ON JUNE 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. It is now illegal for the federal government to deny federal benefits of marriage to married same-sex couples, if their marriage is recognized or performed in a state that allows it.
This decision will have immediate benefits for same-sex couples who have been married and are living in any of the 11 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington) which allow equal marriage, as well as the District of Columbia and several indigenous reservations.
In addition to the state-level benefits these couples already are eligible for, they are now eligible for all the same federal benefits as any other married couple. Health care, social security, immigration equality, estate and tax benefits, access to housing on base and health care for those in the military—these are just some of the material benefits now available to these same-sex couples.
And it is these material benefits which will actually improve the lives of these couples and their families that are the reason marriage equality activists have been fighting this battle for so long, and why the response to this victory from LGBT people and their allies has been so effusive. It is also why the obvious next step is to take this fight to the states that currently deny same-sex couples from marrying—so that all LGBT people in the US can enjoy these basic rights. This decision has opened the door for triumph in this battle, but it will still require a grassroots campaign on a state-by-state level to kick the door wide open.
And that kind of grassroots campaign is exactly how we came to find ourselves celebrating this legal victory. All the LGBT people and their allies who have put in the effort over the years—talking to their friends, family, neighbours and coworkers about the issue of marriage equality; creating petitions and collecting signatures, even visiting the bars and bathhouses to do so; organizing public forums, rallies, marches and demonstrations to demand marriage equality—it is because of their dedication that we can celebrate this victory today. Inspired by and alongside them, we too must take on the mantle of marriage equality in a determined way in order to advance the cause even further.
Yet still there are those who would argue that it’s wealthy gay white male couples who will benefit most from marriage equality and therefore we should not be putting time, energy or resources into this struggle when there are other “more pressing” concerns such as racism and sexism to confront. Beside, who wants to get married, anyway? Perhaps unconsciously, this wrong-headed argument actually hints at a number of key points.
First, it is not a man’s “maleness” which produces sexism, just as it is not a person’s “whiteness” which produces racism. Every form of oppression—whether it be racism, sexism, ableism, homo- or transphobia, etc.—is a product of the class divisions in society, and it is actually the capitalist state that perpetuates these oppressions in order to serve the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the working class. And it is the critical role of the privatized heterosexual family to reproduce the next generation of workers for the capitalist system at minimal expense to the ruling class that explains why the “traditional family” is held up as sacred and immutable by every institution of that capitalist system. So neoliberalism under the corporate Democrat party during Bill Clinton's term brought DOMA at the same time as cuts to welfare.
Second, these forms of oppression cannot be fought by individuals in isolation, or only by groups of people whom are affected directly by each of these oppressions; rather, struggles against these forms of oppression must be conducted simultaneously by the masses of the working class, across the dividing lines of race, gender, ability or sexuality. It is exactly this kind of solidarity in action that makes a group like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) so important: by challenging the myths of Israel as a haven for LGBT people and of Muslim people as inherently homophobic. QuAIA is able to point out the underlying racism of this Islamophobic practice. In addition, QuAIA challenges the complicity of the Canadian state in deflecting attention from Israel’s colonial project, and in sweeping Canada’s own colonialism under the rug. Just imagine how much more effective these kind of struggles against oppression would be if the whole working class was fighting them.
Third, reforms like marriage equality can make people’s lives better in the here and now but these reforms in themselves will not end oppression and they can be revoked at any time should the tide of political will change. This is why we need to keep up the fight to defend the gains we’ve won and to continue pushing for more: so that our lives can be better now under capitalism. But ultimately these forms of oppression will only be overcome by uprooting entirely the capitalist system which maintains these oppressions as part and parcel of its functioning.
The Voting Rights Act made it illegal to deny black people the right to vote but the US Supreme Court recently overturned it. And here in Canada, the hard-fought victory for abortion rights has come under numerous and continuing attacks by the Harper government. The right to vote and the right to choose have made people’s lives better but attacks on these rights prove we cannot take anything for granted and that these rights must be defended.
Fourth, a fight on one front doesn’t preclude a fight on another—this is not a zero-sum battle—and victories in one struggle can inspire others to take up the same fight, to become more determined and fight harder in their own struggles or to begin a new battle altogether; after all, confidence is contagious and people’s consciousness changes quickest during the course of struggle.
The fight for reproductive choice doesn’t preclude the fight for equal pay or for universal daycare, just as the fight for equal marriage doesn’t preclude the fight for gay-straight alliances in schools or for trans people to be recognized in human rights legislation. Indeed, this victory for marriage equality can inspire these other struggles and, in turn, be inspired by them. Just as the Arab Spring bolstered resistance to austerity in Greece, it inspired the Indignados in Spain, the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, the successful Quebec student and Chicago teacher strikes—and, as we are seeing now, the revolts in Turkey and Brazil are, in turn, reinvigorating the continuing Egyptian Revolution.
This is why the recent victory for marriage equality was worth fighting for and deserves to be celebrated: we have no idea yet what other future victories it could inspire next.