Jim Rinnert’s failure to grasp the significance of the struggle for same-sex marriage equality is troubling. Why is it that a gay man fails to see the issue as clearly as the presumably straight Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? Her ringing declaration of the equality imperative for same sex-couples before civil law ought to inform or reinforce our struggle.
While some gays may seek assimilation to a mainstream that Rinnert and I may agree is badly polluted, this ought not blind us to the very real life and death benefits that accrue to the civil contract of marriage. Particularly for working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people, equal marriage rights means getting substantial benefits, such as spousal Social Security and private pension payments, making medical decisions, inheritance rights and hundreds of other tangible, material benefits.
For the minority of LGBT people who are wealthy, many of these issues can be resolved by paying attorneys to set up elaborate legal agreements. It is no accident that years before the issue was so heavily in the news, polls of LGBT people consistently showed that equal marriage rights was our #1 issue of concern. A few years ago the most thorough poll of African American LGBT people, presumably mostly working class, found that it was a close #3 amidst a multitude of issues polled on (incidentally, that same poll found that an overwhelming majority of African American LGBT people loath the word “queer,” so beloved by Rinnert and LGBT academics).
So what is his alternative? Rinnert prefers to set up a parallel, separate institution to marriage just for same-sex couples — astounding that someone now writing for a progressive magazine could advocate a “separate but equal” institution! In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas taught us that no parallel set of rights and benefits can ever overcome the inherent inequality of a second set for second-class citizens. Let’s quickly reaffirm this truism from 50 years ago, and move forward.
As to the matter of timing, if oppressed peoples ever looked first to the forces arrayed against them, or us, there is never a “right time” to struggle for equality. Beginning in the 1950s with Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and continuing with the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, the self-mobilization of the LGBT community has brought us to equal marriage rights in Belgium and the Netherlands, and to court decisions for equality in Canada and Massachusetts.
Rinnert complains: “The backlash has already begun.” Duh, of course it has! As the Civil Rights Movement of the early ’60s began to make headway against Jim Crow, many more conservative African Americans complained that the civil rights workers were just stirring up a hornet’s nest. After a year’s worth of tremendous court victories for LGBT people, Rinnert’s complaint sounds eerily familiar and just as backward. Any oppressed people making strides will prompt an opposition that organizes for the status quo ante.”
Like it or not, the battle has been joined.
But we are not just fighting for ourselves. The enemies of equal marriage rights have an agenda that goes far beyond their attack on LGBT people. These are the same people who rail against a woman’s right to choose abortion, who support state murder in capital punishment, who demand religious intrusion into public education, and faith-based delivery of vital social services. They rant about AIDS as a divine punishment and endorse a murderous U.S. foreign policy as a way to deliver “Christian values” to the heathen.
We cannot allow them to roll over us as some of us abstain from the struggle while saying, “Let them have it.” They will take our equality and a lot more.