In the face of mass protests to roll back the recent anti-gay marriage election ballot measures, especially California’s Proposition 8, some leftists are a bit queasy. Why, they ask, should radicals be so adamant about defending the right of gays and lesbians to enter into an institution that is decidedly mainstream and tied to the state and religion?
Good activists have approached me to argue that same-sex marriage narrows our agenda and ties LGBT people to a “hetero-normative institution” that valorizes that hobgoblin of the right — monogamy.
Hundreds of left-wing writers and activists since 2006, from Barbara Ehrenreich to John D’Emilio, have signed onto a very good statement of principles called “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” which challenges the myopic vision and anti-activist strategy of the corporate-sponsored national gay civil rights organizations. I endorse their statement “to fight to make same-sex marriage just one option on a menu of choices that people have about the way they construct their lives.”
However, the conclusion by some to stand aside or even oppose the nascent explosion of outrage demanding gay marriage is misguided.
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Same-sex marriage is a civil right that must be unapologetically defended by socialists and other leftists — not only for its own sake as a material and social benefit under capitalism, especially to working-class and poor LGBT people, but because the reform is not a barrier to further struggles, but can be a gateway to them instead.
Socialists and other leftists defend strikes for higher pay and better health care, despite the fact that even total victory means renegotiating the terms of exploitation, not ending the wage system itself. Radicals are at the forefront of the antiwar movement demanding immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that the U.S. also maintains more than 700 bases on every continent.
Leftists take these stands for reforms because we understand that the capitalist system and its imperial might won’t fall in one fell swoop. Reformist struggles themselves create the organizational and human material necessary for a further transformation of society. Moreover, it does make a difference in the here whether workers have more pay and couples have more rights.
As Rosa Luxemburg put it in Reform or Revolution, “Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.”
In other words, professing hostility to gay marriage in the name of opposing the “hetero-normative institution” of marriage is like attacking demands for an end to the death penalty because the criminal injustice system would remain otherwise intact.
Judged on that basis, all fights for reforms are at best irrelevant, and at worst reactionary. But the conditions for the abolition of capital punishment create the potential for a further struggle against prisons and police.
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A few facts are needed to clear away some of the misconceptions.
Because of the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman in the eyes of the federal government, none of the rights and benefits that LGBT couples have today in some states — whether legal marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships — are transferable to most other states.
The so-called “mini-DOMAs” that have passed in more than 40 states ensure that same-sex couples lose whatever rights they had before when they enter mini-DOMA states.
In other words, legally married LGBT couples are legal strangers in almost every state of the union. DOMA allows states, as well as the federal government, to legally ignore the status of LGBT marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.
In addition, even legal gay marriages inside, for example, Massachusetts only carry with them that state’s rights and benefits — not Social Security, Medicare, family leave, health care, disability, military, or any other of the 1,138 federal rights and benefits belonging to married couples.
Without federal same-sex marriage rights, LGBT immigrants who fall in love with American citizens have no right to move to the United States to be with their lover.
Gay married couples who go out of state on vacation lose their rights once they cross the state line.
Thus, if a member of a married lesbian California couple vacationing in Nevada has a serious accident requiring hospitalization, her wife has no legal visitation rights or right to make any decisions on her behalf in the event of incapacitation until the patient is moved back to a state that recognizes their marriage. In the event of death, no matter what state, she would receive no federal benefits that are due to spouses of heterosexual couples, she can be taxed the full 50 percent on all inheritance, and she would not be eligible for the federal exemption for spouses.
For a couple with domestic partnership or civil union rights, if the dead spouse was the biological parent of any children the couple had, unless the surviving partner had the money to legally adopt the children, that partner could lose her kids.
Interestingly, the only time when the federal government acknowledged same-sex couple relationships was after September 11, when LGBT people who lost their partners in the Twin Towers and Pentagon fought successfully to win death benefits paid out to spouses. The government caved in the face of organized outrage — and as part of an attempt to win over gays and lesbians to plans for imperial vengeance in the Middle East.
The generation that participated in the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 that launched the modern gay liberation movement is becoming, or already are, senior citizens. If gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk hadn’t been assassinated 30 years ago, he would be 78 today.
A Place to Live, Dir. Carolyn Coal
Without same-sex marriage benefits, these gay seniors face a number of daunting financial realities, not the least of which is having no legal right to determine what happens to partners they may have spent decades with at the time of their death — not funeral arrangements, not burial or cremation or donations to science, or where and whether the body is buried.
In short, same-sex partners would be denied the same rights our government bestows on married heterosexual couples who tie the knot in a drunken night out in Vegas.
The idea, common among some leftists, that right-wingers who poured tens of millions into getting Prop 8 passed are trying to force monogamy down gays’ throats is wrong-headed as well.
Consider what Republican troglodyte Newt Gingrich had to say about the anti-gay marriage victory in California:
I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.
The right’s opposition to gay marriage has to do with its desire to impose sexual and gender norms inside marriage as well outside.
Socialists should advocate neither monogamy nor polyamory (that is, having more than one sexual relationship at a time). These are personal decisions for individuals and couples to decide for themselves.
There is nothing implicitly radical about polyamory or reactionary about monogamy, but their forced imposition from outsiders is reactionary and moralistic. Leftists ought to stand for the freedom to choose any consensual sexual arrangement, including marriage.
Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the court case Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S., finally recognizing marriages between Blacks and whites throughout the country, Mildred Loving, the Black female plaintiff in the case, came out in favor of gay marriage.
“I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry,” she said. “Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people civil rights.”
Loving was right. The left should stand where it did when she and her white husband, Richard Loving, fought the system. Winning the right to biracial marriage did not divert the Black struggle for civil rights. It amplified and expanded it, just as the struggle for gay marriage today can and will.
The left shouldn’t hand over the strategy and tactics for this fight to corporatist Democratic Party-dominated gay groups. It must stand with the thousands of angry and surprisingly confident activists, and help shape the fight for a repeal of Prop 8 –a nd call on the new Obama administration to repeal DOMA as well.
Nationwide Gay Rights Rallies Spurred by Prop 8 Marriage Ban, CNN
Sherry Wolf is author of the forthcoming Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of Gay Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2009). This article first appeared in SocialistWorker.org on 20 November 2008 and republished here with the author’s permission.