07/02/2012 05:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How the Right, Not Social 'Elites,' Made Marriage Equality a National Issue

Writer Brendan O'Neill, former editor of Living Marxism -- neither the publication, nor theory, are living -- wrote an odd attack on marriage equality.

He wrote: "The speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable -- and revealing." What is revealing, he says, is that gay marriage is "a tool of the elite" which indicates "one's superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion."

I doubt the "elite" really need gay marriage in order to feel superior to rednecks -- a term I rarely hear used seriously in the United States. I've always been appalled that Marxists automatically identified with the "working classes."

Certainly, in the earlier days of "gay liberation," I never took kindly to radicals telling me I should identify with "oppressed working class peoples." (Why they pluralized people I never understood.) My problem wasn't that I didn't care about working class people -- my father was a firefighter, my grandfather a steelworker -- but that these Leftists kept urging me to sympathize with a group that didn't particularly sympathize with me.

"Fag bashers" are less likely to come out of elite Ivy League college than elsewhere. In the years that I've followed assaults on LGBT people, the attackers were almost universally from the class Marxists told me were my allies.

Sorry, but I'm not going to get gay bashed for anyone's revolution.

O'Neill makes a major error. He assumes if he didn't see it, it didn't happen. Anyone who says this shift in views came about with either "speed" or "ease" is missing a lot of historical context. I've been in this fight for 34 years and many have been at it for a lot longer. For three decades I didn't realize it was "easy," and I sure didn't notice the speed.

Unlike marginalized races or religions, LGBT people were rarely found in a critical mass that would allow for the sort of political lobbying necessary to make demands. Our numbers were too small and dispersed for this. Critical mass had to be built up first. That eventually happened. The Stonewall Riots in New York City, almost half a century ago, were a major catalyst. Earlier attempts to form LGBT organizations were easily suppressed.

After Stonewall, there was critical mass, and within a few years LGBT people started challenging marriage laws.


Less than a year later, Richard Baker and James McConnell went to the Hennepin County District Court Clerk's Office requesting a marriage license. They were denied and pursued the matter in court, where they lost. They were further turned down by the Minnesota Supreme Court and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, which refused to hear their case. Speedy indeed.

Early after its founding in 1968, the Metropolitan Community Churches started performing gay marriages, though such marriages had no legal recognition. One of the MCC ministers leading that effort was former "faith healing evangelist" Bob Sirico, who in 1972 announced he would perform gay marriages. Sirico performed a marriage ceremony for two men after Boulder, Colorado officials issued the men a marriage license, which was later declared invalid.

As an aside, Sirico, whose history was oddly erratic, now runs a Catholic right-wing think tank with close connections to the anti-gay Templeton family and Templeton Foundation. The Nation reports Sirico's group "received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years." Jack Templeton and his wife gave over $1 million to the "Yes on 8" campaign and also funded the National Organization for Marriage. Jennifer Roback Morse, a NOM operative, is listed as a staff member of Sirico's organization.

Three same-sex couples in Hawaii applied for marriage licenses in 1990. They were turned down and then filed suit. That case was dismissed and they appealed to the Supreme Court of Hawaii in 1991. That Court sent the case back to the trial court with instructions that "strict scrutiny" standards be applied. This was widely seen as a move that would recognize same-sex marriages. The state legislature then wrote a stricter law excluding gay couples and formed a commission to study the issue. In 1996, that commission recommended that same-sex couples be allowed to marry, but two years later a political initiative, pushed by Catholic and Mormon forces, banned same-sex marriage there.

It was in 1996, conservatives in Congress introduced a federal "Defense of Marriage Act," making it illegal for the federal government to treat gay couples as married. The first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Massachusetts, only did so eight years after the religious right made this a national issue, and 30 years after the fight for marriage equality began.

Hawaii's Amendment 2 was the example "rednecks" nationwide would follow. Alaska voted for a ballot measure banning gay marriage in 1998, Nebraska did so in 2000, and Nevada in 2002. In 2004, another 13 conservative states made banning same-sex marriage a state issue. That year, the Bush administration tried to pass a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What had been a local issue in Hawaii and Massachusetts was now on the national stage.

However, it was those of the "religious or redneck persuasion" who turned same-sex marriage into a culture war battle. With state initiatives across the country, and an attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution, conservatives made same-sex marriage a national issue because they thought it could be used to embarrass Democrats. However, they entered an intellectual battle unarmed.

Victory for marriage equality clearly imminent, but it has not been speedy. The people who truly made this a national debate are the Religious Right, and for that I'm thankful.