By Alex Gabriel
"Look," said David Cameron last week, in a voice much like Tony Blair's when grilled on Newsnight. "I'm in favour of gay marriage, because I'm a massive supporter of marriage, and I don't want gay people to be excluded from a great institution."
The comments were met with gushing praise from self-described progressives, and no doubt too with fountains of gay cash. In the 90 minutes following Barack Obama's statement, "I think same sex couples should be able to get married", a million pink dollars poured straight into his campaign for re-election. Cameron, ever the businessman, has clearly found a rhetoric which sells.
That's not to say, of course, that his stance here is purely mercenary. "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative," he told us in his conference speech last year, "I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative." If any sincere, well-meant critique of the project has been drowned out, it belongs to those of us on the queer left who see the idea as deeply engrained in regressive Cameroon politics.
This June, American activists founded OccuPride, asking: "Why are we fighting for marriage equality while trans, queer, and gender non-conforming people are dying, losing their jobs and being locked up at dramatically higher rates than straight, cisgender populations? Why are we fighting for a few more documented monogamous couples to be let into an exclusionary institution instead of demanding health care, immigration [rights], respect, and autonomy for everyone?"
Three months before, the British Coalition for Equal Marriage released its 'Homecoming' advert. The video shows blue-eyed, milky-skinned soldiers disembarking from a plane, as wives and children wave Union Jacks like Bonfire Night sparklers. One proposes to his male partner on bended knee, accompanied by soaring piano music and the caption, 'All men can be heroes… all men can be husbands'.
If this is queer liberation, it's the Enoch Powell version, complete with imperialist drum-beating, sexism and an all-white cast. (Though admittedly, far better skincare.)
To many of us, 'equal marriage' is an oxymoron. As vague abstractions like 'acceptance', 'hate' and 'being who you are' creep into the language of campaigners, robbing it of its political weight, let's remind ourselves equality and marriage have rarely intertwined. I don't just mean forced marriages: I mean financial security has evaded those who don't opt for 'commitment', to the extent that single parents remain hardship-stricken; that social approval has as well, to the point of Ed Miliband's press-appeasing wedding last year to Justine Thornton, when they'd been quite happily unmarried for years before.
Both Christian B&Bs to turn away gay couples in recent years did so because they were unmarried, meaning if no knot had been tied, heterosexual couples were denied a room at the inn as well. In Cameron's Britain, too, tax benefits for the married — that is, heavier taxes for everybody else — are on the table. The function of marriage has always been to convey higher status, dividing lovers into haves and have-nots. Offer it to those in gay partnerships, and no part of that changes. 'Equal marriage' is rather like 'Equal first class': it only means anything if things are better for the people in it.
A social movement for the 'right to marry' now seems ironic, when activists last century spent so long pursuing their right not to do so. That doesn't mean that choosing to get married is wrong, but it does mean Cameron's position is unsurprising: for a 'supporter of marriage' who wants to put 'commitment' back at society's core after our dalliance with free love and permissiveness, a chorus of angry people demanding wedding rings is more than slightly convenient.
The argument is made that some people must marry to live with their partners, or to access medicine in countries like the US, whose healthcare system ours increasingly resembles. The obvious response is that everyone deserves medical treatment without having to pay, and border control shouldn't keep people apart — just as, if people want to raise children alone, the public purse should enable them to, and if those in relationships need somewhere to stay, religious beliefs shouldn't stand in their paths. These are the demands of human rights campaigners, and they stand at odds with conservative presumptions.
Wouldn't marriage's death as a state institution, including for straight people, be the best solution? By all means let people 'commit', in front of priests or otherwise, but leave weddings as ceremonies with no legal status. Scrap the civil register; make no distinction in the state's eyes between married and unmarried citizens. The British Humanist Association, a key supporter of C4EM, seeks legal recognition for marriages its celebrants perform, but secularism is about ending, not emulating, certain belief sets' privilege. And likewise, shouldn't the gay community's aim be equal treatment of all relationships, not the inclusion of same-gender ones among those which get tax breaks, media approval and B&B rooms?
Brendan O'Neill has a shadow of a point when he says no one was water-cannoned for gay marriage. (There's an expression, I think, about stopped clocks.) For a long time, and like proposals for LGBT military service, the idea was extremely controversial among queer activists, and Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal, one of the major books to support it in the 1990s, was infamous before it was famous. Very quickly, and helped along by a press narrative of well-behaved gays who want to wed and evil homophobes who want to stop them, marriage reform has become a whole population's defining issue, such that no organised queer critique of it from the days of Bash Back! really remains.
Even those with nothing against the notion of gay marriage are troubled sometimes by its monopoly on coverage. Even if introduced, its effective availability will be restricted to those fortunate gay couples who don't risk violence by expressing mutual desire; in my first year at Oxford, the city — hardly reputed to be plagued with unrest — played host to almost 20 homophobic incidents, while many more were likely unreported.
The Albert Kennedy Trust, set up in 1989 to tackle queer youth homelessness, received 1,542 calls for help in London and Manchester in 2010; in the NHS, doctors use gender-policing against transgender patients who challenge their definitions of life as a man or woman, and trans* individuals are routinely refused employment by companies who brand them disturbing. These, like the epidemics of bullying and self-harm among queer teens, are less luxurious and more pressing issues than marriage.
Of course we can address all forms of bigotry, but the persistent labelling of gay marriage's introduction as the final step to LGBT equality — including by reliable leftists like Owen Jones who should know better — suggests the worrying possibility all other crises will be forgotten once it's achieved.
That's not a turn of events I want to witness. I understand not everyone has reservations on marriage reform, but for goodness sake let's aim for better discourse.
Alex Gabriel is a student, and writes on skepticism, queer politics and the left.