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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser