How conservatives hijacked the gay movement

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

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.

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

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.