05/10/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

"Radical" Posturing vs. Civil Rights

I gagged as I read Yasmin Nair's account of activist Angela Davis's recent speech insulting LGBTs who desire the right to marry. Davis says these LGBTs are motivated by a desire for "bourgeois respectability."

But most equal marriage rights activists I know simply desire the same rights that heterosexuals take for granted, rights that are particularly useful to working class LGBTs who can't afford specialized contracts drawn up by attorneys. Also, whether desiring marriage for themselves or not, they are intelligent enough to know that to tolerate the government dictating second class citizenship for anyone - defined as substandard legal rights - is demeaning and a mark of self-hatred.

How silly Davis's position is can be seen by analogy. Should African American activists of the 1950s and 60s have tolerated the often petty segregation of their time, such as separate drinking fountains and lunch counters? Should they have disparaged those who organized against these indignities? Or did most rightly see these measures as calculated insults to all African Americans, designed to buttress the more far-reaching and systematic oppression of their community?

Were those who organized against racial segregation necessarily "assimilationist" to white culture or seeking "bourgeois respectability"? Undoubtedly a minority of them were, but most weren't, and it would be insulting to that majority to cast the entire movement as such. The foremost Black radical of that era, Malcolm X, started out with a position similar to Davis's, disparaging the movement against segregation, but then matured into an appreciation of it - without losing any of his revolutionary edge.

The reason why the anti-LGBT haters at the Illinois Family Institute fight tooth and nail against equal marriage rights is not because they really give a damn whom any of us marry (or not), but because they see the unequal legal status of LGBTs as a bulwark to systematic homophobia and transphobia in society at large.

To the minority of LGBTs today who, like Davis, disparage the fight for equal marriage rights, I would only ask, have you ever denounced your (presumably straight) parents or other close relatives for their marriages? Have you demanded that they divorce in solidarity with us, rather than pursue "bourgeois respectability"? Have you demanded the same of your straight comrades who are married?

Of course not. You disparage marriage rights only when same-sex couples pursue the same rights as your straight friends and relatives. That double-standard sounds a lot like LGBT self-hatred to me. Moreover, for all of your radical posturing about "opposing assimilation," when you oppose the fight for the equal right to marry, you are unwittingly assimilating into the homo-hating status quo.

Finally, for those who know her political history, it's a little bit rich for Davis to lecture us about the marriage rights movement being aimed at "bourgeois respectability." While she certainly has made valuable contributions to the movement for human freedom in other ways, when it comes to LGBT rights, for more than two decades she managed to be at peace - during Stonewall, during the height of the women's and gay liberation movements - in a political organization which described homosexuality itself as "a bourgeois deviation." Self-hatred indeed.

Right now Illinois's equal marriage rights bill hangs in the balance. Those who oppose us are busy sponsoring weekly hate rallies around the Chicago area, whipping up homophobia and transphobia where they can. Those of us who care and can, are out in the streets opposing them.

Very soon the Supreme Court will issue its most significant LGBT decisions of the decade. Whether they were issuing decisions on equal marriage rights, equal employment rights or whatever, on a basic level it really doesn't matter. What they're basically doing is deigning to decide whether or not LGBTs will finally become citizens in this country. And as the immigrant rights movement puts it, we refuse to allow ourselves or our relationships to be dubbed "illegal."

Since the Court's decisions are frequently influenced by public opinion and the potential for public outcry, what we do in the streets of our cities over the next several weeks really does matter. That's why those standing on the sidelines during this, while claiming to be "progressive," "radical" or whatever, are fiddling while Rome burns. The very antithesis of true activism.