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The Quest for Equality and the Long Struggle for LGBT Freedom

Michael Bronski is the author of A Queer History of the United States, and is senior lecturer in Women's and Gender Studies and in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. He has written extensively on LGBT issues for four decades, in both mainstream and queer publications.

Book cover for A Queer History of the United States by Michael BronskiAt the same time we celebrate the seventh anniversary of Commonwealth of Massachusetts granting same-sex couples the right to marry in Massachusetts, we must renew our commitment to struggle against state control of our personal lives and our bodies. The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision - the first in the nation, with four other states and the District of Columbia quickly following suit - was a great, and important moment for Massachusetts and the United States. The quest for equality under the law moved one step further to the ideal of the promises of the Constitution.

Equality under the law is one of the traditions in a long history of the struggle for freedom, but it is not the only one, or even the most important, and for GLBT people it is, indeed, the most recently articulated.

American women and men have demanded, not equality under the law, but rather the freedom to make decisions about all aspects of their personal behavior – including, or perhaps especially, their sexual behavior. The ability to make these choices – and to resist state sponsored control of their personal lives –  was, for many, understood to be the bedrock of both individual and collective freedom.

This tradition is embedded in, and drove, the earliest incarnation of the LGBT movement: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, both founded in the 1950s. But this insistence on the ethical imperative that all humans should have the ability to make decisions about their sexual partners and activities has deep roots in American cultural and political traditions. For LGBT people these traditions are vitally important because they were the first manifestations of resistance to dangerous and often deadly attitudes that permeated American culture.  

We see this resistance in the works of Walt Whitman and his celebration of all sexuality  – including same-sex love and activity – at the root of American democracy. We see it in the life and speeches of Victoria Woodhull – the first woman to run for President on a national ticket in 1872 (before she or any other woman in America could vote, of course). She insisted on the doctrine of “free love” and the constitutional right of every American to keep their sexual partners for as long or a short as time as they choose. It is in Emma Goldman’s turn of the century speeches, calling for an end to laws that criminalized homosexual behavior. And we see it in the writings of Alexander Berkman, who wrote movingly of his own homosexual experiences in prison. Harry Hay, the founder of the homophile movement in America in the 1950s, was most concerned that women and men were arrested and jailed for simply having sexual contact with members of their own gender.  

Each of these writers and activists – and many other defenders of personal sexual liberty – saw their liberation as part of a larger political movement for the freedom of all people to live their lives without government or social interference. The larger vision of liberation and the connection to a broader freedom agenda has been lost to some degree as the contemporary LGBT movement focused more narrowly on the rights and needs of LGBT people. 

Attaining the right to marry is an important step to making sure that LGBT Americans have equality under the law. The right effects few people – those who are able to and choose to get married, as well as their children. As we celebrate this anniversary of same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth – an important step towards equal legal rights before the state - we should also consider how far we have to go until LGBT people are truly liberated from the state and social controls that surround us.