Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Marriage vs. healthcare, and guess who loses?

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | May 26, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics, The Movement
Tags: ACT UP, civil disobedience, Clinton campaign, gay marriage, gays in the military, HIV/AIDS, hypocritical motherfuckers, March on Washington, single-payer healthcare, universal health care

Back when I first started doing radical queer direct action (in the early '90s), universal health care was almost a mainstream gay issue. So many people had seen a dramatic percentage of their friends die quickly and painfully of AIDS and wondered: if more of my friends had health care, maybe they would still be alive.

As part of the 1993 national "March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights" (I believe that was the official title), ACT UP planned a national civil disobedience for universal health care at the Capitol. This was a few years after the big actions that gave ACT UP national attention, but I think we were still hoping for hundreds of arrests.

Indeed, a million people attended the main March (an assimilation spectacle if there ever was one), but I think ACT UP ended up with just over a hundred people for our arrest-oriented action, I can't quite remember. I do remember that it was easy to get arrested, all you needed to do was to step onto federal property- which was a driveway- and boom. Although I wonder if you can even get that far now.

But universal health care did not gain the attention we wanted it to (when I say universal health care, I don't mean the current scams perpetuated by Clinton/Obama that strengthen the corporate, profits-first system instead of providing a single-payer solution). Indeed, gays in the military became the banner issue for the gay mainstream, followed within a few years by the big M.

With all of the current focus on the holy institution of matrimony, I sometimes wonder what might have been possible if over the past 15 years as much attention had been brought to bear on universal health care -- all of the energy, resources, engagement, movement building, rhetoric, strategizing... I think we would be so much closer to universal health care, and perhaps even a broad-based social justice movement that included a radical queer politic. Instead, people now look at single-payer health care in this country as nothing but a crazy dream, and somehow marriage is considered "gay," but not the right to health.

Mattilda is most recently the editor of an expanded second edition of That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, and she blogs at

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I'm so glad you wrote this! I was the legal coordinator for that civil disobedience. I had been the legal coordinator for the CD at the Supreme Court after the 1987 March on Washington. What a CD that was! It was part of the official March events. Over 700 people were arrested.

But the CD you are writing about took place in 1993 when Clinton was president, and Barney Frank wrote to the March committee and said there should be NO civil disobedience because it was a new day, and, if my memory if right, he said that he would withdraw his support for the MARCH, and not speak at the rally, if the March endorsed a CD. So the March didn't. The turn out was much smaller. The CD was more like a black-sheep relative of the March.

Also, by 1993, identity politics was overtaking a more inclusive vision of the gay rights movement. We were seeing same-sex partner only domestic partner benefits (instead of the model allowing all unmarried partners access to employee benefits), on the theory that straight couples could (and should) marry to get benefits. Yup-universal health care was not a gay rights issue by then for lots of folks.

I write about this evolution in my chapter on the history of the gay rights movement in my book, BEYOND (STRAIGHT AND GAY) MARRIAGE,

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 26, 2008 10:48 AM

Mattilda, you make a very good point. Universal Health care should come before "marriage." As sorely as I feel restrictions on my rights I want all children, all old people, all defenseless people to have preventative health care. The lives that could be saved, and the comfort that could be given the downtrodden, (Straight & Gay) outweigh the value of marriage at the state level.

Now, Federal level, we are talking some business.

I can also see the value of working relationships with Straight groups around areas of mutual interest that lead to coalition building. Or as they said in Lincoln's time: "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

Another interesting post, Thank you

Let's take a closer look at the level of success that the marriage movement is accused of achieving at the expense of universal health care.

The federal govt trumped the US Constitution and encouraged states to ignore any marriage legislation passed in other states that they didn't like.

Individual states passed their own DOMA (just because they hate us - they didn't necessarily need it). To date 42 states have a DOMA of their very own.

Constitutional amendments have been passed in 27 states, 17 of which ban recognition of any same-sex relationship no matter what is called. This is in addition to the DOMA legislation that exists in all but 2 or 3 of the amended states.

Where is it that you see wasted energy that would have resulted in universal health care? If you want to say that one movement denied the growth/existence of the other, then you are saying that 2 states would have achieved the desired result and 8 others would have some limited and/or watered down version that isn't quite as good as universal coverage, but shows some success nonetheless.

Plus, your argument ignores the fact that while same-sex couples are the main beneficiaries of marriage equality, ALL people would (presumably) benefit from universal health coverage - but you blame LGBTs only for focusing on marriage. They are bar far the only advocates that exist for marriage and very few others have bothered to openly support the concept.

Why is it that we must bear the burden of promoting universal health care when 90% of the population aren't doing it either?

If it were left up to us and the last 18 years were spent on this goal, look at what the results would be: 2 states with coverage, politicians that avoid directly addressing our issue (eg: African American candidates that believe in the promise of states' rights), increased animosity toward us for advocacy, ongoing internal strife from segments of the "community" that think we are selfish, and the blame from allies in the electorate for ruining every election cycle for the past 10 years.

Your argument is full of holes and wishful thinking. There is no reason to believe that universal heath care and marriage equality are mutually exclusive. If the focus were on universal coverage instead of marriage for the past 18 years, would you have been a participant, or would you have stood at the sidelines throwing eggs as the movement became popular because it would no longer appear as fringe/boheme chic?

How could you sell books about anarchy if you participate in a movement? That participation sounds rather revolting, if you ask me.

You know, I happen to think that our broken health care system is the biggest problem that our economy has right now. I strongly believe in Universal Health Care. And yet, I can't get that worked up about it, because there is also no doubt in my mind that if we got it, because I am TS, all of my medical needs would be excluded anyway. Because it would be politically unfeasible to pay for them.

Nancy, that's hilarious that you were the legal coordinator for that action! And thanks for reminding me of that background about the March refusing to endorse the CD (and Barney Frank's role in that, no surprise!) And you're absolutely right about that moment of identity-as-endpoint politics and how that continues to impact us... I have your book right here on the table, and I especially love the way you go right to those personal stories at the very beginning and take apart my marriage is not the solution for each one...

Robert, thanks so much -- and I would add that it's not as much about give and take between different interest groups, but about an integrated politic that sees social justice as something that can only be achieved by fighting all of the hierarchies at once.

Patrick, you are hilarious -- of course I am engaging in wishful thinking, no question about that. But I never said anything about the "success" of the marriage "movement." What I'm saying is absolutely that all of the energy spent fighting for marriage-ONLY could have been more useful if it was spent fighting for universal health care.

Phoebe, that's a great point -- and why we have to fight for universal health care that includes all of our needs.

Whoops, I meant "why marriage," not "my marriage" at the very beginning there -- I know someone's going to accuse me of dropping a little Freudian slap...

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 27, 2008 12:38 AM


Americans won't turn off their televisions long enough to form an integrated politic. There is a reason why "Quid pro Quo" is in Latin.

AKA "horsetrading, log rolling, bargaining" etc.

It is the 3 percent of the population who care and work for what they believe who shape the nature of American democracy.


Without "wishful thinking" where would we be? In it's pure sense I took Mattilda's piece to be a calling to attention that universal rights should have a primacy over "separate but" equal rights.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 27, 2008 4:29 AM

I was initially taken aback by the growth and seriousness of the fight for same sex marriage equality. I’ve always regarded marriage as a crock but it's undergoing profound change. Now more than ever an economic tool to cope with the rapid decline in our standard of living.

Much of the GLBT combativeness on this question was predicated on the hostility and shameful political expediency of Dixiecrats like the Clintons and Republicans like Bush and his theocratic allies. Both parties fought hard for the bigot vote by backstabbing and scapegoating us. Roves Republicans ran circles around slack jawed Clinton and beat him at his own game.

The non stop attacks by the two parties, in a sense, gave the same sex marriage its major impetus. It was the palpable unfairness of the DOMA’s that created the movement for same sex marriage and that same unfairness offends large numbers of straight people, especially it seems in the legal professions.

When politics take an unexpected turn the best thing is support the main energizing questions for the movement. Then we can raise broader political issues like socialized medicine, support for union organizing drives, immigrant rights and adamant opposition to the war/genocide. And we should explain the futility of wasting our energy supporting and voting for Democrats or Republicans and counterpoise to that building our movement and alliances with others.

Bill, I certainly agree with you here:

"we should explain the futility of wasting our energy supporting and voting for Democrats or Republicans and counterpoise to that building our movement and alliances with others."

And, of course I agree that we should "raise broader political issues like socialized medicine, support for union organizing drives, immigrant rights and adamant opposition to the war/genocide," but I don't agree that those things should happen after marriage. And I think the problem with all of the messaging/energy around gay marriage is that it frames marriage as the end goal, the holy grail in the gay civil rights struggle. Think about gay marriage proponents draping themselves in the US flag at every pro-marriage demonstration while the US is carrying on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding the Israeli war on the Palestinians, etc. So I do think gay marriage presses forward at a cost to all of these broader issues.


So I am pro-Israel and anti-Palestine for wanting to get married?

I support the Iraq occupation because I expect the equal protections guaranteed in the 14th amendment?

I want to be eligible for due process consideration when it comes to determining whether or not I should be allowed to have a family - whether you or Randy Thomasson disapprove of it - so that makes me an appeaser?

And naturally I am done participating in any other political issue for the rest of my life once I get married.

If the amendment fails then my work is done right? Everything is just fine as long as I get two states with no federal recognition, mind you...and it only is important because I will be fully assimilated and everyone will love me and wish me well.

Is it really that simple? Is that the true motivation behind the pursuit of marriage?

Social criticism is one thing and building and promoting an either/or dynamic to social policy, like you suggest, is something entirely different. Your position lacks nuance and promotes ignorance in the same way that the California Family Council does with the amendment.

I have always appreciated your anti-heteronormative point of view, but I absolutely reject your attempt to paint me with the same kind of broad brush that is used by right wing religious fanatics that want to categorize my claim for citizenship as a sinister part of a wider agenda.

They say I want to destroy tradition and erase the distinction between M and F. You say I want to cozy up to the Republican (and Democratic) war machine in order to be loved and accepted.

Both of you are wrong and every bit as self-serving as you assume I am - except I get nothing for fighting for justice. I don't get political cache and I don't get to sell books.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 27, 2008 12:41 PM

Mattilda, I doubt that in practical terms we’d disagree on this. We’ll find part of our audience for raising broader questions at rallies and actions around the marriage question, which is prominent now precisely because of the pigheaded opposition of bigots, conservatives and centrists like McCain, Clinton and Obama.

That hardly means that these other questions go on the backburner. The war/ genocide is the central question for all of us and it’s closely followed by the continued attack on our standard of living by the two business parties. Those plus ENDA, hate crimes legislation and questions like NAFTA and socialized medicine should be the primary focus of the left for building our movement and forging alliances.

But we should never lose an opportunity, and the same sex movement it one of many, to raise cutting edge demands that are both eminently reasonable and that propel people into long term struggle because they're opposed by the two parties of business as usual and business for profit.

Mattilda, I agree with you 100%. This is EXACTLY why I hate the marriage equality movement. People are dieing because they don't have access to health care. yes, marriage equality would be a good thing. But where are our fucking priorities?

Patrick, well if you were one of those gay marriage proponents draping yourself in the US flag, well then of course! Otherwise, I'm not sure about this need to act as if everything is a personal attack. The whole notion that anti-assimilationist queers are in the same camp as the Christian right is just a silencing tactic -- I would argue, actually, but the gay marriage movement and the Christian right are mutually interdependent -- they fund each other, they both speak similar rhetoric about what constitutes a family (albeit with a little bit of gender change), etc.

Bill, unfortunately I can't support the gay marriage agenda just because both the odious Democrats and Republicans are against it...

And thank you thank you thank you, Serena.

I completely agree with the assessment of out-of-whack priorities the way you've framed it, but I would add that in many cases the battle over marriage wasn't initiated by us. In Virginia, I'm quite sure that most of our community would much rather have been lobbying for basic protection from employment discrimination in 2006. But the "marriage" amendment was chosen by our opponents as the means to both demonize us and undermine what little security we had in this state. We didn't choose that battle, but we had to fight it.

In the end, the campaign to defeat the amendment failed, but it resulted in a lot of people coming out and talking about their families, and an ongoing conversation about all these other areas in which people did not realize our community suffers discrimination. We're building on that now, and will make advances more quickly than would have been the case if the amendment had never happened. So I don't think the question necessarily divides so neatly as 'this' versus 'that.'

David, thanks for this interesting analysis -- although I certainly think we can fight anti-gay marriage amendments by fighting the virulent homophobia and embracing alternative ways of living, lusting for, and caring for one another -- the visionary creations of queers over generations -- instead of fighting for good ol' gay matrimony.