Forty years ago, the now-famous Stonewall riots took place. These riots marked a turning point in the battle for rights for LGBT people.
In this era, police regularly raided gay bars, clearing them out and arresting patrons. Yet on June 27, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, anger finally boiled over during a raid as people started throwing coins and then bottles at the police.
This led to five days of street battles with the cops, tossing bottles and bricks, and setting fires in trash cans. This event marked the start of a broader movement for gay rights including the radical, socialist-minded Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
The Struggle for LGBT Rights Today
The movement for LGBT rights is again in the spotlight. The 2008 elections saw a number of attacks on same-sex marriage rights, most notably the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that overturned the California Supreme Court decision that had legalized same-sex marriage.
Ironically, these defeats marked the turning of the tide away from the right-wing homophobic agenda. Over the last couple of years, recent court victories and growing public opposition to the right-wing agenda (and acceptance of LGBT rights) have breathed new confidence into the movement.
The California ballot defeat served as a rallying cry for LGBT rights, producing a semi-spontaneous wave of demos by hundreds of thousands across the country on November 15.
April and early May saw a number of successes for the LGBT movement. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa, Vermont, and Maine, and the New Hampshire legislature also passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage that now rests in the governor’s hands.
Washington, D.C.'s Council also voted in favor of a bill mandating that same-sex marriages performed elsewhere would be recognized there, and the governor of New York reintroduced a bill allowing for same-sex marriages.
Also symbolic of the change in public mood is the fact that more decisions legalizing same-sex marriage are coming from legislatures rather than courts. This undermines the right-wing argument of “activist judges.”
Defeat of Republicans
The passage of these same-sex marriage bills and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in society comes at a time of defeat for Republicans and the Religious Right. We are in the midst of a major, historic turning point in the movement, with the tide of public opinion shifting clearly toward acceptance and equality before the law for LGBT people.
Forty-Four percent of Americans now say same-sex marriage should be legal (up from 21 percent in November 2004), including 58 percent of those ages 18-34 (CNN, 5/4/09).
However, it would be a major mistake to adopt an attitude of complacency or trust in courts and legislatures. In this period of economic crisis, right-wing populism, while today still marginalized, is nonetheless growing and could become a major threat.
In the struggle for LGBT rights and against right-wing bigots, the Democratic Party is a fickle ally. They will throw our movement to the wolves if they believe it electorally convenient.
For example, many LGBT activists were outraged when Obama invited the homophobic preacher of Saddleback Church, Rick Warren, to offer the inaugural invocation. Also, the Defense of Marriage Act (which bans same-sex marriage at the federal level and was passed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996) is still on the books.
During his election campaign, Obama said he would repeal it, yet he also says he is against same-sex marriage and supports only civil unions for same-sex couples.
This may be put to the test very quickly, since Washington, D.C. passed the bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere on May 5. This bill is now subject to a 30-day congressional review. This could be the new Congress' first opportunity to re-examine the Defense of Marriage Act.
However, despite steps taken forward it is important to recognize that even the complete legalization of same-sex marriage would not solve the everyday problems faced by LGBT people, such as bullying in schools and workplaces, discrimination in housing and workplaces, and the much higher suicide and homelessness rate amongst LGBT youth compared to their heterosexual counterparts, to name a few.
Build the Movement!
We must use the current momentum to build a mass movement in the streets and a mass education campaign. We cannot rest until any discrimination anywhere in the country is wiped off the books. No more calls for "patience," as lives continue to be ruined by discrimination, to satisfy political compromises with bigoted politicians.
As the events at Stonewall and the Civil Rights Movement showed, we need to build pressure from below and a movement in the streets to force politicians to grant equal rights for LGBT couples.
Now is the time to reclaim the socialist legacy of the gay liberation movement, to take the offensive, and to build around solidarity among everyone suffering oppression under capitalism. Only by opposing the system as a whole can we secure full rights and genuine equality.