What Should the LGBT Movement Fight For?

As with any movement, there are political tensions inside the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights today.

On the one hand, many mainstream LGBT rights groups are attempting to rein in the street heat and radicalism of activists who continue to organize and protest in the wake of the victory of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 referendum last November.

On the other, a far smaller, yet vocal, number of left-wing activists express indifference or even contempt for the same-sex marriage movement and the growth of new groups forming in cities across the country.

How should socialists approach these challenges?

The largest and best-funded organizations in the country such as the Human Rights Campaign and statewide equality groups are looking to “Obamify” the same-sex marriage movement. As the San Francisco Chronicle explains, “Obamification” is:

[M]ore than just connecting supporters through social networking sites such as Facebook and building mile-long e-mail lists. It would involve pairing new media technology with old-fashioned, door-to-door outreach — two tactics that were not used well in the unsuccessful opposition to Proposition 8 in November, according to a report by Marriage Equality USA, an Oakland-based organization that supports gay marriage.

The leading advocates of this sort of organizing, such as Torie Osborn and Rick Jacobs, are Democratic Party campaign activists who worked in the Obama and Howard Dean campaigns, respectively. They are critical of the failed conservative methods used in the No on 8 campaign in California, and argue for tactics such as “online, grassroots activism.” Yet activism should never be reduced to clicking a mouse.

While they do, in fact, push for LGBT people to tell their own stories in some door-knocking actions — rather than hide behind euphemism-filled ads with straight couples, as the No on 8 campaign did — their use of progressive language to press for lobbying and online networking masks a narrow vision of genuine grassroots activism.

There is an occasional verbal nod toward protest and collective organizing efforts — that is, genuine grassroots organizing. But the focus is primarily on conventional legislative lobbying to appeal to state and national officials.

Currently, attorneys are attempting to repeal Prop 8’s reversal of gay marriage rights in the courts. Activists across the country are planning Day of Decision actions — either celebrations or protests, depending on the outcome. These are actions activists should aggressively promote and participate in.

Because President Obama and party leaders continue to define marriage as between one man and one woman, despite their opposition to statewide gay marriage bans, groups that remain inside the Democratic Party are more concerned about not embarrassing politicians than winning rights.

Thus, Equality California is already raising hesitations about attempting a 2010 pro-gay marriage ballot initiative in the event that Prop 8 is upheld — out of fear that LGBT activists would “look bad” or suffer another “defeat, ” according to their director Marc Solomon, speaking at an April meeting of the activist group Love Honor Cherish in Los Angeles.

It appears that as with the 2004 elections, when Democrats like gay Congressman Barney Frank told activists not to press for equal marriage, the folks they are really concerned about “looking bad” are the Democrats.

In addition, while newly formed local groups such as Seattle’s Queer Allies Coalition, New York’s Civil Rights Front and the Chicago chapter of Join the Impact have widened their agendas to include support for employment non-discrimination for LGBT people and active solidarity with labor and immigrant rights organizing, many mainstream groups assert an exclusive focus on statewide gay marriage legislation.

They are tepid or silent about demanding that Obama and Congress repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that denies all federal marriage benefits, even to married LGBT couples in states where their marriages are legal.

But activists such as Harvey Milk’s collaborator Cleve Jones argue that broader issues for LGBT rights must be fought for today. At a Camp Courage training weekend in late January — organized by the advocates of Obamafication — Jones enthusiastically called for a national LGBT civil rights movement:

It’s got to be not just marriage. It’s got to be marriage and housing and public accommodation and adoption and immigration and taxation and Social Security and military service. We want nothing less than full equality in all areas governed by civil law in all 50 states, and eventually in every country of this world. That is what we are fighting for.

Still, while thousands are taking to the streets for gay marriage and raising larger questions about LGBT oppression and how to fight it, some on the left are surprisingly dismissive.

One panel discussion at the Left Forum in New York City on April 19 — on which I spoke — was typical of this sort of ultra-left approach to the question of equal marriage rights. Called “Gay Marriage: Should the Left Care?” committed activists from Queers for Economic Justice and the LGBT youth group FIERCE attacked the gay marriage movement for making such a conservative demand.

Without acknowledging the evidence to the contrary–and there is quite a bit–they assumed that given the mainstream nature of marriage, marriage activists must not care about racism, economic injustice or taking on the systemic causes of LGBT oppression.

They are both theoretically and factually mistaken.

First, gay marriage is a reform. Like all reforms under capitalism, it leaves the structure of the system intact while alleviating a grievance — in this case, the denial of both material benefits and the desire to have LGBT relationships acknowledged as equal to those of heterosexuals.

Like the demand for unionization, under which the terms of workers’ exploitation are renegotiated — with workers gaining higher wages and benefits, but not eliminating the power of bosses — equal marriage would end some discrimination without eliminating oppression altogether.

Second, to challenge the demand for same-sex marriage for not delivering sexual liberation is a bit like disparaging the civil rights sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in the early 1960s for not eliminating racism. It sets up a false expectation for a reformist demand, and then assails it for not delivering revolutionary transformation.

At the Left Forum meeting, one married gay couple with HIV/AIDS hammered home what’s really at stake in this struggle.

Vinny Allegrini and Mark de Solla have been living with HIV/AIDS for 20 years, and were married 15 years ago in Canada. In many concrete and emotionally compelling ways, their daily struggle to keep alive and take care of each other — and have medical and state authorities respect their health care wishes — is codified by their marriage license, which they must carry with them everywhere to prove that they are not legal strangers, as they lead lives that are shaped by health care crises.

Socialists and other progressives must engage with the genuine struggle to try and shape a course that is independent of the Democratic Party establishment and inclusive of broader civil rights for all LGBT people.

Sherry Wolf is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She can be reached at: sherry@internationalsocialist.org. Read other articles by Sherry, or visit Sherry's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on April 23rd, 2009 at 10:07am #

    The Socialist Party should fight for the rights of ALL. Some people do not fit LGBT or Hetero label. LGBTH leaves out a lot of people.

    Why should the State sanction gay marriage? Why should the State sanction non-gay marriage? The important question is why should the State be involved in any marriage.

    There are between 200 and 1000 (depending on which State) legal rights that accompany marriage. Those rights should be separated from marriage and EVERYONE should have those legal rights – married or not. The move toward State sanctioned gay marriage puts the government in the bedroom – because the rights are available only to those who are in a sexual relationship.

    The answer is a “Next of Kin Law”. This is important for the elderly, disabled, and all of those for whom marriage is not an option.

    Sometimes it is too easy to forget about all of those who are not exactly like we are.

  2. lichen said on April 23rd, 2009 at 12:55pm #

    Yes, gay marriage is a great thing, and extending these rights to gay and lesbian couples is a valid reform; I’m glad the state is involved and it isn’t, and never will be, a religious thing. Those who wish to otherwise change the 100% civil institution of marriage into something else can best find their own fucking movement, and not express a homophobic contempt for people simply organizing for their own rights when most ‘socialists’ don’t give a fuck and would rather try to appeal to a “broader audience” by remaining silent about equality for LGBT people.

  3. Kay Schermerhorn said on April 23rd, 2009 at 3:02pm #

    Sherry and I must have been at two different sessions last weekend. I heard the QEJ speaker refer repeatedly to the ways in which the current struggle for marriage equality uses civil rights allusions and references without demonstrating meaningful understanding of how LGBT issues play out in black communities. I heard the FIERCE speaker refer repeatedly to the ways in which this struggle does not include youth issues or leaders or — not surprisingly — many youth in its ranks.

    Since this was a gathering of leftists, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to expect serious discussion about or understanding of the importance of anti-oppression frameworks to our struggles if we want them to be inclusive — and therefore more broadly based and powerful.

    Some elements of the women’s liberation movement were never able to “hear” Black women’s critiques of their marginalization or to be anything other than dismissive of many radical Black women’s decision to struggle separately. It would be a shame if we didn’t learn from our own history.

  4. Deadbeat said on April 24th, 2009 at 1:44pm #

    I heard the FIERCE speaker refer repeatedly to the ways in which this struggle does not include youth issues or leaders or — not surprisingly — many youth in its ranks.

    This is a very important comment because I’ve heard the similar complaints from other people who have been involved in gay movement. In fact I have heard that racism is very common among gays. Since I am not involved with this movement I have refrained comment but seeing someone who was present at this gather make the aforementioned observation it also reflects some of the problem with identity politics — both the women’s and LGBT movements and their neglect of both race and class issues and its eventually breakdown of solidarity.

  5. lichen said on April 25th, 2009 at 2:10pm #

    Yes, and homophobia is very prevalent among African Americans and women; this reflects the problem of identity politics whereas some people think they can take without giving back, who have no solidarity and no real view for the equality of all people.