A long fight for equal marriage

April 29, 2015

As the Supreme Court hears arguments on same-sex marriage in four states, Ann Coleman reflects on the lessons learned from the struggle.

THE U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in four legal cases involving 30 adults and 20 children from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee--four states where the legal battle for same-sex marriage seems to be stalled in the Dark Ages, while 37 of the 50 states now recognize same-sex marriage.

The acceleration of rulings over the last two years is largely attributed to the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 striking down the Defense of Marriage Act provision that blocked legally married same-sex couples from more than 1,000 federal rights and responsibilities that different-sex married couples enjoy. The cases before the Court now are in four states that don't recognize legal marriages from other states.

While the mainstream media focus on the nuances of the legal arguments, the make-up of the justices on the Supreme Court and the rate of shift in public opinion, there's little notice of the much bigger shifts in public opinion over the last decade fueled by grassroots activism.

Political protests have put pressure on the legal and legislative institutions that traditionally upheld discriminatory laws--from sodomy laws that date back to 1779 and were finally repealed in 2005 to discriminatory employment laws to denial of health care to transphobic public facilities laws and same-sex marriage.

Supporters of marriage equality rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court
Supporters of marriage equality rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court

If the shift in public opinion is attributed to recent legal battles, this misses the largest contribution to the change--struggle from below that exploded in late 2008 and came to a head in 2009 and 2010, when grassroots activists took the struggle for LGBT rights into the streets, onto campuses and into our communities.

These were mostly new activists who wouldn't stop at same-sex marriage. They expanded the struggle to immigrant rights and trans rights, without apology or hesitation--something that the two-decades-long legislative and legal campaign, "led" by the likes of Bill Clinton, Barney Frank and organizations tied to the Democrats, was reluctant to confront.

This public face of the struggle began to reced in 2010, but that didn't stop activists--perhaps inspired by Michelle Alexander's groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow--from organizing around intersectionality that extended demands beyond traditional narrow LGBT issues, connected with individual cases of police brutality and racism, and took a new precedence in defining the LGBT struggle.

In 2011, LGBTQ activists largely cynical or dismissive of "equal rights" struggles threw themselves into the Occupy movement to connect the layers of economic and social struggles of LGBTQ people face as part of the 99 Percent.

WITH OUR side facing some of the largest state repression against the Black Lives Matter movement, born in 2012 and launched into the public sphere last year, the mainstream coverage of the Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage this week and its expected ruling in June bring back legitimate questions and concerns, such as whether the conditions that give rise to inequality in our society are even challenged by these legal gains?

History has shown that partial legal gains won from below can be rolled back almost as soon as they are attained. How do we stop that? Won't our movements be co-opted by institutions to oppress another sector of the working class and poor? How do we defend ourselves from an organized backlash that drowns out any promise of legal gains or hits the most vulnerable in our communities the hardest?

The depth that the legal, legislative and mainstream media institutions will go to keep ideas about what's possible up for debate among individuals who have the most to gain from organizing do give us insight into the need for a long-term strategy and a renewed emphasis on solidarity. These were at the heart of the Black Panther Party and Gay Liberation Front, which forged alliances and faced state oppression aimed at pitting the groups against each other in the 1970s.

Among some radicals, the idea of marriage as an institution often creates an almost dismissive or cynical atmosphere for debate and discussion. We have moved far from the days when marriage was a legal institution that placed women as property. In 2015, same-sex marriage cases raise questions about basic human rights and provide an avenue to attain health care, citizenship, custody rights, retirement benefits and housing rights in partnerships that are formed to carve out some semblance of dignity and humanity in an unequal and unjust world.

While issues of poverty, violence and homelessness that disproportionately affect trans women of color and many LGBT youth as a group won't be resolved through same-sex marriage alone, the shift in public attitudes, broadly speaking, can give a sounding board to the deeper issues tied up with racism and LGBTQ oppression.

The modern LGBT rights movement came from radical roots in 1969 and was inspired by the civil rights movement and the growth of the Black Power movement. In bold moves against police harassment and brutality at the Stonewall Inn, the young, multiracial, gay and lesbian working class and mostly gender non-conforming youth connected their struggle against police brutality to the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people.

Every gain that LGBT people have made since has been because of the grassroots push for change. The shift in public opinion around broader acceptance of LGBT people in general has been a result of the work of LGBT and allied activists who have connected the struggle for LGBT rights to issues including police brutality, heath care, immigrant rights, the antiwar movement and civil rights.

The point of standing up to all forms of oppression no matter who faces the oppression means that we keep the debate of what is possible and necessary in the public eye open for examination among broader layers of people. These struggles can't be fought in a legal vacuum and the contradictions of the legal and legislative barriers must be exposed.

The Supreme Court ruling is due by the end of June. Now is not the time for cynicism or dismissiveness.

The openings right now to keep the conversations open, build solidarity and build organizations for the long-term are better than they were in the last 30 years. We can keep our eye on the Supreme Court while we continue to build our struggles and work to define what real liberation would mean. There are lessons to be learned and shared, and it's a struggle worth fighting for.

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