This week, the South African parliament legalized same-sex marriage. The same country that up until only twelve years ago brutally enforced apartheid segregation against the majority Black and Brown population threw off generations of reactionary attitudes toward homosexuality and joined the Netherlands, Spain, Canada and Belgium in granting equal marriage rights to gays.
Think about that. Here in the U.S. on election day voters in seven states approved of gay marriage bans; while in a part of the world that most Americans are taught to think of as “backward,” gays and lesbians share the same legal rights as straight people.
Some may argue that most Americans are just too conservative. I think that’s nonsense. Rather, most Americans have never heard a straight-forward, unequivocal, civil rights defense of same-sex marriage. Compare the words of a leading figure of the African National Congress (ANC) to those of Democratic Party members.
The ANC Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula demanded that all ANC members of parliament vote to legalize same-sex marriage arguing, “In breaking with our past…we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia.” Not bad.
Here’s liberal darling Barack Obama on the same issue from his official Web site: “I do believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I agreewith Vice President Cheney that decisions about marriage, as they always have, should be left to the states.” So while Obama opposes a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the best he can bleat out is leave it to the states to decide. One must wonder if Obama also believes that Blacks’ civil rights ought to have been left in the hands of state legislatures in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Hillary Clinton’s no better. At a meeting with gay Democrats in late October, she defended both her husband’s Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits gay marriage and her own silence on the Senate floor this summer during the “debate” on an amendment to ban it in the Constitution. It was strategic, she explained, “We thought as-force the Republicans out there, make them look like they’re trying to enshrine discrimination in the Constitution. We don’t even want to dignify it.” With that logic, why dignify the Republicans’ argument for war on the entire Middle East with any response? Just sit back and watch them collapse. Oops, that was the Dems’ antiwar strategy in November. On the war, the Democrats won despite themselves-evidently the weight of thousands of dead Americans and Iraqis and hundreds of billions of dollars hemorrhaging out of state coffers was enough to convince the electorate to dump the status quo.
As my colleague Joel Geier likes to put it, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In other words, if you don’t make an argument, you can’t win it. With the Democrats at best silent and at worst in opposition to gay marriage, the only prominent voices on same-sex marriage were those of right-wingers. In the absence of any high-profile attempt to defend the rights of gays to have access to the more than 1,000 rights and benefits that come with marriage, those same-sex marriage bans passed.
It’s important to note that Bush and the Republicans failed to make much headway this fall over this issue when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to the same state benefits, protections and obligations as all married couples. A February Zogby poll showed that a majority in New Jersey favored marriage for gay couples-by a margin of 56 percent to 39 percent. And while seven states voted to ban same-sex marriage, Arizona voters bucked that trend and defeated a proposed ban. As for the holy rollers who haven’t yet been caught buying crystal meth and sex from gay prostitutes, I’m happy to report that James Dobson’s evangelical Focus on the Family was stuck with plenty of leftover cookies and apple juice in September when only 3,000 turned out to a 17,000-person venue in Pittsburgh.
As any casual perusal of popular culture or even Gallup polls will show, a majority of Americans have a live and let live attitude toward gays. While a narrow majority (52%) continues to oppose extending marriage rights to gays, it seems a legacy of miserable centrist Democratic Party politics-unfortunately too often accepted by gay advocacy groups like Human Rights Campaign who raise the most tepid of slogans and abhor “embarrassing” the Democrats.
As the elections showed so eloquently, we don’t live in a country filled with warmongering bigots. Instead, we live in a country where most working-class people are appalled at the policies and priorities of those in positions of power. Over the coming months and years, we need to find ways to assert our own priorities because if left to the Democrats, I shudder to think how they’ll fill the vacuum.
SHERRY WOLF is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.