What should the LGBT movement fight for?

April 21, 2009

Sherry Wolf analyzes the different political approaches among LGBT activists--and explains what they mean for the future of the fight.

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:

more 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.

Marching against Prop 8 in San Francisco
Marching against Prop 8 in San Francisco (Brian Cruz | SW)

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.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Sherry Wolf at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "Sexuality and Socialism." Sherry will also appear with West Coast equal marriage activists in the panel meeting "Prop 8 is Going Down! Winning Equal Marriage in California." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

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.

Further Reading

From the archives