Sunday, 27 October 2013

All my friends are getting married

Earlier this week the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a Marriage Equality Bill, making it the first Australian jurisdiction to give same sex couples the right to marry.  I took a keen interest in the coverage of this bill because I lived in Canberra for many years and came out there.  In some strange way I still think of it as ‘home’.  One of the women who was interviewed in the news coverage was someone I shared a house with twenty years ago.  I was not surprised.  She was what you might call the ‘marrying kind’.  She wanted nothing more than a quiet life and a home and someone to love her.  Last I heard she’d found all of those things.
Because I’ve never found someone to love me on anything more than a short-term basis, the whole marriage debate has always seemed a little remote.  It’s like the financial crisis in Iceland: it’s important and there are real issues involved, but it doesn’t affect me personally. 

Five years ago, the other dyke in the office asked me, ‘what do you think about gay marriage?’  I had to stop and think about it, because I hadn’t before that – not really.  ‘I think it would be nice,’ I said finally,  ‘If poof and dykes who want to get married, could.’

Nice.  That word sticks in my memory.  I didn’t think of it as a human right issue.  I didn’t think it was important.  I didn’t think it would become the defining gay rights issue of the decade, and I certainly didn’t think it was possible in my lifetime. 

I was wrong.  I’ve been wrong about a lot of political issues, usually because I’m pessimistic.  Gay marriage is a case in point, because the last five years have seen a major shift in attitudes towards it.  Many of the more progressive states in the US have legislated to allow it.  Earlier this year it became legal in New Zealand, and it’s now legal in the ACT.  According to some polls, as many as 60% of Australians are in favour of it.  This moved even my cranky old radical mother – now in her 70s – to ask, ‘Why are they in favour of it?  Do you think they just want gays to shut up and leave them alone?’

‘No, I don’t.’ I answered.  ‘I think they think it’s fair.’ 

Many Australians – possibly most – now support marriage equality.  They might not be gay rights advocates and they might not be people I want to have over to dinner, but in their own way they have heard the arguments about love and commitment and equality and they think that marriage equality is fair enough. 

Not everybody, obviously.  Not the 30,000 people and organisations that made submissions opposing marriage equality to a Senate Inquiry last year (over 40,000 made submissions in favour of it).  Or, more importantly, the former Prime Minister, the Honourable Julia Gillard.  Gillard did not enforce a bloc vote in the Labor Party on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill in the federal parliament last year.  Instead, she allowed a conscience vote, and the bill failed.  She herself voted against it.

Gillard does not have a reputation as a homophobe (in contrast to the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott).  Nonetheless, she made her opposition to gay marriage known.  In her recent post-election interview with Anne Summers, this is what she had to say on the issue:

‘If someone had said to me, as a twenty year old, “what about you get into a white dress to symbolise virginity and you get your father to walk you down an aisle and give you away to a man who’s waiting at the end of the aisle,” I would have looked with puzzlement, like, “What on earth would I do that for?”  I’m conscious that maybe these views have dated and maybe the way that people interpret marriage now is different to the kinds of interpretations that I had.  I think that marriage in our society could play its traditional role and we could come up with other institutions which value partnerships, which value love, which value lifetime commitment.  I have a lifetime commitment and haven’t felt the need at any point to make that into a marriage so, I know that’s a really different reasoning to most people come at these issues but that’s my reasoning.’

To be sure, her reasoning is very different to that of the former Leader of the Opposition and now PM, Tony Abbott, but the effect is the same.  Like many other people on the progressive side of politics, I have a lot of respect for Gillard.  She got a shitty deal as Prime Minister.  She was treated disgracefully, and yet she achieved a great deal.  This, though, is pure hypocrisy.  Gillard doesn’t believe in marriage?  What did she do to de-construct the institution of marriage that she has such issues with?  Nothing, except to stop gay people from getting married too. Gillard spent much of that interview telling us all how equality of opportunity was what motivated her to go into politics, yet she wants to deny gays and lesbians the same opportunities that she has.  If she doesn’t want to get married, that’s her right and her choice.  But she has no right to force that choice on others. 

Gillard isn’t the only person who holds this view.  Indeed, many gays and lesbians hold some version of this view.  I’ve heard it a lot, in the inner-city queer circles that I move in: that marriage is an oppressive patriarchal institution that poofs and dykes should not aspire to.  They could be right.  One says, ‘I learned about politics from a lesbian feminism that was critical of marriage, and from a queer Stonewall rebellion whose street kids and drag queens look nothing like today's new normals’. 

A related view is that the whole campaign for marriage equality is essentially misguided: an expression of the increasing assimilation of the gay and lesbian community.  Here’s an example:  ‘gay marriage lobbyists misguidedly claim they have majority support; that marriage is a right; and that gay marriage is about equality. Their demand for gay marriage is anything but radical or progressive, but rather conservative,’ one man writes.  ‘It is about politics and conformity. It relies on the presumption that marriage is virtuous: a standard to which we all should aspire, a respectable status symbol and thus a desirable thing. The real question that should be debated is not whether gay marriage should be allowed, but rather, is marriage really something we need anymore? Perhaps we ought to celebrate difference, rather than conformity’. [1]

Another expression of the same sentiment goes something like this: ‘marriage is ok, but there are more important things for queers to be worrying about’.  For example, Dennis Altman, scion of the Australian gay rights movement, wrote, ‘the marriage debate has opened up a strange generational gap, where a few aging liberationists are uneasy with what a younger generation of activists, often irrespective of their own sexuality, see as a matter of basic human rights. We used to worry about being beaten up … Young queers now worry about the cost of wedding receptions’. 

Altman is showing his age - and his ageism - in this.  Plenty of young queers are also opposed to gay marriage, just as plenty of older ones support it, but Altman’s unease is not directed toward them.  It reminds me of the resentment that some older feminists show toward younger women who ‘don’t care’ about feminism.  I can’t help wondering...isn’t that a good thing?  Isn’t it a good thing that many gays and lesbians are thinking about celebrating their love rather than getting beaten up?  Isn’t that precisely what those gay liberation struggles were trying to achieve?   

More importantly, I’m struck by how out of touch these arguments are.  The marriage debate has galvanised a whole generation of gays and lesbians, many of whom have never been engaged in politics in their lives.  That includes many older ones too, who, despite Altman’s representation of the halcyon days of gay rights, were never engaged.  It’s engaged straight people too, who are thinking and talking about a gay issue in a way that they haven’t since AIDS came along, except that this time, many more of them are on our side.  The radicals don’t care about any of that.  The ‘people’, the ‘normals’ – they are misguided.  They are victims of false consciousness.  We know what’s best for them.  We know what’s really important and what you should care about.  Sound familiar?

They could be right, of course.  Marriage equality won’t stop people being beaten up.  It won’t cure homophobia.  It won’t cure inequality or discrimination.  It might help, or it might not.  It might even make things worse.  We don’t know. 

But here’s a thought.  It’s a hundred years this year since Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in England. 

She was campaigning for votes for women.  This took decades to achieve, as women’s suffrage  was widely opposed: by conservative men, by conservative women, and by some radical women and men.  Emma Goldman, heroine of the left, was one who opposed it.   ‘Woman's demand for equal suffrage is based largely on the contention that woman must have the equal right in all affairs of society,’ she wrote.  ‘No one could, possibly, refute that, if suffrage were a right.  Alas, for the ignorance of the human mind, which can see a right in an imposition’.[2] 

Goldman believed that voting is an imposition.  This is the very same argument that is made against marriage: that is a burden rather than a right.  Goldman didn’t think voting would change anything.  She didn’t think it would really help women, or the poor, or the oppressed.  And some would still argue that she was right, because it didn’t produce equality for women.  It didn’t lead to social revolution.  But who, today, would argue that women should not have the vote? 

[1] David Vakalis, ‘Marriage Rights?’, Arena, 2012
[2] Emma Goldman, ‘Woman suffrage,’ Anarchism and other essays, 1917

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