We won’t wait for equality

July 23, 2009

From the moment that news spread of the passage of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, a new movement for civil rights and equality began to stir.

Instead of reacting to this Election Day defeat with pessimism, LGBT people and their allies have been organizing and mobilizing for marriage equality with renewed confidence. The movement has spread from its strongest areas of support in California cities to rural areas of the state, and to other states across the country.

At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, four voices from the struggle spoke out to a packed audience in the Women's Building on July 3.

Here, Sherry Wolf, the author of the new book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation, talks about the next steps for the movement for LGBT equality.

IF YOU had told me that exactly eight months ago today, November 3, as a result of a ballot initiative reversing equal marriage rights in the state of California, an explosion of LGBT activism would literally roll across this country, I would have said, "I fucking hope so."

Let's take stock of the moment, because sometimes when you're living through one, it's a little bit difficult to read what's happening around you. But in my opinion, I think that what we're going through right now is not merely another stage in the struggle, but the single greatest advance of LGBT civil rights since Stonewall.

People are well aware that 20 years ago, there was another explosion of activism, essentially around the beginnings of--or I should say seven years into--the AIDS crisis. But that movement--which was militant, in your face, massive and all the rest of it--was largely middle class and white in its composition.

Its orientation was very much sunk into the Democratic Party, and it had fiercely held ideas of separatism toward people who weren't gay or lesbian--and, frankly, a lot of funky ideas about bisexuals and transgender people, who weren't often included. In fact, the Lesbian Avengers didn't allow bisexual people onto the buses that were going to the March on Washington in 1993. Transgender people who were female to male were not allowed on the dyke marches early on.

Marching in the 2009 LGBT Pride celebration in New York City
Marching in the 2009 LGBT Pride celebration in New York City (Brian Jones | SW)

This movement was openly hostile to the organized left. I can remember the first dyke march I attended in New York, down 5th Avenue, in 1990 or '91, I believe. I was actually sucker-punched in the gut on 5th Avenue for selling Socialist Worker. And that was not some sort of aberration. It was one of the most hostile political environments--organizing amid people who we would think would be allies, other lesbians and gays fighting for health care and access to AIDS drugs.

Today, what we have is a multiracial movement, and a movement that is consciously anti-corporate--that is quite suspicious of the Democratic Party to say the least, and is developing what I think is a very healthy critique of, and sometimes hostility to, the corporate-driven organizations that have taken tens of millions of our dollars every year and sunk them into the Democratic Party, and not mobilized anyone since 1993. And this movement embraces, and is often quite friendly to, the organized left.

This is a sea change. This movement is pro-labor, which is a stark shift from the movement of 20 years ago. And then, of course, the embracing of straight people and the open acknowledgement that we need all of us together in this fight--that we are all, frankly, sexually repressed in this society, and we all need a change.

It's worth mentioning the poll numbers, which are startling and wonderful. The Harris poll now says that 70 percent of the population has a friend, family member or coworker who is openly gay, and most of them say this has shifted their opinions dramatically. Eighty-nine percent of the population is for ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace. And Newsweek has just come out with a poll showing even higher numbers than the Harris poll.

I used to work in advertising--the most useless profession in the history of the world--and there was a saying in advertising: "Will it play in Peoria?" Peoria, Ill., for those of you who don't know, is sort of the anti-San Francisco. It's supposed to be a template for Everytown, USA--the place where people who are transgender would certainly not think to walk the streets. Where it's supposed to be the quintessence of normative.

Well, even in Peoria, this movement has reach. When some bigoted bar owner, after he noticed that gay people were starting to hang out in his bar, put up a sign that said, "This is not a gay bar," dozens of people from Peoria said, "Fuck you! We're coming in! We're integrating this bar!" So we can say that LGBT people, once considered an offensive minority, are now a group on the offensive.

I WANT to talk about three dangers in the current struggle--because we should talk openly among ourselves about what we're facing,

The first that I want to talk about is the idea of inevitability--the feeling that one state after another if going to fall. My God, even Iowa--which surprised us twice now. It was the lily-white state that gave Obama his first victory, and gave people the idea that perhaps white working-class people in this country would vote for a Black man for president. And then, of course, it gave marriage equality, enshrining in the minds of every Californian the idea that if Iowa can do it, we certainly can, too.

But the notion of inevitability is something we need to deal with. There's a great deal of excitement that we have the wind in our sails, and marriage equality will happen whatever we do. We've done our protesting, we've said our piece, the polls numbers are with us, and dear God, even Dick Cheney has come out of his bunker and said he's for marriage equality--as well as that idiot Republican consultant, Steve Schmidt, who was advising John McCain.

But this isn't because somehow they've had some massive change of heart. It's because of what we are doing. Without the self-organized and conscious intervention of people in this fight, there is nothing at all inevitable about it.

Let's remember that in California, only two months before the vote last November, the poll numbers were actually on our side. It was the other side that used street heat, that had a strategy--that had less money, I might add--and that took seriously going into the Latino and Black neighborhoods, into the churches, talking to people, making arguments. And they won, and we lost. There is nothing inevitable about this fight.

Take a look at EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for people to join unions by simply signing a card--the majority signs on, you're in a union, and it's not the kind of crap where it takes years of struggle. It was thought before the election that it was inevitable that this was going to happen. After all, the trade unions poured $350 million into this campaign. And where is that fight now? There is no struggle to make EFCA a reality. Nothing is inevitable without a struggle.

There's another related danger I want to talk about: Just wait. Tone it down. Your time will come. After all, we've got a crisis on our hands now--this is the worst depression since the 1930s, as this state knows better than others.

Now we've got people basically working without pay--which I think is called "indentured servitude." But instead, they call it a "furlough." This is where you supposedly get time off and don't get paid, but of course, you're so fearful you're going to lose your job that you damn well show up at work, and you still don't get paid. And now I hear that in this state, they're handing out IOUs to state employees. I don't know if you can hand your landlord an IOU--I'm fairly certain you can't.

So we're being told tone it down, your time will come, we're dealing with real issues here, we've got nearly 10 percent unemployment among the general population and 15 percent unemployment among the Black population, and far higher in many cities. That's what we're being told by the White House, and even by many of the so-called movement leaders.

I came across something in SocialistWorker.org, words by a man I consider quite wise--Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States. He said:

Obama has a lot of wonderful qualities and seems to be a decent man, but he's a politician. And worse, he's surrounded by politicians. And some of them he picked himself. He picked Hillary Clinton, he picked Lawrence Summers, he picked people who show no sign of breaking from the past.

We are citizens. We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from their eyes and say, "Well, we have to compromise, we have to do this for political reasons." We have to speak our minds.

This is the position that the abolitionists were in before the Civil War, and people said, "Well, you have to look at it from Lincoln's point of view." Lincoln didn't believe that his first priority was abolishing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement did, and the abolitionists said, "We're not going to put ourselves in Lincoln's position. We are going to express our own position, and we are going to express it so powerfully that Lincoln will have to listen to us."

And the anti-slavery movement grew large enough and powerful enough that Lincoln had to listen. That's how we got the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.

That's been the story of this country. 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.

The other thing we're told, in addition to wait, is to tone it down. Tone it down, don't go for the whole deal. In the state where I live, Illinois, there's actually a gay representative--a nice man, I've met him, Greg Harris--who wants to push for civil unions, a sort of marriage apartheid. He says, well, that's what Vermont did nine years ago, and therefore, that will be the route that we'll go.

And it's not just that they push for this marriage apartheid--a back-of-the-bus, or I guess, middle-of-the-bus compromise. But this thing is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.

Religious freedom?! You read this bill, and it's all about how preachers and ministers and priests shouldn't be forced against their will to marry people. They don't need a law for this! Never in the history of this country has anybody been forced to officiate at a wedding if they didn't want to. Why are they writing this into legislation.

And to show you how removed from reality these people are, they added to the bill that caterers should not be forced to work at gay weddings...Is there anywhere in this country where there are caterers who will not work at a gay wedding? Are there straight caterers?

SO I'm not so much for toning it down. I think what people on the panel have said is right: This is a working-class demand; it isn't a side issue. We're not asking for some sort of symbolic nod of agreement--although frankly, it would be nice to be treated as equal citizens and have coverage under the law. But there are real material benefits at stake in this struggle that are often dismissed or ignored or just simply not understood.

It may be very nice if you're a professor, and you have full health care and so does your partner, and you don't think about these things, but for the rest of us, health care, death benefits and all the rest are actually things that we give a damn about. This is not some sort of symbolic demand. This is very real.

It was interesting to me when Obama brought in to the White House last week a number of the more corporate-driven gay organizations to stand around him as he signed a fairly moderate piece of legislation for LGBT people who are federal employees. And at this event, Obama acknowledged something. He acknowledged Martin Luther King's statement "Why We Can't Wait"--and then basically said, "But you've got to wait."

I went back and re-read Why We Can't Wait. It was written by Martin Luther King in 1963, and he was writing about the explosion of Black rage in hundreds of cities across this country under what was the Kennedy administration. Two years into his administration, Kennedy signed housing anti-discrimination legislation. But it was incomplete--it wasn't sweeping enough, and Blacks protested at how tepid the reforms were.

King writes that Blacks felt that they were being tossed the same old bone as in the past--only now on a platter, and with courtesy. Does that sound familiar? He wrote, "Blacks didn't suddenly become impatient," but that "the posture of silent waiting was forced upon Blacks, because Blacks were shackled physically."

Now, nothing like slavery has happened to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who were not African American in this country--although, of course, there are at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who are. We have, of course, and have to this day, lynchings, though not nearly on the level and scope that they took place in this country historically against Blacks.

But the shackles of the closet were imposed on most of us by law, and keep in mind that the U.S. Supreme Court only overturned sodomy laws in 2003--the beginning of the 21st century. And the shackles imposed on us by social custom have been shed--slowly at first, but now, we are out in 99 percent of American counties, according to the U.S. Census in 2000.

So right now, it's not that we have suddenly become impatient, but it has now become unendurable to continue to not be covered as equal citizens under the law in this country.

And for those who wonder a little about equating the fight for LGBT equality with Black civil rights, I think it's worth taking a look at what Julian Bond had to say, because he is, of course, a long-term Black civil rights activist who used to head the NAACP. What he said about it, to Blacks, is very interesting, I think. He said we should be proud that our brothers and sisters who are not Black want to use our movement as a model. Because you know why? It won.

I WANT to address another danger. And it comes from people who are not to the right, but people who are our brothers and sisters on the left. There are many people in our movement--great allies, people we have fought alongside of for years sometimes, around all sorts of struggles--who basically say, "This is not our struggle."

They're either indifferent, and many of them hostile, to the demand for equal marriage rights. As Zakiya said, the argument essentially goes something like this: "Who the hell wants this crappy hetero-normative institution that imposes monogamy on us, brings the state into our relationships, and religion."

Now, we socialists are sympathetic to all critiques of monogamy, religion and the state. After all, we're for smashing the state and ending the imposition of the traditional family on people. And, of course, we're for single-payer universal health care as soon as possible.

But this movement is not for the state or monogamy or religion. This is a movement for equality. It is a fight for a reform.

I think in many ways this argument is a reflection of how far away from ordinary working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender lives that the movement went for a time. It disappeared into the far reaches of the academy, where people theorize in abstraction, and left people's real-life concerns and real-life needs by the wayside.

I think if you're going to dis this reform, at least be consistent. Then you have to come out against immigrants' demand for amnesty--who the hell wants a crappy low-wage job in our shitty empire?

I think you have to be consistent, and you have to say something to the Republic Windows & Doors workers--who for the first time in some 70-plus years in this country staged a factory occupation in the city of Chicago. They didn't demand revolution. What was their factory occupation about? It wasn't even to keep the factory open. It was to get severance pay as they were being fired--as the factory was closing. Be consistent, and say we're not for that demand, because that's a crappy halfway demand.

I think you have to be consistent and say, "Troops out now from Afghanistan and Iraq? You want us to call for that crappy demand? We've got bases in hundreds of countries. Does that demand say that we don't care about the bases in all the other countries?"

No! Reforms under this system, by their very nature, are partial. And they create the conditions in which people unite--they come together.

I know we've mostly experienced defeats in our lifetime, but victory also can have a domino effect. And when you begin to win on something, you begin to get a taste in your mouth for something better. And you begin to feel that you can fight for more.

Another part of this argument is that the marriage demand narrows our agenda. Frankly, I think that even what has been said up here speaks volumes about how that's simply untrue. the struggles of LGBT people have actually broadened the horizons of our movement and of American society overall, I'm happy to say.

We now have more people demanding an end to this obnoxious abstinence-only education in our schools, which has led to a 49 percent rate of new HIV infection among young Black men. It is a death sentence for young Black men to have abstinence-only education. And people are now fighting around it and agitating around it.

This movement has now given us a taste for an all-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which means transgender people inclusive. Because it is simply outrageous that in 30 states in this country, it's legal not to be hired or to be fired for being gay or lesbian or bi, and in 43 states, it's perfectly legal not to be hired, or to be fired, for being transgender. Or being suspected of not being frou-frou enough for a girl, or masculine enough for a man. We are now fighting for more.

Without this movement for marriage equality, I don't believe we would have a seen a historic breakthrough on, of all places, drive-time radio in the city of Sacramento just a couple of weeks ago when those nimrods got up there on May 28 and called for the beating of young transgender boys. As David said, this is in the same year when two young men have hanged themselves--two boys, 10 years old, 11 years old, who hanged themselves, because they were called faggot, or not boy enough.

The response in this country was tremendous. Tens of thousands of people called in, wrote, sent e-mails. They even got 10 multibillion-dollar corporations--Wells Fargo, Bank of America, McDonalds, not great bastions of radicalism--to pull their funding from this noxious radio station.

When these moronic shock jocks did come back a week later, for the first time I'm sure in American history, on drive-time radio, they had two-and-a-half hours of transgender people talking about their issues. This would not have happened without this movement.

And if you think we've heard hostility to marriage equality on the left, I'm sure that hostility or indifference carried over, in some circles, to the issue of "don't ask, don't tell." Because, let's face it, people say this damn empire and this army murders people across the globe, and has destroyed people's lives from one end of the planet to another, is a means through which the U.S. empire imposes its will everywhere--why would we want gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people serving in it?

We don't want anybody serving in it. But it happens to be the largest workforce in the United States. Three million people are in the military, and tens of thousands of them that we know of are LGBT. And it is not a matter of indifference to us whether or not the largest workforce in this country, run by the federal government, has institutionalized segregation, oppression and lynchings of gay people.

When Obama does lift "don't ask, don't tell"--and I have a feeling he will, because that's one reform they really want; queer boots on the ground are just fine for them--then frankly, we should use this to kick the door open and say, "If we're good enough to kill for you, we want to get equal rights at work. We want it all." It's called the law of unintended consequences.

I JUST want to take the last couple minutes and say where we go from here. Because obviously, we're fighting in an era in which there's hope. Despite this crappy economy, I think the inspiration and the hope that people feel is very real. It's wonderful and inspiring. As I said before, people without hope don't fight. They're paralyzed. We as socialists are hope-mongers.

Somebody was telling me that Naomi Klein had a great quote about Obama--that with Obama, the best thing about him is also the worst thing, because he's so malleable. And the problem right now is that the only people trying to shape his policies are the people at the top of society, with these sort of no-banker-left-behind policies.

But we have to understand what this contradictory situation opens up for us--because at the same time as he says one thing, he also says the other. What happened on June 1 is not a point of indifference to us--here is what the president of the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the history of the world, had to say that day:

Forty years ago, patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted police harassment that had become all too common for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Out of this resistance, the LGBT rights movement in America was born. During LGBT Pride month, we commemorate the events of June 1969 and commit to achieving equal justice under the law for LGBT Americans.

That was his declaration on June 1 to make June LGBT Pride Month. Then, not 10 days later, his own Justice Department equated marriage equality with incest and all sorts of other things.

Outrageous. But in the groaning gap that exists between the statement for LGBT Pride Month and a friend-of-the-court brief urging that the Defense of Marriage Act be kept in place, that is something we can drive a movement through. And that's what we must do.

I know a lot of people are very impatient. I'm impatient too. I don't actually get any more patient as I get older; I think I get more impatient. But I'll say this. When I was 20, I was a socialist, and I thought for sure by the time I was 30, maybe 35, the state would be teetering. Thirty came and went. Thirty-five did, too. So did 40. I'm not yet 45.

But you cannot say that nothing has changed! You cannot say that this is not a magical moment, in which, of all the shit that is coming down in this country right now, this movement--the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender civil rights movement--has given hope. Hope to immigrant rights activists, to labor activists and to all sorts of people that you can fight, and you can win, and you can pressure these bigots.

We can make change. We need to get with it and stick to it. We understand that it's a long-term struggle, but there are moments in that struggle that are a little bit different. Like now, when history can take a catapulting leap forward, and we can push through the door and win full civil equality for ourselves in this country.

It's not like oppression will end. Blacks have had civil equality in this country for some decades, and we cannot say in any way that racism is over. But imagine what it will be like when we force the hand of the president of the United States to get up there and, finally, sign an executive order that adds LGBT people to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

We need to get out there at the March on Washington in October, bring our demands to the seat of power and make this happen.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor.

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