Originally published in The ISIS, the longest-running student magazine in the world created by students at the University of Oxford.
On Wednesday, 17th July 2013, same-sex marriage, having passed through the Commons and Lords with landslide majorities, was given royal assent and written into law. Stonewall rejoiced. Nominally progressive politicians self-congratulated. And the neoliberal Twitterati glutted themselves on emotionally incontinent hashtags. The word ‘history’ tattooed itself on front pages and Facebook walls. The passing of same-sex marriage ushered in a new era of equality.
But for whom was the day historic? For whom was a new era of equality beginning?
The answer is not the full LGBTQ* spectrum. Marriage was indeed a final legislative step towards a kind of equality for some. For the most politically important and financially influential tranche of the community – the white, wealthy, middle-class, gay, cisgender men and women in stable employment with a long term partner –– marriage equality was one of the final legislative barriers to overcome.
Stonewall, The Coalition for Equal Marriage and a slew of other queer organisations mobilised the mainstream LGBTQ* community and its allies as few causes in recent years have. Enormous funding was poured into the campaign, and it was made the queer issue in the public eye.
Whether, and why, it should have been accorded such primacy seems to have gone without question in many mainstream LGBTQ* organisations, and by many of the LGBTQ* themselves. But dissent did exist. This was not a universally welcomed move. Even Stonewall, albeit for financial reasons and only briefly, were initially sceptical.
On the fringes, important critiques were taking place. Queer theory was hostile to marriage.
Against Equality, a radical queer collective, saw same-sex marriage as misguided, overfunded, and an essentially harmful campaign privileging assimilation over liberation.
They proposed the notion that same-sex marriage was yet another state manipulation of personal relationships as a means of social regulation. Marriage had historically ensured man’s ownership of woman, and guaranteed enslavement for children born of slaves. For the state, they argued, same-sex marriage was about the extension of control, not a desire to liberate the oppressed.
Instead of seeking to undermine hierarchies of socially acceptable sexual behaviour, one of the bases for gender and sexuality-based discrimination, same-sex marriage campaigners were consolidating the emphasis Western society places on (thus far) heteronormative practice. Radical queers of all ages feared that the polyamorous, the single, and the multiple parent families that had been the staple of many outcast queer communities would be further demonised, this time from within the increasingly normalised and regulated community.
Queerness, essentially, was being tamed, and in its place, a new homonormativity was being installed. Same-sex marriage was going to ensure the placation of the most influential (and least oppressed) on the spectrum. Those most in need would find their allies gone. Queer activism would be demobilised, wealthy, white gays and lesbians depoliticised.
Many will balk at the word ‘homonormativity’ and dismiss the above critique as symptomatic of the world of theory dislocated from grassroots campaigning and practice, but depoliticisation and demobilisation are very real threats, ones that stand to harm the most vulnerable infinitely more than the ivory tower.
Theory was trying to fight for those most in need, not simply for the influential backers of LGBTQ* organisations. It was exposing the limited scope of same-sex marriage’s audience within the community, and the conservatism of the thought process behind the movement. Simultaneously, it tried to refocus attention on what it considered more worthy causes.
The ongoing AIDS crisis, queer youth homelessness, and queer mental health issues had been engulfed by the equal marriage campaign. Old and new paths for LGBTQ* activism were being effaced as marriage came to seem like the only issue queers had to fight for.
Marriage has functioned as yet another milestone in the historicisation of the queer HIV/AIDS crisis. Never has HIV/AIDS seemed less pressing an issue than during the heady euphoria of marriage equality’s success. It is symptomatic of a wider trend, a generational rift between the old queers and the young. The older generation dealt with the AIDS crisis, with the illegality of homosexuality, and with open and state-sanctioned discrimination; the younger has seen equal adoption rights, (nominally) equal workplace opportunities, civil partnerships and now equal marriage rights. It understandably seeks to dislocate itself from a morbid past.
Yet the queer HIV/AIDS crisis is far from over. Figures released by the Health Protection Agency in 2010 posited that, nationally, one in twenty men who have sex with men (MSM) are now infected. In London, the figure jumps to one in eleven. To put that figure into context, the proportion of men (including MSM) living with HIV in the UK was estimated to be only 1 in 500. In addition, figures released by Public Health England demonstrated yet more worryingly that infection rates were on the rise. Amongst MSM nationally, infection rates rose by 8% during 2012.
Queers are hugely over-represented in any form of AIDS statistics, particularly queers of colour. Yet awareness seems shockingly indequate. An approximated 20% of those infected in the UK currently are unaware that they are HIV-positive.
While HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence in Western communities, a life with the side effects of antiretrovirals can still be crippling, particularly when compounded by intense social stigma. In the rhetoric of love and equality, the awareness of death, discrimination and contagion was silenced.
Same-sex marriage detracted from queer activism’s focus on not just HIV/AIDS, but lesser-known issues too. Youth homelessness and mental health issues are social ills in which queers are disproportionately represented. The media attention they receive is negligible. And when competing against a cause as uplifting as same-sex marriage, they cannot help but be eclipsed.
In the UK, it is estimated that 7% of homeless youth are LGBTQ*, while only 1.5% of the population are LGB (Office for National Statistics’ Integrated Housing Survey). This survey was limited in scope, and more comprehensive studies in the US estimate that between 25 and 42% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ*. The same study went on to show that 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized, compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth (National Coalition for the Homeless), and that queer homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%).
Among the non-homeless LGBTQ* we find markedly increased rates of mental health illness too. 53 per cent of under-24-year-olds had thought seriously about suicide. 19 per cent of under-24-year-olds had been prescribed medication for depression in the previous 12 months.
To those living with HIV, to the homeless queer youth, and to those suffering with mental health issues, same-sex marriage was not the panacea required. Awareness is a primary issue with all three of these threats to the queer community, and awareness was precisely what the marriage campaign siphoned off.
The chance to make history is appealing. The symbolism of same-sex marriage was intoxicating. It was the perfect cause to pique public interest: it was about love; it was about family; it was about equality. It had the financial backing to ensure exposure and success. And it led to a definite, achievable goal that guaranteed a feeling of gratification for all those campaigning, queer or otherwise.
HIV/AIDS, homelessness and mental health issues will not be eradicated, in the foreseeable future at least. Campaigners campaign in the knowledge that they will never triumph completely; they do not have same-sex marriage’s light at the end of the tunnel. They will, at best, enjoy incremental progress, but work in the knowledge that they are helping those most in need. It is to these causes that activism must return.
Same-sex marriage has exposed a worrying trend. A desire to chase the historical moments and the great leaps forward. While these lynchpin events are too often what history hangs on, it is rarely of equal significance for the minority groups living under oppressive societies.
LGBTQ* activism must re-evaluate its goals, and reorient its funds towards helping the most vulnerable within its community. Instant gratification should be eschewed for longer term progress. It must not silence its radical voices, and should question the philosophy behind its activism at every turn.
Same-sex marriage was only the right move for the conservative and the privileged in the community. It was not the step forward the queers more broadly needed.
The article in its original format can be read here.