Some overexcited observers are describing last night’s passing of the gay marriage bill as the glorious endpoint to nearly 50 years of agitation for gay rights. Finally, and courtesy largely of David Cameron, New York City’s Stonewall rioters of 1969 and the daring organisers of Britain’s first-ever Gay Pride parades in the early 1970s have seen their dreams of equality come true. They had a dream, those early warriors for homosexual rights, and now that dream is a reality. Let us rejoice!
There is only one problem with this narrative – it is the biggest load of bunkum. It glosses over the fact that those early gay radicals were not remotely interested in getting married, or in winning equality, the only thing that today’s super-square gay campaigners and their cheerleaders go on about. The Stonewall radicals wanted liberation, not equality, and they wanted to destroy marriage, not buy into it. The Gay Liberation Front that emerged out of the Stonewall riot insisted that “complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished”.
It was pretty clear that one of the social institutions that would have to be done away with was marriage. A Gay Manifesto, an influential radical pamphlet published in 1970, described marriage as “a rotten, oppressive institution”. In Gay is Good, lesbian activist Martha Shelley’s explosive and much-loved 1972 booklet, homosexuals were described as “women and men who, from the time of our earliest memories, have been in revolt against the sex-role structure and the nuclear family structure”. As for Britain’s early Gay Pride get-togethers – they viewed marriage and the family as “a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children”. To depict last night’s passing of the gay marriage bill as a victory for these early campaigners is a bit like saying the nuking of Hiroshima was the joyous outcome of CND marches.
Writing in 2002, on the 30th anniversary of Britain’s first Gay Pride parade, Peter Tatchell said: “There were no calls for equality; our demand was liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it.” So in essence, the gay marriage campaign of today, with its drab demand that homosexuals be granted equal access to the social institution of “rotten, oppressive” marriage, represents not the fulfilment of early gay radicals’ demands but the warping of them, the stomping of them into the dirt of history. It is a well-known fact that most radicals end up going straight, eventually donning a suit and tie and accepting a fat wage packet in return for tempering their ideals. But the gay movement, in switching from loathing marriage to longing to enter into it, and from demanding that the state get our of their lives to pleading with the state to officiate their relationships, has performed an about-face that is unprecedented even in modern radical politics.
Why has there been this profound and eye-swivelling shift in the gay movement, so that today even a campaign group named after that 1969 New York riot – Stonewall – can devote all its energies to fighting for the right to enter into an institution that those rioters wanted to destroy? We’ve seen a lot of commentary asking why Cameron has cosied up to the gay marriage issue, but the more perplexing question of why the gay movement has embraced it has been left largely unexamined. I think it is to do with the gay movement’s embrace in recent years of the deadening and divisive politics of identity. Early gay rights warriors were interested in autonomy, which meant their key demand was for the state and the “moral majority” to butt out of their lives and let them do whatever they wanted. Their demand was for moral independence. Today’s gay rights spokespeople are obsessed with identity, and as we know, cultural identities are insatiable beasts, constantly needing the recognition and flattery of officialdom and society in order to survive. Thus, their key demand is for the state to come into their lives and give its blessing to their lifestyles and relationships, to effectively say: “Your way of life is valid. We accept it.” It is the very opposite of the moral independence and autonomy demanded by yesteryear’s gay radicals – it is a needy and cloying demand for state approval rather than a radical insistence that the state has no business determining which relationships are acceptable and which are not.
Don’t be fooled by the excitable tweets and tears of joy currently being produced by the gay rights lobby – for the gay marriage campaign actually speaks to a shocking lack of confidence among modern-day homosexuals, to a collapse of gay moral autonomy, even to a crisis of gay love. Once, and tragically, this was the love that dared not speak its name; now, equally tragically, it is the love that must have its name bellowed out by the state and the respectable press lest the self-esteem of those who practise it be even slightly damaged. I am pretty sure that extreme defensiveness was not the goal of those gay radical agitators of the 1960s and 70s.