The fight for same sex marriage rights has surfaced deep political divisions within the LGBT movement. On one side of the divide, marriage advocates say that winning marriage inclusion is just a step in a larger civil rights struggle. Meanwhile, marriage critics remind us that the movement that began with the Stonewall rebellion was a movement for sexual liberation and radical feminism, and not just civil rights. That movement included many who called for an end to state sanctioned marriage.
At the heart of the debate is a disagreement over strategy. One side wants to focus on liberation writ large, and the other believes that the way forward is civil rights reform, with many among them arguing this is a step in the direction of deeper structural change. I’m not sure which side is “right,” or even if there is just one right strategy, but I do have a hunch about how we ended up in this argument. That hunch, I think, has implications for all who are concerned about social justice.
The contemporary LGBT movement traces its roots to 1969, when activists rioted for rights at the Stonewall Inn. At the time, Black Power was raising serious questions about structural inequality. Vietnam War protestors were deeply critical of U.S. imperialism and the military industrial complex. And radical feminists were questioning the fundamentals of sex, reproduction, and the family. And the right wing? They were playing defense and losing, or so it seemed.
In this context, demands for a sexual revolution probably seemed well timed. But, in 1969, a right wing backlash movement was already coalescing. In that year, orange juice pitch-woman Anita Bryant appeared at a Rally for Decency at the Orange Bowl. By 1977, the right was already building their base by organizing opposition to abortion and ginning up homophobia. That year, Bryant successfully led a campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
That win, along with a similar victory in Eugene, Oregon in 1978, demonstrated the power of homophobia as a political tool, and would lead to a 30-plus year culture war against LGBT people. If the decision to continue opposing marriage equality taken by the GOP at its recent national meeting is any indication, the war’s not over yet.
One of the most successful strategies of the anti-LGBT culture war involves framing LGBT people as sexual predators. This strategy won votes and had the side effect of making continued advocacy for sexual liberation feel like high stakes gambling.
Within just a few years of the Dade County and Eugene, Oregon repeals, the AIDS epidemic smashed its way into the center of queer community politics. Gay men were dying at an alarming rate from what many were calling “gay cancer” while Ronald Reagan reacted with apathy and victim blaming.
The fight against AIDS ended up building the LGBT movement. During those years, many of us got involved in politics, learned protest tactics, created organizations, and found our voices. But, in order to survive we had to change. The new generation of leaders were expert at negotiating a political culture in which the right was in control of the agenda.
I got involved in fighting the religious right in 1988 when a Christian right wing group in Oregon, the Oregon Citizens’ Alliance (OCA), sponsored Ballot Measure 8. That measure repealed a governor’s executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and did so by running ads equating gay men with pedophiles.
In 1992, the OCA sponsored Ballot Measure 9, a proposal to amend the Oregon Constitution to label LGBT people “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse” and forever prevent laws protecting the community from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Measure 9 eventually lost at the ballot box. However, a poll taken in the spring before the election showed that the majority of voters would approve the measure. The campaign operated in a climate of fear, convinced by this poll that everything must be done to defeat the measure.
Everything included avoiding discussion of sex and other controversial topics. After all, how do you argue for sexual liberation in a sex-phobic world while your opponents are winning by attacking you as sexually irresponsible? And Measure 9 was just one among many battles. The LGBT community found itself replaying this defensive strategy for years.
This is the political climate in which marriage equality emerged as a primary strategy. Fighting for marriage allowed the community to avoid the dangerous game of arguing against traditional, oppressive sexual mores, and advocate instead for inclusion in an institution that revolves around monogamy, the nuclear family, hearth and home. The strategy of fighting for marriage inclusion was “chosen” from a highly restricted menu of politically viable options.
In this same repressive political climate, other movements made similar choices. Under relentless attack, feminists, labor, racial justice advocates, and others also moderated their demands and their messages.
And why does this matter? We need to understand our history because it holds valuable lessons. By moderating, the LGBT community made itself appear reasonable in contrast to right wing extremists. It was a good trick for a feared and hated minority. But in the course of executing it, I fear we lost sight of what we are for. And unless we can name that, we’re still playing defense. Yes, we may be winning certain arguments, but the right controls what we are arguing about.