On Friday (US Time) the Supreme Court struck down bans to same sex marriage as unconstitutional. This is a huge win for queer couples across the US. For years, campaigns have been waged back and forth to allow or deny what many (including the majority of Americans) consider a perfectly obvious right. Historically, these have been waged at a state level, with separate fights waged in each individual state, and with opponents of marriage equality often resorting to state wide bans. These bans are what the Supreme Court has just struck down, essentially meaning all states are now obligated to recognise same sex marriages as legitimate. The ruling even went so far as to say “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that”, affirming in the positive the right to marry.
The overwhelming response has been huge celebration. The ruling is a vindication of the protests, teach-outs, meetings, and myriad other campaign events carried out over the last decade, and a vindication of decades of LGBTI activism and visibility. Protest works. Campaigners who have dedicated years of their lives, and millions of dollars to these struggles are finally able to lay this part of the fight to rest. Same sex couples will now be granted federal and state entitlements which had been denied them, as well as having put into law a basic human respect for the validity of their relationships. Marriage in the US is linked to many legal entitlements, so this win has real, material benefits for working-class people in same-sex relationships. It touches everything from sick days to care for a sick partner through to insurance and travel. In a great many concrete ways this victory means an improvement in the lives of queer couples, and queer individuals in the US.
Bizarrely, though, a not insignificant number of people on the left have been categorically dismissive of this victory. The broad theme has been “So what? There’s still a thousand other pressing issues which affect queer communities in the US. Why should we care about this?” The victory of marriage equality is, in many respects, a very minor victory. The list of issues which remain to be fought are daunting, and horrifying. To name but a few: ongoing issues of discrimination in jobs, housing and healthcare for queer and transgender individuals; homelessness and poverty for queer (and non-queer) youth; astronomical suicide rates; routine police abuse and harassment; a god-awful prison system and “justice” system; detention and deportation of LGBTQ immigrants; recognition of other non-traditional relationship formations or sexual and gender identities, as well as the myriad overlap with issues of institutional racism, sexism, and bigotry of all forms.
There are also legitimate criticisms to be made about the role of the state in relationships, full stop, and the institution of marriage as an instrument of oppression. All of these issues remain to be fought. As socialists we’re for the right to marriage equality before the law; and that includes of course the right not to marry.
However, none of that detracts from the fact that this was a significant step forward, and that we should take a moment to celebrate the win. For the Supreme Court to have ruled the other way would have been a serious blow for queer people in the fight for recognition of the legitimacy of their relationships, and a massive shot in the arm for the bigots. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical about the importance of that win, but it also needs to be recognised as significant in its own right. As in New Zealand, marriage equality will deliver tangible benefits for a good number of people in the United States, where legal marriage has a huge number of social and economic implications.
It is worth noting that this was the only win really in scope. Nothing comparable is being seriously considered at a Federal or Supreme Court level at the moment. As long as marriage equality was being contested, it would have remained the only battleground. It was a necessary battle to win and get out of the way, in order to be able to table new ones.
The argument that marriage equality was a distraction from “real” issues is also completely sectarian. As socialists, we organise and agitate for global revolution. Does that mean the only acceptable slogan, and the only acceptable campaign, is for global revolution? Of course not! It would be unbelievably ultra-left to insist that we only worked in campaigns which had global revolution as the objective. In practise, it would mean complete and total abstentionism from all “less than perfect” campaigns. In the same vein, when we win “less than perfect” campaigns, to refuse to celebrate them is to write off all the work that has gone into that baby step.
Being an activist is hard. Every structure of our society is designed to make us feel like it’s pointless and impossible to try and change anything. We need to hold on to our wins, no matter how small and draw strength from them. When workers are locked out by a scumbag employer who wants to reduce their pay or conditions, and the workers hold out until they can return to work under their old conditions, that’s a win. We don’t disparage it because it didn’t also win concessions from the boss. Unless the “victory” actually harms the cause (as is sometimes the case), to shit on wins like this is the most assured way to ensure there is no follow up – that nothing better comes along behind. It demoralises, deflates and disincentivises those who want to put time towards “better, if not perfect” struggles.
To call out the marriage equality win as meaningless when we still have so many battles to wage, is to turn to all those “cis, white, middle class queers” (as they have been disparaged by some on the left) who campaigned for marriage equality and say “fuck you and your privilege” instead of “congrats on your victory. We supported you in your struggle, can you please support us in ours”. To dismiss this win is a call to disunity when what we so clearly need is to be fighting together for a better future.
As always, we need to celebrate the wins even as we direct the momentum toward the next target. The energy and enthusiasm that this victory unleashed should be focused on the issues which remain. The number of issues relating to gender, sexuality and relationships which remain are innumerable. The issue of ratification and implementation remains to be seen. The significance of this particular ruling being a dictate rather than a social mandate will play itself out. But let’s take a second to be glad that what should really have been a completely obvious non-issue of a right is finally out of the bigots’ play book for a bit. Let us celebrate with those who have waited many years for the rights coming their way now. Let us draw strength from seeing the chips fall on the right side of history for once. Let us savour a win. We can steel ourselves for the next fight in the morning.