You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Why gay marriage is a civil rights issue

By Sherry Wolf | April 23, 2004 | Page 7

WHEN THE California Supreme Court struck down that state's ban on interracial marriage in 1947, 48 states prohibited Blacks and whites from marrying, and nine out of 10 Americans opposed interracial marriage.

Twenty years later--in the wake of the civil rights movement for integration and voting rights--the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down all interracial marriage bans across the U.S. Twenty years after that, only the most hardened bigots thought that laws barring Blacks and whites from marrying were legitimate.

The California and U.S. Supreme Court rulings were blows against racism. Similarly, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made its two decisions last year in favor of legalizing gay marriage, it was a blow against homophobia.

Socialists are critical of the institution of marriage under capitalism, for many reasons. But we support the fight for same-sex marriage--as a struggle for elementary civil rights.

As Coretta Scott King said in response to George Bush's announcement that he supports a constitutional amendment banning gays and lesbians from getting married, "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages."

Like the Jim Crow advocates of yesteryear, marriage segregationists can be found in both major political parties. Presidential nominee John Kerry and other leading Democrats have come out against Bush's constitutional amendment--just as the gay Log Cabin Republicans have.

But Kerry insists that he "believes marriage is between a man and a woman" and echoes the former Southern segregationists by arguing that the decision "should be left to the states." Instead of gay marriage, Kerry says that he supports civil unions for gays and lesbians instead.

But with the Massachusetts high court ruling that "separate is seldom if ever equal," civil unions are a step backward. In fact, the congressional authors of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage have revised their original version to allow for same-sex civil unions--effectively adopting Kerry's position.

The creation of a new and separate institution for gay couples--or anyone else--is just another form of discrimination. Why should gays and lesbians not have the same rights as heterosexuals?

Sadly, some progressives who are for gay marriage have defended Kerry's opposition. "In order to win [against George Bush], Kerry needs to pick his battles," Mark Engler wrote on the liberal Web site Common Dreams. "Gay marriage is not the one to pick."

This is the same bankrupt logic that led activists to endorse Bill Clinton's re-election campaign--after he had signed the antigay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Time and again, progressives have been shown that when they sacrifice their principles in the name of getting "their" candidate elected, their issues get ignored--or worse, the Democrat adopts the very right-wing agenda that activists oppose.

There is another argument against the struggle for gay marriage--and it comes from the left. For example, radical columnist and editor of CounterPunch magazine Alexander Cockburn recently wrote an article calling gay marriage a "sidestep on freedom's path."

"Why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about?" Cockburn writes. "Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of 'equality' as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged." But the real question in this battle isn't the institution of marriage--but whether gays and lesbians will continue to be discriminated against by law.

You don't have to favor marriage as sanctioned by the state or church to defend the rights of same-sex couples to marry. You only have to be in favor of equal rights for all.

By Cockburn's reasoning, the struggle of African Americans in the South to win the right to vote--even though there were no politicians worth voting for--must have been a "sidestep." But, of course, the civil rights movement wasn't a sidestep. On the contrary, it launched a wider fight against racism and inspired other struggles throughout U.S. society.

The danger of this argument is that it makes the case for inaction--at exactly the time when the Bush administration, with cover from the Democrats, is moving ahead with its right-wing assault.

Thirty-four years have passed since the first gay couples in the U.S. attempted to marry. They were not only refused licenses, but fired from their jobs--including one who worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So much for the wait-and-see approach.

As Martin Luther King put it, "justice delayed is justice denied." The fight for full marriage equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people is a step forward in the struggle for civil rights.

Home page | Back to the top