This June, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement marks the 37th anniversary of the June 27, 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Millions of LGBT people, friends and supporters everywhere will be marching, rallying and celebrating the struggle for LGBT liberation. It is a time when the community assesses the gains and setbacks of the past, as well as the future struggles to come.
In the United States, one front of the struggle for LGBT liberation over the last several years has been the movement for same-sex marriage. This movement has seen both gains and setbacks.
In 2003, the state of Massachusetts passed a same-sex marriage law. Other cities and municipalities followed. The city of San Francisco performed nearly 4,000 marriages beginning Feb. 12, 2004, until a state court issued a restraining order on March 11, 2004. Currently, Vermont and Connecticut perform civil unions. California recognizes domestic partners.
After these wins, right-wing forces mobilized to push back these gains. By mobilizing reactionary religious and other backward forces, and sowing confusion among significant sectors of the population, these forces passed same-sex marriage bans in 11 states in the form of laws or referendums in 2004.
Despite these electoral setbacks, support continues to grow for the right of same-sex couples to secure, through civil marriage, the more than 1,000 rights that married couples currently share. While the right-wing attack on LGBT rights had a short-term chilling effect that strengthened right-wing political forces at the polls, it also provoked discussion and thought around the issue among significant layers of the working class. This happened in spite of the complete capitulation to the right-wing rhetoric by so-called liberal democrats such as Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
The images of defiant same-sex couples in San Francisco and elsewhere dramatized the simple but powerful demand for equal marriage rights for all same-sex couples. According to a May 5 ABC News article, over 40 percent of the U.S. population supports marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples—wide support for a movement that was viewed as far out of the mainstream just 10 years ago.
An article posted April 6, 2006, on the British gay news service website pinknews.co.uk reported, “Support in New York [State] has steadily grown over the last three years for the right of gay people to marry.” The article cites a poll showing that a majority—53 percent—supported marriage equality, an increase from 47 percent in 2004. The article reports that these findings are similar to results showing growing support for same-sex marriage in a national poll by the Pew Research Centre, a Zogby poll in New Jersey and a Field poll in California.
These legislative gains and setbacks are important in assessing the strength of the LGBT movement. But they do not define the framework of that struggle. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was not passed by lobbying politicians, appealing to the fairness of a virtually all-white Congress with a vision of correcting centuries of racist injustice. It came as a result of the militant mass struggles of the Black community that refused to accept “Jim Crow” segregation any longer.
Like other movements for social change, the struggle for lesbian, gay, bi and trans liberation cannot be put back in the closet. The overturning of Texas sodomy laws in 2003—which led to overturning similar laws in 11 other states that criminalized same-sex relations—only reflected “reality on the ground.”
The U.S. ruling class—the billionaire bankers, industrialists and corporate CEOs who profit from anti-LGBT bigotry, racism and sexism—would have preferred to continue to criminalize and discriminate against LGBT people for being who they are. However, continued criminalization or intensified attacks against same-sex partners would have exposed the chasm between those that govern and the vast majority of the population. Thus, based on the mass movement for sexual and gender equality and growing support for LGBT rights among workers, the restrictive laws, rooted in feudal Christian ideology were finally thrown out.
The defeat of the sodomy laws laid the basis for the many equal protection struggles that have been taken up in workplaces by the community and labor unions. The struggle for equal protection initially focused on protection for homosexuals. Inclusion of transgender people soon followed. This led to the struggle for same-sex marriage.
An essential part of the class struggle
The struggle for LGBT rights and against discrimination based on sexual or gender identity is an essential part of the overall workers’ struggle against capitalist exploitation—the class struggle between the workers on the one hand and the capitalist owners on the other.
On the one hand, the bosses as a class have a material, economic interest in denying LGBT workers the same benefits received by heterosexual workers. It is not fundamentally a moral issue, although some bigots frame it that way. The bosses make additional profits by not having to pay health and pension benefits to LGBT partners.
On the other hand, the capitalists promote anti-gay bigotry and violence as a way to isolate and stigmatize, pitting one group of workers against another. By whipping up anti-gay bigotry among working and poor people, the owning class erodes the possibility of building solidarity and uniting against the exploitative economic system where a tiny handful of people own the wealth produced by the vast majority of society.
From this perspective, it is in the interests of all workers to see these benefits extended to LGBT people. As long as the bosses can pay one group of workers less than another, they will try and pit one group of workers against another in the interests of profit. By taking up the struggle of the LGBT community as part of their struggle, all workers stand to benefit from the gains made.
So the struggle for same-sex marriage is not just an LGBT issue. Fighting for rights for same-sex couples, on an equal par with heterosexual couples, would expand healthcare benefits, pension rights, inheritance and many other basic benefits currently denied LGBT people, and enable all workers to more effectively unite to fight and defend their current social programs, benefits and wages, and to push for greater concessions regarding pay benefits.
The modern LGBT mass struggle for basic rights came about during the militant struggles of the 1960s. While based on earlier movements of the 1950s, like the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis and the gay Mattachine Society, it took on a mass character in the period of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, where LGBT people everywhere began to organize a militant mass movement for justice and liberation. This movement was greatly influenced and inspired by the struggles of the African-American, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Native national liberation struggles. It grew up side by side with the militant women’s rights struggles against sexism and for reproductive rights. It was influenced by the worldwide liberation struggles in Vietnam as well as the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In turn, this mass struggle had an impact on the struggles of oppressed people around the world. Advances towards LGBT liberation can be seen in a range of struggles where revolutionary, progressive and anti-imperialist forces are leading movements against capitalist exploitation and domination. In places like South Africa, Cuba, the Philippines and Venezuela, LGBT people are playing roles in the liberation of their countries as well as pushing forward the struggle for human liberation.
In the new South Africa that emerged after the overturning of apartheid, the new constitution included language that states, “The state may not unfairly discriminate against anyone on the basis … of sexual orientation.”
In the Philippines, the New Peoples Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has openly gay members in its ranks. On Feb. 4, 2005, two gay guerrilla fighters were married during a ceremony attended by other NPA guerrillas where a NPA choir sang love songs.
In Venezuela, as part of the Bolivarian process, centuries-old prejudices are being challenged as the Chavez government addresses the needs of the most oppressed in society. While the current Venezuelan constitution has no anti-gay language, President Hugo Chavez said in a weekly TV broadcast on Dec. 28, 2005 that it was a big mistake to have not affirmed the rights of LGBT people in the new constitution. Vice President Vincent Rangel announced that a national referendum would be held to make same-sex marriage legal for the first time.
In 1959, Cuba’s socialist revolution eliminated capitalist exploitation, eliminating the material basis for racism, sexism and ant-LGBT bigotry to divide the working class. The Cuban Communist Party led struggles against racism and sexism from the onset of the revolution.
In the early years of the revolution, attitudes and policies toward gay people in Cuba were not different from the rest of the world. As the revolution developed, the impact of the international LGBT struggle began to be felt. In 1979, laws criminalizing gays were eliminated. In 1986 the National Commission on Sex Education introduced a program on homosexuality and bisexuality as healthy and positive. Prominent leaders like Cuban president Fidel Castro and Cuban Federation of Women president Vilma Espín began to speak out against anti-gay attitudes. In 1997 all anti-gay references in Cuban laws were eliminated.
Building unity still key
A key step in unleashing the power of the LGBT movement in the United States is building a mass independent movement for full equality for LGBT people and working to build solidarity with the other movements that are taking place against racism and exploitation. One important example is the development of the millions-strong immigrant rights movement that has completely changed the political landscape in the United States.
As this powerful movement emerged, a handful of conservative elements within the LGBT movement made the narrow and divisive attempt to pit the LGBT movement against the overwhelmingly-Latino immigrant rights movement. For example, in an April 4 commentary in the Advocate online magazine entitled “Gays first, then illegals,” Jasmyne Cannick argued that undocumented workers should have to wait for their rights until the LGBT community fully wins their own.
That article prompted LGBT activists of various nationalities to issue an open letter to the LGBT community rejecting Cannick’s position and expressing the need for solidarity. “We reject any attempts to pit the struggle of multiple communities against each other and firmly believe that ‘Rights’ are not in limited supply,” the activists wrote. “We condemn the ‘scarcity of rights’ perspective espoused by Cannick and other members of the LGBT movement, and are surprised to see members of our community trafficking in such ugliness. But then, one reason why it has always been so hard to shift power in this country is because the ruling class has successfully made us believe that there are only a few deserving groups to whom rights can be given. This strategy has always been used to divide oppressed groups from coming together to work in coalition.”
Forty-five activists signed on to this open letter.
That spirit of solidarity points the way forward for the LGBT movement as it continues to advance in the face of right-wing bigotry, violence and oppression.