A new movement for civil rights

July 1, 2011

Separate is not equal. That was the message of the LGBT civil rights movement that burst forth across the U.S. in 2004, inspired by the struggle for marriage equality. Across the country, activists put on the pressure to win full marriage rights for gays and lesbians. The struggle hasn't been without setbacks, but the victories achieved today in New York and elsewhere are the result of years of protest.

Elizabeth Schulte, Steve Trussell and Sherry Wolf reported on the wave of activism around the country in an article that appeared in the February 27, 2004, issue of Socialist Worker.

THOUSANDS OF gays and lesbians lined up at City Hall in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom announced February 12 that the city would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of state law.

"A lot of us had already said 'I do' in our own private ceremonies years earlier," said Kathryn Lybarger, describing the scene. "But the tears coming down this time came from the understanding that we were saying 'I do' together, for the first time in history. My friend James said it felt something like the end of apartheid, or the Berlin Wall coming down."

By February 20, more than 3,000 couples had taken part in wedding ceremonies. "There's going to be a lot of push around the country for gay marriage now," Phyllis Lyon told Socialist Worker.

Lyon and her partner of 51 years, Del Martin--both longtime gay rights activists--were the first to be married. "Everybody is looking at their constitution," she said. "It has pushed the issue up to the front."

Last week, 26 gay and lesbian couples got their marriage licenses in Sandoval County, New Mexico, before the state attorney general announced that the licenses were invalid. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was forced to tell the press that he would be in favor of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. In Massachusetts, the fight is on to defend recent state Supreme Judicial Court rulings that grant full marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

LGBT rights activists rally for marriage equality in Massachusetts in March 2004
LGBT rights activists rally for marriage equality in Massachusetts in March 2004 (Annie Levin | SW)

Declaring "separate is seldom, if ever, equal," four of the court's seven judges argued that a state senate bill granting civil unions and banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. A two-day Massachusetts constitutional congress ended in a stalemate February 11-12 as supporters and opponents of gay marriage faced off in the state house--and in the streets outside. More than 1,000 supporters of gay marriage spontaneously turned out to raise their voices--as did the anti-gay bigots.

Massachusetts legislators will reconvene on March 11. Some Democratic legislators have said that they will propose "compromise" legislation that bans gay marriage and grants vaguely worded civil unions. But gay rights supporters can't afford to compromise.

"This is just a savvy political move on the part of people who don't want gay marriage," Whitney Weiss, an Emerson College student who protested around the clock at the Massachusetts state house, told Socialist Worker. "If you look at history, 'separate but equal' compromises never work...As of May 17, there will be gay marriages happening, and this is going to create a momentum that will make the civil unions compromise look asinine. Anything other than real equality is unconstitutional."

SUPPORTERS OF gay and lesbian civil rights have a fight on our hands. In California, after a restraining order requested by the right-wing Campaign for California Families was denied in court, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped forward to say that he would stop the marriages in San Francisco. And nationally, George W. Bush sent a clear message to his religious supporters in his January State of the Union address that the White House would try to pass a federal ban on gay marriages.

So far, much of the outpouring of support for gay marriage has happened spontaneously. Many Democratic politicians considered allies of gays proved that they won't be offering leadership on this issue--for fear of rocking the boat during the 2004 election campaign.

Shamefully, Rep. Barney Frank--Massachusetts' openly gay member of Congress--called on San Francisco's mayor to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses, warning that the time "wasn't right." "I was sorry to see the San Francisco thing go forward," Frank told the Associated Press. "When you're in a real struggle, San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion."

But what the recent events in San Francisco show is the huge potential for activism around the issue of gay marriage--and support among ordinary people who clearly understand that this is a civil rights issue.

On February 16, African American syndicated columnist Derrick Jackson called on Black church leaders to step up to bat. "If today's ministers stood up with courage to acknowledge their link to the cause of gay civil rights," Jackson wrote, "they will find out that it will do no damage. They might find out that it will give them even more allies in their own fight for equality in America."

In a significant step forward for the labor movement, several Massachusetts unions--including Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 509 and 2020, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and state United Auto Workers union--have come out in support of gay marriage or against any ban or both. "When we went to our local's executive board, I almost cried," Tom Barbera, a rank-and-file member of SEIU Local 509 and co-chair of the local's Lavender Caucus, told Socialist Worker.

"All 40 board members unanimously voted to endorse the fight against the constitutional amendment and to support the supreme court decision on gay marriage. The right to marry isn't just a flimsy thing for individuals. They love each other, and they should have the same rights as any other couple. A lot of people are beginning to understand that."

For our voices to be heard, we have to organize--in our communities, workplaces and schools--to turn up the heat on politicians who are dragging their feet on gay marriage. "A lot of folks are shocked at the mayor for doing the right thing, and draw the conclusion that it does matter whom you vote for," said Lybarger. "But many of us see that Newsom's action has really shown up the spinelessness of the Democrats around him.

"We can't rely on them--Kerry doesn't support gay marriage--to win our rights for us. Newsom also could not have done what he did if there wasn't broad public support for it. 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."

Why this is a struggle for all of us

MARRIED, WITH a house in the suburbs, 1.9 kids and a white picket fence? No thanks. Some people on the left have echoed this caricature, arguing that since marriage is a bourgeois institution, radicals should oppose gay marriage--or at least turn our attentions elsewhere.

True, marriage is a legal contract that binds two people in a relationship of property rights. As socialists, we are fighting for a future society in which people's sexual lives would be a purely personal issue, with living arrangements free of any material constraints and interference by the state.

But like the fight of African Americans for the right to vote in elections--even when there are no politicians worth supporting--the gay marriage battle today is a fight for equality, democracy and basic human dignity. That's why thousands of gay and lesbian couples camped out in the rain outside San Francisco's city hall waiting to get married. As Cynthia Rickert told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Everybody has a right to love each other. It's time for us to get off the back of the bus."

Discrimination against gays and lesbians is pervasive in U.S. society and, like all forms of discrimination, weakens the ability of workers to unite in struggle. A class divided will not be prepared to win the battles ahead. With marriage rights, gays and lesbians could participate more fully in--and therefore strengthen--class battles for reforms such as family leave, pensions and health care benefits.

What's more, the more seemingly radical argument against same-sex marriage ends up being indifferent to the real material benefits for working-class gays and lesbians. Though gay marriage accepts certain norms of bourgeois society, it also cuts through the hypocrisy of family values and opens the door to ideas about new forms of social organization. That's why the right wing is so threatened by it.

Those who dismiss the battle for same-sex marriage as simply an embrace of bourgeois morality are missing the context in which this fight is taking place. This is a time of growing social polarization over issues such as the war and occupation of Iraq, the loss of millions of jobs, and socially repressive policies.

Bush's threat of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage has uncorked that disgust in millions more people. The potential for mobilizing people outraged by the right-wing blowhards exists in the fight for gay marriage.

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