News & Politics

Gay Marriage In New York: Progressive Victory or GOP Roadmap?

What does it mean when progressives celebrate a victory in large part won by GOP-supporting hedge fund managers, Tea Party funders and corporate conglomerates?

Many people are celebrating what seems on the surface a huge win for gay rights, with the passage of a same-sex marriage bill in New York State last week, by a Republican-controlled state senate to boot. This marks a real sea change for LGBT equality in the US, and therefore a major win not only for LGBT people, but also because this has been a major cause for progressives.

But now that the pride parade is literally over, progressives should be asking themselves about the potential long-term impacts of this "win."

What does it mean when so-called progressives celebrate a victory in large part won by GOP-supporting hedge fund managers, Tea Party funders and corporate conglomerates—the oft-spoken enemies of progressive causes? Furthermore, this new strategy could be the testing ground for Republicans to peel a gay base and donors away from the Democrats while keeping their Christian conservative base.

It sounds far-fetched, but let's consider why this may be an unforeseen challenge.

The New York Times reported in May that a few Republican fundraisers were helping to raise over $1 million to protect the seats of a handful of Republican lawmakers who could be swayed to vote for the marriage equality bill Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo had called for, already approved by the Democratic Assembly.

These men all had their own personal reasons for pushing the bill—some said they have gay family members who deserve the protections that marriage offers. But is that alone worth the political risk? There may be a set of Republicans who know that using the “protecting the sanctity of marriage” excuse or other kinds of gay-baiting has lost much of its political power with the conservative base. It has also become clearer that the GOP is not monolithic on this issue, as many notables like former first lady Laura Bush, Cindy McCain and Dick Cheney have all come out in support of same-sex marriage in the last few years.

Daniel S. Loeb, a hedge fund manager who's raised money for GOP candidates and for same-sex marriage in New York told the New York Times in May “I think it is important in particular for Republicans to know this is a bipartisan issue...If they’re Republican, they will not be abandoned by the party for supporting this. On the contrary, I think they will find that there is a whole new world of people who will support them on an ongoing basis if they support this cause.”

The support to which Loeb may be referring could be the contested “independents,” who increasingly support LGBT friendly policies. The GOP leadership know that the future of their party depends on these people. But could Loeb also be talking about more LGBT people donating and voting Republican?

Gay Republicans

Comedians joke about the gay and Republican identities as oxymorons, but the reality is that there have been gay people, mostly white men, in positions of power for a long time. One would think that after the Republican Party used anti-marriage initiatives on local ballots in 2004 as a way to scare up votes in favor of George W. Bush's re-election in recent years, gay Republicans would be deserting the party in hordes. Instead, they've upped the ante. Rollcall.com reported in fall 2010 that Ken Mehlman, a former RNC chairman and G.W. Bush staffer who came out last year, had begun to host high-level fundraisers to raise money from the Republican high-donor base for marriage equality. If the Republican Party has gay members in its ranks who feel some guilt about their role in solidifying anti-gay legislation, they, like Mehlman, may certainly be using their political clout to redeem themselves and their legacy in history.

But this goes beyond gay Republicans inside the party (or their organizations like Go Proud or the Log Cabin Republicans). There are conservative gay people at the head of purportedly more liberal and progressive gay organizations. Recently, Gays & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has come under fire for lobbying the FCC for an AT&T merger with T-Mobile, which presumably happened due to board member Troupe Coronado's close ties to AT&T, and the telecom giant's suspicious $50,000 donation to the organization (which some suggest may have been the payoff for the advocacy with the FCC).

Coronado is the former minority outreach director for the conservative Heritage Foundation—one of the most influential conservative think tanks in the nation. Coronado was also on the board of Equality California, and has helped fundraise for the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and Human Rights Campaign. If right-wing gays like Coronado are influencing the largest liberal state and national organizations, could marriage equality ever be a progressive force of social change?

Marriage Is a Conservative Value

Many progressive queer activists have long argued that the marriage equality movement is fundamentally a conservative movement. Taking a cue from many marriage equality position papers published by LGBT organizations, conservative lawyer Ted Olsen explained his reasons for serving as a lawyer to challenge the Prop 8 decision in California in a Newsweek op-ed

“Same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize. Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and our nation...We encourage couples to marry because the commitments they make to one another provide benefits not only to themselves but also to their families and communities. Marriage requires thinking beyond one's own needs. It transforms two individuals into a union based on shared aspirations, and in doing so establishes a formal investment in the well-being of society. The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance.”

This sounds similar to the arguments used by conservatives for marriage promotion and ending welfare benefits for poor women.

If the same-sex marriage advocates, straight or queer, can use a family values framework, then what is to stop large-scale incorporation of gay and lesbian identity into social conservative logics, especially if LGBT people who desire to have their relationships (which is to say, sexuality) defined by the norms of the mainstream, can continue to demonize people whose bodies and sexualities have always been seen as deviant (black people, street-based urban queer communities, non-monogamous couples, transgender and gender nonconforming people, etc.)? Many of the gay donors who raise money, even for LGBT equality organizations, are “progressives" only because of marriage, and actually do not support most of what the rest of us would call a left agenda (single-payer health care system, collective bargaining, public education, and end to massive imprisonment, reproductive justice, etc.).

In fact, gay NYS senator Tom Duane introduced a “Single Payer for All” health care bill on June 7. I didn't see hedge fund managers lobbying Albany lawmakers to support it to protect the uninsured. To my knowledge none of the LGBT equality organizations sponsored public protests to apply any pressure, either.

It's not that there aren't LGBTQ organizations across the country doing work around health care, education, prison/policing, labor/economic justice, immigration, etc. There are dozens. But those organizations have been underfunded and marginalized by the mainstream movement, in order to squelch political dissent, so that people who want to be allies to queer people assume that all of us want to get married and serve in the military. (Many anti-war activists uncritically celebrated the lifting of “don't ask don't tell” as a major human rights victory, which to me, as a black, gay, anti-imperialist, seems contradictory.)

Similarly,  wealthy white conservative gay men are not the only LGBT people who want the right to get married. And many conservatives who support marriage equality are not Christian conservatives, but support a more libertarian “individual liberties” approach to government. But what's more important here than the desires of any one individual is the impact of what was behind the passage of the bill for same-sex marriage in New York.

Republican “Sea Change” or Triangulation?

Imagine this: What if the Republican party donors or candidates did this in other states, or at the federal level as a way to say to the LGBT community, “We delivered on marriage equality.” By continuing to frame marriage as a conservative value, they could be preparing for a future Republican base that is not opposed to these kinds of “gay issues,” as well as drawing in more gay donors and voters away from the Democratic party—which would be nothing more than political triangulation. Politico recently reported that the Obama 2012 election team is increasingly trying to secure its gay fundraising base, due to parts of the Democratic coalition being frustrated by his complete about-face on issue progressives hoped he'd deliver on, and his big Wall Street donors grumbling about his anti-rich guy rhetoric. While chasing the gay donors is currently working for Obama, Republicans could really use their role in the NYS marriage bill to increase their own support.

On the surface, this marriage equality bill seems like a huge victory for the LGBT community and supporters. But if making legislation is like making sausage, when you look at the insides of the grinder that made the sausage, you realize there's much to be desired, and plenty of mess to be cleaned up.

Kenyon Farrow is the former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice.