Are gays selling out by seeking the right to marry?

A gay man and his terminally ill, bed-ridden partner fly to the state of Maryland from their home state of Ohio, which bans gay marriages.

They get married in the plane on the tarmac, by one of their aunts, who was specially ordained for this moment. (They raised money online to pay for the private jet necessary to transport the one husband, who is stuck in bed with ALS.)

The picture below is of them saying their vows.  The partner on the left was choking up.  The partner on the right, only barely able to move his hand, slowly forced out the words “I do.”

Are they civil rights sell-outs for wanting to get married before the one man dies?


Some would say yes.  And for a variety of reasons.  First, the two are gay, white and men.  Lately there’s been a growing chorus of scorn from some on the (far) left against the evil that is gay white men.  Gay white men run all the gay groups, we’re told. Gay white men run all the top blogs (as if someone hired us).  If only gay white men didn’t exist, the gay rights movement, and the world, would be a better place.

The demonization of gay white men goes hand in hand with the demonization of the modern gay rights agenda.  And I don’t mean demonization from the right, I mean demonization from the left. There are those who consider the two men in the photo above to be traitors because they’re embracing a heterosexual institution, marriage.  The naysayers are also not happy with gay rights groups that pursue marriage equality, or pursued the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Why?  Because they don’t like either institution, and they feel that these pursuits don’t benefit a large number of gay people.  Though it’s not clear what gay person doesn’t potentially benefit from marriage, and the same goes for access to the military, GI benefits, and more – it’s an equal opportunity opportunity.

What do they think would be more beneficial? Seeking passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would put into federal law a ban on workplace discrimination against gay and trans people (it’s currently legal under federal civil rights law to fire someone for being gay or trans).

And they’re not wrong for wanting ENDA.  It’s a great law, and I’ve been working on its passage since 1996.  But ENDA was going nowhere the past seven years, and we had to fight for something.  Marriage and DADT organically rose to the top of pile.  And I think you’re hard pressed to argue that ENDA is more beneficial than the right to marry, and the over 1,100 federal benefits that go with it.  Not to mention, the cultural sea-change that will come, and is already coming, with the advent of gay marriage.

As for DADT, the nation’s experience with racially integrating the military showed how important an influence it can be to force people of all walks of life to work together and realize that they’re all human beings, equally worthy of respect. I also think the symbolism of openly gay service members, risking their lives for their country, shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of its impact on the larger culture.

Of course, a good number of the folks upset that we pursued the repeal of DADT, and are pursuing marriage equality, would prefer that gay rights organizations abandon the gay rights legal and legislative agenda all together and focus instead on poverty, immigration, racism, and other liberal issues that all of us embrace, but most of us don’t define as “gay.”

I was reading a review of longtime lesbian activist and thinker Urvashi Vaid’s new book, “Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics.”  And I saw this quote, which got me thinking of the two men who got married on the tarmac in Maryland:

“The LGBT movement has been coopted by the very institutions it once sought to transform,” [Vaid] writes. “Heterosexuality, the nuclear family, the monogamous couple-form are our new normal. In place of activism and mobilization, with a handful of notable exceptions, LGBT organizations have become a passive society of spectators, following the lead of donors and pollsters rather than advocating on behalf of sectors of the community that are less economically powerful and less politically popular.”

I’ve written about this aspect of the topic before, specifically concerning immigration reform (but it’s happening with race and poverty issues too).  A number of people were trying to claim that immigration rights are gay rights and gay rights are immigration rights.  They’re not.  They’re all equally worthy struggles, but they’re not all the same struggle in practical terms.  What do I mean by that?  I mean, that if our national gay rights groups stop fighting for marriage equality and ENDA, and instead devote all of their resources to racism and poverty, then they will cease being gay civil rights organizations – they will not be fighting for gay rights.  Sure, they’ll be fighting for another worthy cause – in the same way that immigration groups could stop working on immigration reform and instead focus on defending a woman’s right to choose.  It too is a worthy cause, but I suspect a lot of immigration advocates would have a problem with the switch.

Some would argue, what’s so wrong with gay groups working on race issue – after all, we ask the NAACP to endorse marriage?  And that’s a fair point.  We make coalitions all the time, and it’s fair (and wise) to scratch your coalition partners’ backs on their issues, so that next time they’ll hopefully scratch yours.  And that’s why progressive groups in town routinely sign on to each other’s letters and protests and legislative battles.  We work as a coalition.  But that’s a different thing than criticizing gay groups for working on gay marriage instead of poverty.  Rather than enlarging the agenda for the sake of the coalition, some people want to change the agenda entirely by labeling non- gay rights issues “gay,” while abandoning gay issues entirely, in order to further a set of issues they prefer – issues which are simply not part of the “gay agenda.”

They don’t want us fighting for marriage at all, and even pushing for ENDA.  They want us doing the work of traditional race and poverty groups, full time, instead of gay rights.  And that simply doesn’t make sense if you’re going to claim that you’re a gay rights organization, or a gay rights activist.

To wit: this astonishing article from Rolling Stone on July 12 of this year.  And I quote:

For years, the larger LGBT movement has received criticism for focusing on marriage equality over issues seen as more relevant to working-class people and minorities. “If you’re a waitress in Jackson, Mississippi and you’re working at a job with no healthcare and your girlfriend is working at the local Target or Wal-Mart,” asks New Orleans writer and activist Kenyon Farrow, “how is marriage going to protect you from poverty?”

Excuse me just a moment.  But other minorities fought for their marriage equality 46 years ago, and got it.  But when we fight for ours, nearly half a century later, suddenly the battle is selfish and superfluous. Uh huh.

And we’re now to believe that gay rights groups should no longer fight for gay rights – and they should specifically give up on marriage equality, and probably ENDA too – because some gay people are poor.  The thing is, if you’re poor and your civil rights aren’t a priority for you, there already exist anti-poverty organizations that are fighting an anti-poverty agenda.  It’s unclear why gay rights groups need to disband in order to fight the agenda of organizations that already exist – how many poverty groups disbanded when Matthew Shepard was murdered?  He needed a hell of a lot more than a job.

No one is saying that we won’t help the larger progressive coalition, we will, and are.  But these folks quite literally want us to stop fighting for our civil rights, and more specifically, stop using our civil rights organizations to fight for our civil rights.  They think we should be ashamed that we’re fighting for our civil rights.

Okay, I’m game.  Then why not play the same game with environment issues.  Maybe environmental groups should stop fighting the Keystone Pipeline, and more generally stop fighting global warming, because neither of those causes will help poor environmentalists get a job today. It’s time the Sierra Club and WWF gave up on the environment and devoted all of their time to poverty.

And you know what else won’t help you get a job today?  Protecting a woman’s right to choose.  Opposing the death penalty.  Worrying about Edward Snowden and the NSA.  Fighting to strengthen the Voting Rights Act.  Getting guns off the street.  Immigration reform (how is that going to help some poor lesbian couple in Appalachia find a job?)  Or being outraged over the Zimmerman verdict, for that matter – a righteous cause, but it’s not going to help someone pay their rent.  According to these folks, we should all give up any battle we’re fighting, and dismantle any organization fighting that battle, and redirect all of our energies to fighting poverty.

Or to put it more succinctly: Please stop working on your pet issue, so you can work on their pet issue instead.

I chose to devote a good portion of my life to work on gay rights issues because I’m gay, and I’ve suffered a lot through my life because of it, including losing people I loved.  I work on other progressive causes too, but it’s clear that my #1 commitment is to gay rights.  And that’s fine.  Other people have made their #1 commitment immigration, or the environment, or women’s rights.  All of that is fine too.  And in fact, quite necessary.  If I spent as much time working on other issues as I did gay rights, I’d be an expert on none of them, and far less effective at advancing any of them.  Do I care about all those issues?  Absolutely?  Do I think they’re all equally meritorious in the grand pantheon of progressive causes?  Yes.  But I already work 14 hour days, so to work on the environment and race and poverty and women’s rights as many hours a day as I work on gay rights, would mean cutting back on my gay rights work.  And I’m not willing to do that, not until win a lot few more victories, and young gay, bi and trans kids stop killing themselves.

I count on the fact that others out there are working 14 hour days on their pet causes, just as I do the same on gay rights.  And our specialization, I’d argue, make each of us that much more effective than if we all worked on everything equally.  And that benefits all of our causes all the more.

The irony is, that for all the harping about how we’re working on the wrong agenda, and how it’s all the fault of the gay white men, the gay rights movement in America is considered one of the most successful, if not the most successful, movement in progressive politics today.

And it’s not just relative.  We’ve made some remarkable advances in the last decade, let alone the last year, and the last month.  For people who are so wrong all the time, we must be doing something right.

At San Diego Pride this past Saturday, there were reportedly more than 100 police officers in the Pride parade in uniform.  The contingent included this squad car containing two married gay cops – check out the front windshield:


“Just married” cop car in the San Diego Pride parade, July 13, 2013. Photo by Fergal O’Doherty.

A friend emailed me last night, after seeing the photo of the cop car.  He said that it ends not with revolution, but with assimilation.  And you know what?  I’m totally okay with that.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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