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Why Gay Marriage Matters: A Reply to Dean Spade and Craig Willse

Article published:

“The Left needs to reconsider its position on family issues if it plans to become relevant in the struggle for justice.”

When folks asked me my opinion on gay marriage I was always quick with my half-joking response. I would say: “Well, I hear the right-wing family types going on about how if we allow gay marriage, then we’ll see an end to Western Civilization. That sounds good to me!” I’m kind of glad the issue of gay marriage is beginning to wane because I was getting tired of that joke, and with the recent victories for gay marriage I see Western Civilization is still rearing its ugly head. Look at Russia. A good day in Russia for young gay folks is when they are not being beaten for being gay.

Now, you can go on about being for marriage or against marriage, but unless you understand the history out of which gay marriage grew, you won’t understand anything about the dialectic of politics. When it comes to supporting my basic human rights, as a gay man I have always felt pretty much abandoned by the left in America. I tried, as other gay leftist did, to explain to the traditional left (mostly straight white men) that they don’t have to like us, but they should at least understand the principles of organizing: they should understand the fundamental issues they ignore when they choose to ignore lgbt issues.

Organizing around LGBT issues never was a matter of “identity politics.” The straight left created identity politics, not me or my comrades fighting against the right wing these past 40 years. A few years ago I wrote in The Nation magazine: “What my straight friends refused to understand was that my fight was also a fight against the right. I got tired of hearing straight progressives call the struggle for my civil rights “identity politics” when the truth was that their own identity as members of the heterosexual majority was being mustered and manipulated to drive American politics to the right. Willy-nilly, my progressive straight friends, silent beneficiaries of discrimination, were accomplices. Of course, straight people don’t like to think of heterosexuality as an identity. But couldn’t they see what was happening across the country? When Ronald Reagan held his arm aloft with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Reagan, a divorced man, hadn’t suddenly got religion; he was consolidating Republican power and making his handlers from GE a mint.”

The weakness of the left in America is precisely because it made this choice not to take on the issues that mean most to most folks–family issues–and it created this ridiculous paradigm that fighting for women’s rights and gay rights are identity politics. Meanwhile, the right organizes and gains strength precisely because it has taken on those issues. And when the right-wingers gain strength on their anti-women and anti-gay organizing, they use that strength to go after the things that actually have some meaning for the traditional white left, like workers and unions. Having abandoned the field of human relations, the left forced women and gay people to make coalitions with liberals in order to secure some basic rights. So the right gained strength, the liberals gained some strength because they were seen as the only factor fighting back, and the left wrote itself out of the equation when it chose to ignore me and my kind.

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As for this article, it shows a true lack of the things it purports to hold dear — that is, critical thinking and a sense of history. To say “Same-sex marriage advocacy has accomplished an amazing feat – it has made being anti-homophobic synonymous with being pro-marriage” is just ridiculous. Where was the left when thousands of lesbians who had come out were losing their children precisely because they were identified as lesbian? The gay men, I will say, had abandoned them. The left certainly had.

Thousands of women and their children had to descend on the Vermont Legislature to make sure they were being protected. The left abandonment of these women forced them to make a coalition with liberals. Marriage was what was available–in Vermont, it became civil union–so they took on the mantel of marriage rights. The gay movement was forced to make same-sex marriage a priority because the grass roots (lesbians) demanded it; it was pure survival for them and their families. To be attacked now by the left is truly stupid.

The left had not come up with anything to deal with us except to snipe at us for being obsessed with “identity” or conservative for supporting this vile institution called marriage. Had the left taken seriously the issues surrounding the demands of these women and struggled with them to create some enlightened alternative–had the left spent decades doing serious organizing (rather than just theorizing) around love and sex and family and community, all the things that have been central to gay people’s fight for basic human rights–then maybe we could have listened to this lecture on the history of marriage.

Now let’s take a look at what is going on in Russia and Uganda and get off the back of LGBT folks. We continue to struggle for justice and understand that our enemy is not the left. However the left needs to reconsider its positions on family issues if it plans to become relevant in the struggle for justice.