The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

As legislative battles for same-sex equality have rumbled on in western countries over the last fifteen years, each successive victory has concentrated attention increasingly upon gay marriage as the lodestone issue around which everything else orbits. This narrow focus is becoming increasingly problematic for sexual rights movements in the Global South and for those of us concerned with gender and sexual plurality within the UK.

Significantly, those working to rid the statute books of discrimination are increasingly crossing party-political borders. Current Conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron, facilitated last week’s attainment of legalised UK same-sex civil marriage. The British Government are not outliers in this regard – in the teeth of unexpectedly robust opposition, France also legalised gay marriage in the last couple of months, and the US Supreme Court successfully ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), opening up space for state by state marriage equality to blossom. Political discourse around homosexuality has been transformed irrevocably in the West and is prized increasingly as a signifier of modernity amongst politicians.

The passing of this Bill hasn’t stymied scepticism around Cameron’s motives by equality activists, bloggers and in the Twitter-sphere. Yet in fairness to him, Cameron has invested more political capital in this issue than he needed or could afford. Alongside the continuing antagonism towards European Union membership, gay marriage has become a significant rupture point between him, his backbenchers and party activists. I’d argue, however, that supporting gay marriage could prove in the longer term to be an astute call for social conservatives in sidelining the radical edge of sexual minorities.

On a personal note, I have mixed feelings about last week’s news. Whilst dismantling inequitable laws that discriminate against same-sex individuals is always laudable and something I’ve personally championed in my own activism, there is a nagging feeling that alongside the positive and affirming evolution this will bring to wider society’s acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage could succeed in closing down debate about alternative relationship models and family structures, already struggling to gain acceptance and airtime.

Folding same-sex monogamous marriage into a state-sanctioned model that provides institutional clout, tax breaks and economic advantages could serve to homogenize groups that have traditionally represented a challenge to established thinking around the family. The political struggles of the LGBT movement have always been grounded in an existential challenge to gender essentialism and a heteronormativity that suffocates heterosexual people just as completely as queer folk. Twenty years ago, our opponents attacked us for our promiscuity, now they oppose us for aspiring to a relationship model that has become increasingly problematic. Alongside the growth of individualism, consumerism and globalization, an interchangeable western gay identity ‘The Gay International’ is taking root that is squeezing out the economically disadvantaged, ossifying gender behaviours and invisibilising alternative models of sexual-ness from the Global South.

Similarly, Cameron’s off the cuff comments in the last few days about ‘exporting the bill team’ who worked to help pass the legislation into law has already drawn the British Government into another round of conflict with southern sexual rights activists, who are already seeing the first signs of a renewed media and political backlash in their home countries against perceived western imperialist intervention. In truth, Cameron was talking about supporting those states going down the same route as the UK rather than opponents of homosexual equality, but his poor memory over his similarly misjudged comments around aid conditionality two years ago points to him playing to the domestic audience at the expense of those at the sharp end of homophobic injustice.

Worryingly, I’m keenly aware that this stance can resonate with even the most progressive LGBT people in the UK, hearing weekly reports of violence and oppression in countries such as Russia, Uganda and Malawi. Those of us fighting for more nuanced political strategies around global sexual rights need to urgently examine how we can both hold the UK Government’s feet to the fire on these issues, but also influence the expectations and strategies demanded by ordinary constituents to reflect the needs and priorities of our partners in the Global South.

So, as the dust settles and same-sex couples begin celebrating their first marriages, we must not lose sight of the less helpful political implications to arise from same-sex marriage. Are sexual minorities becoming incorporated into a new moral straitjacket? How do we retain spaces within and without political discourse for the protection of sexual freedom, such as polyamory? Are political parties and LGBT organisations becoming imbedded in hegemonic privilege and identity politics, divorced from the marginalised, poorer voices of sexual minorities and their very material concerns? Marriage equality isn’t the end of the road for the gay rights movement, but the start of a much more complicated conversation.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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