(Note: This article was published in March 2012.)

The legalization of same-sex marriage is shaping up to be a major battleground in the 2012 elections.

Due to the activism and greater visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, support for LGBTQ rights has been surging. As of a year ago according to a May 2011 Gallup poll, 53% of Americans now believe “same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage.”

In 2004 when President Bush was running for re-election, Republican strategists increased the turnout of conservative voters by placing initiatives to ban same-sex marriage on the ballot in 11 mostly rural states, where the initiatives passed by 60-70%. But now that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage rights, not only the Republican Party but also the Democratic Party is exploiting this wedge issue in states where they think it will benefit them.

In Washington State the Democratic Party has held the governor’s seat and a majority of both chambers of the state legislature for years. In order to divert attention away from their unpopular budget cuts to social services, on February 13, 2012 they finally legalized granting same-sex marriage licenses starting in June. Right-wing groups have vowed to try to reinstate the marriage ban through a ballot initiative in November.

Democratic Party leaders haven’t supported same-sex marriage rights until now that a majority of Americans support it. Even now the Democratic Party is only supporting equal marriage rights in certain states where they calculate it will work to their political advantage. President Obama and many Democratic politicians still advocate “back-of-the-bus” civil unions instead of full marriage equality.

The Democratic Party has never used their authority and access to the media to play a leadership role in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. The LGBTQ rights movement has always led, and the Democratic Party has always followed, often apologetically. Democratic politicians have even attacked LGBTQ rights at times. It was President Clinton, for instance, who implemented “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and eagerly supported the Defense of Marriage Act.

But this year both corporate parties are exploiting this wedge issue from different angles for their own electoral gain and to divert working-class anger away from unpopular economic policies, such as layoffs, home foreclosures, tax breaks for millionaires, and budget cuts in social programs.

On March 1 the Democratic-majority Maryland legislature and the Democratic governor legalized same-sex marriage. On February 16, the Democratic-majority New Jersey legislature also approved same-sex marriage, but the Republican Governor Christie vetoed it.

Right-wing groups have placed a measure on the ballot in Minnesota this November to enshrine the ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution. The Republican-majority New Hampshire legislature is considering repealing its 2009 same-sex marriage law. In May 2012, citizens in North Carolina will vote on a ballot measure referred to them by the Republican-majority legislature to ban same-sex marriage AND civil unions.

On February 7, a Federal appeals court in California ruled Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. Proposition 8 amended California’s constitution in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage after it had been legal for six months. This new ruling could open the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California, though the ruling could also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, and ten states have legalized civil unions. This year may be the first year when voters approve same-sex marriage by a state popular referendum. However, given the large war chests that right-wing religious groups have and the fickle support of the Democratic Party, there is absolutely no guarantee of victory.

In order to win these battles, we need to demand nothing less than full marriage equality from all politicians – Republicans and Democrats. In October 2009 there was a march on Washington, DC demanding full equality which drew at least 150,000 people. Now younger, uncompromising activists are arguing for another mass march on Washington in May or October. However, more traditional established groups favor focusing resources on lobbying corporate-controlled politicians instead.

LGBTQ activist Robin Tyler defended the march idea, saying, “massive street actions historically have made a difference in the U.S. and elsewhere in prodding political leaders and governments to take action they would otherwise be unwilling to take. If you think mass actions do not work, look at what is happening in Egypt.” (Washington Blade, 2/18/11)

To win our rights, we clearly need to build a determined grassroots movement through marches on Washington, massive educational outreach campaigns, and student walk-outs. We can multiply our power by building coalitions with unions, Occupy, and civil rights groups to demand passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act and living-wage jobs and healthcare for all.

We will get the results faster, though, when we break with the Democratic Party and join with our allies to run independent, anti-corporate candidates and build a new working-class party that fights unequivocally for the interests of LGBTQ people, workers, and all oppressed groups.

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Correction: A sentence about North Carolina above was corrected so it now reads: “In May 2012, citizens in North Carolina will vote on a ballot measure referred to them by the Republican-majority legislature to ban same-sex marriage AND civil unions.” The print edition mistakenly says “In November the Republican-majority North Carolina legislature will vote on referring a measure to ban civil unions to the voters as a ballot initiative.”

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