Lez Miserable: "I want a gigantic, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love"

The instinctive urge to get married is a hard one to rationalise, finds Eleanor Margolis, but she could do without being judged by other members of the gay community.

It’s not often that I’m moved by Muppets. I can appreciate that Kermit has a hard time being green and Oscar the Grouch is a depressive who lives in a dustbin. That’s some reasonably high quality pathos, but it doesn’t quite reduce me to tears. Seeing Bert and Ernie, outed as a gay couple, on the other hand, snuggled up on the sofa on last week’s DOMA-bashing New Yorker cover got me genuinely choked up (the happy sort). And, frankly, I don’t know who I am any more. The controversial cover is not only exceptionally twee, but arguably irreverent towards the bitterly-fought battle for gay rights that has a rainbow coloured trail of carnage leading right back to the Stonewall riots of the 60s. Yet I found myself looking at two of my favourite childhood characters in a state of gay domestic bliss and thinking, “I want that.”

So there we have it, last week, a pair of fuzzy-faced humanoids made me want to get married and spawn 2.4 biblically-named children. I haven’t been this easily influenced by the Muppets since Sesame Street gave me the low-down on the letter D when I was a toddler. OK – this feeling isn’t entirely new. I’ve always had a thing for monogamy. And cake. Sentimentality? Not so much. Weddings I can take or leave. The “take” part is mostly free booze-driven. So why the hell would I want to get married?

There’s a small but loud voice within the LGBT community that throws scorn on the idea of queers aping a heteronormative institution. I can see where this rowdy lot are coming from – what’s the point in marriage in the first place? But I just can’t bring myself to join them. Every time I see gays slating gay marriage, I feel this weird pang of sadness. Weddings may well be these bizarrely ritualistic and mawkish conformity-fests, but there’s no reason why the entire institution of marriage should be hetero-owned. If gays want to appropriate a slightly fusty, traditionally straight practice, who gives a white, frilly frock? Rejecting a right that’s been so ferociously fought for is one thing, but labelling those who embrace it as traitors to the queer cause is hateful.

Plus, what’s going to hurt the homophobes more: bile-flecked in-fighting about the intricacies of queer politics or a gigantic, bacchanalian, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love? Bitterly judging members of our own community for “selling out” is a pretty poor approach to making the world less shitty for LGBT people. Why not, instead, take our gigantic hard-ons for one another and rub them in the haters’ faces?

I’ve tried to work out exactly what it is that makes me want to get married and I can’t. It’s almost an instinctive urge though, so I’m willing to accept that I’ve been socially conditioned. A part of me definitely sees gay weddings as a big middle finger to the conservatives and religious nutjobs who think they own marriage. There’s no doubt that I want to play a part in that middle finger brandishing. But saying a loud, “fuck you”, to society seems like a dysfunctional reason to celebrate your love for someone. Maybe a part of me (my inner child?) just wants to wear a pretty dress and throw a party for all the people I love. But what about the spending the rest of my life with one person part? Maybe that should scare me, but it doesn’t. Being single, I’m a long way off that kind of commitment and I’m still not averse to having fun. But I imagine that if I were having more casual sex, I’d be starting to get bored with it.

Whatever my reasons for wanting to get married may be, I feel it’s my right not to be judged by members of my own community. Hey – fellow gays - let’s leave the judging to Norman Tebbit, yeah? With the UK’s brand new equal marriage legislation, I’m looking  forward to getting my first gay wedding invitations from my friends in relationships. No pressure, guys.

Now find out whether same-sex marriage could threaten traditional gender roles (clue: only if it magically turned everyone gay).

 

A same-sex marriage supporter outside the Supreme Court in the US. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.