A Study in ‘Queer’ Liberalism: Why I Resent the Same Sex Marriage Debate
WORDS BY BELLA DEVINE-POULOS
The idea of the family as the means by which individuals achieve satisfying, mutually enhancing relationships (and nurture children) is rhetoric that would be familiar to anyone who has followed the same-sex marriage debate: and it’s rhetoric being mobilised by both sides. The no campaign will argue that marriage is really just about raising children, and gay people don’t have procreative sexual lives so they should be excluded (and in fact, raising children is also about marriage - see ‘every child has the right to a mother and father’). The yes campaign will argue that all people deserve equal access to the ability to ‘love’; that marriage is the apex of an individual’s commitment to another person, and therefore a civil right that should be extended to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual ones.
The irony of having this rhetoric coming from the Left and from LGBT communities is that it ignores the ways in which our identities have always been negatory towards the family unit, as well as forged outside of it. Our sexual practices, experiences and relationships have always been less traditional, less procreative, less formalised and less ritualised than that of heterosexual people - and not by any accident. In order to understand this, an historical perspective is needed.
The first important thing to remember is that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (and the ‘LGBT community’ as a whole) are a product of history. We have come into history in a specific historical era defined by its material conditions. These identities are not eternal - they haven’t always existed, even though homosexual behaviour has. In other words, the language we use to describe our identities, and the meanings that are attached to them, vary very much depending on the world in which we live.
In explaining the development of these specific identities, its important to look at the context in which they emerged. The terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ both originate in the late 20th century, during the age in which capitalism had become industrialised, and the western world was moving away from subsistence living. In the context of entrenched market dependence, where individuals make their living by participating in the labour market, and access their needs (and wants) as commodities and services accessible by the market, the family took on a new significance as the means through which men and women formed satisfying, mutually enhancing relationships and created an environment that nurtured children, rather than the family being a necessary part of the average person’s existence, with children serving as the labour necessary to maintain a subsistence living. In this way the family has become the setting for personal life, especially in the context of the strict distinction people experience between their private, personal lives and the public world of work and production.
As the birthrate dropped throughout the 20th century, and advances in women’s rights occurred, it became possible for sexuality to not merely be for the purpose of procreation, but also for the purposes of intimacy and pleasure. People were not only marrying for some financial arrangement, or for survival - they were marrying to affirm their love and commitment to one another too. Heterosexual people could construct their lives around their sexual and romantic relationship to the opposite sex, and so too did LGBT people form communities around their sexual identities, as survival no longer depended on participation in a nuclear family. This later stage of capitalism had made it so that wage-labour was now the exclusive means to survival rather than the subsistence of different family units, particularly in the latter part of the 20th century.
Gay communities sprung up in the early 20th century in different forms - gay bars, balls, bathhouses, political societies and social clubs. Men in particular could construct personal lives independent of heterosexual relationships. The construction of these communities, and the consequent larger visibility of homosexuality and gender non-conformity led to greater state intervention in the oppression of LGBT minorities, at the same time as creating a somewhat organised force to fight back against that same oppression.
Capitalism has undermined the necessity of the family unity for survival, making the rising divorce rate entirely unsurprising, but it has replaced this with a model of intimacy and emotional (and sexual) fulfilment that continues to marginalise non-heterosexual individuals. There is an ideology surrounding the family and marriage itself that needs maintenance and reinforcement. This reinforcement is the domain of the political right, and is a major issue for conservatives and fascists alike at the moment. The private family fits well into the capitalist relations of production, where the products of labour belong to the owners of private property. In the family, sexual and self-reproduction, as well as child rearing are all private tasks, and children are effectively the private property of their parents. The family also acts as a stabilisation mechanism for the harshness of the market system: it acts as a place to reside and seek non-market financial support especially in childhood and young adulthood. And in this nuclear family model, children internalise a heteronormative model of intimacy and personal relationships, a normativity that is in that way reproduced over and over, generation to generation.
The political (and religious) right, in its backlash against queer identity, uses a pro-family model to make its case, and is responsible for the majority of the homophobic vitriol within public discourse. But the majority of the LGBT community at present in Australia, in the midst of a same-sex marriage postal survey, has not chosen to argue against and reject this pre-eminence of the nuclear family and of marriage itself in the interests of challenging these homophobic norms: it has instead chosen to argue to assimilate into this model of personal life.
Approaches to LGBT mobilisation over history have fallen into similar problems. In the past, the idea was that gay people were disliked because they just weren’t visible enough: that coming out was the best form of activism because it would make gay people more visible. We now know that being ‘visibly’ gay or trans can mean more, rather than less, exposure to homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination in the street, in school, in the workplace and in our own family units.
Other approaches have included convincing straight people that we are ‘just like them’ (similar to the same-sex marriage campaign) in that homosexuality and transsexuality are innate, just as heterosexuality is, and that this innateness is what makes it valid and worthy of acceptance. This, of course, ignores the historical and spatial specificity of the construction of queer sexuality and gender identity, and argues a ‘born this way’ narrative that cannot really be verified. Not only that, but at best it limits our existences to broad definitions of our sexual practices (even though queer sexuality - like heterosexuality - is incredibly diverse) and at worst relies on biological essentialist constructions of gender. We shouldn’t be accepted because we’re scientifically proved to be ‘natural’ - we should be accepted because there’s nothing fucking wrong with being gay!
The approach to combatting homophobia represented by the very concept of same-sex marriage is similar to these earlier (and enduring) approaches, in that it does nothing to challenge the material foundations of homophobia and transphobia - the model of personal life represented by the family unit, the ideology surrounding it, and the market-based system of private wage-labour and private ownership that preconditions it. If homophobia is tied to the privatised, isolated family unit, then there is a limit to how successful challenging homophobia will be in the context of the pervasive ideology of the family unit that is constantly being reproduced, even by the yes campaign.
The fact that movements against homophobia have not been as successful as might have been hoped is largely unsurprising considering the this movement has largely been a civil rights movement. As an aide, similar conclusions could be made about the women’s rights and anti-racist movements also.
Restricted to the domains of incrementally expanding queer civil rights as enshrined in law (the right to have sex, the right to civil unions, the right to adopt, the right to freedom from workplace discrimination etc.), the movement has entirely worked within a liberal civil rights framework that is commensurate with current forms of governance and ‘civil society’. In other words, in fighting for ‘equality’ to heterosexuals despite our identities being forged entirely differently to theirs, we have largely ignored fighting for ‘liberation’ from the underlying social and economic conditions in which these identities are forged, let alone the ideologies that surround them. This means that our identities, in their whitewashed, sanitised and assimilated forms, and even the gains of our political movements can be co-opted and recuperated by the political class, private capital and even the political right, as ‘liberal’ states like Israel and Canada use their LGBT rights record to distract from their colonial bases, businesses use a gay-friendly facade to market themselves, and the far-right uses rhetoric about homophobia and Islam to bolster their anti-immigration politic. Radical LGBT mobilisations are largely ignored by the liberal media, under-supported by the community and the population at large, and broken up and destroyed by repressive state power.
Of immediate concern to me is the fact that the same-sex marriage debate has driven a wedge between the conservative/religious right, and liberal supporters of same-sex marriage who value ‘equal rights’. I, for one, fundamentally resent this, and I will only begrudgingly respond ‘yes’ to the postal survey.
The yes campaign has drowned out radical critiques of marriage as a patriarchal institution and a source of homophobia and transphobia which should ultimately be abolished, as should the ideology surrounding it. It also relies on arguments that seek to recuperate queer identities into the norms of the family unit that those same identities have historically rejected and been forged outside of. The campaign for same-sex marriage is effectively a proxy war for the ‘acceptance’ of homosexuality (within the same society, the same conditions which produce homophobia), but rests on an argument that marriage is a civil right, effectively reifying that same patriarchal and ideologically anti-queer institution. It is worth noting that before the same-sex marriage debate marriage was not positioned in the public discourse as a civil right, and that this represents the most lasting ideological shift in Australian civil society since the debate ramped up than any actual change on the perception of gay and trans people.
In fact, not only has the yes campaign created a situation in which opposition to same-sex marriage constitutes homophobia (e.g. voting no in the postal survey), it has also presented a construction of queer identities that are narrow and by no means represent the majority of the community. The messaging and imagery around the campaign has been predominately of white, middle-class, monogamous gay people - a slim percentage of the queer community that is all populated by feminist lesbians with no interest in marriage, gender non-conforming and ‘visibly ‘ trans individuals, polyamorous people, sex workers, and so on.
In addition, the yes campaign has actively avoided showing solidarity to aspects of the queer community who have engaged in more radical pursuits than repeating that ‘love is love’ and endlessly emphasising the right to marriage. When fascists recently mobilised at a memorial beside the Sydney Jewish Museum to queer victims of the holocaust, the yes campaign asked people not to counter-rally on account of the ‘damage’ it might do to the campaign through negative media reporting. Never mind the contradiction between wanting to fight homophobia and letting nazis insult a memorial to queer victims of fascist violence, never mind the fact that it would mean capitulating to a hostile conservative media and their endlessly negative portrayals of LGBT people - never mind the fact that most people have already posted their ballots anyway! All that matters is making our community look obedient, ‘normal’ and pacified. To me, the campaign (especially its bureaucratic elements) have forgotten what this fight was even supposed to be about.
The truth is, I don’t want to be a straight person in drag. I have no interest in an outmoded institution that straight people themselves are abandoning in droves, nor am I interested in pandering to homophobes. I want a radical queer movement that recognises the political agency of its members. I want a radical queer movement where we show solidarity with one another, rather than trying to discredit methods of direct action. I want a radical queer movement where we don’t try to prove how much we are like straight people, but where we embrace the history of our community and stay true to our roots. I want a radical queer movement that encompasses all of us - especially those who cannot or don’t want to assimilate into mainstream conceptions of citizenship and respectability. And I want a radical queer movement that can see a bigger picture and has a long-term, optimistic and uncompromising vision of the future.