Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gay Liberation Has Always Been about Civil Rights

My friend Bob Ostertag, who blogs for the Huffington Post, has written a piece against the gay marriage strategy, and I must beg to disagree.

The essence of Bob's piece and similar approaches (see the Facebook group "I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal") is that there are larger battles and that gay marriage traps us into a conservative agenda when we should be reaching out to people of color, other oppressed people, and evangelicals themselves to fight for more important issues and for more or less everything all at once. Bob's piece is considerably more eloquent than the tired cant of the Facebook group linked above. Here is his key paragraph:

"Gay marriage" turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making. Yes, married people get special privileges denied to others. Denied not to just gays and lesbians, but to all others. Millions of straight people remain unmarried, and for a huge variety of reasons, from mothers whose support networks do not include their children's fathers, to hipsters who can't relate to religious institutions. We could be making common cause with them. We could be fighting for equal rights for everyone, not just gays and lesbians, but for all unmarried people. In the process we would leave religious institutions to define marriage however their members see fit.

This is actually an old debate in gay liberation that dates to the earliest struggles within the movement immediately after Stonewall. Was gay liberation about equal rights for gay people or was it about the Revolution? The former view became institutionalized in the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), the latter in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The fact of history is that the GAA-type organizations led the fight for gay liberation, and the GLF organizations produced manifestos and begged the radical left to accept them. The radical left of the 70s spurned us, but we made a revolution anyway. And the freedom that gay people enjoy today in the West is a result of the activists, not the liberationists.

Applying Bob's logic to Stonewall, we could have argued ... and no doubt many GLFers did argue ... that the riot that started it all was about people going to bars. And going to bars "turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making" ... one could say that the right to get drunk is not as important as civil rights for everyone.

But wars are not won in some vague general fashion. Wars come down to battles, and battles are conjunctures formed both by the broader conditions and by the particulars of the moment. Ceding the battlefield because everything is not at issue all at once guarantees defeat. Fortunately, our movement never followed the advice of the GLF types. The freedoms we enjoy today are a result of that choice.

Our enemies in 1969 understood that letting fags associate in public was a crack in their armor. They fought it then. It is noteworthy that New York Times famously downplayed the event, and refused to use the word "gay" for a long time thereafter (until years into the AIDS epidemic). Gay liberationists viewed the New York Times as an enemy; eventually it came around. Like so many of our enemies who should have been our friends from day one, they came around because we organized around civil rights, not because we had colloquia on the downfall of capitalism.

Gay Liberation has always been about civil rights. It was then, and it is today.

I can agree with Bob that marriage is conservatizing. It is the most conservatizing institution in society. But if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us. And if there are changes in marriage, as indeed there are, we want to participate in those changes just as anyone else would. We want that choice; we want our voices heard; we want to be full participants in society. It is not for radicals to determine what choices people get to make. And, indeed, when radicals eschew gay marriage, they cede that institution and the changes it is undergoing to our enemies. Bob argues that openly ... and he is wrong, because he thereby advocates sailing away from the vast masses of society. It is a sort of chosen isolation from the society in which we seek engagement. The argument, applied to anything else, is absurd. Wall Street is corrupt ... well, let's leave Wall Street to its own devices and create a barter economy among our friends because not everyone believes in the stock market.

In that sense, the reactionary aspect of this argument is precisely to cede the notion of marriage to the religious bigots who have always led the charge against us. Again, this is a debate that has bedeviled the gay movement even before Stonewall. The ultralefts, as we called them in the 70s, argued against our supporting Leonard Matlovich, the first soldier to come out publicly, in 1975. People pointed out that he had been a racist, that he was a converted Mormon, that we should oppose the military in general. But Matlovich was a personal demonstration of why the civil rights "strategy" was the only road to freedom for gay people. Not only did his gay self-awareness make him an activist, it also changed him personally. Are we to say to gay soldiers that we do not support them because the military is wrong in Iraq?

If it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us; and if it needs changing, we want to be part of the change just as they are part of the change. Allowing ourselves to be sidelined is surrendering to our enemies. Pretending that our civil rights are unimportant because the world is not yet perfect is precisely what our enemies want us to do.

It is worth noting that Trotsky always thought that organizing the soldiers was key to revolution. He was right, regardless of how that whole thing turned out.

So back to gay marriage. There is a very touching photo essay in the LA Times that illustrates the following point. The general civil right we demand is the right to love as we choose. It is not the right to love as others choose for us. When the left decides that it is an error to seek equality in the choices available to us, it seeks to determine how we love. The fact that some straight people choose not to marry is a red herring. Compare it to abortion ... the right to abortion does not require abortion. It says that the choice about child-bearing is up to the individual. Compare it to black civil rights ... nothing in the civil rights movement for blacks said that they must be exactly like white people; it only says that they must have the same choices. The ultraleft black movements also eschewed the civil rights strategy in the key decades of the 60s and 70s; but it was the civil rights activists who led the victories that changed America. It is upon the backs of their efforts that Obama finds himself where he is.

So to Obama. It would certainly be an error for gay people, gay leaders, and gay organizations to boycott the inauguration or to step away from Obama because of his error in picking the religious bigot, Mr. Warren, to give the invocation. This was an error for Obama not because Warren is more than a homophobe ... sure he has socially appropriate positions on AIDS in Africa. It is an error because Prop 8 changed the landscape, and Obama missed that. More significantly, he chose to assume that he would not lose us and that he could disempower a significant reactionary religious opposition to him by embracing Warren. In other words, the fags and dykes have to come with me, but the evangelicals do not. So I will feint to the evangelicals, and wink to the homos.

That's an error. It is also deeply depressing. It is our job to point out the error. It is our job to call on liberal Christians to get out of their comfortable pews and fight their co-religionists. It is our job to remind our "allies" that our civil rights were taken away at the ballot box. And it is our job to get back to winning this battle.

More than anything, the success of gay marriage as an issue is that it speaks precisely to the hopes and fears of so many people, gay and straight. It cuts through the lies and shows that we are part of society with the same hopes and fears, needs and demands. I was deeply impressed at the vocal participation of young straight people at the several demonstrations that I attended. They see it. They see the simple fact that civil rights must be defended wherever they are threatened. They see that old union saw that an injury to one is an injury to all.

We cannot allow our movement to be sidelined by some amorphous call to think about global warming instead, or about homeless people, or about you-name-it other oppression. That is the essence of the latter part of Bob's argument ... that we must enlist evangelicals because some of them agree with some of the things that we agree with. Fine. Work with them on global warming, stand by them in soup kitchens. But we have to fight them when it comes to gay civil rights. They are wrong and ... we need to be clear ... religious opposition to gay marriage is bigotry. Period. Every one of us knows that in our gut, and we are right. Bob writes "We have now come to the point that many unthinkingly equate opposition to gay marriage with homophobia." That is not "unthinking" and that little word, my good friend, is a sly slight. I have been a gay liberationist since 1972, and I have watched them and how their arguments evolve. There is nothing unthinking about pointing out that Anita Bryant and Rick Warren are of a piece. They are homophobes, and we know that because they oppose our civil rights.

The history of homosexuality for a thousand years is the history of how our enemies silence us. That still is their strategy. When the black preachers of hate complain that they are disgusted by our comparing our struggle to the black civil rights struggle, they are trying to silence our history. When Rick Warren compares the right to marry to incest or polygamy or pedophilia, he seeks to obfuscate and to drive us back into the shadows of the hateful myth making that they have practiced against us. (Of course, the Bible is full of incest, polygamy, and pedophilia, not to mention gay love ... but they like to slide by on that one.)

I recently re-read Boswell's Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe ... must reading for everyone frankly, but especially gay people ... and I refer to his complaint as to why it is homosexuality that "dared not speak its name". Murder spoke; rape spoke; war spoke; hatred spoke. But gay love should shut up. Every time someone tells us to shut up, we need to shout out. That is what the gay marriage fight is about. Shouting that we are here to stay and you cannot force us back into the closet. We won't go.

At bottom, the ultralefts never had a significant influence on the struggle for gay liberation. And I do not believe that Bob's piece or the Facebook group will amount to anything. It has always been about civil rights, it still is, and I think we will win this one and move on to the next battle. But we must make the point that refusing to fight cedes the battleground to our enemies who are no doubt already planning their next assault against us.

Photos by Arod. Top and bottom photos from the Sacramento demonstration against H8; second one is of a photo of Harvey Milk (and I believe that the man behind Milk's elbow is my late friend, the gay liberationist and Buddhist Marxist, Michael Merrill); third photo of a Christmas tree lot at 15th and Dolores. More anti-Prop 8 demo photos here and here.


onejap said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic. And exactly what I was thinking, thought not saying or writing. Great.