America: Two Cheers for Marriage Equality

Colin Wilson is celebrating big gains for same-sex marriage in the US – but increased LGBT equality in the context of neo-liberal America is raising issues around race and class.

White woman and black man hold placard reading "Not long ago our marriage was illegal: be on the right side of history"

Photo: Elvert Barnes, flickr

This week has seen a striking victory for American campaigners for LGBT equality. On Monday the Supreme Court decided not to hear appeals from five states that sought to uphold bans on same-sex marriage. This is the end of the road for opponents of marriage equality in states as conservative as Utah, where over half the population are Mormons, and where marriage licences were issued to jubilant same-sex couples from Monday.

Six further states are covered by the same courts that heard the now-defeated appeals. The implication is that same-sex marriage will become legal there too. Judges also ruled on Tuesday in favour of same-sex marriage in Idaho and Nevada: the ordained Elvis impersonators of Las Vegas’s wedding chapels began practising their new lines.

Since then there has been some confusion, as the different levels of the US legal system – county, state and federal – interact. The Republican governor of Kansas vowed on Tuesday that he would keep the gay marriage ban, but on Wednesday marriage licences were being issued to same-sex couples in at least some parts of the state. Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a temporary block on same-sex marriage in Idaho, which might or might not have applied to Nevada – the Elvis impersonators got more rehearsal time, and some same-sex couples were left phoning family and friends from the local courthouse to say that they weren’t getting married after all. The block was removed on Thursday, licences were issued, and Elvis was no longer crying in the chapel.

The implication of the legal decisions this week is clear – same-sex marriage will soon become legal in 35 states out of 50, and in some of the most unexpected places – Salt Lake City! – marriage licences are being issued right now.

It seems likely that a tipping point has been reached, and that the Supreme Court will in the next few years act as they did in the 1960s on the issue of interracial marriage, by legislating for equality across the USA. Southern US states at that time enforced a system of racist laws similar to South African apartheid. Housing and schools were segregated: black and white people used different restaurants and different cars on railway trains. Black people were prevented from voting, and in Birmingham, Alabama it had been specifically illegal since 1930 for black and white people to play dominoes together. Part of this Jim Crow system was a ban on interracial marriage. At the end of World War Two, such bans had existed in thirty states, but by 1967, when the Supreme Court intervened, they existed in only seventeen, a hard core from the racist South.

As the following graph makes clear, public opinion and state-by-state legalisation are advancing at an even faster pace in favour of gay marriage than they did for interracial marriage (though it’s shocking to see that majority approval for interracial marriage was only reached in 1995.) Polls now show an overall majority for same-sex marriage across America, even in states where it’s illegal. And since young people overwhelmingly support gay marriage, that majority is likely to increase.

Same sex and interracial marriage: changing legal situation and public opinion over time

This is, then, a significant victory, and one which may even have international repercussions. A major reason for the recent growth of homophobia in countries including Russia and Uganda has been the campaigning of the American Christian right, through organisations such as the World Congress of Families. If these groups can’t even defeat LGBT people on their home turf, their credibility will hopefully suffer worldwide.

Back in America, however, it’s clear that – whatever the legal outcomes of this week – there are still great swathes of the US where homophobia remains at levels unseen in Britain for decades. News stories in the last few weeks have also raised more complex issues – for example, of how growing acceptance of American LGBT people interacts with racism, how LGBT acceptance in the global north can equal exploitation of women in countries like India and Thailand, and how an LGBT elite is developing which has little in common with the rest of us.

Since the Stonewall riots began the modern gay movement in 1969, there has been a tendency for many LGBT people to think warmly of America – today the home, for example, to LGBT-friendly corporations like Apple and Google. Since 9/11, that’s got conflated with the view that America and Western Europe are basically good on gays, and Asia and Africa more or less bad – it’s a racist view that counterposes civilised whites and barbaric blacks, which I’ve written about elsewhere. The wider view that America is a supporter of democracy and freedom has been pretty much exposed this summer as it provided Israel with weapons to attack Gaza, as it is now that the US is bombing Iraq to defeat ISIS – a political force that grew in the vacuum left by the last American bombing campaign there. But even if you stick with LGBT issues, you find that American freedom is rather patchy.

On Tuesday, for example, the New York Times ran an article about being gay in the southern US, in Alabama. Their reporter spoke to a high school student who was forced to leave his former school when he came out as gay, and a nurse who “said she feared being fired if her bosses discovered she is a lesbian.” The article explained that “in such states, gay people can still be fired or denied housing, and there are no marriage or adoption rights for same-sex couples or laws against bullying in schools.” This is a state where it has been illegal to sell sex toys since 1998 – first time offenders face a $10,000 fine and a year in prison. It’s no coincidence – since the white bigots who hate LGBT people also hate blacks – that this is the same state where interracial dominoes was banned, where Angela Davis went to a segregated school in Birmingham in the 1950s and where James Baldwin, entering a white restaurant by mistake in 1960s Montgomery, was asked “What you want, boy? What you want in here?” and directed to the “coloured entrance”.

So there is still plenty of homophobia left in America, and also – as the events of Ferguson, Missouri demonstrated this summer – plenty of racism. There have been times, as in the radical late 60s, when anti-racist and gay struggles have come together, when Huey Newton of the Black Panthers wrote a letter of solidarity to the newly created Gay Liberation Front, and when trans women of colour such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera played a significant role in the Stonewall riots and the early gay movement. Today the political context is very different – instead of the collective struggles of the 1960s, LGBT advances are taking place in the context of a neoliberalism which does nothing to challenge racism and often reinforces it.

That neoliberal context is the background to a story which appeared at the end of last week. Jennifer Cramblett, one of a white lesbian couple from Ohio, got pregnant two years ago by donor insemination. However, due to an administrative error, Midwest Sperm Bank sent her sperm from a black donor. Cramblett is now suing the sperm bank for wrongful birth and breach of warranty, citing the “emotional and economic losses” she and her partner Amanda Zinkon have suffered since “raising a mixed-race daughter has been stressful in Cramblett and Zinkon’s small, all-white community.” The Chicago Tribune’s report goes on to explain that “Cramblett was raised around people with stereotypical attitudes about nonwhites” – racists, in plain terms – so that she has been on a steep learning curve since the birth of her daughter Payton, whom she and Amanda love very much. “Part of that learning curve has included getting her daughter’s hair cut, which requires Cramblett to travel to a black neighborhood, where she is obviously different in appearance, and not overtly welcome.” Cramblett and Zinkon argue that they now need funds to move to a “racially diverse community with good schools.”

Black queer blogger Son of Baldwin was scathing in his response to Cramblett and Zinkon’s claim that they deserve compensation for the awful calamity of having a black child, whose hair must be cut in places where they are not “overtly welcome”. As he put it, “They were just fine with living in a racially intolerant, anti-black town when they then could be racially intolerant and anti-black right along with everybody else and pretty much blend in.” Challenging the town’s racism was after all not on their agenda before Payton was born, and it’s not on it now. Instead, they are acting like people who have bought a faulty vacuum cleaner.

And this brings us back to neoliberalism. Sperm donation and surrogate pregnancy, for both same-sex and straight couples, have become big business. One British centre has a price list for surrogacy in the US – British law doesn’t recognise surrogate pregnancy agreements – which adds up to over $100,000.  These high costs mean that there’s a big market for women in developing countries who will loan out their uterus at a lower cost. The website surrogacyindia.com, for example, includes a link to its “cost calculator” on its front page. Aljazeera’s website reported in August that surrogacy costs in Thailand and India start at $63,000, much lower than in America. According to Sama, a New Delhi women’s health NGO, a typical surrogate mother is married to “a daily-wage worker whose income is insufficient to cover the family’s expenses” while she can “earn approximately 10 times their husband’s annual income for one surrogacy.” These women usually are raising other children, and use the surrogacy to provide for them. As one researcher put it, “Women do this so they can afford a house with a toilet.”

Advances for some LGBT people in the US and Britain are thus enmeshed with questions of race, imperialism and class. Some of the same issues come up inside the US itself, and are addressed in Christina B. Hanhardt’s recent book Safe Space, about the development of “gay neighbourhoods” in American cities. Hanhardt examines, for example, the tensions between the residents of Greenwich Village, many of them LGBT, white and middle-class, and the LGBT youth of colour who came from all over the New York City area to socialise on the piers at the end of Christopher Street, the location of the Stonewall riot – a subculture memorably portrayed in the 1990 film “Paris is Burning”. Residents’ complaints about the threat to their property prices and claims that they didn’t feel safe in the street went hand-in-hand with police harassment of LGBT young people and the establishment of a “public-private partnership” to redevelop the piers, excluding many of the young LGBT people of colour who socialised there. As Hanhardt puts it, “the target of Greenwich Village residents’ neighborhood protection efforts would be the very people who most face the kinds of interpersonal, state-sponsored, and structural violence that the LGBT movement had been founded to fight.”

The overall point is that LGBT campaigns, with straight support, have won us a increasing measure of acceptance in America and parts of Europe. But they have done so in a context of neoliberalism which means that LGBT freedom is often transformed into a consumerism which is out of the financial reach of many. And we’re facing a situation where increased acceptance of LGBT people has had an unexpected result. There has emerged a layer of people, gay men in particular, who are part of the ruling class – the chair of London Pride is Head of Political Broadcasting for David Cameron, the highest-paid Chief Exec in the world is Tim Cook of Apple. Out LGBT people could not hold such positions thirty years ago. The existence of such people, in the general absence of collective struggle, causes many more people to think in terms of individual solutions to their oppression – can they make enough money to escape its worst effects? – and to look to the leaders of the United States and the European Union to defend their formal legal equality. Such a solution may get us equality before the law – an important advance – but they won’t win anything like real justice or equality, particularly not for the vast majority of LGBT people outside the orbit of the privileged. What’s more, these changes also demonstrate how closely homophobia and transphobia are bound up with racism and imperialism as part of a global capitalist economy. LGBT freedom can’t be bought at the price of someone else’s exploitation or oppression. We need to move on from gaining a measure of acceptance within capitalism to understanding the system as a whole, with the final goal of overturning it.

References

Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, Jackson MS, 2007, Chapter 1

James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, London, 1973, pp. 52-3

Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, Duke University Press, 2013

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