Marriage equality, capitalism, and gay identity

This lecture was given to the GEND1001 class at the Australian National University in 

May 2017. 

What I am going to do today is take a brief look at the history of homosexuality and the homosexual, or queer, movement in the modern era. In doing so I will be specifically focusing on gay identity as it exists today, in particular examining the movement for marriage equality and what that says about gay identity.

I’m going to do this in the following way:

  1. First I am going to briefly examine the history of the same-sex marriage movement, starting from about the 1990s.
  2. Second I will look at two of the major critique of same sex marriage, being feminist critiques of marriage and assimilationist critiques.
  3. Finally I am going to bring this together into my particular field of interest, examining same-sex marriage as a tool for the incorporation of gay, lesbian, and increasingly trans* people into our capitalist economic system.

So how did marriage equality become the major issue of the modern gay and lesbian movement?

While gay and lesbian activists were talking about marriage equality from as early as the 1960s, and likely much earlier, the issue didn’t really come into its own really until the 1990s. This coincides with two key events; the end of the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s, and the success around the world of legislation to decriminalise homosexuality.

The HIV/AIDs crisis in particular was very important. The crisis resulted in two major things. First, it made sex a major area of critique for queer communities. “Free sex” was blamed for the crisis, resulting in a backlash from many in the queer community around some other’s freer sexual behaviour. Second, the crisis literally resulted in the death of some of our more radical members. Those who were engaging in more liberal sex were the ones at higher risk of dying. These people were normally the ones with most radical sexual politics — a huge swathe of radicals lost in our community.

Coinciding the with success of efforts to decriminalise homosexuality, with the final in the Western World struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 2003, marriage became the “next big focus”.

Campaigns for marriage equality began in full swing in the late 1990s. Success was found initially in Europe with The Netherlands becoming the first place to legislate for marriage equality in 2001. Currently 22 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, alongside a number of sub-jurisdictions.

Australia, as you likely know, has still yet to legalise same-sex marriage. The marriage equality movement in Australia is centred largely around the organisation Australian Marriage Equality, which was established in 2004. AME focuses a lot of its energy on political lobbying, working explicitly to change the votes of members of Parliament. AME works alongside a more grassroots organisation called Equal Love, who organise regular rallies on the issue.

Marriage equality has been an issue in Australia for as long as I have been politically aware. It was flung onto the agenda largely though in 2004, when the Howard Coalition Government teamed up with the ALP to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. Since then activists have worked to undo that legislation, focusing largely on achieving a conscience vote in both parties on the issue. This debate became particularly intense last year as marriage equality advocates, wrongfully in my opinion, opposed a national plebiscite on the issue – pushing marriage back to the Parliament where it has once again stagnated.

What are the arguments that have been made to support marriage equality?

Marriage campaigns initially began with an explicit focus on the rights being denied by same-sex couples. Issues such as hospital visitation, tax rights, immigration rights, next-of-kin responsibilities were the focus.

However, the evidence suggested this largely did not resonate with the majority of the population. In around the last five years therefore an active decision was made to make campaigns more emotive. Here we see the development of the term “equal love” — the idea that gay and lesbian people have the same right to love whoever they want and that marriage is essentially an expression of that right. Denying marriage rights is about denying the right to “equal love”.

This turn in campaigns was explicit. The idea was to frame queer people as “just like everyone else”, we want to grow up, fall in love, get married and have children like everyone else. The messaging therefore was not just about equal love, but about normalising queer people. We’re going to talk about this later, but this had and continues to have the effect of excluding many members of our community.

Born this way

Importantly, there is also a very strong essentialist component to this argument.

Who we love, it is argued, is simply part of “who we are”. We have no choice in the matter. This coincides, not coincidentally, with a growth in scientific research aiming to prove the existence of the “gay gene” — a scientific answer to homosexual desire. Let’s be clear that there is no proof of the existence of a “gay gene”. All the research that has pointed in that direction has had serious problems associated with it. But in many ways that doesn’t matter, because the theory has had significant cultural impact. It is now almost just assumed that homosexuality is not a choice — that we are “born this way”.

One of my favourite examples of this is the born this way blog, in which queer people send in photos and stories from their childhood, proving that their sexuality has been with them for as long as they’ve been alive. Of course these stories are not about having early sexual desires, but instead about behavioural traits. Photos of camp boys and butch girls “prove” that sexuality is not just genetic, but inherently connected to our behaviour as well.

Going back to marriage what the born this way idea does is argue that marriage discrimination is a discrimination against our very being. We have, apparently, no choice in who we love, and therefore we should be discriminated against for it.

Overall these arguments have been largely successful, with significantly growing support for marriage equality across the Western World. Recent data suggests for example that 72% of Australians support marriage equality, making it one of the most popular social reforms in the country.

Feminist critiques of marriage

But! There are major criticisms, and this is what I want to cover in the rest of this lecture. I am going to split these criticism into two, looking at feminist and queer critiques of marriage. I am then going to bring this together to examine marriage as a way queers have become incorporated into a capitalist economy.

The first major criticism of same-sex marriage came from feminists. I’m only going to touch on this briefly as I suspect you have covered a lot of feminist literature so far in this course.

It’s important to note that the start of the same-sex marriage movement came off the back of decades of campaigns from feminists to reform and even abolish marriage.

Feminists argued that marriage was a patriarchal institution, essentially legalising the subordination of women in the home. This was expressed both through legislative and cultural instruments. Laws for example allowed for rape within marriage and made divorce extremely difficult or impossible. Potentially more importantly, at least today, a range of cultural institutions were designed to subordinate women. This ranges from many of the traditions of the wedding (the woman being given away by her father, the idea of a white dress, which symbolised female purity) to the expectation that women will breed the moment they get married.

Feminists were, I argue, successfully challenging many of these critiques. The financial collapse of the 70s and 80s saw a boom of women entering the workforce. This changed the shape of the family, resulting in women having greater economic power. This resulted in a shift in power relations in the family, later resulting in both legal and cultural wins. Going back to my previous examples over the past 40 or so years we have seen legislation to legalise divorce and to outlaw rape within marriage across the Western World.

Many feminists have extended this however to argue that even with legislative changes you cannot reform marriage to reform its patriarchal elements. You must abolish it. Same-sex marriage however, has reversed the decline of the institution. There are lots of indications of this, but the best is recent data out of the United States, which shows that Americans are becoming more liberal on all social issues, except divorce. 

This is a quote taken from the Washington Post from research taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.” In 2002, about half of Americans disagreed. Within a decade, the share had risen to more than 60 percent. In the most recent data, younger Americans — a cohort with the lowest marriage rates on record, mind you — were especially likely to perceive divorce as an unacceptable response to marital strain.”

Queer critiques of marriage

This leads nicely into the second critique of marriage equality, which comes from people in the queer community themselves. In response to feminist critiques of marriage, advocates have argued that through entering the institution queers are fundamentally changing it. We are changing it from the inside, or some argue, we are “queering marriage.” In turn feminist critiques are no longer relevant as through its expansion marriage is becoming a more egalitarian institution.

I argue however this is not the case.

Drag queen and gay rights activist Rory O’Neill, also known by the stage name, Panti, celebrates with supporters of same-sex marriage at Dublin Castle as they await the result of the referendum on Saturday

There are two key elements to this. First, marriage equality campaigns have reinforced marriage to such a point that it has become the only option available for queer people. Hugh Ryan argues this like this:

“I have no desire to turn back the clock on marriage equality: it provides both real and symbolic benefits to queer communities, families and our country as a whole. But I cannot ignore the coercive (and corrosive) power that marriage holds. In this country, it is not just an option: it is the option. It is the relationship against which all others are defined, both an institution and an expectation – and you cannot have one without the other.”

We can see this specifically with a lot of the language around same-sex marriage. Marriage campaigns have reinforced queer people’s desire to be monogamous, to have children and to live in the suburbs like everyone else. We saw this most clearly in the decision by the US Supreme Court to legalise marriage equality in 2015. In a highly emotive ruling Justice Anthony Kennedy, stated for example that:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

What’s disappointing is that this language has been used heavily by marriage equality campaigners, who have reinforced traditional notions of the way relationships work. The best example I can think of this is the extremely popular video the organisation GetUp.

Watched by over 16 million people on Youtube this video was a massive hit in 2011. It highlights a lot of the equal love messaging I spoke about before. But in doing so it also reinforces traditional notions of relationships and marriage. Relationships in this story follow a very linear tale — you meet, catch the eye of each other, fall in love, meet each others parents, move in together, and then get married. You do things in order. Notably — you don’t have sex, or at least you don’t talk about it with in anyone in any public way.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this story line it becomes very exclusionary very quickly. Either you fit this norm, or you don’t get access — to the community, nor to the “rights” we’re fighting for.

This is something I really have personal experience with. This is me, and this is my two partners, James and Martyn. I’ve been dating James for eleven years now, and Martyn for three. Whilst we have no interest in marriage, we also find ourselves frustratingly excluded from the queer community.

I for example have written actively about our relationship. Whilst my relationships have largely been accepted by all my friends and family, I have received significant pushback from members of the queer community. In an article for SBS Sexuality for example Carrington Brigham argued:

“Asking for legal recognition of polygamous relationships would break the foundation of our society. It would create a mess of our legal relationship system. It would redefine the make up of families, relationships, the tax and welfare systems.

We would be proving conservatives were right all along to be fearful of same-sex marriage.  The Libertarian movement would say, ‘Privatise marriage and get the government out of our relationships’. No problem. But an underlying push to recognise polygamous relationships would see new forms of commitment ceremonies, and court challenges galore.

Most Australians view throuples as an experiment unlikely to pass the tests of time. They see it for what it is: sexual gratification and hedonism. It’s not their piece of cake.”

Australian Marriage Equality has also spoken on the issue, with their previous director Alex Greenwich stating in 2012 that AME’s concept of marriage was of:

“two people who rely on each other in a relationship to the exclusion of all others”.

It’s notable that they gave no reasoning behind this. It’s just the way it is. To me that has always sounded very familiar to those who have argued that marriage is between a man and a woman, just because.

For me this is remarkable. I wonder what would occur is someone argued that homosexual relationships were a mix of “sexual gratification and hedonism”. I’m sure if they did Australian Marriage Equality would be up in arms about it.

I’ve actually also produced a video on this issue, which we can have a quick look at now.

But whilst polyamory is my focus it’s not just about poly people. This exclusion extends to anyone who doesn’t fit the monogamous married mould — whether they be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or any other sexuality.

A good example of this comes from Michael Cobb, who writes about his experience as being a happy single person. Following the decision from the US Supreme Court last year Cobb wrote an article titled the “The Supreme Court’s Lonely Hearts Club”. In it he stated:

“Now all of us single people are pathetic, not just the straight ones. “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there,” writes Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. As I read that bit alone in my apartment, I choked on my coffee.

Isn’t it enough to be denied the “constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage”? A constellation my coupled queer sisters and brethren now can hold dearly if they just make it official? Once again, being single is the dreary, awful, mournful alternative to marriage. A condition to be pitied, and quickly corrected by a sprint to City Hall.”

It’s all to do with capitalism

So how do we explain all of this? Why have queer campaigners becoming exclusionary in this manner, and why are they working to reinforce an institution such as marriage, despite its very chequered history.

Some would and have argued that it is the nature of campaigning. Marriage equality campaigning is essential to undo an injustice and what has occurred is that as queers have become more focused on the issue their focus has narrowed so heavily that we have accidentally pushed others aside. Get marriage over and done with and we can talk about broader sexual freedom.

This, I do not agree with, and to explain this we need to go back into history once more to investigate the way capitalism has shaped queer identities.

The concept of “homosexuality” and in turn “heterosexuality” did not actually arrive in to our vocabulary until the late 1800s, and did not enter regular use until the early 1900s. There is an important history to this that spreads back to the late 1700s.

The late 1700s saw the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom. Whilst agricultural capitalism had existed in England for over 100 years now the industrial revolution fundamentally changed everything. Prior to this time sexual relationships were largely based on family ties. Parents would marry you off to someone who could build the economic strength of the family. Women sought men who would provide economic security, while men would seek women who provided genetic strength. This would allow women to stay at home, giving birth to children who would provide valuable labour for the family farm or business.

When the industrial revolution hit however people flooded to cities, working instead in factories. These family ties were broken, with couples less and less getting married solely for economic reasons. With both men and women have access to work, and to the economic independence that provided, people were able to incorporate other elements in to their suiters — primarily love.

The shift to the cities also had major impacts for queer people. No longer tied to their families, and living in huge communities, people who we would now identify as gay, lesbian, trans or queer, began to form in communities. People went to bars, and shows, and events together, rejecting the ideals of the heterosexual relationship.

Whilst it is assumed that queer communities only really formed in the 1960s, we can see good early examples of this. This for example is Fanny and Stella, two cross-dressers, as they were known at the time, who were arrested in 1870 for wearing women’s clothes to a play and charged with “conspiring to incite others to commit unnatural offences.” Fanny and Stella were examples of a queer community in that period, performing shows across London in the late 1800s.

Another good example is Magnus Hirschfeld, who developed an institute for sexology in Berlin in the swinging twenties. Hirschfeld’s institute acted not only as a place for research but also as a community gathering spot. People came there to live, to socialise, to drink, to date, to have sex. Hirschfeld eventually was forced to flee Germany after the rise of the Nazis in 1933, with the institute being one of the main targets of the Nazi Book Burnings. Hirschfeld reportedly watched his entire institute go down in flames from news reports in Paris at the time. 

The problem is however that these communities provided a problem for capitalism. There are two major issues.

First, capitalism requires the growth of the population to create more working people to produce profit for the system. Profit requires productive labour, and so a growing working class is essential to the system.

Second, capitalism also requires that those who hold property — whether it is economic producers, or workers who have been able to amass small sums of savings — be able to pass that property on in inheritance. This requires not only having children, but in particular for men, who held all property, knowing who those children are. Monogamous heterosexual relationships therefore were essential to capitalist development.

The family was essential to ensuring both of these things. Families provided space both for the reproduction of the working class, importantly providing space for domestic labour to occur for free.

In doing so capitalism resulted in the development of what Michelle Barret calls the ‘family-household system’, a system:

“in which a number of people, usually biologically related, depend on the wages of a few adult members, primarily those of the husband/father, and in which all depend primarily on        the unpaid labour of the wife/ mother for cleaning, food preparation, child care, and so forth. The ideology of the “family” is one that defines family life as ‘naturally’ based on close kinship, as properly organized through a male bread- winner with a financially dependent wife and children, and as a haven of privacy beyond the public realm of commerce and industry.”

Growing queer communities were a clear challenge to this system. They created the possibilities of sex and relationships without procreation and the passage of inheritance, which was not deemed sustainable in capitalist terms.

And so capitalism was required to react. Fanny and Stella for example were sent to trial in the 1870s, as was Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. But punishment of homosexuality began to be formalized largely through a process of medicalization. In the late 1800s and early 1900s medical professionals across Europe in particular began to work to define different forms of sexuality – developing the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, amongst others, in this period. In this time heterosexual became the definition of ‘normal sexuality’, while homosexual was defined as abnormal sexuality.

Situated within the medical profession this opened the space for a pathologisation of homosexuality, with all the consequences that followed from this. Homosexuality became officially defined as an illness, with homosexuals being placed into prisons and asylums, or facing things such as labotomisation and castration. Other practitioners worked heavily to find a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, with significant negative consequences.

But this definition of the ‘heterosexual’ and the ‘homosexual’ had longer term impacts, even as we have moved beyond processes of pathologisation. In creating these definitions we saw a significant shift in how society saw sexuality. Instead of seeing sex as a thing we ‘do’ sexuality became core to who we are – as Foucault argued in a History of Sexuality, if became a part of how we defined ourselves, and something that we are required to ‘confess’ to others in a process.

For capitalism this was really important. It allowed capitalism to define who was a good capitalist citizen (i.e. a heterosexual) and who was a deviant (i.e. a homosexual). In turn, as I just described, it gave capitalism space to punish homosexuals through pathologisation.

Gay movements

However, beyond this, as gay movements began to grow, starting largely in the 1950s it gave them, and the ruling class, a clear defined group within whom to work. The use of the term homosexual, alongside the essentialised language that is attached to it, allowed for the development of a minority-based rights claims from the movement.

The impact of this was twofold. First it removed the threat that homosexuality would spread – the core threat that early capitalist saw in queer sexuality. If gays were just a fringe minority group, whose core sexuality was defined by their biology, then there is no threat of that being a major impact on the family-household system.

Secondly however, by defining a movement within the already existent dynamic that said that heterosexuals were normal and homosexuals were abnormal, homosexuals have been repeatedly forced to prove they are ‘just as normal’ as their heterosexual friends. We see this in a range of ways, via respectability politics, the marriage equality movement, and those gays who demand that we close gay saunas and stop having sex at gay beats. As I said earlier this process was sped up in the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the birth of the marriage equality movement. Our goal became to be ‘just like’ the ‘normal’ heterosexual, not something that was different, unique, and maybe even something that straights may wish to be.

The very terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are capitalist constructs; ones used to define queer people, identify, punish, and then to normalise them. They are terms that have been used effectively as tools both of our oppression and more recently our assimilation into capitalist life and norms.

This history is really important to our understanding of marriage. The late sixties and early seventies saw a fundamental break in the approach of punishing queer people. New economic circumstances, in particular the oil crash of the 1970s, changed the way families operated, giving major space to queer liberation campaigning. However, with the death of queer liberation, this campaigning became framed solely in capitalist terms — through the use of identifiable “homosexual” and “heterosexual” labels and the demands for increasing rights for homosexual people.

Initially the capitalist class responded strongly against these changes, and the HIV/AIDs crisis provided a pivotal moment for them to do so. HIV/AIDs allowed the ruling class to attempt to redefine homosexuals as sexually deviant, and here we see a huge amount of repression and discrimination.

But, this was met by shifts from the queer movement to reject sexual liberation, ensuring that these attacks did not stick. Not only had our economics changed forever through the rise of neoliberalism, but so had our community’s approach to queer people. The old ways of punishing queer people was gone as an approach for capitalism incorporating queer people.

Marriage equality therefore represents a new adaptation from the capitalist class. Instead of rejecting homosexuality, the ruling class moved quickly to begin to incorporate us into the fold. We were no longer seen as deviants but as a potential market — but one that could only be accepted if we agreed to the rules of the system.

I’ll give two quick examples of this.

First, when passing same-sex marriage in the UK in (insert date here), Prime Minister David Cameron famously stated:

“Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us. Society is stronger when we make vows to each other and we support each other. I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.”

More recently, in 2015, Australian columnist Andrew Bolt conceded that marriage equality had effectively been won, and argued that he could support the institution as long as queers changed their ways. He said:

“They must realise the awesome responsibility they’ll soon share — the defence of our most important tradition: keeping parents together for the sake of their children.

They are about to change the definition of marriage and must now down their weapons and treat conservative warnings with respect, not with mockery and contempt.”

What did that mean? For Bolt it meant gays ensuring that we “protect children” and give up on our promiscuous lifestyles. We had to adapt to the more conservative elements of marriage — the traditional view that sees marriage as a lifelong bond that primarily sees women as the main givers of childcare, with men having economic power.

As I argued in a response to Bolt:

“Bolt’s demand that gays and lesbians “protect children” are built on this premise. It is part of conservative reactions to feminists who have tried to release women from this economic grip. It is why Bolt almost laments previous changes to legalise divorce — a policy that was essential for women in bad marriages to be able to declare their economic and sexual independence.”

What we can see here is the demands and reasonings of conservatives when accepting same-sex marriage. Marriage equality became acceptable primarily because it built the institution. It brought more people into the fold, ensuring its long term strength. This is a strength not just for marriage, but for capitalism itself.

This can naturally explain much of the language and campaign tactics used by marriage campaigners. Marriage is not about gaining rights, but about gaining access to a capitalist system. This means abiding by certain rules — monogamous relationships, child-rearing, and not being sexually deviant. Anyone who doesn’t accept those rules — polyamorous people, sexually liberal people, and even singles, just don’t get access.

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