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This is the first draft of a piece I wrote that eventually became this piece on the New Statesman blog. They asked me to focus on one issue in more depth rather than the two separate but related issues of pinkwashing and queer assimilation (which I was happy to do). However, I think it’s also important to understand that the two processes reinforce one another, so I’m presenting the original piece here.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.

What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, 4 police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.

Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.

The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.

Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a 3-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the TUC side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola). [http://www.pridelondon.org/]

It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.

We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, pinkwashing the exploitation at the heart of their operation. But hey, at least we can be “Out @ Tesco” [http://home.outattesco.com/] while earning a pittance on workfare.

Worse still, we have lost our understanding of solidarity. While the Gay Liberation Front – who emerged from the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy – actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, now we are allowing our struggles to be co-opted by racist agendas, with everyone from the English Defence League to apartheid Israel feigning concern for LGBT rights in order to portray Muslims as a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LGBT people in the enlightened West. [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/opinion/pinkwashing-and-israels-use-of-gays-as-a-messaging-tool.html]

Perhaps most offensively, Pride London will host a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be presented with an award, while US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Bradley Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna [http://globalcomment.com/2011/why-does-the-media-still-refer-to-%E2%80%9Cbradley%E2%80%9D-manning-the-curious-silence-around-a-transgender-hero/]) Chelsea Manning rots in prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.

At present, the LGBT movement is organised around a set of fairly narrow demands for equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions: marriage, the nuclear family, the military, the police, the boardroom.

But equality is not liberation. Take marriage, for example. Whether the definition of civil marriage is expanded to include same-sex couples or not, the State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, to bludgeon our sexualities into its preferred shape, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of “family values” conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the 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, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad.

Of course, we should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but genuine liberation means changing society so that it’s worth being included in. That won’t happen as long as we continue to dance the tune of capitalists, racists and conservatives in exchange for incremental changes.

In a Facebook thread discussing this rather excellent post on polyamory and the objectification of women within activist circles, a friend of mine (who is a bit of a polyamory evangelist) said:

Nobody says that polyamory is a cure-all for sexism. It’s a cure for monogamy, which is inherently propertarian and unquestionably allied to patriarchy”1

1. Also “If monogamy is patriarchal, then by contraposition, feminism is polyamorous”, apparently. I’m not entirely sure how monogamous lesbian relationships contribute to patriarchy, but I’m sure there’s a suitable analysis out there somewhere… Probably something about using the master’s tools.

This kind of sentiment is pretty common in radical circles, to the point that people are told they’re bad anarchists/feminists for choosing to be in monogamous relationships.

I don’t agree with this. I don’t think monogamy is inherently propertarian or that polyamory is inherently the opposite (the opposite of owning one house is not owning many houses, it’s changing the way people relate to houses).

I’ll illustrate using examples:

  1. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They sit down and talk and both decide that while neither has the right to control the other’s actions, they are both more comfortable in a monogamous relationship. They agree to be monogamous, but leave open the possibility of future renegotiation of their relationship. Alice meets Carol, and finds herself attracted to her. Alice tells Carol that she is in a monogamous relationship and that nothing can happen between them until she has spoken to Bob. Alice goes back to Bob and explains the situation. They talk. One of several things happens:
    1. Bob is comfortable with the situation and a polyamorous relationship is formed,
    2. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to split up so Alice can pursue her relationship with Carol,
    3. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to stay together and Alice doesn’t pursue the relationship with Carol.
  2. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They assume that the relationship is monogamous because “that’s what people do”. Both are constantly jealous when they see each other with friends of the opposite sex. Bob meets Carol, and finds himself attracted to her. He doesn’t consider the possibility of renegotiation because talking about that kind of thing is weird. He cheats on Alice and doesn’t tell her, Alice still can’t pursue other romantic interests because “she’s his girl”.
  3. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to be monogamous. Bob meets Carl, and finds himself attracted to him. He tells Alice he wants to have a polyamorous relationship involving Carl. Alice doesn’t like the idea, because she doesn’t want to put her emotional/sexual/whatever needs on hold while Bob is spending time with Carl. Bob pressures Alice into agreeing by telling her she’s being a bad feminist and is trying to oppress him.
  4. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to have an open relationship. Bob is much more confident and socially outgoing than Alice. Whenever Alice tries to assert herself Bob pretty much disappears from her life to have casual sex with random people until Alice drops the issue. Alice realises she would much rather be in a monogamous relationship, but every time she raises the issue, Bob reminds her that she agreed (enthusiastically even) to be in a open relationship, and that he can always find someone else who “won’t try to monopolise his love”.

All of the examples in 1 are non-propertarian, and are based in explicit negotiation, consent and mutual respect. It begins as consensual monogamy, in 1a it evolves into consensual polyamory, in 1b and 1c it continues as consensual monogamy. It could also obviously have started out and continued as consensual polyamory, that’s cool too, but I didn’t want too many examples.

Example 2 is oppressive monogamy, of a depressingly standard kind, and 3 and 4 are polyamory in which Bob exploits a power imbalance to get what he wants.2

2. I’m sure someone will probably argue that this is not polyamory, or something similar, but then we’re into a situation where polyamory is good by definition, which seems pretty useless to me.

All of these things happen, or at least could happen, and I think it demonstrates that being non-hierarchical in relationships has a lot more to do with how people behave in relationships and how people make decisions about what relationships they have than it does with how many people are involved.

Monogamy isn’t the problem. Compulsory monogamy (as in example 2) is a problem, certainly, as is any kind of compulsory sexuality, and the possibility of  polyamory is certainly important, but simply practising polyamory does little to combat propertarian male attitudes towards women. Actually challenging propertarian male attitudes towards women is how you do that.