Monday, April 13, 2009

The Left and the LGBT Movement: Past, Present and Future

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

The current grass-roots mobilization and politicization of the LGBT rights movement has been emboldened rather than set back by the recent spate of anti-gay ballot initiatives (dating from virtually time immemorial through the Clinton era DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act, legislation to the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California).
With victories in Iowa, Vermont and so on and accounting for certain future set backs the mounting successes continue to come and will only further lay the foundation for and help ensure ultimate victory.

Many separate yet contingent factors have led to the politicization of young people and the further and deeper politicization of many others. A prominent, arguably the most prominent, among them is Obama’s election (the campaign through the inauguration) an historical event still worthy of celebration in and of itself. As Issue 63 of the International Socialist Review writes: “Many feel they played a part in Obama’s election; they were politicized by the experience, and are ready to take action to make sure they get the things they want.”
Very unfortunately for the LGBT movement, the event was bitter sweet for several reasons. To begin with, Obama, though coming out unambiguously for gay marriage rights – along with, presumably, all others – during his 1996 senate run, as reported by Windy City Times newspaper (President Obama’s answer to a 1996 Outlines newspaper question on marriage was: “’I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.’ There was no use of the phrase ‘civil unions’.”), has transparently because of his Presidential Campaign and real and/or perceived political dependencies and obligations reversed his position and now claims that he “disagrees” with gay marriage – the very same reactionary conservative bigotry euphemistically manifested in disingenuous arguments about the “definition of marriage” as related to religious extremism – because, as is the conventional wisdom in Washington, gay marriage is politically risky at best and possibly suicidal. So, ignoring the for the most part open depravity of the McCain-Palin position on such matters, among innumerable others, Obama’s position was a politically opportunist compromise (predictable and possibly understandable yet unethical as well as intolerable). Then there was the devastating passage of the heinously anti-gay Proposition 8 in California (which restricts the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples and eliminated same-sex couples’ right to marry).

Setting aside for now the absolutely grotesque and evil involvement of the Mormon racket in the Prop 8 campaign and passage, which was also possibly illegal (as reported “[a]ctivists claim that money from the Mormon Church was the deciding factor in passing Proposition 8 in California - banning gay marriage. The church claims to have only spent a few thousand dollars on the campaign, but ANP has uncovered evidence that may expose a gaping hole in that claim. Also, the IRS forbids religious organizations from "substantially" lobbying for political legislation. Did the Mormon Church violate this law?”) there is now considerable frustration and anger “at the corporate driven strategy of the No on 8 campaign that,” as Sherry Wolf writes in the ISR, “disastrously misled the Prop 8 battle.” Wolf agrees with Rolling Stone writing that the proposition “was down seventeen points only two months before the election. The reversal wasn’t inevitable, it was unwittingly orchestrated by corporate-driven, Democratic-Party beholden interests who ran a tepid and defensive campaign of euphemisms obscuring the stakes in the fight.” Alongside of this was the racist and class antagonistic atmosphere of local organizers – that led some to form independent organizations, such as Love Honor Cherish – that was also evidenced “[i]n Sand Diego and San Francisco…Upper-middle-class gays who led the local No on 8 ‘fight’ sequestered the movement inside trendy gay ghettos while the working-class neighborhoods and non-white ethnic groups were written off,” whereas the obscenely Mormon financed Yes on 8 campaign “was in evidence as every gridlocked crawl through LA’s notorious traffic revealed Spanish and English language ‘Yes on 8’ stickers adorning bumpers of pick-ups and Mercedes alike.”
Obama’s campaign wisely directly engaged the online community, a generally younger demographic, and it is these online networks, such as Facebook, that have helped to organize and politicize the protests against Prop 8 nationally. For instance, as Jason Farbman and Lonnie Lopez from Seattle write to Socialist Worker, “[t]wenty-one-year-old Kyler Powell – a gay Mormon – had never organized or even attended a protest before spearheading the anti-Prop 8 march in Seattle. Due largely to Facebook and word of mouth, it drew nearly 10,000. The turnout was a testament not just to the fierce opposition to the second-class citizenship of gays and lesbians, but to the willingness of many outside the gay community to take action.”

The nascent movement that is emerging from these spontaneous grass-roots protests (and the organizing necessarily involved), politically, is strikingly pro-labor and anti-corporate. Sherry Wolf writes that “…new movement activists, students and socialists organized a gay marriage forum in Chicago on December 11, one day after the historic victory of the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation in that city. Fresh from winning nearly $2 million in severance and vacation pay for the multiracial group of factory workers, Raul Flores addressed the crowd brilliantly, saying that our struggles are united and we must be too. ‘Our victory is yours,’ he said, ‘Now we must join with you in your battle for rights and return the solidarity you showed us.’ The day before, hundreds of gay protesters rallying for equal marriage rights as part of the national Day Without a Gay initiative linked their march with the Republic Workers’ protest outside Bank of America. Trade Unionists, immigrant rights activists, and gays rallied together in the most eloquent display of genuine rainbow power Chicago has witnessed in decades. One Chilean immigrant described the day’s action as ‘a school for struggle.’”

It is for these reasons that Sherry Wolf writes that “[t]he release of Gus Van Sant’s brilliant biopic of gay activist elected San Francisco Supervisor in 1977, Milk, has arrived in theaters at a crucial teaching moment in the struggle. The film alludes to a key aspect of the successful gay-labor struggles against Coors beer and the 1978 Briggs Initiative that would have banned LGBT teachers and their allies from ‘advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting’ homosexuality in California’s classrooms.” The initiative would have banned anyone who was gay from teaching and fired all those who were already. “By uniting with Teamsters in the Coors battle and forging lasting alliances with blue and white-collar workers in the Briggs initiative, Harvey Milk along with tends of thousands of activists advanced both the fight for gay civil rights and for labor unity." Rob Epstein’s documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk goes into these areas more thoroughly which helps further illustrate all of this.

In the late sixties, when the gay rights movement began to really take off after the Stonewall riots and groups such as the Gay Liberation Front were formed, the radicalization of the movement was already clearly existent. The very name of the GLF was a tribute to the South Vietnamese Liberation Front, at the time fighting the United States military forces in Southeast Asia. Sherry Wolf observes that “[t]he influence of small radical groups in the GLF was evident in its statement to one underground newspaper the Rat: “We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature. We are stepping outside these roles and simplistic myths. We are going to be who we are. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations, that is, relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love, and uninhibited sexuality. Babylon has forced us to commit ourselves to one thing…revolution.”
The Chicago chapter of the GLF, writing in the Gay Flames pamphlet, as Wolf quotes, wrote that “because of the rampant oppression we see – of black, third world people, women, workers – in addition to our own; because of the corrupt values, because of the injustices, we no longer want to ‘make it’ in Amerika…Our particular struggle is for sexual self-determination, the abolition of sex-role stereotypes and the human right to the use of one’s body without interference from the legal and social institutions of the state. Many of us have understood that our struggle cannot succeed without a fundamental change in society which will put the source of power (means of production) in the hands of the people who at present have nothing…But as our struggle grows it will be made clear by the changing objective conditions that our liberation is inextricably bound to the liberation of all oppressed people.”
The last line about gay liberation being “inextricably bound to the liberation of all oppressed people” is a central tenet of socialist and anarchist thought – the great syndicalist unions dominant principle and slogan was and is that “an injustice one is an injustice to all” – and Martin Luther King Jr. – who associated with socialists and trade unionists, such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, who both helped organize the unions for the famous march on Washington – proclaimed that “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.”

The current and immediate struggle for gay marriage rights should be variegated and diverse, certainly not wholly tied to and dependent upon larger anti-capitalist struggle, lest it be burdened with reactionary red-baiting and general, infantile anti-left hysteria and slowed down or defeated by such rabid ideological reactions. However, the general LGBT movement as such must emphasize the fundamental struggles interwoven and shared in common with all oppressed people, the power of social movements lies in the organizing, consolidating and solidarity of these movements. There must be forged and strengthened lasting alliances among the LGBT movement, the labor movement, the feminist movement, the immigrant rights movement, student movements and so on.
Real and effective change must be demanded immediately, going through every route available (the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and the streets). Opportunism and compromise must be adamantly opposed, for there is no opportunity in compromising with bigots, the ultra-right and religious extremists and there is simply nothing about freedom and equality that can ever be conceded; one either supports and works towards the fuller realization of freedom and equality or one does not and the movement can no longer afford any of the latter.
Anyone who believes in freedom, equality and civil rights must now take a stand and hold firm: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” that all are created equal, regardless of sexual orientation. The people united will never be defeated.