To Win Marriage Equality, We Need a Divorce

Pop psychology has long had a term for the political marriage between LGBT people and the Democrats — it is a dysfunctional relationship.

The Democrats court the votes and money of gays and lesbians, but offer few gains and a stunning share of abuse in exchange.  For those LGBT activists wooed by the Democrats, ditching the more militant strategy that got Democrats swooning in the first place for a don’t-rock-the-boat approach is the price to play in this torturous display of unrequited love.

What You Can Do

Supporters of equal marriage equality around the country are planning for either protests or celebrations when the California Supreme Court hands down its decision on Prop 8 on May 26.  Go to for information on events in your city.

While we await the decision of the California Supreme Court on whether or not to uphold the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 on May 26, it is worth taking stock of the political strategy activists have largely adhered to in recent decades.  Collaboration with the Democrats, the so-called “party of the people,” has impeded progress, not helped it.

Thirty-five years have passed since gay civil rights legislation was first proposed in Congress.  Yet LGBT people remain an unprotected class of citizens by the U.S. Constitution.  Whereas the denial of the rights of gays to work for the federal government, for example, was carried out with the stroke of President Eisenhower’s pen in Executive Order 10450 in 1953, no such swift action has been taken to overturn decades of institutional discrimination.

Since the birth of the modern LGBT movement out of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Democrats before Obama controlled the White House for 12 years under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  For a lot of that time, both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats as well.

But during this time, as well as under Republican administrations, the Democrats have been opportunist at best, and hostile at worst.

Little compares to the treachery of the Clinton administration.  A masterful public speaker capable of Academy Award-style performances of empathy, Clinton could famously “feel your pain,” but apparently could not alleviate any of it.

Clinton came into office promising an end to draconian laws against gays in the military.  He caved after four days and signed into law what is perhaps the only known order by a commander-in-chief for gays and lesbians to march back into the closet.  While initially perceived as a more benign form of discrimination, his policy — known as “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” — has allowed for a witch-hunt of tens of thousands of military personnel and the discharge of more than 12,500 LGBT people from the military.

Nearly six years into his presidency, Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 11478 providing partial relief for lesbian and gay federal employees–not including the 3 million military personnel.

But his action left intact sodomy laws (not overturned by the Supreme Court until 2003), anti-same-sex marriage legislation (which he signed),   and the military’s unequal status for LGBT people (which he introduced), and it didn’t take up the rights of those who are transgender (who experience the highest rates of violence, unemployment, and discrimination of any sexual minority).  All this exposes the severe limitations of the electoral route for winning civil rights for LGBT people.

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Today, there’s something profoundly disturbing about Barack Obama, the son of a Black man and a white woman, using the racial segregationists’ call for “states’ rights” when it comes to same-sex marriage.

All the more so since the California court — in initially overturning the state’s gay marriage ban in May 2008 and legalizing same-sex marriage until the passage of Prop 8 — cited as precedent the 62-year-old decision that overturned anti-miscegenation laws and opened the door for Obama’s own parents’ legal union.

If Barack Obama — one of the most popular human beings on the face of the planet — were to use his bully pulpit to push legislation (or sign an executive order) that would sweep away all institutional barriers to the freedoms and civil rights of LGBT people, it could be done.

That would be that.  LGBT folks would have formal equality — as do women and Blacks — and the state would no longer be able to lend its imprimatur to antigay bigotry.

But this is not going to happen without a massive mobilization of grassroots activists in the streets and sitting in — to challenge the centers of power, including the Democrats at the helm.

Journalist Matt Bai, writing in the Sunday New York Times, cites a Quinnipiac poll showing that 60 percent of Americans under the age of 34 believe it is discriminatory to deny equal marriage rights — and concludes that “the gay rights movement . . . can now seem obsolete.”

Bai is wrong.  LGBT civil rights activists cannot operate as if we are the only ones trying to shape the debate in this country.  The right wing has proven time and again that it has the money, power, and seemingly limitless ability to spew noxious lies in order to get its way.  Thus, opinion polls last fall showed Prop 8 was headed for defeat until the right mobilized a public campaign in California to discredit gay marriage as a threat to children and religious autonomy.

There is something tempting about the belief that LGBT civil rights like marriage are inevitable.  After all, even John McCain’s campaign adviser, Republican Steve Schmidt, has come out for gay marriage, and more and more politicians — including Barack Obama — stare at their shoes as they mumble that tired line about their belief that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.  Yeah, right.

But the public opinion that is gnawing away at the politicians hasn’t shifted on its own.  The increasingly positive poll numbers toward sexual minorities is a magnificent expression of how ordinary peoples’ actions, not those of politicians, can alter popular consciousness.

Decades of silence, hostility, equivocation, and near paralysis by leading Democrats regarding LGBT civil rights is proof that protest and activism — not pleading for whittled-down legislation and waiting for politicians — is the route to progress.

Even in Illinois, the first state to overturn sodomy laws in 1961, gay politicians like Greg Harris defend tepid, second-class legislation for civil unions over gay marriage as the more “realistic” strategy.

Harris’ bill, called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, even caves to lie that LGBT people are trying to force religious institutions to solemnize same-sex unions.  No church has ever been required to officiate at ceremonies it doesn’t agree with, nor has one ever been.  The hand-wringing language in this legislation is unnecessarily apologetic to the right.

In California, the statewide equality group, Equality California, is hemming and hawing over whether to even push for a new pro-gay marriage ballot measure in 2010 in the event that the state Supreme Court upholds Prop 8.  The organization is wary of harming the Democrats’ midterm election chances, rather than demand they pass civil rights legislation.

Here, it’s useful to remember the words of historian Howard Zinn in a recent speech published at

Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians.  They didn’t just moan.  They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.

To win equal marriage — and pursue all other civil rights — LGBT activists and our allies need to slap the Democrats with divorce papers and organize independently.  As sex advice columnist Dan Savage would put it: DTMFA — dump the motherfucker already.

Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.  A slightly different version of this article appears in on 26 May 2009.