A few weeks ago, 77 MPs voted to end formal discrimination of gays in New Zealand. Passage of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013 reflects society’s changing opinions of people in same-sex relations; hateful bigotry is giving way to loving acceptance. The gay identity was forged out of a struggle against past oppression and marginalisation. Will this cohesion survive now that the fight for equality is won? What does the gay identity look like in a world that is more accepting of gays?
The heavens opened on the night that New Zealand became the 13th country to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Contrary to the religious zealots’ claims that God would rain down hellfire on our sinful lawmakers, all that precipitated was some much-needed drizzle. The drought afflicting our nation had come to an end and so too had the plague of legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. You can’t have the (big, gay) rainbow without the rain, after all.
As the public gallery was full a handful of people viewed the debate, somewhat fittingly, from Parliament’s Spouses’ Room. Des Smith and John Jolliff, the first gay couple to have their relationship recognised by the state with a Civil Union, were among the congregation. Seeing an 83 year old man break down in tears because his love for his partner of three decades was no longer considered ugly would be enough to warm even the coldest and most ambivalent of hearts. There was a sense that politicians had uncovered an essential truth and had done so by transcending the antagonistic point scoring of politics.
The anti-gay edifice is crumbling. Everywhere you look, countries are coming out in support of gay marriage. France has just legalized it. In Ireland’s recent Constitutional Convention, 79% of those questioned supported altering their constitution to allow for same-sex marriage. The biggest issue MPs in the UK are faced with is how the law might affect succession to the throne (because heaven forbid a King who’s also a queen). The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, during the hearing for a case currently before the court addressing the constitutionality of same-sex unions sardonically observed that, “political figures are falling over themselves to endorse [gay marriage].” The battles aren’t yet over but the war is won and it’s the gays who are firmly on top.
Gay marriage is a manifestation of society’s slow but inexorable march toward social acceptance of people who are different to us. They’re here, they’re queer, we’re used to it. The maturation of our views on homosexuality has come about as a result of greater prominence of gay people in society. The ubiquitous gay characters on our screens teach us that gays aren’t the evil monsters they were once made out to be. Green MP Kevin Hague, who sat on the Select Committee for the bill, argues that: “people like Cameron and Mitchell from Modern Family have done us an enormous service in providing a model of a gay couple who are just like everyone else”. More and more brave young men and women are having the awkward ‘coming out’ conversation with their family and friends who are in turn coming out in support of the right to marry.
Our generation has a particular fondness for the idea that the activities people take part in while pursuing their own happiness are of no concern to us so long as they aren’t hurting anyone. See our liberal stance on marijuana legalization. The social construct of gender is becoming more fluid, and increasing numbers of generally heterosexual people are realizing that they’re a little bit gay and that that’s all right. It would be wrong and naive to say that homophobia no longer exists. There’s still a long way to go. But we all rightly take it as a given that the future is a far friendlier place.
Des Smith reminded us that it hasn’t always been this way. “In the staid society that existed prior to the social upheaval of the swinging sixties,” he says, “homosexuality was treated as a kind of sexual deviancy.” Unable to openly express their love for fear of being prosecuted, gays were forced to lead a double life: polishing a veneer of heterosexuality by day, cruising public toilets and gay saunas by night. Portrayals of homosexuality in the media were contemptuous, even the usually liberal Times Magazine described the lifestyle as “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.” The invisible minority fell victim to society’s tendency to push a group to the margins and then hate them for being there.
Then the revolution came. The writings of prominent gays such as Gore Vidal and Truman Capote conveyed to the general public the basic humanity of homosexual relationships. Two people of the same sex weren’t just sharing a bed, they were sharing love. Tired of being marginalized, and spurred on by the successes of women’s and black rights groups, a dormant political force emerged. Previously disaffected by and disinterested in the political process, queers realized they could stick it to the man by beating him at his own game. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 showed gays would no longer take discrimination lying down. It wasn’t long before the gay rights movement had their very own political hero and martyr in Harvey Milk, who was to gays what Martin Luther King Jr was to blacks; Milk became the gay MLK.
It’s true that no man is an island, and in forming our identity we look to people and ideas that we can identify with, as well as those we can define ourselves against. As gays bonded over the shared bondage they were subject to at the hands of the conservative establishment, a community emerged. Just as people who feel shunned by society join gangs in search of acceptance, young gay men and women rejected by their families formed a family of their own. The formation of the gay identity, then, is a tale of a struggle against an oppressive majority.
But once the vitriolic bigotry dissolves and gives way to open acceptance, will the bonds of solidarity forged in reaction to that hatred survive? Is a distinct gay identity necessary any longer? Ironically, it is their acceptance by the mainstream – the goal from the very beginning – that will remove the necessity for gays to have their own separate and distinct culture. Once the sexual difference becomes accepted and valued, it ceases to be important. Gay assimilation will replace the separate-but-equal status quo. When it is no longer ‘us’ against ‘them’, does the ‘us’ become redundant?
The disintegration of a distinct collective gay identity will counter intuitively prove to be a good thing for gay individuals. In order to become a serious political force, the movement formed a united group, claiming to represent the interests and views of all gays. It prescribed a set of criteria for what it meant to be gay. Kevin Hague explains that: “we confined ourselves to a gay ghetto of a narrow range of stereotypes and created for ourselves just a bigger closet.” For homosexuals who didn’t fit the stereotypes embraced and promulgated by the movement, this was a problem. Bruce Bawer, writer of the seminal gay culture book ‘A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society’ explains that the movement “insisted that gays who, say, wanted to join the military, or attend church, or who lived in committed relationships were aping the straight majority and betraying the queer nation, probably because they were “self-hating” or ‘sex-negative’ or both.” It’s conveniently dropped down the memory hole that “in 1993 virtually all of the leaders of the gay political establishment were fiercely opposed to the idea of gay marriage and they vilified as sell-outs those of us who supported it.” Something is wrong when a minority discriminates those amongst them who just want to be accepted by the majority.
As homosexuality becomes less homogenous, a number of changes will occur. The primacy of sexuality in a person’s self-discovery and self-assertion will cease to be the most important aspect of their personality. When sexuality is no longer the focus, other parts of an individual’s life will bloom in importance and expression. This change can already be seen in the rise of numerous gay subcultures. The ‘straight-acting gay’ (the guy you tell your friends is “gay, but you’d never know it”) no longer faces persecution at the hands of the gay community who dislike people who don’t conform to their idea of a gay person.
The narrative of self-hatred will be silenced. In an effort to portray themselves as marginalised victims, the gay community has made a big deal of the fact that gays can’t choose their sexuality. But “It’s not my fault I’m gay” implicitly presupposes that gayness is indeed a fault. It is helpless euphemistic shorthand for “If only I could choose to be straight.” Science has known for a long time that people aren’t born gay or straight. Two identical twins can share exactly the same genetic material but be attracted to exactly opposite sexes. It is likely that some genes mean a person is predisposed to being gay and sexuality is therefore determined by both nature and nurture, but what does it matter where gayness comes from? Even if it was a choice, gay people should be able to proudly say they chose it.
The erosion of the barrier between gay and mainstream culture will affect straight people too. Straights will no longer have to worry about whether their red shirt makes them look gay, or whether their peers will call them faggot or poof for performing in the school musical. Kevin Hague agrees: “Homosexuality will stop being seen as such a threat to masculinity and there is evidence of this happening already, such as the implementation and success of queer-straight alliances in schools.”
Sex positivist views will become the norm in society. It’s true that many gays have a lot of sex with a lot of people, but this isn’t a deviant gay trait, it’s a male trait. If the average female sex drive was as strong as the average male’s, straights would be having more sex with more people too. It’s also true that pursuing intercourse over loving relationships is a direct result of being denied the ability to do so. Ignorance as to how gay people even have sex (it can be done face-to-face) may finally abate and with it the perception that homosexual sex is devoid of love.
The institution of marriage will continue to evolve. It’s come a long way from its origins as a transferral of ownership of a woman by her family to her new husband. It’s ceased to be a religious construct and is now a secular enterprise in which the state recognises the importance of the relationship to the two parties and rewards the commitment they have made with certain legal rights. Same-sex marriage will merely result in more people throwing fabulous weddings, rejuvenating and adding a certain romanticism.
None of this is to say that there will no longer be a gay culture. Gay men and women will retain certain bonds and traits as a result of their shared understanding of the experiences, issues and relationships unique to their sexuality. There will always be an opposition to rally against; ignorance and homophobia will continue to exist. But they’re called homophobes because they’ve got something to fear. In many cases, extreme anti-gay sentiment is the result of repressed feelings. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash. Equipped with this knowledge, and with support from heterosexual allies, gays will overcome.
Cultures evolve. In a more accepting world, the need for homosexuals to band together to fight a common foe dissipates, and so too does their collective spirit. But this should be welcomed. When identities seek recognition by society they become exclusive and intransigent. The lives of those who don’t fit the bill are made worse. Once gay culture becomes gay cultures, or better still just plain old cultures, that straight jacket is removed. “Gayness” alone will cease to tell you very much about an individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, fractured, and so intermingled that it may be more helpful not to examine them separately at all. And if that means fewer floral shirts, so be it.
| Cameron Price and Duncan McLaughlan
Originally published in Victoria University’s student magazine Salient.