a proposition on the ballot to be decided in the November election.  The proposition, if passed, would amend the California Constitution to specify that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”.

November 2008: Proposition 8 was voted upon and – in a somewhat surprising upset – passed with a 53% / 47% split.  The results of the proposition passing were that no more new marriage licenses were issued by the state to same-sex couples, although the 18,000 existing same-sex marriages previous to the election were still considered valid. (This was confirmed in a California Supreme Court ruling in May 2009).   Proposition 8 had no effect on existing domestic partnerships in California, nor on the ability of future same-sex couples to register for one.

2009/2010: Both sides of the debate filed follow-up legal motions – the “No on 8” side to have the results of the proposition overturned, and the “Yes on 8” side to allow companies in California not to have to recognize those ‘grandfathered’ same-sex marriages in terms of spousal benefits if they don’t want to. Neither side is expected to succeed.

That’s how things stand today. Why go over the timeline of same-sex relationships in California in such detail?  Because 8: The Mormon Proposition doesn’t.   Not because of time or pacing, but because the full timeline shares facts about gays’ legal status in California that Cowan and Greenstreet quite obviously don’t want you to know.

A viewer from Rhode Island unfamiliar with California law would *never* know from 8 that California has recognized same-sex domestic partnerships with the same benefits of marriage since 2005…and still does today, even after Prop 8 passing.  It’s ironic that the existence of legally-recognized domestic partnerships in California seems almost to be an embarrassment to the makers of 8 — rather than something to celebrate.  Why go to such great lengths to avoid talking about it?

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