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How conservatives hijacked the gay movement

The focus on gay marriage shows how the movement has lost its teeth.

New Statesman
Same-sex marriage advocates at the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade on 3 March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Despite some hemming and hawing from the Tory backbenches, the coalition government looks likely to - eventually - pass same-sex marriages in England and Wales into law. The “consultation” stage of the process continues until 14 June, but whatever the outcome, gay marriage is definitively on the political table. Senior Anglicans write letters in favour of it. David Cameron supports it  “not despite" but "because” he is a Conservative. The Times writes openly in favour of it, as does ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie.

There are also plenty of conservative opponents, of course, the odious “Coalition for Marriage” and Cardinal Keith O’Brien being among the most vocal, but every minority cause will have its detractors. There are still some people who believe in creationism (indeed, a venn diagram depicting creationism belief amongst Coalition for Marriage supporters would be illuminating).

The government’s commitment to gay marriage, in one sense, reflects a great gradual shift in public opinion. If there are equal marriage supporters amongst even those with conservative or orthodox religious inclinations, we’ve come a long way. Wonderful news, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people will finally have the rights allocated by default to those of a heterosexual persuasion! The early activists of the Gay Liberation Front would be thrilled with the progress we’ve made.

Except on this matter, they wouldn’t. The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 have passed into legend as the catalyst for the modern Anglo-American gay liberation movement; in 2012, we’ve forgotten what the fight was originally about. The image of racially mixed drag queens, dykes and poor street queers fighting back against police brutality is about as far from the contemporary ideal of the well-off assimilationist gay as you can get. The matching Volvos and semi-detached houses of buttoned-up 21st century gay(-friendly) conservatives are representative of a different, diluted era, and rather a saddening one.

Equal rights as an end goal reflect an understandable desire for an easier life. There’s a strong logic in the idea that normalising same-sex desire entails less stigma, trauma, and violence directed towards LGBT people. But a quick search for “gay marriage” on most-read British LGBT news website Pink News returns 3617 results, compared to 1247 for “violence”, or for “poverty”, a measly 178. Make no mistake, this is not because violence or poverty have ceased to be issues for LGBT people. More likely, the coverage reflects the dominance of the interests of white, middle-class, educated, and dare I say it, conservative gays and lesbians in the movement.

The trend towards gay conservatism and assimilation into the straight, respectable  mainstream was first flagged up by queer theorist Michael Warner in his 1999 book, The Trouble With Normal. Far from being about “love” or “recognition”, marriage, according to Warner, is a method of state regulation, used to expand the rule of law into the sex lives, in particular, of the unmarried. Thirteen years later, anti-normative politics within queer and trans* communities are ever more strong and sophisticated, but such radical voices go largely unheard by the LGB mainstream.

From asserting a powerful political critique of the heterosexual organisation of society - to which monogamous marriage between two people is central - the loudest, strongest sections of the gay movement have set their sights on becoming just the same. Apart from the small matter of sexual gender preference, which, they are now saying, doesn’t really make any difference whatsoever. We’re just like you, honest! Please like us!

Moreover, prioritising equal marriage as a cause has actively meant the exclusion of other important approaches. Where are the campaigns against the poisonous ideology which supports financial and political reward for those who are married? If, as is often suggested, children with two married parents are happier and “do better”, what about some research unpicking the impact that politically privileging one family model has on children’s happiness and success? How about questioning the Disney-esque ideal of life trajectory as “true love”, marriage, and happily ever after?

Dogmatic belief in the magic power of two, conveniently ignores the existence of alternative family models - cohabiting parents, non-sexual parental friendships, multiply-partnered families, familial communities. Queer relationships are invisible under such a system, but where marriage is a declining practice, these other ways of relating are burgeoning.

The “Conservative case for gay marriage” is spot on. If you want to reinvigorate social conservatism for the austerity generation, it makes sense to support equal marriage. The pity is the gay movement is buying into it. Hijacked by those we used to stand in political opposition to, today’s gay movement has lost its teeth.