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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity