Frustrated by the inaction of the Obama Administration and unwilling to continue to accept their oppression and second-class status, gay rights activists have called for a National March for Equality in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, October 11.
This demonstration will coincide with National Coming Out Day, and is 30 years after the first National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights in 1979.
The march has one simple demand: Full equality under the law for all lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LGBT) people in all 50 states.
Despite advances over the past 40 years, LGBT people continue to face tremendous oppression (see box). Yet recent months have witnessed an upsurge in confidence among LGBT rights activists, alongside a growing impatience with the political establishment’s refusal to grant equal rights.
Many were emboldened by the massive, spontaneous outpouring of support for gay rights on November 15, 2008, when 130,000 people in 200+ cities demonstrated against the passage of Prop 8 in California (banning same-sex marriage).
Since then, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Iowa have all legalized same-sex marriage. Along with Connecticut and Massachusetts, this brings the total number of states where gay marriage is legal to six.
Obama’s election also raised the hopes of the gay community. Many LGBT activists enthusiastically supported his campaign.
During the election season, while saying he opposed same-sex marriage, Obama still made a number of important promises to the LGBT community. This included repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and passing federal hate crimes legislation and the Employee Non-Discrimination Act.
Yet since taking office, his administration has done little to act on these issues. In June, Obama’s Justice Department even issued a brief supporting DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in other states and prohibits recognition by the federal government.
This brief infuriated the LGBT community by comparing same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia, and claiming DOMA does not discriminate against gays because they can still enter “traditional marriages” (but not marry the person they love).
Feeling pressure from below after a firestorm of outrage, Obama did act to extend some federal benefits to same-sex partners of LGBT federal employees, although these benefits did not include healthcare. Yet the response among many activists was that this was nowhere near good enough.
As Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar as the screenwriter for Milk, said, “There’s a perception in Washington that you can throw little bits of partial equality to gay people and that gay people will be satisfied with that.” But these crumbs are no substitute for “full and equal rights in all matters of civil law in all 50 states.” (NY Times, 6/28/09)
Joe Mirabella, a leader of Join the Impact in Washington State, expressed the growing outrage at Obama, writing, “I should not have been so enchanted by your beautiful speeches and colorful campaign posters. Mr. President, you are no different than the rest. You used our community to get to the White House and now you have pushed us aside. This time is different, though, because we won’t take it anymore!”
There is a growing acceptance of LGBT people in society, particularly among youth. As CNN reports, “Forty-nine percent of those questioned [in a recent poll] say they have a family member or close friend who is gay. That's up eight points from 1998 and up 17 points from 1992. Fifty-eight percent of those ages 18 to 34 say they have a family member or close friend who's gay.”
Further, 44% of Americans now say same-sex marriage should be legal (up from just 21% in November 2004). This includes 58% of those ages 18-34 (CNN, 5/4/09).
Mood to Struggle
Linked to these changes in attitude is the widespread willingness to struggle within the LGBT community and the refusal to continue to accept second-class status. This comes alongside a growing recognition that winning equal rights will require massive pressure on the political establishment.
As Robin Tyler, one of the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 suit, said, “No civil rights movement has ever lost. Never. We will win. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a when. Only we are going to have to fight like hell.”
This is the context for the call put out to march on Washington on October 11. Just like the massive demonstrations against Prop 8 last November, the march was initiated from the grassroots, completely bypassing the moderate establishment leaders of the mainstream gay rights organizations with their ties to the leadership of the Democratic Party.
As leading gay rights activist Cleve Jones (one of the main initiators of the march) put it, “We need a new strategy … We’re tired of this state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city struggle for fractions of equality. There is no fraction of equality. You are an equal people, or you are not.” (Democracy Now!, 6/19/09)
The march will attempt to link up all these local struggles, as well as demand federal recognition of equal rights, which should be guaranteed under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from “deny[ing] to any person within [their] jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Mobilize for Mass Action
There is the potential for October 11 to be one of the largest demonstrations for LGBT rights in U.S. history, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to D.C., if a bold lead is given.
Such a demonstration would strike a blow against homophobia and discrimination. By showing the collective support that exists for equal rights, it would raise the confidence of millions of LGBT people and allies across the country, forcing discussion and debate on the issues and bringing real pressure to bear on the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court.
To build the most effective movement, activists should not concern themselves with the supposed needs of “friendly” Democratic politicians, but rather start from the standpoint of the needs of LGBT people.
As Dustin Lance Black said, “There is never a convenient time to give full and equal civil rights in this country.” Leading Democratic politicians have shown again and again that rather than taking a principled stand, they are willing to sell out the interests of LGBT people for their narrow electoral gains – just as they have refused to take a principled stand on war, workers’ rights, etc.
Expressing the growing frustration and anger of some in the LGBT community at the timidity of Democratic politicians on this issue, activist Robin Tyler said, “If the National Democratic party does not, after 35 years of promises to our community, make sure we have full equal rights in this country, the gay divorce you are going to see is the gay community’s divorce from the Democratic party. We are a civil rights movement. It’s time we acted like one.”
Rather than waiting for politicians to act, the key to winning equal rights is to bring mass pressure to bear.
While winning equality under the law is a crucial step, the struggle must be taken further to transforming the social conditions faced by LGBT people. This includes fighting for more resources for LGBT youth, against homophobic bullying in schools, and for decent, guaranteed healthcare and jobs for all. All of this will require a determined mass struggle that links the struggle of LGBT people with the struggles of all workers and oppressed peoples.
As socialists, we wholeheartedly support the call for a national demonstration on October 11 and see it as part of the struggle to build a better world, free from oppression and exploitation.
We link the struggle for equal rights for LGBT people to the need to replace the capitalist system, which gives rise not only to economic crises and wars, but also feeds off sexism, racism, and homophobia. We stand for a new, socialist world in which people are able to define their own relationships and sexuality, free from economic constraints and discriminatory laws.
The Facts on LGBT Oppression
LGBT people continue to face tremendous oppression in daily life and remain second-class citizens under many aspects of the law.
On the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots marking the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, Fort Worth, Texas police celebrated by brutally raiding several gay bars, leaving one man severely hurt with a brain injury and leading to allegations of selective harassment of gay establishments.
Over 1 in 4 LGBT youth who come out to their parents are told they must leave home. This has led to a situation where between 20-40% of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBT. To make matters worse, they often suffer violence, discrimination, and psychological abuse at shelters (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2006).
In schools, bullying is still a horrific problem. According to a survey by the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network, “Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year, three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about a third skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe.”
Further, “44% reported being physically harassed and 22% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.” (National School Climate Survey 2007) These statistics are even worse for transgender youth.
Suicide rates for LGBT youth are estimated to be up to four times higher than their heterosexual peers.
Same-sex marriage is still prohibited in 44 states, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, gays are prevented from receiving the 1,138 benefits accorded by the federal government alone based on marital status.
And in 30 states, nearly a decade into the 21st century, it is still legal to fire someone on the basis of sexual orientation. It is legal to fire someone for being transgender in 38 states. It remains illegal to serve in the military and be openly gay.