The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 71 (Summer 2004).
This May, gay people won a significant victory against legal discrimination. Massachusetts became the first state in the country to sanction same-sex marriages, after the state Supreme Judicial Court in February reaffirmed its decision last fall recognizing their legality, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue an emergency order stopping them. Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples rushed to get married, and thousands of supporters went onto the streets in Massachusetts and across the nation to celebrate. Their joy starkly contrasted with the disgruntled faces of right-wing anti-gay protesters.
The fight for gay marriage rights is an important struggle against injustice and oppression, even though marriage itself is a bourgeois institution that so often corrupts human feeling under the weight of economic pressure. By being forbidden from marrying, same-sex couples are denied innumerable rights, including: coverage from their partners’ health insurance; hospital visitation and legal rights; custody, adoption and immigration rights; greater protection for children; and tax, social security and inheritance benefits. Further, denying same-sex couples the right to marry is a key means of formalizing and encouraging the oppression of all gays and lesbians, and thus strengthens the forces of bigotry against all oppressed people. As a result, the struggle to win same-sex marriage rights can inspire broader liberation struggles, not just of gays and lesbians, but of women, people of color and all the oppressed.
Not surprisingly, gays and lesbians around the country recognized that the court’s decision was a watershed moment in their struggle against oppression. But so did important sections of the U.S. ruling class and its two main political parties.
The Republican response was predictable. President Bush seized the opportunity to galvanize the GOP’s activist supporters on the religious right. He threatened to initiate an amendment to the U.S. constitution which would flatly ban same-sex marriage. This would be a historical precedent: the first amendment to exclude a group of people from rights others enjoy. And the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, dipped into the cesspool of bourgeois legality and found an old law originally enacted to block interracial marriages and used it to demand the end of marriages performed for out-of-state gay couples.
The Democratic Party response was also predictable. The majority of Democrats and their most important leaders came out against same-sex marriage rights. Meanwhile a liberal minority of the Democratic Party hoped to maintain gay and liberal voters’ support by saying they’d favor same-sex marriage rights, although they will not break from the Democratic Party which dooms those efforts.
So in Massachusetts, the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature proposed a state constitutional amendment, executable through a referendum in 2006, that would ban same-sex marriages but permit “civil unions.” And Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made clear that nothing better could be hoped for from the Democrats at the federal level. He came out against gay marriage, stating “I have the same position Vice President Cheney has.” In fact, Cheney favors the proposal for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages; Kerry does not. Instead, he was referring to the fact that while he opposes same-sex marriage rights he does support same-sex couples having the right to “civil union,” as do Cheney and Bush.
Indeed same-sex “civil unions” is the preferred solution of both Democrats and Republicans who want to defend the sexist, bourgeois idea of the family; they deny gay people the right to marry while making a small concession so as not to seem openly bigoted. But as with racist segregation, so too with “civil unions” -- enforced separation always means inequality under capitalism. “Civil unions” would maintain legal discrimination against gay people: married couples enjoy some 1400 legal rights compared to just 350 for same-sex couples in the proposed civil unions. Most importantly, “civil unions” would further formalize gay people’s second-class status and encourage greater discrimination and oppression. It is thus crucial that the gay and lesbian movement not settle for this discriminatory second-class status and carry on the fight for full and equal rights.
Further, the struggle to defend the right of same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts and to extend those rights nationwide will have to overcome the legacy of the Clinton administration’s eight years of betrayals and outright attacks on gays and lesbians. In 1992, gays and lesbians were organizing around an equally basic democratic right -- the right to serve in the U.S. military. Then-candidate Clinton pledged that he would overturn the military ban on gays. Once elected, Clinton immediately betrayed this promise with his infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, basically requiring gays and lesbians to stay in the closet. That was a betrayal. On top of that, Clinton’s “Defense of Marriage Act” (1996) was an outright attack on women, gays and lesbians. Among other things, this reactionary legislation defined marriage as a strictly heterosexual union and thus stands as a barrier to same-sex couples winning the right to marry and receive the same federal benefits that straight couples enjoy.
The struggle for gay marriage rights gained momentum following the victory in Massachusetts. Gays, lesbians and their supporters held demonstrations across the country celebrating the Massachusetts victory and demanding the same in their states, in some cases pushing politicians and judges to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses. For example, on February 12, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the county clerk to begin issuing marriage licences in defiance of state Proposition 22 which states, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” San Francisco authorities married over 3500 gay and lesbian couples in two weeks, before Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger ordered Attorney General Bill Lockyer to “terminate” gay marriage ceremonies. Moves to marry gay and lesbians couples in other states, including New York, were similarly blocked by mayors and governors.
It will take a massive struggle to simply defend the Massachusetts victory, let alone spread it across the country. The recent events have sparked the beginnings of a revival of gay and lesbian struggle after an ebb of many years. The massive and radical gay and lesbian liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as the later wave of AIDS activism and protest, was derailed by pro-Democratic Party electoralism, along with the other mass struggles.
But the gay and lesbian struggle is still burdened by a privileged middle-class and bourgeois leadership committed to the strategy of supporting the Democrats. It thus places its emphasis on lobbying and compromise rather than protest, and when protests do take place it works to keep them from threatening the Democrats’ power and the system they serve. Groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have jumped on the “Anybody But Bush” bandwagon, in spite of Kerry’s right-wing program. Already in Massachusetts, the leaders of MassEquality, the alliance of gay and lesbian lobbying groups, connived with Democratic legislators to try to pass the “no to marriage, yes to civil unions” sell-out “compromise.”
The reformist electoral strategy of the main gay and lesbian and other civil rights leaderships means cowering before the limits imposed by the ruling class and its political parties. This cringing and wheedling undercuts mass action, the real source of all the gains. And it opens the way for the counterattacks in the future. Such an attempt to take back gains wrested from the system is inevitable because anti-gay bigotry is vital to the preservation of capitalism itself.
Campaigning for the Democrats means undercutting the battle for gay marriage rights. The momentum gained by recent events will be quickly dissipated if the pro-bourgeois gay and lesbian groups remain at the head of the struggle.
The most pro-bourgeois elements in the movement argue for the right to gay marriage, not just in terms of equal rights and benefits but also in favor of the nuclear family and monogamy, to show the purported lack of a threat by gays. They share that view with a section of the capitalist class.
There has always been an aristocratic liberal wing of the American ruling class. Lacking the “noble” pedigree of sectors of its European counterpart classes, it has nevertheless tried to achieve a certain aura of noblesse oblige and cultured sophistication. Sometimes more far-seeing than its cruder classmates, it often stood for reform and modernity. Once rooted within the New England, mainly Massachusetts, Protestant bourgeoisie, it has spread geographically and religiously in modern times.
At times, various liberal sections of the bourgeoisie have been forced to make important concessions to the working class and oppressed groups, out of fear of immediate or potential revolts. At other times, the more paternalistic patrician elements sought to dispense sops to the “deserving poor” precisely because they didn’t seem to present a real threat. For example, in the late 1800’s, these elements adopted the American Indians as the object of their charitable social impulse. They avoided the fighting working class and the dangerous Southern Blacks in favor of a group they deemed peripheral and no threat to bourgeois society.
Their counterparts today exhibit a “sophisticated” acceptance of gay rights. They regard the religious right and the opponents of abortion and womens' rights as dinosaurs. It was not entirely by accident that the recent decision on same-sex marriage came from the high court in Massachusetts, given this tradition there. Further, it has picked up support in the “establishment” bourgeois press and the upper tier of the academic and foundation world. And it was no accident that the same-sex marriage acts and efforts came from judicial and governmental institutions and not from attempts to build struggles at the base. Bourgeois types can easily afford to favor such rights as long as mass struggles by the oppressed don't threaten them.
Today, the relative absence of mass movements as a result of the work of the misleaders of past struggles has meant the acceptance of the Democratic Party and the electoral and legalistic path as the vehicle for change. The Black struggle, the Latino struggle, the women's struggle and the class struggle have all seemingly been domesticated. So too the gay struggle. Besides, the liberal bourgeoisie sees gay people as inherently a far less powerful danger than the other forces. The seeming absence of any threat was an important factor in moving the judges into action together with the support of the patrician wing of the bourgeoisie.
But even these legal and legislative decisions were caused by and reflect the clash of real struggles and the interplay of classes and other power groups as they confront -- or fail to confront -- each other within society. Certainly that is true of the current fight over gay marriage.
The seeming absence of a threat of mass action doesn’t mean that it was no factor in the recent decisions. After all, without the fighting eruption onto the streets by large numbers of gay fighters in the 60’s and 70’s, there would be no impulse for the courts to even have thought about the question now. Certainly, the history of the ghetto revolts and the women’s struggles reveals that only mass action and the threat it constitutes can win and solidify real gains beyond formal acceptance. The ruling class makes concessions only when it fears losing a lot more. In this way reforms are essentially the result of mass action and the implicit or explicit threat of revolution.
Even though the recent court decisions did not come in response to an explosion of the struggle by gays and lesbians, it could spark one if there is a genuine refusal to accept the self-defeating compromises now being pushed.
The struggles of the past and the consequent transformation of social attitudes has gone deep into the fabric of American capitalism, despite the reactionary rollback of past gains that has been true for many years now. Its not just the patrician liberals who are careful about taking the masses on. Even some of the right-wing’s most prominent leaders talk of gay civil unions, which would have been anathema years ago. Similarly, even reactionaries decorate their administrations with a few faces of Black people and women. And for all the reactionary anti-labor measures, the bourgeoisie out of fear still will not move to crush the unions. Despite the successful domestication of the misleaders of the working class and the oppressed, the past struggles have not been obliterated. They can be built upon. The underlying anger of the working class and the oppressed is still with us, even if frustrated and temporarily coated in cynicism.
And despite the liberal bourgeoisie’s assumptions, the potential threat of a gay struggle, given the objective links it has to other struggles, is far higher than they understand. Politicians of right and left also recognize that there are a great number of middle-class and working-class people, straight and gay, who support the idea of equality for all and would be offended by overt discriminatory acts. Bush’s position combining opposition to same-sex marriage with nominal support to gay civil unions shows that important sections of the conservative bourgeoisie sense the implicit threat of a gay struggle far better than the liberals.
The oppression of gays and lesbians is rooted in the capitalist system itself, and stems from the system’s need to oppress women through the family and other institutions.
Capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers through wage-labor. The working-class family is a basic unit of the capitalist system, an integral part of the reproduction of labor power. As a necessary component of the wage form of exploitation, capitalism imposed a particular sexual division of labor. Women are obliged to fulfill the wife/mother role to insure the system a steady supply of labor power. (See “Women And The Family: The Ties That Bind” in Proletarian Revolution, No. 34.)
As well, capitalism requires the existence of a “reserve army of labor” of unemployed proletarians to keep wages down and force workers to accept the bosses’ terms. Women are chiefly part of what Marx called the “floating” section of this reserve: they must still give priority to child-care and family and are therefore more often willing to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. It is not just the woman’s place in reproduction and nurture but her overall position that militates for a traditionalizing role.
Of course, the contradiction within the system that pushes women out of the home and into the workforce serves to undermine the traditional women’s role and is now undermining the bourgeois family. Gay families also serve to threaten that already faltering conservatizing role and therefore add great weight to the ongoing subversion of the conservatizing family.
Given capitalism’s need to oppress women, the conservatizing role of the family, as with church and school, is by no means peripheral to bourgeois stability. Focusing on family values lets the ruling class off the hook by “privatizing” and individualizing the greater poverty and instability that capitalism imposes on the working class; survival becomes a problem for each individual family, not a class issue.
While gays and lesbians are especially oppressed under capitalism, they are not necessarily consigned by race or gender to the working class or to its most exploited layers. But major gains by gay freedom struggles could strike powerful blows against the gender-based oppression of women and the family; and this would have a ripple effect throughout other layers of the working class and the oppressed masses.
We have to recognize that a victory in this current fight will, in immediate and direct terms, primarily benefit upper- and middle-class gays in sophisticated urban localities. This points to the class divisions in the so-called gay “community.” While bourgeois gays foster the illusion of the possibility of equality under capitalism, many working-class gays and lesbians (particularly outside the biggest cities and their relatively “gay-friendly” areas) still fear the consequences of being out. In fact, most working-class gays and lesbians still live in the closet. For them it is not just a moral question; it is a life or death decision. Under these conditions, as long as the current struggle focuses overwhelmingly on same-sex marriage rights, it will seem to many to be a struggle for the dreams of the more privileged gay people that will have little effect on the lives of the masses of working-class and poor gays, especially those of color.
For the current fight to really begin the revival of a mass gay and lesbian struggle, it will have to begin committing itself to an uncompromising struggle against all forms of oppression. The force that can confront the conservative, bourgeois, pro-Democratic leaders of the gay movement are working-class gays and lesbians, particularly those of color as well as youth. With less chance to avoid the worst forms of anti-gay bigotry, they feel more urgently the need to fight for complete liberation from oppression, as well as the need for the struggle to fight around broader social issues like racism and exploitation.
Massive, angry, threatening protests can force the politicians to make more concessions to the demands of gays and lesbians. But as we have explained, the oppression of gays and lesbians is necessary to the survival of capitalism and if left unchallenged will continue to get worse, not better. Getting rid of anti-gay bigotry and oppression once and for all will take overthrowing the capitalist system that feeds it. That is why we raise the slogan: “Gay and Lesbian Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!”
Revolutionary communists believe that the working class has the power in the course of struggle to overcome its backward political consciousness and overthrow capitalism. Today the working class is mired in all sorts of reactionary ideas, including virulent homophobia. But history proves that as workers unite in struggle and develop a sense of their own power and distinct interests they are able to shed the old, backward ideas, including homophobia. A powerful, militant, radical gay and lesbian movement will play a decisive role in this. And the working class must begin shedding its homophobia and other forms of backward consciousness if it is to triumph over capitalism. Gay liberation is impossible apart from socialist revolution, but socialist revolution is just as inconceivable apart of the struggle of gays and all oppressed people for their liberation.
The rise of the gay liberation movement in the 1960’s at the same time as the growing Black liberation movement, women’s movement and working-class struggle showed the potential for broad mass struggle. But just as those struggles were led into the graveyard of support for the Democratic Party, so too there is the danger that the beginnings of struggle today will also be led to similar defeat. Essential to avoiding this fate is the building of an alternative, revolutionary communist party leadership. Revolutionaries seek to prove themselves the most loyal and effective champions of mass struggle. In the current gay and lesbian struggles, as in others, we fight for the most effective means of struggle to win the movement’s immediate demands. In doing so we also work to win an audience among gays and lesbians for our revolutionary communist views, and thus advance the process of building the revolutionary party leadership so needed to win all the struggles of the oppressed.