A crowd of hundreds of supporters of same-sex marriage packed the Minnesota state capitol Thursday May 9th. The crowd held signs, chanted, and sang “We Shall Overcome” before finally rejoicing in celebration as the state house passed the bill, which the governor signed on May 14th, making Minnesota the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriages.
The bills sponsor, Rep. Karen Clark (Dem), received a rock star’s reception with the crowd chanting “thank you” as she addressed them after the bills passage May 9th. While the legalization of same-sex marriage is certainly a small, but significant step forward on the path towards a more just society, the grotesque adoration showered on the democrats after the passing of these bills is a clear sign that the mainstream LGBT movement’s power as a progressive social force has been completely lost. Allow me to explain.
Despite the fact that democrats are more than willing to play the role as heroes when bills like these are passed, an honest look back at the history of the LGBT (lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement demonstrates who truly deserves to be labeled as heroes.
It’s widely agreed that the spark that lit the modern LGBT movement was the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village New York City in 1969. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar run by the mob, which attracted some of the most poor and marginalized members of the LGBT community in New York.
At that time, society and the U.S. legal system were almost completely hostile to LGBT individuals. There were only a few gay bars in the city and the patrons constantly had to worry about being harassed, arrested, and brutalized by the police for violating “public morals”. In the early morning of June 28 the police raided the Stonewall Inn and began arresting the patrons, but for the first time the LGBT community fought back, defending themselves against the police. The patrons shouted, “Gay Power!” and threw coins, bottles, and rocks at the officers and liberated fellow patrons held in police vehicles. The incident sparked continued riots for the next few nights in Greenwich Village making national news. This was the first time the LGBT community forcefully asserted their rights to be treaded with a basic level of decency.
The results of the Stonewall riots are remarkable. At the time of the riots there were very few LGBT rights groups, but a year afterward there was an estimated 1500 groups. One of the most important early LGBT groups, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), was formed a month after the Stonewall riots.
The GLF advocated direct action against the system to tear down restrictive sex roles and liberate all oppressed people. The GLF understood that LGBT liberation was tied to the liberation of all peoples and as a result, participated in actions against the Vietnam War, actions with the Black Panthers, and actions in the women’s liberation movement. The GLF fell apart after 2 years, but its legacy remains. It was GLF leader, Brenda Howard, who began commemorating the Stonewall riots with annual marches that became known as gay pride parades.
The GLF was replaced by the more reform oriented, but still radical by today’s standards, Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), which also formed in 1969. Unlike the GLF, the GAA was a single-issue organization committed to confronting the system with militant non-violence to make notable changes in the lives of gays. This took the form of confrontational politics where persons of authority were confronted through mass demonstrations, the disruption of meetings, and sit-ins. GAA was already successful by 1970 with many of the candidates it campaigned for, on account of their support for LGBT issues, winning their elections. The group also forced the New York city council to hold a hearing on including sexual orientation into New York’s human rights law, though this was only accomplished after New York police savagely beat GAA demonstrators outside the chairman of the general welfare committee’s home.
From the 1970s until today the level of success that LGBT issues has achieved has been the result of the bravery of individuals coming out in a hostile society and from LGBT activists doing the difficult and at times dangerous work, which has made the U.S. a more civilized country. The political victories of today, like those in Minnesota, are only possible because of actions that seemingly powerless LGBT individuals undertook over the last 40 years.
Today’s democrats who pass laws for marriage equality are only taking minimal steps to ensure equality for LGBT individuals in the single realm of marriage. However, many other forms of discrimination against LGBT individuals also exist. For example, under federal law it is still legal to fire someone for being LGBT. Yet the democrats don’t appear to be fearlessly charging into battle to campaign for LGBT equality on this issue.
The truth is that democrats are only as progressive as the population pushes them and marriage equality doesn’t challenge the established power structures in the country, so the powerful have allowed it to move forward. It’s clear that the single-issue approach to LGBT rights has been pushed as far as it can go and a rediscovery of the Gay Liberation Front’s understanding that the LGBT movement is part of the “broader left movement” is needed. This will both strengthen the LGBT movement, as well as the U.S. left in general.
This is because the issues affecting the LGBT community today: youth homelessness [40% of all homeless youth are LGBT], work place discrimination and poverty [higher poverty rate of LGBT individuals], and violent hate crimes [In 2011 there were 30 fatally violent LGBT hate crimes, 20% of all hate crimes are against LGBT] can’t really be solved through the passing of laws and winning elections.
These issues get to the heart of the problems innate in the economic system and society of the country. The social issues affecting the LGBT community, such as violence and youth homelessness, can really only be combated by activists continuing to change people’s attitudes and transform the brutal culture of the country to one which respects basic human rights. The economic issues, like work place discrimination and poverty, are traditional issues of the left and can only be addressed through social pressures, which require the integration of the LGBT movement with the traditional left forces, like the economic justice movement and the labor movement.
Both the accomplishments of the LGBT movement’s past have been, and the accomplishments of the LGBT movement’s future will be determined by the thankless hard work of everyday people and anonymous activists working together to change society. That’s the only way society has ever changed.
If the mainstream LGBT movement is ever to become a serious force to change society for the benefit of the their community, they will have to give up their completely disempowering strategy of working to get democrats elected and then waiting for them to “make history”. They will also have to resist the idea that marriage is the only major form of discrimination against them. A reasonable alternative is to instead, engage in the organizing, direct action, and traditional activism, which has been the heart of the LGBT movement since its inception. It’s the responsibility of the broader left in the U.S. to reach out to the mainstream LGBT movement and radicalize them. Until this happens there will only be miniature victories disguised as major ones and celebrations for false heroes.