The fight for same-sex marriage rights

The past few months have been a tumultuous and exciting time for the struggle of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, with a series of dramatic developments regarding same-sex marriage.

In early February, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier decision to legalize same-sex marriages in the state. This will take effect May 17. This was followed by San Francisco Mayor Gary Newsom’s instruction to City Hall to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, with 3,000 receiving marriage licenses in the few weeks before a court ruled that the city must stop.

Following this example, several other public officials around the country began officiating same-sex marriages, including Jason West, the Green mayor of New Paltz in upstate New York. One Oregon county, which includes Portland, has issued over 2,500 same-sex marriage licenses since March. Protests sprang up in over 25 cities demanding same-sex marriage rights.

All of this comes in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Texas’s sodomy law. That decision also included a broad declaration opposing discrimination against gays and lesbians.

These welcome developments have predictably led to a ferocious reaction by the conservative right. By the end of February, Bush – who wants to make sure evangelical Christians come out and vote for him this fall – publicly endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment that would “protect” marriage by maintaining it as the union of a man and a woman.

Marriage and Oppression

The fight for same-sex marriage rights is now the cutting edge in the struggle to end the second-class status of all LGBT people.

Of course, marriage rights are far from being the only issue LGBT people face, and some might say they are not the central issue. As socialists, we recognize that the institution of marriage in class society has historically been used to oppress women, and it is a key pillar of the so-called nuclear family which the ruling class has always leaned on for social control.

But precisely because it is a central institution of class society, marriage also mirrors important social changes. From the 17th century onwards, states were busy enacting laws to prevent marriage between African Americans and whites. Because slaves were not allowed to marry each other either, marriage was essentially reserved for white people.

As late as 1967, the Supreme Court overturned anti-miscegenation (race mixing) laws still on the books in 15 states, which was an important victory for the civil rights movement. Likewise, achieving the right of same-sex marriage will mark an important step forward for LGBT people.

LGBT people have made significant gains in recent decades. This is reflected, for example, in the greater visibility of LGBT people in society and in popular culture. The attitudes of ordinary people toward LGBT rights have changed considerably; the current debate over same-sex marriage would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago.

But Rosie O’Donnell, “Will and Grace,” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” notwithstanding, there is still an enormous amount of anti-gay bigotry in American society, and it starts right at the top.

Here is what Senator Rick Santorum had to say at the time of last year’s review of the Texas sodomy law by the Supreme Court: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

LGBT people face far more, however, than a generalized hostility from conservatives. This oppression takes many forms, but it is reflected for example in the fact that 35% of homeless people are LGBT – over three times the proportion of LGBT people in the overall population. The suicide rate among young LGBT people is also three times the national average.

What are the Issues?

The religious right has drawn a line on the “defense of marriage.” Same-sex marriage in their view would mean the full and complete legitimization of the “gay lifestyle” in American society. The drive for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is very much linked to their fight against women’s rights, specifically to overturn Roe v. Wade. Same-sex marriage is also perceived as a threat because it undermines traditional gender roles.

It is obvious that stopping any further expansion of LGBT rights is a life-and-death issue for the religious right. The Bush administration has to walk a delicate line between this key section of their political base and more moderate voters. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that 55% agreed with the statement “If gays are allowed to marry, the institution of marriage will be degraded,” but 42% specifically opposed the idea of an amendment. Many people simply choke on the idea of using the Constitution to specifically discriminate against a group of people.

Besides these broader issues, the fight for same-sex marriage is also the fight for all the myriad rights which married couples have, like qualifying for social security benefits, visitation rights in hospitals, sharing healthcare benefits, adoption and immigration rights, and tax benefits. This is a society in which unmarried cohabiting couples have very few rights – a situation we definitely want to change.

Some argue that gays and lesbians should be satisfied with civil unions, which would confer some of the material benefits of marriage. However, according to the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts, while civil marriage confers 1400 benefits and rights, civil unions only provide 350.

Furthermore, civil unions are not “portable” to other states. Other states would possibly be forced to recognize a same-sex civil marriage (provided the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was struck down in a court).

Settling for civil unions means accepting an inferior second-class citizenship for LGBT people. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court pointed out in its recent ruling, which rejected the idea that marriage could be restricted to heterosexuals if gays and lesbians had the right to civil unions, “The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal…The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.”

The Role of the Democratic Party

It is clear we have no choice but to fight for same-sex marriage rights and fight back against the religious right and their Republican allies’ campaign to write discrimination into the Constitution. But what alternative is the Democratic Party offering? Rather than seizing hold of these new developments to further the struggle for LGBT rights, the Democratic establishment is running as fast as possible away from the issue of same-sex marriage.

In fact, our main obstacle to building an effective mass movement is the Democratic Party. Over and over again, the Democrats have betrayed the hopes of LGBT people and dealt many of their own blows to LGBT rights. For example, Bill Clinton signed and supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage and relieving states of any obligation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.

Thirty eight states have laws defining marriage as a heterosexual institution, and 16 states are considering constitutional amendments that would ban same-sex marriages. One of these is Massachusetts, where 170 out of the 199 state legislators are Democrats.

John Kerry’s line is that he personally opposes legalizing same-sex marriage, but is in favor of civil unions and opposed to a constitutional amendment. Like Bush, he is also treading a fine line, trying not to alienate either liberal or more socially conservative voters. This is yet another reason to vote for Ralph Nader, who has commendably taken a clear stand in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

The position of Barney Frank, openly gay and liberal Massachusetts congressman, best illustrates the role the Democratic Party plays. Frank lobbied San Francisco Mayor Newsom not to issue same-sex marriage licenses, arguing that "the time was not right” (i.e. it is an election year and would “embarrass” John Kerry). “I was sorry to see the San Francisco thing go forward,” Frank said.

History shows that the only way to win same-sex marriage rights, and LGBT rights in general, is through mass mobilizations and other forms of mass struggle, and not through reliance on the rotten pro-war, pro-big business Democratic Party. The dangerous logic of supporting Kerry and the Democrats will inevitably undermine the building of a powerful, militant, mass movement. The last thing John Kerry wants is a mass movement fighting for LGBT rights while he is trying to establish his “moderate” credentials.

All significant gains made by LGBT people have required mass struggle – from the Stonewall uprising in 1969 to the enormous demonstrations which forced the issue of AIDS onto the national agenda in the 1980’s. Likewise, the issue of same-sex marriage is being put on the agenda now not just by the courageous actions of a few public officials, but by the willingness of thousands of lesbian and gay couples to travel sometimes long distances to take their vows in the full glare of media attention, and the thousands more protesting across the country.

But this struggle also must be broadened to take up other issues that face LGBT people, including workplace discrimination, and linking up with the struggles of all oppressed groups in American society. We particularly fight for the powerful labor movement to take a clear stand in favor of same-sex marriage rights and ending the second-class status of LGBT people.

By connecting the struggle for same-sex marriage to the broader social struggles against Corporate America’s wars abroad and its war at home against working people, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBT people, we can win not just in a few states but across the entire country.

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