Guess who opposes gay marriage?

May 22, 2008

Sherry Wolf looks at why some in addition to the right-wing are arguing against marriage equality.

PREDICTABLY, THE troglodytes of the right who cherish good old 1950s-style sexual repression are gnashing their teeth against the California Supreme Court decision rendering the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

I'll assume these Flat-Earth Society types don't read Socialist Worker and will ignore their inanities.

More alarming, however, is the evasive position of the Democrats and attempts by some leftists to provide a progressive veneer to opposition to gay marriage--both of whose adherents do read these pages.

There's something profoundly disturbing about Barack Obama, the son of a Black man and a white woman, calling for "states' rights" when it comes to same-sex marriage, especially since the California court cited as precedent in this case the 60-year-old decision that opened the door for his own parents' legal union.

Never missing an opportunity for triangulating reality into surreality, Hillary Clinton, too, has come out for the right to civil unions, but not gay marriage, and says that the issue is best left to the states to decide. In other words, they share the same position as Republican presidential contender John McCain.

Rallying for marriage equality in New York City
Rallying for marriage equality in New York City (Chris Schiffelbein)

One can only guess at whether these candidates would have argued in the early 1960s for the civil rights of Blacks to be left in the loving hands of the Mississippi and Alabama state legislatures.

Obama and Clinton appear to be trying to dodge the "trap" of the gay marriage issue that many Democratic Party policy wonks argue lost them the 2004 election. The fact that John Kerry was a pro-war, corporate tool who oozed Boston Brahmin contempt for "the little people" doesn't seem to have struck them as the crux of their problem. (Nor the fact that Kerry too opposed gay marriage!)

Unfortunately, we are well into the election season now, and many Democrats are conditioned by the talking heads to expect their candidates to equivocate and murmur innocuous platitudes in lieu of principled politics in order to satisfy some mythological swing voter who can't stomach an actual policy position.

As a result, in the interest of not embarrassing the Democratic candidate for his or her crappy position, there is a danger of little momentum from electoral-focused gay advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign in fighting off a right-wing California referendum overturning the decision this fall.

WHILE THE Democrats' evasion is disturbing, it's hardly surprising. But what is troubling for the left is the number of radicals who profess a degree of hostility to the issue of gay marriage. Rather than see it as the civil rights issue it is, it has been pilloried by some as an "opiate of the queers."

Prominent academics in queer studies like Judith Butler have argued against gays supporting the "heteronormative institution" of marriage, and Bill Dobbs, a former leading figure in New York's militant AIDS activist group ACT-UP, has argued, "The pursuit of marriage in the name of equality shows how the gay imagination is shriveling."

In the blogosphere and at some trendy gay bars, the response to the California ruling among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folks vacillates between euphoria and a wistful sense of loss from "assimilation" into the "straight culture."

Let's set the record straight, so to speak. Having a criticism of state- or religion-sanctioned monogamy does not erase the fact that, in a society where LGBT people are oppressed, it is a step toward equality for gays to win the right of marriage.

None of these critics dare advance the notion that winning the right of mixed-race marriage set Blacks back because it is patently obvious that it struck a blow to racism, just as integrating the armed forces did after the Second World War. One doesn't have to defend the empire's military endeavors to grasp the reality that maintaining racial barriers--and sexual orientation ones--impedes the cause of civil rights.

Professing hostility to gay marriage in the name of opposing the institution of marriage is like attacking immigrant demands for amnesty because it will only get them exploitative jobs in an imperial nation. Judged on that basis, all fights for reforms are at best irrelevant, and at worst reactionary.

What these challenges to same-sex marriage from the left expose is just how removed from working-class reality many of these academics and spokespeople are. The 1,000-plus rights at stake in marriage laws and the ideological blow to sexually repressive ideas and laws are very real to most LGBT people, who are among the ranks of the working class. Indifference to the right of getting onto a partner's health care plan, inheriting their house or just pursuing one's heart isn't radical--it's callous snobbery.

Left-wingers don't often get to pick the battles that society foists upon us, but we must be able to choose the right side in a fight.

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