How Gay Liberation became a Family Values movement

As it’s presently constructed, the LGBT movement is probably less than a decade away from achieving all of it’s major aims in most Western societies: centrally, same-sex couples having the right to marry and raise children, and, more broadly, equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions such as the military, the police, or the boardroom. Inevitably, this will mean a massive demobilization and depoliticisation among LGBT people and the collapse of much of whatever activist networks currently exist, as, demonstrably, we will have achieved pretty much everything we are currently demanding.

But equality is not liberation. Paradoxically, even as gay concerns become increasingly mainstream and everyone from major corporations, to the English Defence League, to apartheid Israel scramble to feel the benefits of positive pink PR, we are hardly closer to liberating our sexualities from the bridle of conservative/religious moralism.

Instead, we have sought, and are beginning to be granted, inclusion within heteronormative structures, namely marriage, but only on the understanding that the basic form and logic of marriage is to remain unchanged. In fact, this very concession is at the core of much of the smug liberal advocacy for “marriage equality”: of course conservative concerns are irrational, we have no intention of threatening their family values ideology, we just want in.

Marriage as an institution is the antithesis of free love, the mechanism by which the state bludgeons our sexualities into the most useful shape for reproducing the next generation of labour, and the word-made-flesh of anti-sex theology.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. The State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins. This doesn’t just affect people at the point where they “choose” to get married, but in fact all relationships are expected to be proto-marriages: monogamous, and aiming at permanence, with a series of predefined stages (which vary according to culture) on the way to marriage. Romantic narratives about “finding your soulmate” (i.e. expectation that you will only legitimately love one person in your entire life) are bound up with the institution of marriage, and shape people’s expectations around sex and relationships in an often damaging way.

Marriage is the institution of an ideology that sees human sexuality as a threat, and seeks to constrain it. Ideally, sex should only happen for the purposes of procreation, but failing that, only within the bounds of stable monogamy, and not in any way that might be considered kinky or weird. There is no room for fluidity, or polyamoury, or promiscuity, which are at best tolerated among young people with the expectation that they will “settle down”.

It’s an institution borne out of sexual repression and patriarchy, and inseparable from its history as male ownership of women – a history which still shapes the lived realities of married people.

Generally speaking, within the structure of marriage, women are still expected to do the work of child-rearing for no money, and their work isn’t even considered work. Often this is on top of having a full time job, so women work a double-shift, usually for less pay than a man on a single-shift. While same-sex marriage may begin to decouple this expectation from gender somewhat, the child-rearing-as-unpaid-labour problem remains embedded into the very construction of the nuclear family.

Necessarily then, we can only participate in marriage on their terms. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the LGBT community, there is political pressure, particularly on those who are the most visibly queer, to reshape our sexualities into forms that are more palatable to conservative moralists and legislators, to have a binary-identified sexuality that was fixed at birth, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad. In other words, gay marriage takes a certain section of the queer community and makes them just like straight people, casting the rest aside.

This process of recuperation has happened over a relatively short historical period. Within decades, we have gone from being a radical sexual liberation movement which challenged and threatened the foundations of conservative sexuality morality, of which marriage is a keystone, to being little more than a movement beating at the door of family values ideology begging to be let in. In order to claim the right to be included within marriage, we place ourselves in the position of defending marriage, or cementing its position in the centre of society – we become it’s biggest cheerleaders, pushing out endless stories about happy gay couples who just want to get married because marriage is such an awesome institution – the fullest and most natural expression of love between two human beings – or of gay couples who raise perfect children (according to conservative standards) because we’re such awesome parents.

In short, as long as we continue to aim for equality-through-assimilation, we concede that we will never win the struggle to free love from the grip of bourgeois morality, and to experience love as we see fit, with whoever we see fit. In fact, we strengthen the institutions that keep our bodies and our hearts in chains.

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that the usage of LGBT here for what is essentially an LGB movement focused on LGB concerns erases trans* people. I use LGBT in a referential rather than descriptive sense because that is how the majority of the movement self-describes.

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9 comments
  1. Mediocredave said:

    “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” – David Cameron

  2. Passer By said:

    Personally, I think the main point that you miss is that this will be *optional*. LGBT folk won’t be forced to marry. They’ll just now have the FULL range of options that straight people have – from polyamory through to monogamous marriage. Your problem seems to be more that people might choose what you consider to be the “wrong” option.

    Seriously, it’s all horses-for-courses. Some people want to be radical poetry-spewing whirlwinds of flaming, feathered deviancy (and thank fuck for that!) and others…well, they just want to settle down with someone they love and maybe, y’know, get a dog or something. The two extremes can co-exist. Neither is better than the other – even if the radical might think his way is better ’cause it’s cooler.

    • The point is marriage a prefigurative/normative effect. It shapes and constrains peoples relationships and desires through both cultural influence and, more obviously, tax incentives etc. If marriage were just a thing two people did cos they want to settle down, it wouldn’t be a problem. But because it’s the State pushing it, it becomes a problem.

  3. Passer By said:

    Marriage is actually in decline. So I don’t think you can really say that it is some huge normalising force that is constraining people. It most certainly did in the past, but I think people now are far more confident in questioning their place in society and deciding what works best for them – be that some form of polyfidelitous relationship or plain ol’ monogamy.

    The expectations and preconceptions that were present in the past have been largely shattered. Sure you might get some quizzical looks if you announce you’re part of a polyamorous triad, but most would accept it with a shrug and a “whatever makes you happy” mentality.

  4. Lucas Paoli Itaborahy said:

    I completely agree with the author! As much as the fight for marriage rights is a fight for equal rights, it overshadows other institutions and ways to recognize same-sex relationships. Instead, activists should be figthing for the “right to relate”, as some experts in the field say, which would give LGBT people more freedom to legally mold their relationships.

    However, I imagine this article was written from a Western European perspective of the LGBT Movement. In most Latin American countries and also Eastern Europeans, activists are increasingly focusing on the struggle for non-discrimination and freedom of expression, rather than marriage and family rights, which for me makes much more sense. How can you think of getting married if you cannot even walk on the streets without fearing discrimiantion and violence?

    • Yes absolutely. I write from my own perspective, which is a Western European perspective.

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