United States:‭ ‬Marriage equality win highlights need for struggle

July 3, 2015

“When I graduated from high school - Catholic high school - in 1983, I didn't even think that this would ever be on the map,” said Jeff Mead, now a middle school teacher from San Francisco.

The “map” that Mead was referring to took on a drastically new appearance on June 26 when the US Supreme Court announced its five-four decision to strike down state laws banning same-sex marriage. This effectively legalised such marriages across the US.

Large numbers across the US celebrated that day and afterward in recognition of a historic step forward for civil rights and equality. This is an important gain for the LGBTI community - not only for those who will get access to the large number of material benefits that only legal marriage conveys, but for anyone with a stake in the larger fight for civil rights.

The ruling, from a Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices, will boost the confidence and expectations of everyone who sides with equality and justice. It opens the way for larger efforts to confront workplace discrimination, anti-trans violence and other issues.

Years of struggle

It is important to remember that this victory was not handed down from on high. It came after years of political discussion, organising and struggle - often when it seemed like this day would never come.

The right wing sputters about a supposed attack on “sacred religious beliefs” and even some on the left seek to downplay the importance of marriage equality.

But this advance illustrates the most elemental lesson our movements for change must learn: “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

The Supreme Court decision was a long time in coming. “It's a big change,” Peter Born, Mead's partner, told Time, as he took Mead's hand in his. “Especially for guys our age, who have come through the AIDS crisis and are still here.”

Lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept: “That the Supreme Court has now ruled that the Constitution bars discrimination even in marriage laws is a remarkable development for a country that has for centuries imposed untold ostracization, misery and legal punishment on its citizens for the crime of being gay.

“It demonstrates that real political change typically comes from citizens, not leaders. It highlights how difficult it is to demonize and Otherize people when they're not invisible.

“And it exposes the myth of defeatism: that people are incapable of undermining and subverting entrenched institutional injustices.”

Right-wing hysteria

Conservatives wasted no time in flooding the media with a healthy dose of that anti-gay demonisation.

After the joyous celebrations in the streets and the wedding ceremonies that took place after the ruling, probably the most entertaining part of last week's ruling was watching conservatives of all stripes lose their grip at this new sign of the end of civilisation.

Justice Clarence Thomas lectured in his opinion that denying the right to marriage does not deprive people of their dignity, because human dignity “cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”

Days after the decision, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that clerks with “religious objections” to same-sex marriage could refuse to issue marriage licenses. The Alabama Supreme Court ordered probate judges to refrain from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the Supreme Court's ruling.

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee went further, calling for religious conservatives to engage in civil disobedience against what he called an “unjust” decision. Huckabee had the gall to invoke Dr Martin Luther King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

It may seem hard to believe, but in 1986 - less than 30 years ago - the Supreme Court upheld a law declaring gay sex illegal.

That a majority of a Court packed with justices picked by Republican presidents were compelled to sanction the right of same-sex couples to marry indicates an enormous sea change in public opinion. It would not have happened if it was not fought for.

From the Ronald Reagan years, when HIV and AIDS were seen as a “gay plague”, to the presidency of Bill Clinton, with its numerous anti-gay laws and measures, including the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” and the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, official discrimination against LGBTI people was a staple of both Democrats and Republicans.

Just seven years ago, when California's anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 won a narrow victory, most mainstream Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were on the record opposing the right to same-sex marriage.

That changed after a new movement took off in California and spread across the country, taking to the streets in large and growing numbers.

The 200,000-strong turnout for the National Equality March in October 2009 gave the lie to Democratic representative Barney Frank's pronouncement that the march was a “waste of time” and the only thing protesters would be putting pressure on was the grass.

By the time the Supreme Court handed down its decision, nearly three-quarters of states had legalised same-sex marriage either at the polls or through the courts. This reflects the efforts of activists all across the country.

One step forward

A minority of people on the left responded to the Supreme Court's ruling by declaring that marriage equality was a distraction — or even a step backward.

In their minds, the ruling legitimises a bankrupt institution and will primarily benefit wealthy and white gays. Some also suggest that the ruling will spark a legal and political backlash against trans people in particular - who, they say, marriage equality does nothing to help.

It is true that marriage under capitalism is a relationship based around property rights. The state should ultimately have no say about people's private relationships and no one should have to rely on the financial benefits to getting married. Human beings can do better than the narrow constraints of marriage as it is codified into law today.

But fighting to achieve such a world should not be counter-posed to winning social change in the here and now that improves the lives of ordinary people and inspires them to demand and fight for more.

Nor will the ruling benefit only wealthy white gay men, as some - like the trans South Asian spoken word duo Darkmatter or the group Against Equality — argue.

The hundreds of tangible benefits sanctioned by legal marriage - including tax and Social Security benefits, and rights related to parenting and health care decisions - cannot be dismissed as a distraction, especially for poor and working-class LGBTI people.

People who fear that the Supreme Court's ruling will provoke a backlash, and specifically allow trans people to be further marginalised, would do well to listen to Erika Kay Webster, who took part in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.

In The Rainbow Times, Webster wrote: “As the last living Transgender Woman who was at Stonewall that night, this day is especially significant for me, because I am also the only Transgender woman in this country who was ever imprisoned for having married the man I loved.

“I was sent to prison for four years after my marriage was invalidated as a same-sex marriage when we separated. I was in possession of a family vehicle, and since our marriage was no longer considered valid or legal, I was not entitled to community property, and therefore the State of Georgia said that I was guilty of theft by taking it.

“I studied law while in prison, and acting as my own attorney, I challenged my imprisonment through the Georgia court system. It took me the entire four years to challenge the discrimination I faced as a transgender woman.

“Finally, ten days before my release, I received notice that I had won a victory in the Georgia State Supreme Court.

“I understand better than many what it feels like to be made to feel less than a living human being. I was harassed, degraded, humiliated and shamed.”

Ongoing battles

The struggle is not over with marriage equality. The trans community in particular, and the LGBTI community in general, suffer from disproportionate levels of violence and homelessness.

As Webster writes, we can use the momentum from this victory to fight even harder for justice for all LGBTI people. Already, activists are talking about broadening the fight around issues like workplace and housing discrimination – and challenging the supposed “religious liberty” exemptions to legalised same-sex marriage.

Just days before the Supreme Court decision, transgender activist Jennicet Gutierrez was roundly denounced after she interrupted Obama during a Pride celebration at the White House to raise awareness about the horrific treatment suffered by immigrant trans people who are placed in detention and deported.

Obama - who has deported a record number of people during his presidency - dismissed Gutierrez, essentially telling her to shut up in his “house”.

Our job is to make sure that voices like Gutierrez's are heard - and to continue the fight for equality for all.

[Abridged from a July 1 Socialist Worker editorial.]

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