In the name of “democracy,” the California Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 8, the anti-democratic attack on the rights of gays and lesbians that was passed in California in last November’s election. The anti-gay mobilization in California last year was a response to the significant advances made by the gay movement in the U.S. Right-wing forces mobilized in response to the legalizing of same-sex marriage that had already occurred in America’s most populous state, the home of much of the American media machine as well as the location of the country’s unofficial gay capital, San Francisco. Various institutions committed to guarding traditional social mores are determined not to lose the “culture war” over gay issues.
The League for the Revolutionary Party firmly supports the demand for the right of gays and lesbians to marry. We call for the legalization of same-sex marriage in every state and the recognition of same-sex marriage by the federal government. We also point to the need for a complete overturn of the capitalist system as the only way to guarantee genuine freedom and equality for gays and lesbians.
Marriage is by no means needed or desired by every couple with an enduring relationship, and there is no guarantee that marriage will bring happiness. Nevertheless, the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage is terribly oppressive and unjust. Anti-gay ideologues claim that marriage is only for heterosexuals, on the specious grounds that only heterosexuals can reproduce (as though every married heterosexual couple intends to have children, or is even capable of doing so!). That marriage is not solely about reproduction but is also about the pursuit of happiness has long been established in American law.
The benefits of civil marriage involve taxes, property and other rights, without which partners are unprotected in very important ways. But more profoundly, marriage means a public declaration of the intention to establish a permanent relationship. To deny marriage to same-sex couples is to deny them society’s validation of their bonds. Without the right to marry, gays are denied rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the democratic claims of American society.
While on the one hand, marriage inequality stands as a barrier to progress for gay rights, at the same time marriage itself as an institution is fundamentally a mask for the oppressiveness that pervades personal relationships under capitalism. It is absurd that any loving and committed couple, whether hetero- or homosexual, must have a marriage document to enjoy a host of civil benefits. Were it not for the sanctification of the family and the glorification of marriage vows, simple civil unions or registration of domestic partnerships would suffice for everyone. In a socialist society following the abolition of capitalism (as we in the LRP envision it), there will be no economic pressures for marriage such as exist under capitalism, and there will be no requirement for state or church recognition. Children will be provided for no matter the state of their parents’ relationship. People will have the right to enter or exit domestic partnerships as they wish.
From a purely rational standpoint, it seems a simple matter to break society from its traditional hostility to homosexuality. But rationality is not the social reality. Anti-homosexual ideology and the oppression of homosexuals originates in deep structural needs of the present economic system, capitalism. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers through the wage labor system. Human labor power under capitalism is a commodity, to be bought and sold. It is the source of value that capitalists extract in the form of profits. The continuation of the system requires the institution of the family, the means by which labor power is generated and reproduced.
A sexual division of labor is imposed within the family. To ensure a steady supply of labor power, women are forced to fulfill the wife/mother role. Gender roles and the ideology around them are maintained through the family. As we pointed out in our essay, Women and the Capitalist Family: The Ties That Bind (Proletarian Revolution No. 34, Summer 1989), “The male worker is taught to identify with ... sexism. He doesn’t own productive property, but he can imagine that he controls the family funds and is master of the house, even though in reality he is still only a wage slave.” Open expressions of homosexuality threaten the sexist ideology that helps to blind workers to their own exploitation by the capitalists.
Thus the institution of marriage under capitalism is intrinsically connected to the nuclear family, the fundamental social unit in capitalist society. Anti-gay ideology, maintained and promoted by religious organizations, educational institutions and the state, is rooted in the ruling class’s need for the socializing and regimenting role of the family to facilitate its class rule.
Gay oppression affects every class and layer of society, rich and poor, Black and white, capitalist and worker because homosexuality occurs throughout all sectors of society. The fact that members of the ruling class are homosexual has helped to win some of the gains that have been won by gays, although these gains could never have been won without the mass gay struggle. But the presence of homosexuals in all classes also means that the most vulnerable victims of gay oppression can be made invisible as the limelight is occupied by the more privileged. Gay oppression and other forms of special oppression affect the most oppressed sectors of society – many are doubly, triply, multiply oppressed by racism and sexism as well. And often the existing institutions that claim to represent the interests of oppressed minorities are among the most stridently anti-gay. Likewise working-class gays are under fiercer pressures to remain in the closet, and they benefit less from the right to marriage or civil unions than middle-class couples. All the more reason that a mass revolutionary working-class party be built, a party that will fight for the interests of all the oppressed.
The passage of Prop 8 created a roadblock for gay rights that the California Supreme Court is unwilling to demolish. The defeat suffered last November was a wakeup call that resulted in large demonstrations pointing to a new activist phase in the gay rights movement. Now with the court ratifying Prop 8, demonstrations are again protesting this setback. We have to examine the recent defeat as well as victories elsewhere and look to the road ahead for a strategy that can lead to full equality for gays and lesbians.
In the decades since the Stonewall protest of 1969, there have been important gains for gay people in some countries of the world, including parts of the United States – while at the same time in many regions and countries homosexuality is still vilified and murderous attacks are made on gays. Despite the progress, real gains in the gay struggle have been experienced primarily where the social weight of gays and lesbians is strong enough to withstand the hatred of the bigots. Prejudice against gays tends to drive gay people towards those centers where they have won the most tolerance. Although this “ghettoization” is not as obvious as it once was, due to acceptance within broad sectors of society in these somewhat less bigoted regions, it is still a very significant aspect of the state of the gay struggle. With very powerful social forces still determined to prevent full equality for gays, there is every reason to believe that permanent equality for gays and lesbians cannot be achieved so long as the capitalist order itself survives.
The ruling class in this country is deeply divided on gay equality issues. Influential sectors are now opposed to the most flagrant abuses of the past, yet there is an entrenched right wing determined to block gay rights and to turn back the clock when opportunity arises. The Supreme Court decision that made it unconstitutional to treat “sodomy” as a felony marked a shift away from the extremely repressive practices that once were the norm. There has been spreading awareness that homosexuality is not a disease or a perversion, and that for a minority spread throughout all social classes, having a same-sex orientation is not a matter of choice but simply a fundamental characteristic of one’s personality. There would not have been this spreading awareness without the modern Gay Pride movement that has grown enormously since its birth in the late 1960’s.
But for the capitalist rulers, certain very minimal rights (for example, the rights not to be fired, thrown in jail or run out of town just for being gay) are one thing. Granting full equality and recognizing the validity of gay relationships by legalizing gay marriage is quite another. By the year 2000, a consensus was reached by liberal and moderate capitalist politicians in both the major bourgeois parties that civil unions for gays and lesbians at the state level ought to be sufficient. Legalizing gay marriage was seen as unrealistic and dangerous to overall social stability. Thus both parties passed by large margins the outrageously named “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, and it was signed into law by Bill Clinton. DOMA declares that the federal government cannot recognize same-sex marriage even when legalized on the state level, and it allows individual states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.
Because of the ruling class divisions, there are openings for progress on gay issues. But for the same reason, the faith that activists put in the Democratic Party is profoundly misplaced. Regardless of what victories may be won on specific gay issues, the Democratic Party is committed to the preservation of capitalist rule and is thus inherently incapable of a full commitment to gay equality.
The passage of Prop 8 demonstrated the strategic flaw of relying on the Democratic Party. Insofar as Barack Obama favors pro-gay reforms, such as the repeal of DOMA and ending discrimination in the military, he is one of the least anti-gay capitalist politicians around. Yet as a presidential candidate Obama objectively helped Prop 8 to win by proclaiming his personal opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds, even though he said he opposed Prop 8 itself: his views on gay marriage were broadcast by the anti-gay campaign in telephone blasts. Thus he speaks out of both sides of his mouth and personifies the straitjacket on the gay struggle that the Democratic Party represents.
Obama and the Democrats are already dashing the hopes that many people held as a result of his election. Obama spoke against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, yet he is escalating the murderous imperialist war in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. He raised expectations that he would preserve peoples’ livelihoods in the face of the looming economic depression, yet he has acted as an agent of Wall Street, shoveling trillions to the big banks that triggered the financial collapse while dribbling out inadequate funds to save working-class jobs and homes. He has reversed his stated opposition to blatantly illegal and repressive policies like “extraordinary rendition,” the denial of habeas corpus and warrantless surveillance that had intensified under Clinton and Bush. As Marxists foresaw from the start, the new administration has proved itself a champion of capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination. Its forked tongue on the issue of gay marriage is Democratic business as usual.
Gay liberation, like every struggle for justice, equality and human survival, requires a revolutionary transformation of society. This is possible only through the mobilization of the working class and its allies to take state power internationally and commence to building a communist classless society worldwide. The League for the Revolutionary Party is dedicated to building the party that can lead this struggle, so that the oppression, victimization and exploitation by the capitalist system can be ended forever.