The Long Walk to the Altar

30 March 2014

As same-sex marriage becomes legal in the United Kingdom, is it time for LGBT people to stop thinking of themselves as outsiders, and ask “What’s next?”

Many years ago, I interviewed the actor Ian McKellen – who was at that time in New Zealand filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy – on his work as a gay rights activist. In  my final question, I asked him about his hope for the future of gay rights. He answered, simply and wistfully, that he hoped to live long enough to see a world where being gay was no more remarkable a thing as being left-handed (a trait we both share). We discussed this a little further, and agreed that it was a long way off, given the difficulties that most gay and lesbian people face as sexual minorities in their own families, and the pervasive influence of homophobia in schools, churches and wider society. Ian, ever the optimist, noted how much social change had been wrought in his lifetime, and even since his own coming out – executed with his customary elegance in a radio interview in 1989. We jokingly discussed plans for his wedding, and decided that Elton John birthday-esque baroque vulgarity would be far more fun than something simple and low-key. He is, at heart, a performer after all.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom joined a growing number of countries (including my home country New Zealand) in legalising same-sex marriage. It was a perfect spring day in London – blue cloudless skies, a balmy 17 degrees, cherry blossoms and daffodils in bloom – that seemed to fit the celebratory mood of the day. The BBC and other media appeared to dedicate the entire day to reporting marriage ceremonies and parties around the country, no doubt a nice change after weeks of coverage of budget cuts, crime and celebrity funerals. Some couples rushed to get married on the day, with cameras and onlookers following. Many more, I suspect, will follow once the news coverage and hype moves on somewhere else.

Though the fact of same-sex marriage being legalised wasn’t a surprise – the amending legislation was passed in July 2013 and came into force on 13 March this year, with Saturday marking the day that the first ceremonies could take place – nonetheless, the events of the day filled me with a surprising, giddy sense of joy. My friend Chris posted this on Facebook, with his usual conciseness and eloquence: “I woke up this morning and discovered that for the first time in my life I had the access to the same human rights as everyone else. I await the hellfire and brimstone.” This sentence haunted me, pleasurably, for the rest of the day. There it was – after years of campaigning for marriage equality, we had finally reached our very gay destination, in both senses of the word.

I’ve written in previous blogs about why I believed same-sex marriage was a necessary step for the gay rights cause, and why civil partnership, though a useful stepping stone, was only ever going to be the plain badly dressed cousin who no one wanted to dance with. Marriage is still the main legal process by which we are able to create family structures in adulthood. As long as gay and lesbian people are not able to marry, their status as second-class citizens will remain intact. Marriage has, over the generations, ceased to exist as a solely religious ritual, and has adapted to reflect the changes of a more pluralist society. The need for law change had followed a slowly developing series of law changes, starting with the decriminalisation of gay sex (1967 in the UK; 1986 in New Zealand) and picking up momentum with anti-discrimination laws in employment and the provision of goods and services, and the partial extension of de facto property rights to same-sex couples.

The arguments, most of them well-rehearsed, had been repeated off and on over the years. What’s surprised me about the last eighteen months is the speed and ferocity with which the same-sex marriage movement was taken up all over the world. The debate was strategically recalibrated to focus on same-sex marriage as a question of equality rather than “special rights” for the pesky gays. The movement received a massive boost when Barack Obama stated in an interview that he supported the rights of same-sex couples to get married. Though he was careful to point out that this was his personal opinion rather than official government policy, his words resounded throughout the world. When the leader of the most powerful country on earth puts something on the agenda, it becomes virtually impossible to remain with your head in the sand, hoping that the issue will just go away.

Closer to home, I was heartened by the way in which even the conservative press got behind gay marriage, and the widespread pillorying of the occasional redneck who stuck their neck about the parapet to condemn the evils of homosexuality. The wittiest example of this was the downfall of David Silvester, a UKIP party councillor for Henley-on-Thames, who claimed that heavy rainfall in southern England was God’s divine retribution for legalising gay marriage. Outraged followed, including a brilliantly comic rejoinder by actor Nicholas Pegg, who published a satirical version of Radio 4’s shipping forecast. “There are warnings of gays in Viking, Forties… and Bongo Bongo Land”, Pegg intoned in a perfect BBC newsreader’s accent, before announcing the next episode of radio serial The Archers, “where Bridge Farm is knee-deep in water, and the village is counting the cost of Adam and Ian’s civil partnership.” Silvester was an easy target, but for those of us old enough to remember, his brand of hellfire and brimstone rhetoric used to command a sizeable audience not too long ago. The universality with which he was struck down felt hugely encouraging. Finally, homophobia, at least as applied to same-sex marriage, was a non-starter: as outdated and ridiculous as claiming that the world was flat.

I didn’t join in any of the celebrations yesterday, apart from a cheery chat with my (straight, married) personal trainer, who was as pleased I was about the result. Instead, I contemplated with quiet satisfaction the fact of gay and lesbian equality being legally enshrined, and – short of England becoming a fundamentalist dictatorship – marriage now being an unassailable right for everyone regardless of their sexuality. For those of us who’ve been involved in campaigning for law change, as well as those who’ve simply chosen to live their sexuality openly (still, in my mind, the most powerful form of political statement an individual can make), Saturday was the end of a long and hard-fought process. Now that it’s been and gone, my thoughts turn to what’s next in the gay stratosphere.

It’s easy, particularly when you live in central London within a gay-friendly cocoon, to imagine that the great work is over and that with marriage equality comes a new era of understanding for gays and lesbians. While I have no doubt that gay marriage will legitimise homosexuality in wider society, and make things slightly less hopeless for people living in the closet, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go. Gay and lesbian teens still suffer from bullying, low-esteem, higher rates of suicide and drug abuse, and reports of bullying in the workplace and hate crimes still abound. A big celebrity gay wedding is all very well, but lift the surface of England’s green and pleasant land and you’re likely to find more David Silvesters and their followers, seething with hatred.

That aside, I’m also interested in what the attainment of marriage equality might mean for gay and lesbian people. For generations we’ve struggled with social exclusion, prejudice and the sense of being second-class citizens. Many of us embraced that exclusion and took an anti-establishment view of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, decrying marriage as an institution of a rotten patriarchy, and criticising gays who want to marry as pandering to heterosexual norms or attempting to whitewash rather than celebrate our “perverse” sexuality. Though this faction didn’t get much media attention during the same-sex marriage debate, it’s there, and I suspect will resurge again in the not-too-distant future.

Same-sex marriage brings with it equality and legitimisation, to be sure. It’s also likely to bring a lot of consumerist tat, as department stores and wedding planners go full throttle to attract a new market. It’s also likely to further contribute to what I like to call the John Lewis-ification of Britain, as couples rush to embrace “traditional” notions of lifelong partnership and fidelity in marriage.

Or will we? It’s not as if heterosexual people sell those ideals particularly well, if the statistics on infidelity and divorce are anything to go by. And then there’s the troublesome question of what to do about the darker and less family friendly aspects of gay culture, many of which were downplayed in the long struggle for marriage equality. Scratch the surface of any gay sub-culture, and it doesn’t take long to find the rot. Beneath the sequins, the camp asides and the relentless interior decoration projects lurk some fairly scary stuff. Self-loathing, anonymous sex, drug addiction, porn, sex clubs and rising HIV transmission rates – these are as much a part of LGBT culture as same-sex marriage is, though much less likely to be discussed openly. Partially I think that was a response to the need to show a united front and not show a weak spot to our homophobic enemies. Now that they have been despatched, like Mr Silvester, back to Bongo Bongo Land, maybe it’s time to readdress the more destructive aspects of our culture. They’re certainly not going to go away just because someone drapes a rainbow-coloured pashmina over their Conran sofa and scatters a few throw pillows around.

Then again, I wonder if the days of gay and lesbian sensibility as a place of alienation has had its day. Whether it’s been imposed upon us or whether it’s something we’ve internalised by osmosis, the Gay as Other seems like our community’s default setting. Now that we have the right to marry, is it perhaps time to realise that our lives, aspirations and problems might be the same as everyone else’s?

I’m probably too old and too much of a 1990s-era Queer Studies student to be able to answer this one with anything approaching objectivity. Exclusion and indifference are too much part of my cultural language to ever be able to think of gay and lesbian sensibility as being able to absorb fully into mainstream experience. What does seem more likely is that as gay and lesbian consciousness becomes stronger, what we think of as “normal” (Judith Butler calls it heteronormativity, though it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) will slowly start to erode and evolve.

It’s happening already, most visibly and trashily in popular culture, as straight men start to take on the self-consciousness, narcissism and body-building obsession traditionally associated with gay men (a phenomenon/pathology described by Mark Simpson as “metrosexuality“). So far it’s seemed to consist largely of straight men becoming a new consumer group to be marketed to, which, while interesting, doesn’t feel much like progress. As nice as David Beckham is in his underwear on the front cover of Attitude, or as amusing as it is to watch Scousers with Permatans and stripper tattoos jumping into hot tubs on reality TV shows, I’m hoping for something bigger and better than this – or maybe something smaller and quieter.

The social transformation that I’d like to see post-gay marriage could start with a realisation that LGBT people come in all shapes and sizes. As much as we’ve needed the Big Gay Extroverts of the Gay World – the Elton Johns, Ru Pauls, Margaret Chos and Ian McKellens, loudly and deliciously proclaiming their creeds, this may also be a useful moment to pause and reflect that not everyone in our community is a performer, a celebrity, fabulously wealthy and limitlessly exhibitionistic. I’ve been especially touched this weekend by reports of older gay and lesbian couples who’ve been in relationships for decades and who are finally getting the opportunity to say “I Do” to each other. These people don’t get magazine covers or chat shows and they’re not normally seen in nightclubs or with their arses hanging out of chaps in Vauxhall sex clubs at 2 in the morning. They are the (largely) silent majority around whom society moves and doesn’t always notice, so used have we become to assuming that gay people must be centre stage and fully flaming. As I’ve observed many times on my travels, gay and lesbian people can be just as boring as everyone else, and perhaps now it’s time to embrace that fact.

The same-sex marriage debate has struck me as being as much about and for straight people as anyone else. With that in mind, the a post same-sex marriage society could transform itself by engaging in a more honest dialogue about the range and diversity of human sexuality. Some of the things I’d like to put on the To-Do list include  rethinking and eventually removing all remaining legal proscriptions of consenting forms of sexual activity; relaxing the heterosexual obsession with monogamy; acknowledging (as Jesse Bering writes so entreatingly in Perv, his new book on human sexuality) that we’re big sexual deviants running scared in plain sight; and considering that marriage, children and a house with a white picket fence isn’t going to make everybody happy.

These are the kind of radical concepts that homophobes and naysayers have been warning for years would be the inevitable consequence of allowing the Gays to roam freely. Let them get married, and watch society crumble! Perhaps in anticipation of this criticism, the same-sex marriage debate was steered away from discussions of sex and sexuality and towards a sex-neutral argument about equal rights. As my friend Chris’ comment playfully suggested, same-sex marriages took place on Saturday without the world coming to an end, and civilisation as we know it remains intact. It seems possible, then, that we might cope with reigniting a bigger conversation about how we regulate our sexuality, and how that might not always be in our best interests as a society.

In her influential 1984 essay Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, academic and sex writer Gayle Rubin wrote:

The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality…. Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

I’m with Gayle. Now that the fairy dust has settled, and we’ve taken an important step forward for fairness and tolerance, why not use this as an opportunity to rethink sex and sexuality?

Until that crazy queer-fabulous day comes, I am content to raise a glass of pink champagne to all the brides and grooms in the UK, and feel satisfied that, should anyone be brave enough to ask me to marry them, that I can have the big Kath & Kim Cinderella-themed wedding with a pumpkin coach that I’ve always wanted. Life surely can’t get much better than this.

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