30 August 2009
Fighting for LGBT rights in the USA
This article is from the August 2009 issue of Socialism Today, the Socialist Party magazine.
FRUSTRATED BY the inaction of the Obama administration and unwilling to continue to accept their second-class status, gay rights activists have called a national march for equality in Washington, DC, on 11 October. This coincides with National Coming Out Day, and is 30 years after the first national march on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. The march has one simple demand: full equality under the law for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in all 50 states.
Despite advances over the past 40 years, LGBT people continue to face tremendous oppression. Yet recent months have witnessed an upsurge in confidence among LGBT rights activists, alongside 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 15 November 2008, when 130,000 people in 200 plus cities demonstrated against the passage of Proposition 8 in California banning same-sex marriage. Since then, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Iowa have legalised same-sex marriage, making it legal in six states - Connecticut and Massachusetts are the others.
Obama's election raised hopes. Many LGBT activists enthusiastically supported his campaign. While saying he opposed same-sex marriage, Obama made a number of important promises: to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in the armed forces, passing federal hate crimes legislation and the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. Yet, since taking office, his administration has taken little action.
In June, Obama's Justice Department even issued a brief supporting DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognise gay marriages from other states and prohibits recognition by the federal government. This brief compared same-sex marriage to incest and paedophilia. It claimed that DOMA does not discriminate against gays because they can still enter 'traditional marriages' (but not marry the person they love). Feeling pressure from the firestorm of outrage, Obama extended some federal benefits to same-sex partners of LGBT federal employees, but excluded healthcare. The response among many activists was that this was nowhere near enough.
There is a growing acceptance of LGBT people in society, particularly among youth. As CNN reported of a recent poll, "49% of those questioned 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 aged 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 21% in November 2004). This includes 58% of those aged 18-34. (4 May)
There is a widespread willingness to struggle within the LGBT community and the refusal to continue to accept second-class status. There is a growing recognition that winning equal rights will require massive pressure on the political establishment.
This is the context for the call to march on Washington. Just like the massive demonstrations against Proposition 8 last November, the march was initiated from the grassroots, bypassing the moderate establishment leaders of the mainstream gay rights organisations with their ties to the Democratic Party leadership. As leading gay rights activist Cleve Jones (one of the 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! 19 June)
The march will attempt to link up the local struggles, and demand federal recognition of equal rights, which should be guaranteed under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying "the equal protection of the laws" to anyone. There is the potential for 11 October to be one of the largest demonstrations for LGBT rights in US history 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 on the issues and bringing real pressure to bear.
To build the most effective movement, activists should not concern themselves with the supposed needs of 'friendly' Democratic politicians, but start from the standpoint of the needs of LGBT people. Leading Democratic politicians have shown again and again that, rather than take a principled stand, they are willing to sell out the interests of LGBT people for narrow electoral gains - just as they have refused to take a principled stand on war, workers' rights, etc.
While winning legal equality 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. This will require linking the struggle of LGBT people with the struggles of all workers and oppressed peoples.
Socialists wholeheartedly support the national demonstration 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.
Dan DiMaggio, Socialist Alternative - CWI USA
Some facts on LGBT oppression
ON THE 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots marking the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, police brutally raided several gay bars in Fort Worth, Texas, leaving one man severely hurt with a brain injury.
Over one in four LGBT youth who come out to their parents are told they must leave home. Between 20-40% of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth in the US identify as LGBT. 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 nine out of ten 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 off 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.
It is legal to fire someone on the basis of sexual orientation in 30 states.
It is legal to fire someone for being transgender in 38 states.