As a subscriber to the leftist progressive blog Truthout and a regular reader of senior editor John Pilger, I was shocked by his May 21 column, "Never Forget That Bradley Manning, Not Gay Marriage, Is the Issue."
Having written extensively about Manning’s indefinite detention and torture under the Obama administration, I am always eager to read more about Manning’s case. But Pilger’s headline alone was offensive and raises the question of why one civil liberties issue must vitiate another. One cannot, for example, imagine a headline reading "Never Forget That Lynching, Not Miscegenation Laws, Is the Issue."
Pilger’s column begins by enumerating the many ways in which President Obama has both expanded the powers of the presidency extraconstitutionally and how perilous this is – points I have written about myself. But then Pilger notes, "When Obama recently announced he supported same-sex marriage, American planes had not long blown 14 Afghan civilians to bits." He then adds that the same-sex marriage debate is "a distraction" about "lifestyle liberalism." Pilger asserts, "This is a civil and private matter; bourgeois acceptability is not yet a human right. ... Elevating the ‘right’ of marriage above the right to life and real justice is as profane as seeking allies among those who deny life and justice to so many, from Afghanistan to Palestine."
Pilger’s argument rings false and homophobic. The quest for marriage equality is predicated on a quest for justice and equality. One cannot parse civil liberties.
On May 22, the day after Pilger’s column ran, Charles L. Worley, a Baptist pastor in North Carolina (where same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships were banned the day before Obama’s announcement) posted his sermon in response to President Obama’s declaration of support for marriage equality. The rant, which has gone viral on YouTube, asserts that the best way to deal with lesbians and "homosexuals" is to quarantine them in electrified cages until they die out. The language is inflammatory, violent, and crude – the very evocation of hate speech.
So, no, marriage equality is not merely a quest for bourgeois acceptance. It is not a private matter any more than heterosexual marriage is a private matter. What Pilger ignores is that civil liberties denied are civil liberties abrogated. Pilger may decide that marriage is too bourgeois for him and he doesn’t want the state involved in his partnerships with women. That is his choice – but choice it is. He could marry any woman off the street within less than 24 hours if he wanted to.
But I couldn’t. I live in Pennsylvania, where same-sex marriage and civil unions are banned. My partner of 13 years and I cannot marry, which means we cannot share a plethora of things, from children to health insurance, property to tax returns.
Worley’s violent screed makes it apparent that the marriage debate is about far more than "lifestyle liberalism." It’s about how much hate still percolates across the country about queers. President Obama may have declared his evolution complete on marriage equality after four years of equivocation, but for others there will never be an evolution, there will only be the burning desire to round up gay men and lesbians and throw us in cages till we die.
Which means my parallel between lynching and miscegenation laws is grimly apt. Many of the 45% of Americans who do not support marriage equality don’t support queers, period. They would like us wiped off the face of the planet.
Progressives like Pilger need to recognize that the right of lesbians and gay men to marry isn’t just about one day with cake and wedding attire. It’s about equity. It’s about being able to access all the benefits and responsibilities that accrue to marriage, from filing a joint federal tax return to sharing children to visiting a critically ill partner in the hospital to inheriting when that partner dies. It’s about having the same options as heterosexuals.
To assert that our quest for equality under the law is bourgeois, to proclaim it "profane" and to invoke the torture of a gay man under a corrupt administration as the only focus queers should have, is as bigoted as Worley’s "cage ’em up and let ’em die" rant. Yet it gets the imprimatur of one of the most respected progressive blogs.
I agree with Pilger that Bradley Manning should be free. But so should every lesbian and gay man in America. And until all our rights are the same as Pilger’s and Worley’s, that freedom is as elusive for us as it is for Manning.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist and a former Advocate columnist. Her columns appear in the Philadelphia Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, and Curve magazine, among others.