Friday, July 22, 2011

Keep your gay marriage, give me my Social Security

I don’t have a partner. Maybe that’s why I’m not excited about President Obama’s endorsement of the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Or maybe it’s because I know that close to half of all marriages end in divorce, a majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried people, and about a quarter of the adult population has never been married. In some communities, and notably the African American community, those numbers are much higher.

So increasingly, the campaign for same-sex marriage is not about extending the rights of the majority to a minority, but about further enshrining the privileges of a shrinking minority.

But in fact, the benefits marriage activists seek are waning by the day. By the time gay elders can claim each other’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, those benefits will have been eviscerated. Social Security, as we all know, is probably at this moment being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction (which, of course, it has nothing to do with). While same-sex-marriage advocates insist that marriage rights will guarantee the right of immigrant couples to live together, immigrant families all over the U.S. are fighting to stay together and out of jail. The Obama administration has deported and detained far more immigrants – including legal immigrants - than the Bush administration did.

I expected Wednesday's headline to be, “Obama caves in on budget deal.” Instead, the headline was “Obama backs same-sex marriage.” Coincidence? I don’t think so. Gay marriage is being used as a distraction to appease liberals.

Gavin Newsom, who was elected mayor of San Francisco on a pro-corporate, anti-homeless platform, used same-sex marriage to liberalize his image. In 2003, Newsom fairly narrowly defeated Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, winning 53% of the vote after polls a day earlier showed a virtual tie. In 2007, fresh out of alcohol treatment and having being caught having an affair with a (female) employee who was married to one of his top aides, Newsom was reelected with 73% of the vote. The difference? Gay marriage.

Here’s how his own website (he’s currently Lt. Governor, after precipitously pulling out of the governor’s race without explanation), describes his mayoral career:
“In 2003, after a fiercely-contested race, Newsom was elected the youngest Mayor in San Francisco in more than a century.
“After only 36 days as mayor, Newsom gained worldwide attention when he granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This bold move set the tone for Newsom’s first term.…
In 2007, Newsom was re-elected with more than 73% of the vote.”
Same-sex marriage is an easy fix. It doesn’t cost anything, and a majority of the public, including a slim majority of Republicans, supports it.

I do too. Of course, I do. I’m a lesbian and I’m in favor of equal rights for everyone in all spheres. But it’s basically worthless to most people, including most gay people. I won’t even go into the ways in which it reinforces inequality. (I and plenty of others have gone into that at length over the years.  My point here is that the LGBQ community must not allow our fight for civil equality to be used to distract from the fight to the death, or really against death, that everyone in this country is in right now – a fight for our very survival.

Consider the moment. The latest poll shows Obama in a dead heat with GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. 19 different polls show that a vast majority of Americans, somewhere between 62% and 80%, favor raising taxes on the wealthy to fund services and balance the budget. Obama refuses to do that. His one big legislative victory since taking office has been the health care reform bill. Who created the program that was based on? Hint: Romney’s Republican opponents have taken to referring to the Massachusetts health care plan as “Obamney Care.” So Obama needs something to separate himself from the Mormon Romney, and even just not being against gay marriage wouldn’t do it, because Romney has refused to take the “anti-gay marriage pledge” and offends "family values" voters by defending the separation of church and state.

Queer communities have been hit as hard in the recession as other communities - necessarily so, because we are part of every community. San Francisco’s cutting edge network of services for LGBT people and HIV-affected people, built through decades of community activism, agitation and organizing, has been largely decimated in the last two years. New Leaf, a 35-year-old San Francisco center serving the LGBT community with mental health, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS services closed in October of last year. Lyon-Martin Clinic, the first lesbian- and trans-focused clinic in the country, nearly closed last year and is still on shaky ground. Just hours before the New York legislature passed the marriage equality bill, activists gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn, where the modern LGBT movement was born, to demand funding for programs for homeless LGBT youth.  Roughly 1,000 queer youth go without shelter every night in New York City, and Governor Cuomo recently cut the funding for youth shelters in half.

This is far from the first instance of minority groups winning rights as those rights, only to find their victories virtually hollow.

The standard of living for most Black South Africans has worsened considerably since apartheid was toppled. In the U.S., nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, Black families with children have median incomes roughly half those of white families. Black children are three times as likely as white children to live in extreme poverty; 40% of Black children under 5 are living in poverty.

I’m not suggesting that the fight for same-sex marriage is the same as the fight for African American civil rights or the liberation of South Africa. But we should be aware of those histories, as well as many more. The unemployed youth of Egypt and Tunisia are now realizing that it’s easier to bring down a dictator than it is to break the stranglehold of neoliberal economic policies.

LGBTQ people need to keep our eyes on the real prize and not be fooled by the shiny decoy. If we don’t, the couples making their way to New York to take those marriage vows will soon be selling their wedding rings to keep each other in cat food.

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