The Unfinished GLBT Revolution

January 13, 2011

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, violent protests and demonstrations erupted around the gay bar the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. These riots came to be known as the Stonewall Riots and the spark for the “Gay Rights Revolution” that has continued in various forms until today. Recently this revolution for civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgenders (GLBT) has gained much attention in the United States and the movement itself appears to have manifested globally in the fight for legalization of same-sex marriage. However, in the U.S. only six states currently permit same-sex marriage and the federal government exclusively recognizes marriage as a union between man and woman. Despite the fact that the US is credited with being the birthplace of the gay rights movement and that it has a reputation for being a liberal and revolutionary nation, it is far behind many other nations around the world in advancing equal access to the institution of marriage. There are many speculations as to why this anomaly arises, but the main factors that seem to emerge are that majority rule outweighs minority rights, that the gay movement itself is divided on the issue, and that religious and conservative groups are increasing in influence in America.

When the police decided to conduct a “routine raid” on the popular gay club Stonewall Inn in June, 1969 they certainly did not anticipate the heated and violent riots that followed sporadically for six days. Of course, this reaction was not a sudden outburst of protest, but rather the result of culminating feelings of oppression and discrimination that had been stirred by recent advancements in civil rights movements like the Feminist and African American movements. Nor was Stonewall to be the last uprising as many violent occurrences followed throughout the 1970s. The two main groups to form from these riots were the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. However, in the 1970s the main focus for gay rights was simply non-discrimination and tolerance of homosexuals in society, rather than any notion of equal access to marriage. Harvey Milk is one of the most notable activists and was memorialized recently in the film Milk in 2009. Interestingly, scholars note that American attitudes regarding the morality of homosexuality have swung from liberal to conservative from 1973-1990 and back to more liberal again from 1990-2001, although the overall response of Americans has been marked by a willingness to permit greater civil rights and freedoms to homosexuals.

As acceptance of homosexuality increased, the movement for equal marriage rights gained momentum and eventually culminated in a Hawaiian court case in 1990. This case questioned the denial of marriage licenses for three same-sex couples and attained success in the lower courts, although the state Supreme Court ultimately denied the right of same-sex couples to marriage. Since then the states of Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have all legalized same-sex marriage or unions. However, the 2004 election and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have amended the constitution to exclude homosexuals from marriage, highlighted how many Americans are still opposed to granting marriage rights to homosexual couples. Globally the GLBT fight for access to marriage appears to have made more progress in various European countries, particularly the Scandinavian nations, and even Canada recognizing that homosexuals should have equal access to marriage. Despite the fact the GLBT revolution began in America and that the U.S. is considered to be one of the most liberal and democratic nations in the world, it still lags behind many other countries in increasing equality for its homosexual minority.

Ironically, America’s democratic tradition is often one of the main arguments used in opposing same-sex marriage. Opponents argue that minority opinion should not outweigh majority opinion in a decision such as this. While their argument at first may seem fair, supporters of same-sex marriage are quick to compare the GLBT movement to other civil rights actions such as the equality for African Americans and women, and particularly the elimination of a ban on interracial marriage. In the case of African American and interracial couples, they indeed were and still are the minority; yet the judicial system and now society deem these minorities deserving of equal rights. For this reason GLBT advocates have carefully tried to frame their revolution in terms of civil rights actions and also citizenship issues. By being denied equal access to marriage, same-sex couples are not receiving full American citizenship, tax incentives, family security, as well as spousal access to health insurance, property ownership, and medical decisions.

However, one of the greatest impediments in the GLBT revolution is that the community itself is extremely divided on the issue of equal access to marriage. As with many past revolutionaries like Stalin and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution, there is serious disagreement in the way to move forward for GLBT rights. Some countries like Britain, are advocating legal civil unions for same-sex couples which still deny them the right to marry. Many argue that this is in effect segregation and in some states in the U.S. where civil unions are legally recognized, they do not also extend protections in these unions to heterosexual couples; this creates a situation where homosexuals are “separate but equal” which is now an infamous term from the period of segregation. There are also those in the GLBT community who vehemently oppose marriage itself for same-sex couples because they see it as conforming to heterosexual expectations and as reinforcing inequalities in gender that already exist. While they may have a point, such disagreement does not help create unity and cohesiveness within the GLBT revolution and indeed allows their opponents to weaken the gay rights movement. While they may disagree on the procedure for reform, the one issue supporters all agree on is that homosexuals should have the same rights as heterosexuals when it comes to rights of citizenship.

One of the primary tenets of the American Constitution is separation of religion and state. However, American society in particular still seems to be very much caught up in religion and many Americans find it difficult to separate their religious ideas from secular issues such as same-sex marriage. Various surveys and data have been collected and it is clearly evident that religious affiliation and in particular religious devotion are significant determinants in one’s opinion on same-sex marriage. Evangelical Protestants tend to have the most conservative theology and follow the position of their church closely and so strongly oppose same-sex marriage. Religious and conservative groups tend to make up the majority of opposition to same-sex marriage and their argument generally relies on tradition and bible teachings to justify the “sanctity” of marriage. Many religious members of Congress have caused uproar by commenting on homosexual relations, such as Senator Santorum who equated legalization of sodomy with the right to bigamy, polygamy, incest, and adultery. Such passionate beliefs have also been espoused during other revolutions and in the fight for abortion rights, a right which many Americans would not now ever consider rescinding. The U.S. seems to be particularly susceptible to the religious element of the debate, even despite its tradition as a secular society and unfortunately many prefer to frame the debate for same-sex marriages as a purely religious, moral, and tolerance issue rather than a civil rights revolution. While some may choose to follow the Bible for their main source of guidance, most Western and secular societies today explicitly state in their constitutions that there should be a separation of church and state.

The revolution for GLBT rights erupted onto the civil rights agenda in the 1960s in America with the Stonewall Riots and quickly evolved into a global revolution, although now the U.S. has fallen behind in progress in comparison to many other nations. America is a democratic nation who invariably supports equal citizen rights and has also evolved into a nation that supports minority issues such as abortion, racial inequality, and other women’s issues. Many European nations have already taken momentous steps in granting equal rights to their GLBT communities and recognizing legal rights for same-sex couples while the U.S. remains bitterly divided on the issue. There is also much contention within the GLBT community as to the best approach in fighting for their equality which somewhat stifles their activist agenda. Perhaps the main impediment is American society itself who in many sectors remain very religious and conservative and while they may ‘tolerate’ same-sex couples, they refuse to grant homosexuals access to the institution of marriage. However, while it is a slow and painful battle it seems inevitable that same-sex marriage and greater rights for the GLBT community will ultimately be achieved. History serves as an example of what civil rights movements can achieve and now America and the Western world seems to be moving away from reliance on religion as their sole guidance. While the GLBT Revolution may not have advanced as quickly and smoothly as racial and feminist movements in the 1960s, it still existed and thrived. There are many reasons for its slow evolution, but as society develops and matures it certainly seems inevitable that the goal for same-sex marriage and equal GLBT rights will eventually materialize in American society and across the globe.