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Gays and lesbians won't settle for the back of the bus
Who's standing in the way of gay marriage?

March 19, 2004 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS looks at the background to the birth of a new civil rights struggle.

THE STRUGGLE over the rights of gays and lesbians to marry has emerged with incredible speed. Even last year, the two decisions of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturning a state ban on gay marriage were seen as out of step with U.S. politics.

But when San Francisco officials began issuing same-sex marriage licenses last month, they found imitators in cities and counties across the country--and for every one of these, there are literally dozens of other localities where gay marriage supporters are looking for ways to step up the pressure. "This is the fastest-growing civil rights movement we've seen in a generation," says Jason West, the Green Party mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., who faces possible jail time on charges that he violated state law by marrying gays and lesbians.

Even conservatives admit it. "It does beg comparison to other spontaneous citizen movements," said Jim Pinkerton, a Republican political consultant and now a Fox News commentator, "the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South in the '60s, the anti-apartheid movement in the '80s, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in the late '80s."

Right-wingers are frantically trying to regain lost ground. California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raved that same-sex marriages in San Francisco would lead to "riots." George W. Bush caused outrage--even among people who aren't sure where they stand personally--when he announced that he would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Yet supporters of gay marriage are finding that, in many cases, their main opposition comes from Democrats--including those with liberal reputations. Shamefully, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the best-known openly gay member of Congress, publicly opposed the thousands of gay marriages in San Francisco, claiming that the time "wasn't right." "When you're in a real struggle, San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion," Frank lectured.

What "struggle" is Frank talking about? The "struggle" to elect a Democrat to the White House in November--which apparently requires that gays and lesbians willingly remain second-class citizens, so as not to alienate conservative "swing voters."

Meanwhile, the Democrats' certain presidential nominee, John Kerry, has made a fool of himself marching in step with the anti-gay marriage bigots. After first saying that the issue should be "left to the states"--the same words used by racists to defend segregation in the Jim Crow South--Kerry now regularly stumbles over his words trying to explain why he supports civil unions for gays and lesbians, but wants a ban on gay marriage.

"[W]hat's important," Kerry stammered in a Democratic primary debate, "is that you give people rights. I'm for rights--not for terminology or status--rights." Except, apparently, the right of gays and lesbians to get married!

The contradictions of this spineless compromising on gay marriage are so stark that some leading Democrats have jumped ship. After all, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who ordered the first gay marriage licenses to be issued, is no radical. He's a rich businessman who bought himself a political career. Until last month, he was best known for his proposal to jail homeless people for panhandling.

The reason that gay marriage has been thrust into the spotlight of national politics isn't the actions of a few Democrats like Newsom, but the determination of large numbers of gays and lesbians not to settle for the back of the bus. "Newsom couldn't have done what he did if there wasn't broad public support for it," said Kathryn Lybarger after she was married in San Francisco. "We need to build a movement on that support, and on the new hope and confidence coming out of this, to defend these gains and win full civil rights."

The birth of the last civil rights movement

THE ACTIONS were simple but powerful, representing defiance in the face of injustice. They captured the imaginations of large numbers of people who had been treated as second-class citizens--and suddenly, a new wave of civil rights struggle was ignited, spreading from city to city like wildfire.

But it was February of a presidential election year. Leaders of the Democratic Party weren't happy that a polarizing issue had grabbed the spotlight, so they urged moderation and compromise. Some of the national figures most associated with the issue warned that "going too far" could set off a backlash.

All this could describe the blossoming struggle for the right of gays and lesbians to marry. But it also describes the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960--the tidal wave of protests by African Americans that ushered in a new phase in the civil rights movement against Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South.

The sit-ins began on February 1 when four students from North Carolina A&T College went into the Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro, N.C., bought a few items, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. They were refused--but they weren't forced out. The standoff lasted an hour, until the store closed.

The next day, 30 A&T students returned for a second sit-in. The day after, nearly all of the counter's 66 seats were occupied by protesters--among them, three white students from Greensboro College. Two days after that, the sit-ins spread to Raleigh, then to other cities in North Carolina, then across the South--reaching, in a matter of weeks, from Nashville to Baltimore to Montgomery, Ala. All told, an estimated 50,000 people joined the lunch-counter sit-ins in just over two months.

The idea spread, too--"from sit-ins in restaurants to stand-ins at movies, kneel-ins at churches, wade-ins at beaches and a dozen different kinds of extralegal demonstrations against segregation," wrote historian Howard Zinn. By deliberately breaking "whites only" laws, the sit-ins forced the issue of segregation to a head.

They redefined the tactics of the civil rights movement, which had been dominated to that point by more passive actions such as boycotts. But most importantly, the sit-ins were winning. Within a few months, many Southern restaurants and stores ended segregation. This gave Blacks the confidence that they could take action themselves--and not wait on the federal government to enforce their rights.

That's precisely why leaders of the Democratic Party were so threatened by this new phase in the civil rights struggle. John F. Kennedy usually gets credit as a supporter of civil rights, but his 1960 campaign for president went to great lengths to avoid being identified with African Americans.

The Democratic Party consisted of a Northern wing that civil rights activists hoped would stand up for them--and a Southern wing that presided over the racist Jim Crow system. National politicians like Kennedy had to cater to the Southern "Dixiecrats." The Kennedy campaign's explicit strategy was to put out the word among Blacks that it supported civil rights, but "in a way that minimized the danger of a backlash among white voters," Taylor Branch, the biographer of Martin Luther King, wrote.

Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon to win the White House in November--with a big turnout among Northern Blacks providing the margin of victory. Once in office, Kennedy proved no more reliable in enforcing civil rights than the Republican Eisenhower who preceded him.

When the Freedom Rides of civil rights activists to integrate interstate buses were met by murderous mobs across the South, Kennedy's Justice Department took no action. Instead, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with student activists and urged: "Why don't you guys cut all that shit, freedom riding and sitting-in shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that, I'll get you tax-free status."

Only as the pressure grew--and reports of attacks on Freedom Riders got national and international press attention--did the Kennedy administration organize a half-hearted intervention. This set a pattern that continued in the following years--the Democrats resisted all pleas to defend civil rights until the political pressure grew too great to ignore.

It was the actions of African Americans themselves, mobilized at the grassroots across the South, which made the difference. These lessons should be remembered today as a new civil rights movement--demanding equality for gays and lesbians--takes center stage in U.S. politics.

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