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Put a Ring On It

My old friend the (gay) human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, once loathed by the popular press for his ‘radical extremism’, is the biggest, loudest voice in the UK calling for same sex marriage.

Or was, until he found himself in bed recently with David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, who stole his thunder somewhat by announcing at the Tory Party Conference this month his support for gay marriage – “Not despite my being a Conservative, but because I’m a Conservative.”

In the UK civil partnerships were introduced in 2004, giving same sex couples who signed up for them effectively the same legal rights – and privileges over single people – as married couples. Civil partnerships have been widely regarded as a success, and while it’s true that many lesbians and gays probably would want the option, unlike in the US there has been no great clamour for same sex marriage – no riots in Soho or MiLK-esque speeches at the BAFTAs.

In fact, the lack of much of a clamour for same-sex marriage (except for perhaps the one coming from Tatchell) is one of the reasons why Cameron was able to so easily co-opt – or ‘out’ – gay marriage as something essentially Conservative/conservative. And in the process complete his swishy remodelling of the Tories as the socially liberal, Nice to Gays, MetroTory Party, rather than The Nasty Party people remember from the 80s, 90s and much of the Noughties. While throwing his Coalition partners the Lib-Dems a boner.

And in an important sense he’s right about gay marriage: Conservatives don’t like new institutions, they like old ones. Really dusty, cobwebby ones that don’t work anymore. Although ageing hang ‘em and flog ‘em Shire Tories whom Holland Park ‘Dave’ clearly despises and who despise him back with interest won’t agree, better that gays line up to get married than go off and do their own civil thing. Especially when no one else is bothering to get married any more.

Unsurprisingly, half-hearted proposals to extend civil partnerships to cross-sex couples have been dropped – the reason cross-sex couples were barred from civil partnerships in the first place was due to fears that this would ‘undermine marriage’. The Tories, remember, want to prop up the lame duck industry of marriage by introducing a state subsidy for it.

But should Cameron succeed in legalising same-sex marriage, Tatchell isn’t going to get gay married himself. Despite his very personal identification with the cause of same sex marriage in the UK for several years, and his use of somewhat melodramatic rhetoric such as ‘sexual apartheid’ and ‘riding at the back of the bus’ to describe civil partnerships, he rejects marriage altogether – on political  grounds. Debating with Suzanne Moore (another old friend of mine) in Saturday’s Guardian in the wake of Cameron’s pledge, he repeated an argument he has made many times before:

‘Personally, I don’t like marriage. I share the feminist critique of its history of sexism and patriarchy. I would not want to get married.’

In other words, he sees marriage as a system of oppression and inequality which he wants nothing to do with. Though of course, this doesn’t mean he can’t crusade selflessly for the right of others to get oppressed:

‘But as a democrat and human rights defender, I support the right of others to marry. This is a simple issue of equality. The ban on same-sex marriage is discrimination and discrimination is wrong, full stop.’

Even without dwelling on the slight contradiction of campaigning for the extension of a system of oppression and inequality under the banner of equality, Tatchell is not presenting much of an argument here. Rather — and I say this as someone who owes Peter a debt of thanks for helping to get my first book published and for providing a cracking essay for my 1996 collection Anti-Gay — it’s a schoolmarmish piece of moralism designed to close down debate: ‘…discrimination is wrong, full stop’. Oh, no! The dreaded full stop! That’s it then. My powers of dialectic have turned to dust!

I’ve heard similar from liberal heteros who like to wear their support for gay marriage as a badge of their liberalism, and are crestfallen when you don’t pat them on the back for it. The poor dears usually end up irritably dismissing queer killjoys like me as ‘perverse’ and ‘eccentric’. Liberal do-gooders know best, even when they’re straight liberal do-gooders talking about gay marriage to gayers.

Thankfully, not all straight liberals think alike — in the Guardian debate Suzanne Moore dares to be the straight party-pooper at the gay marriage reception, airing many of the arguments that lots of LGBT people agree with but tend to keep quiet about in front of the Goyim. Like her, I’m not so much against same-sex marriage (what would be the point of that? Unless you have a kink for chaining yourself to church railings), as just not for it.

But agnosticism about gay marriage isn’t really permitted. After all, gay America, Tatchell, straight liberals and even David Cameron all say we have to be for it. Full stop.

Thing is, if you get with the programme and make equality for its own sake your god you can end up saying really daft things which you clearly don’t believe. Worse, by making it the measure of ‘equality’, you make even more of a fetish out of marriage than the traditionalists.

And someone like Peter Tatchell, who has a long, radical history, who rejects marriage as ‘sexist and patriarchal’, who would like to see civil partnerships made more flexible and extended to cross-sex couples (so would I, but it’s not going to happen under this Government), ends up saying stuff like: ‘marriage is the gold standard.’

Perhaps, despite his denials, Peter really does want to get married after all. Sometimes he sounds like a very old-fashioned girl.

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10 thoughts on “Put a Ring On It”

  1. ‘Standing up in front of our friends and family and declaring that we fuck? Pointless.’

    And, I’d add, probably not very conducive to fucking either.

  2. Marriage. I want as little of it as possible, but as much of it as necessary.

    And my civil union, a Lebenspartnerschaft under the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, gives me precisely that.

    It allows me, as a permanent resident of the Republic, the right of spousal immigration. That’s all we need.

    Several straight bi-national couples we know have got gay-married for the same reason. They can take the natural step of living under the same roof before they get into anything legally sticky.

    In fact, straight couples been giving themselves de-facto civil unions for decades, through a nifty device called a pre-nup. Depending on your jurisdiction, you can turn your straight marriage into the dead-spit of a gay one.

    Would I get “married”, if it were possible? Depends. What’s in it for me?

    The union already covers medical decisions. (Not sure I really want that. We have some quite different ideas about bodily integrity. He’s Japanese, you see. He would overturn my organ donor card, and has said as much.)

    I don’t want a claim on his assets, nor he on mine. I don’t want him to be responsible if I miss a credit card payment, or vice-versa.

    And we sure as hell don’t want to take each others’ names.

    The only advantage is that I’d be able to claim my non-working spouse as a tax deduction—right now, under German law, I can’t.

    And that’s what makes Cameron’s promise meaningless. The UK partnership law already allows this financial advantage to civil partners, I believe. It doesn’t cost Cambo any real dosh.

    So why is he in support of this meaningless change of terms? You’ve hit it on the head, Simmo. Conservatism.

    A Civil Union works for me because the hub and I are total chickenshit sell-out bourgeois assimilationists.

    Before blessing our union, German authorities looked at income, insurance coverage, and even demanded the floor-plan of our flat, to see that we weren’t stacking people twelve to a room like—according to them—immigrants always try to do. (One American gay couple we know, who live in Munich, actually had to move out of their bedsit to be granted a Lebenspartnerschaft)

    A civil union works because we live a cushy middle-class life in schiki-miki inner-city Munich and don’t rely on the state very much, except to go to the opera.

    What if we decided found mutual support and enrichment in an alternative form of binding partnership? What if we decided to join a commune together? A Kibbutz? Or even just made our couple a trio? Would the state support it legally? Straights face the same challenges, I fear.

    Marriage, maybe I could bite at that, in spite of its ugly bourgeois symbolism. (Not only does Peter Tatchell point it out, but another old pal of yours, Jack Donovan, goes even further if memory serves).

    But I could never in a million fucking years have a gay wedding.

    Standing up in front of our friends and family and declaring that we fuck? Pointless.

  3. Agnostic is a very good way to put it! And though it is illegal not to worship Beyonce I always thought that ‘if you like it put a ring on it line’ was insulting to everyone everywhere. As though we were animals to be tethered….

  4. > Alas, though, gay marriage is not ‘just one more brick’ – it’s been turned into the cornerstone. By people who don’t want to get gay married.

    Or you could say that it’s only the cornerstone, the battleground, because this is where certain elements of society have chosen to make their stand: “You’re not having this as well.” To which the inevitable answer is: “Yes, we are.” If they’d chosen a different issue, then the arguments would be about that.

    > Nice to see you have a copy of AG to hand, Jonathan!

    Yes I do 🙂 . It’s a bit old and battered now, but the contents are still very relevant I think.

  5. Anyone with the least bit of awareness- which excludes a substantial crowd in the U.S. is aware that marriage is the reactionary shameful product of Ms Andrea Sullivan, a long term Catholic and Bush supporter-moreover an asimilationist most interest in perverting all the work done to liberate gay society reroactively into a bevy of suburban Betty & Col. Crockers. For shame at being taken as loose Lucys, spreading Aids!

    The most interesting stunt some of the more inventive heterosexual adversaries of this have come up with is to deny them the right to divorce-something one must admit is a fun test of purposefulness.
    Needless to say, marriage did very little, if anything to quel the spread of the virus, but it did leave a large assortment of “gay” people living with the same curse as their traditional mothers-believing that if they are of any value at all.

    This is, of course all retroactive and a reversal of everything that gay people had discovered about their sexuality up until then. So it is only a reactionary move which refects the right wing political atmosphere, but which gay people ignorantly think of as “liberation.”

  6. Paul H: Yes, getting government out of the ‘marriage’ business as much as possible is the ideal scenario, and one that I suspect Mr T would support.

    One of the drawbacks of the UK civil partnership, as a result of its attempt to be as close to marriage as legally possible, is that divorce is a difficult and costly as it is in the case of marriage. More so given that due to a technicality of civil law, in CPs infidelity isn’t grounds for divorce.

  7. Nice to see you have a copy of AG to hand, Jonathan!

    Alas, though, gay marriage is not ‘just one more brick’ – it’s been turned into the cornerstone. By people who don’t want to get gay married.

  8. Obviously governments shouldn’t really be in the “marriage” business (with all its attendant religious baggage) period.

    Civil unions/domestic partnerships gay and staight should be the only things recognized by the state, basically for financial, medical and property reasons, and where offspring are concerned. If folks want to get religious about their union, they may then apply to their choice of church, synagogue, mosque or temple to consecrate it in whatever way they wish.

  9. Although his stance nowadays does seem more assimilationist than radical queer, I don’t think it’s entirely inconsistent with his earlier position. Indeed, it follows from the end of his “It’s Just A Phase” piece in Anti-Gay:

    “The more we succeed in asserting our human rights as homosexuals, the sooner the differences between heteros and queers lose their significance. With no relevance or importance, the differences no longer have to be policed. Sexual boundaries become fuzzier. The need, and desire, to label behaviour and people disappears. The end result of this erosion of sexual difference will be the demise of distinct homosexual and heterosexual orientations and identities.”

    From this viewpoint the campaign for gay marriage is important not because marriage itself is important, but simply because straight people can marry and gay people can’t. It’s just one more brick in the heteronormative wall to be knocked down on the road to gay oblivion.

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