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ISR Issue 67, SeptemberOctober 2009
ANALYSIS IN BRIEF
Why we shouldn’t wait
Ragina Johnson on the fight for marriage equality
THE PASSAGE of Proposition 8, which amended the California Constitution to ban same-sex marriages, could have been a defeat, but instead has given birth to a new lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement. For the first time in sixteen years, grass-roots groups are coming together to build a national march. The National Equality March in Washington, October 10–11, initiated by Harvey Milk collaborator Cleve Jones, calls for “Equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.”
In just nine months, five states in addition to Massachusetts which already had marriage equality, have passed laws granting same-sex couples the civil right to marry, and now Washington, D.C., legally recognizes marriage licenses from other states and countries.
Not only did anger against the passage of Prop 8 propel people into the streets immediately after the election, these new activists were imbued with a sense of hope at the election of the first African American president. Protests spanned every county in California and took place across the country and world. In cities like Houston, Texas, demonstrations were as big or larger than the antiwar demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003. In San Diego, which wouldn’t ever be described by people who live there as a bastion of liberalism, 25,000 people marched on November 15 for LGBT rights. These protests across the country were mainly organized by new activists on short notice through network sites like Facebook and MySpace.
The grass-roots movement is going beyond the single-issue tactics of the last twenty years and is working to make connections to fight for labor rights and the struggles of other oppressed groups. Many local groups marched with immigrant rights activists on May Day and are joining with unions such as UNITE HERE in their fight for fair labor conditions at Hyatt hotels. In addition, they have shown strong support for transgender rights that were often sidelined in past movements. For example, the San Francisco group One struggle, One Fight joined with transgender homeless youth activists on July 10 to fight for housing and other services.This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the majority of LGBT folks are disproportionably working class and are in most need of the 1,000 plus rights conferred by marriage in the U.S. (such as health care and inheritance benefits).
Grass-roots groups are reviving the idea that protests, rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, and civil disobedience are needed to organize effectively—not the lobbying tactics of liberal groups or just door-to-door canvassing. On the Day of Decision, May 26, when the California Supreme Court decided to uphold Prop 8 while allowing the 18,000 marriages that took place in the months leading up to November to remain legal, a historic civil disobedience action was organized by One Struggle, One Fight. In San Francisco, 211 people were arrested to highlight a strong voice of dissent against the ruling. The protest gained national and worldwide attention, including being featured on the cover of the New York Times. A sit-in was organized by the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME) at the clerk’s office where licenses are administered which drew more than seventy participants. The following weekend, over 5,000 people converged in Fresno, California for Meet in the Middle to support local activists who were ignored by the corporate-dominated No On 8 campaign. On the morning before the rally, more than one hundred people marched about fifteen miles from Selma, California to Fresno in 90 degree heat to highlight the fight for marriage equality as a civil rights issue and connect this struggle with the working-class communities being affected by the economic crisis.
The shifting tide of the marriage equality movement was further highlighted by marriage equality contingents in June Pride Parades across the United States. Commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, these were the first broad political contingents on the parade in years.
Despite the momentum we are now experiencing for marriage equality, there is nothing inevitable about the movement’s success or continued growth. Groups must continue to fight for grass-roots strategies, tactics, and political discussions within the movement. Currently there is a fierce debate brewing between marriage equality groups in California about whether to go back to the ballot in 2010 to overturn Prop 8 versus waiting until 2012—or until “the time is right” as some more conservative movement leaders contend. Despite the fact that Marriage Equality USA and Equality California (EQCA) have polled their memberships who overwhelmingly supported returning to the ballot in 2010, they are still unsure that 2010 is the right time.
There have been two leadership summit meetings in California over the last few months, the most recent one in San Bernardino on July 25 that drew more than 200 attendees from dozens of organizations. Existing liberal groups, non-governmental organizations, non-profit groups, and emerging grass-roots groups came together in a room to discuss and debate the next campaign, which is a step forward for the movement. But for many who attended, a sense of frustration and mistrust dominated and hampered the opportunity to have a real debate and decisively move forward quickly. Many activists felt their voices and ideas have been stifled and suppressed while “experts” and “polls” have dominated the discussion of when activists should wage a campaign to get rid of Prop 8.
An open discussion and assessment of how the last campaign lost was never had out in a democratic and accountable manner. In fact, people still have questions about where the tens of millions of dollars from the last campaign went. Many groups that were disenfranchised by the No On 8 campaign are rightly hesitant to move forward because they are unsure how their communities will be supported in the next campaign. These are legitimate concerns and the grass-roots groups who are supporting 2010 need to discuss how a real democratic coalition to overturn Prop 8 can be inclusive and effective. In many ways, continuing the work being done by SAME and other groups connecting with labor and oppressed groups is what needs to happen in order to win marriage equality in 2010 in California.
Conservative anxieties about pushing a fight now were echoed in a recent New York Times article, “Backers of gay marriage rethink California push,” that quoted millionaire David Bohnett, saying “The only thing worse than losing in 2008 would be to lose again in 2010.” Marc Solomon of EQCA went on to argue, “I expected having watched the protests and the real pain that the L.G.B.T. community had experienced that there would be some real measurable remorse in the electorate, but if you look at the poll numbers since November, they really haven’t moved at all.”
Missing from their assessment is how grass-roots activism and protest has changed the terrain in the fight for marriage equality. If no one had come out after Prop 8 passed and demonstrated, we would not have same-sex marriage in six states now. In addition, in a CBS poll in April—not a radical news outlet—“forty-two percent of Americans now say same sex couples should be allowed to legally marry. That’s up nine points from last month, when 33 percent supported legalizing same sex marriage. Support for same sex marriage is now at its highest point since CBS News starting asking about it in 2004.”
The right wing is definitely not going to wait to push back their agenda of bigotry and hate. Our side, standing for equality and justice, shouldn’t wait either. The momentum of the movement will not continue unless activists mobilize. Hate crimes and suicides because of LGBT bashing have risen since the passage of Prop 8. It is activists’ job to create an environment of inclusiveness from marriage equality to LGBT rights in schools and work places. This is why Cleve Jones helped spearhead the call for a national gathering in Washington, D.C., on October 10–11, 2009. The gathering is being organized
to let our elected leaders know that now is the time for full equal rights for LGBT people. This is simply a major national strategy to kick start our national grassroots Equality Across America campaign. We will gather. We will strategize. We will march. And we will leave energized and empowered to do the work that needs to be done in every community across the nation. This is only the beginning. Our single demand: Equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.
For grass-roots activists, this will be an amazing opportunity to network and organize with people in every state across the country. For more information visit www.equalityacrossamerica.org.
Ragina Johnson is an activist in One Struggle, One Fight and the International Socialist Organization in the Bay Area.