Marriage equality: It’s not the main issue

Peter Robinson,  Swinburne University:

Between 2009 and 2011, I interviewed 97 men in a variety of international cities including Auckland, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and New York. I asked them questions about their experience of age and ageing as gay men and the results were published in 2013. The book, Gay Men’s Relationships Across the Life Course, included two chapters on gay marriage. The first, ‘Cohabitation’ contained an analysis of the arguments that men aged 51 and over made against gay marriage or the doubts they expressed about it. The second, ‘Marriage’ comprised analysis of the arguments that almost all the men aged 31 and under made in favour of gay marriage. From the start, I would like to explain why I am not using the LGBTIQ acronym. Because my research has been on gay men’s lived experience, I cannot claim knowledge of the views, beliefs, and desires of bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer people in regard to marriage or any other aspect of their social life and do not presume to speak on their behalf. Since gay liberation, the experiences of gays and lesbians have tended to mirror each other, so some of what I say here might apply to lesbian experience but I leave readers to make their own connections in this regard. My preference is for ‘gay people’, a phrase first used by John Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 1981).

If my work revealed anything of importance about this public debate, it was that there was a significant generation divide between gay men concerning gay marriage. How their views have changed since then it is difficult to know, except that I suspect the views of the men who were then in their 20s and 30s will have become more definite, possibly strident. The success of the gay marriage debate as a public campaign has been in turning it into a matter of rights, of human rights. And in this regard, activists have been very successful, helped, of course, by the success of similar campaigns in other loosely similar countries.

In doing so, they managed to overlook serious doubts many women and men have expressed about the social institution of marriage or whether other forms of state-sanctioned relationships should be considered on par with marriage. As well, they also managed to avoid answering questions about additional benefits gay people would achieve in places like Victoria, where gay relationships of two years or more are already equivalent to de facto heterosexual relationships and all their privileges. In Australia, discussion of civil union was quickly swept under the carpet and the demand was for all or nothing: a white wedding for all or nothing at all. Like most public debates, nuance was unhelpful and people who argued against gay marriage on grounds such as I have mentioned here were quickly branded as out of touch, even homophobic. Recently, I was told that gay marriage was an example of improved conditions for gay people. When I replied that gay men were still being bashed and killed by homophobes, I had a strong sense my interlocutor saw me as troublesome, irrelevant, or out of touch with the zeitgeist.

Among female colleagues, I have been surprised by the numbers who believe that marriage is a good step forward for gay people – without qualification or further thought. When I raised the matter of its dubious reputation, mentioned continuing high divorce rates or family violence, again I got the strong impression that I was seen as being difficult, perhaps even misogynistic. Strange how the world turns. Strange how alternative views get shouted down nowadays. Other colleagues, mostly male, have assured me that it will give gay people a choice and left the matter at that. And choice trumps all other arguments when anyone’s back is to the wall, too tired to listen to alternative views or data. It is just a matter of choice and rights. That’s it. No mention of alternatives to marriage, to the success over three decades of long-term relationships without state sanction that gay people have fashioned for themselves; no mention of the views of punk or queer gays and lesbians who see the marriage debate as a homogenising impulse, of a class-based set of assumptions about what is ‘good’ for gays and lesbians, nothing at all about these. Just a matter of choice; that’s what it boils down to; mad to object. I am reminded here of Pierre Bourdieu’s argument in Distinction (1984) that a taste for baked beans can only be understood as a matter of choice for as long as you first accept that people who can afford only baked beans have no other choice.

Choice is a clever political device because it appears to permit punks and queers and other alternative gays to do what they do and in no way interfere with the choice gay merchant bankers and real estate agents have to so fashion their intimate lives to suit themselves. What the choice argument overlooks, however, is the case made by some gay and lesbian scholars on ‘hierarchies’ of relationships: if marriage is the gold standard of relationships, anything less is less valuable, has less status. And the associated fear is that once gay marriage is enacted and normalised, other forms of gay relationships will have less value so that eventually if you want a same-sex relationship you will soon be expected to marry, because what could be wrong with that?

And this makes some gay people very angry. They do not want to be homogenised and do not want their alternative relationships relegated to the end of the queue or their relationships assumed invariably to lead to marriage. Because that’s what homogenising impulses do. And do you know what gets under the skin of some gay people? That our straight colleagues and friends think it such a good idea that we are corralled into accepting access to a social institution that they are ambiguous about or, in other words, it is better for us to be more like you than for you to accept us and our strange ways, warts and all. Better for us to live like you than for you to wrestle with what gay means or it means to be gay.

If enacted, will gay marriage stop young, straight males saying “No homo!” and laughing when they hug one another, or female teenagers at private or select schools screwing up their faces and decrying anything unacceptable in the following terms, “That’s so gay!” My point is that gay marriage, if successful, will not reduce either moderate or serious homophobia, which I regard as an issue of greater significance than whether a gay couple can have their union blessed in a church or synagogue or registry office. Will it enable schools to teach sex education that includes serious discussion of anal sex among young straights and gays and why it is far riskier in gay populations? Will it allow sex educators teach young gay men who want to be receptive partners how to have sex and enjoy themselves and not put their health at risk? I suspect not. And yet unprotected anal sex among men is the chief source of HIV infection. We have known this for more than 30 years and yet discussion of anal sexual practices is still verboten in sex education in Australian schools. As a result, small, vocal groups of young gay activists and drug companies are lobbying Western governments to subsidise drugs that protect men engaging in unsafe anal sex from contracting HIV (pre-exposure prophylaxis). A nice, neat and very expensive medical solution to a social problem we are too squeamish about and refuse to address.

If anal sex is a topic the mainstream would prefer not to address, does that explain why it is easier to support a gay marriage movement? No mention of gay sex here, although this is what you are advocating – within the confines of the marriage banns – and it might explain why religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, oppose it. Vaginal sex is the sacred physical in heterosexual marriage – something that two men can imitate only when it involves the anus of one or the other.

In one of his last works, Pierre Bourdieu wrote that gay sex was problematic, and I would argue will always be problematic, because it involved the feminising of the male body: men’s bodies are meant only to penetrate, never to be penetrated (see Masculine Domination, 2001). These are bigger issues in my view because they touch on the sexual and mental health of a population that is increasingly vulnerable to attack on line and in public. And I am not convinced enacting gay marriage will help solve them. We need a bigger conversation about bodies and what we do with them and why some are privileged and others are despised.


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