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How Was Marriage Equality Really Won? Lessons For The Movement Today

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Marriage equality has been the crowning achievement of the queer rights movement since the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges established legal recognition of same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. 

Today, while the Democrats weakly present themselves as the party in favor of LGBTQ rights, the truth is that the party overwhelmingly opposed legalizing gay marriage for the majority of the existence of the movement that truly won it. Many prominent Democrats, including Joe Biden, had previously given full-throated support to homophobic legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Both parties of big business, the Democrats and the Republicans, have historically opposed marriage equality. Barack Obama himself, when running for President in 2008, said: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” 

The situation changed in 2012 when polls showed that a majority of Americans supported gay marriage, and the Democratic Party cynically shifted its stance. Years later, when Obama flip-flopped on the issue, he claimed that he always had been in support of gay marriage, but was acting on the advice of political advisor David Axelrod to lie about his views. 

How Did We Do It?

Gay marriage was won by a determined movement that, by the time Obergefell was decided, had been winning legalization victories state-by-state for over a decade. In the leadup to the Supreme Court decision, there were massive protests, including a march on the White House by 250,000 people in 2009 demanding marriage equality. The movement organized itself politically, building rallies, boycotts, and protests to demand full equality immediately, for years. 

The first victory came in Massachusetts where the courts legalized same-sex marriages in 2004. This spread slowly until the battle around Prop 8 in California in 2008 which brought the movement into the streets as demonstrations of thousands around the country fought for nationwide equality (overturning Prop 8 in 2013). This fight was not for an abstract question of “marriage vs civil unions” but for the full rights that came with marriage under the law including shared healthcare, family and medical leave, and hospital visitation rights. 

In Minnesota, what had started as a grassroots campaign to oppose an anti-gay state constitutional amendment quickly transformed into an offensive fight for marriage equality. Through call-in campaigns, education and mobilization through social media, and public demonstrations, Minnesota passed a bill recognizing gay marriage in 2013. It was actions like these, and the shift in public opinion caused by them, that forced the hands of the Democratic Party and the Supreme Court into giving a concession to the movement.

If We Fight, We Can Win

Queer rights today stand in a precarious position. While the right wing as a whole is unleashing attack after attack on trans people, some have even indicated a desire to overturn marriage equality. This is a real possibility. Just like Roe v. Wade, which the Democrats failed to codify into law, today gay marriage rights are not enshrined in law. The recently-passed Respect for Marriage Act does not actually enshrine gay marriage in law; if the Supreme Court overturned Obergefell, states would be free to deny marriage licenses to gay or interracial couples once again. All the Respect for Marriage Act does is ensure the federal government will continue to honor existing marriages legally performed and recognized by states. Additionally, the bill contains language that exempts churches from having to perform or recognize any marriages for any reason, along with reaffirming the tax-exempt status of churches. 

For years, the majority of Democratic Party politicians have been distancing themselves from the fight for trans rights. For example, former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill argued in 2020 that the Democratic Party was losing votes for trying to “look after” queer and trans people. She followed that up with, “We’ve got to get back to the meat and potatoes issues, we got to get back to… taking care of their families.” 

Working people, LGBTQ people, and youth need a party that fights for and with us 100% of the time, not just when it’s politically convenient. History shows that the Democratic Party only fights for working-class families when they are forced to by the power of a mass movement. The Democratic Party is wholly controlled by corporate interests which dictate that the politically safe “meat and potatoes” to campaign on cannot include things like Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, and fighting for unions in our workplaces. Winning those gains would also do a massive amount to fight the material oppression trans and queer people experience. To win these kinds of demands, we need to walk out, protest, and strike in ways that would threaten the profits of the billionaires, many of whom fund the Democratic Party. This is why Socialist Alternative and Workers Strike Back are calling for a new party of working people and the oppressed. We need all the tools we can get if we are serious about transforming society and fighting oppression. 

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