Lesser-Evilism and the Fight for Gay

Marriage: The Politics of Self-Defeat

- Keith Rosenthal

The movement for gay marriages that has emerged spontaneously all across the country is clearly beginning to reach a crossroads. On the one hand, a wide collection of city councils and mayors have been issuing marriage licenses to gay couples over the past several weeks despite Bush's bigoted threats to amend the federal constitution to ban same-sex marriages. These mayors and city councilors have stood up to do what's right with the help of grassroots pushes by gay rights activists, from New Paltz to Seattle to San Francisco.

But on the other hand, many of the established gay rights groups are playing a very conservative role in the movement. At best, they are arguing that the "adventurist" tactic of getting mayors to issue gay marriage licenses is irrelevant-that the most important thing is to get Democrats like Kerry elected to office. At worst, they are arguing that a grassroots movement that would force the hand of politicians to stand up for equality would be detrimental to the cause or that the "timing isn't right" for such aggressive tactics.

Recently, at a gay marriage panel in Burlington, Vermont, the horrible politics of "lesser-evilism" were on full display as a strategy that actually prevents our side from winning victories against bigotry.

The panel featured a speaker from the Vermont Freedom to Marry Taskforce among others. This speaker went out of her way to argue that pushing the mayor of Burlington to issue licenses would be a bad idea, that public rallies in support of gay marriage could do more harm than good, and that our focus should be on winning over Rotary Clubs instead of City Councilors.

Not only that, but she expressed grief at the fact that in the aftermath of the Vermont legislature passing a Civil Unions bill in 2000, several "pro-gay" politicians ended up losing their seats. The unspoken conclusion then is, what, that we shouldn't have even pushed for the 'separate and unequal' civil unions bill because it cost politicians their seats? Would we have been better without civil unions but with "pro-gay" politicians still in the legislature?

The same logic was implicitly applied to the question of pushing the local mayor to issue gay marriage licenses. The mayor is running for Governor of the state as a Democrat in November. The worry is that if we push him to start issuing licenses to gay couples it may cost him the Governorship. Again, would it be better to have gay marriage rights in Burlington with a Republican as possible Governor, or continued second-class citizenship status for gays in Vermont with a Democrat as Governor?

This is why the politics of lesser-evilism is so deadly. It means that we won't fight for what we believe in because it may cost so-called "friendly" politicians elections. This is even more so the case if by fighting for what we believe in we may actually win! In that case, of course, the politician will have no chance at all of furthering his or her career!

Our movements should be less worried about helping "lesser-evil" politicians climb the electoral ladder, and more concerned about winning concrete victories for oppressed people through mass struggle.

Keith Rosenthal is an activist in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at keithmr81@yahoo.com. Keith Rosenthal is an activist in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at keithmr81@yahoo.com.

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