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Jun 4, 2015

... and Helen Razer makes the queer case against it

After 150 years of mistreatment by the state and its juridical and mental institutions, many homosexual people, and their new “allies”, continue to believe that the state can save them. But it cannot, and marriage is not the way forward.

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It seems that we are on the brink of change to the Marriage Act that will transform the lives of many. Not people in same-sex relationships, mind. Their lives won’t change much at all. The lives it will really change are those of advocates and commentators who won’t shut up about why the “right” to same-sex marriage is some crucial moral test of the national character.

Claims that such amendments to the Marriage Act are urgent and transformative and right are as copious as they are largely unconvincing. These range from the odd claim that such reform will reduce youth suicide to the Keeping Up With The Joneses one that “even Ireland and Alabama did it”. Claims that these amendments will devastate civic and juridical practice are even more vapid, and the ABC recently published two pieces that would likely have failed if submitted in first-year sociology. One, by the Reverend Dr Michael Jensen, took all of its illogic from a Helen Lovejoy reading of Genesis and worried that children could not be properly produced without the “sexed twoness” of a mummy and a daddy.

As if this Edenic shite were not enough, it was rapidly followed by some guy who frets that no one has considered the burden to the Family Law Courts. This former adviser in the Howard government must have ignored proposed changes to law as much as then-AG Philip Ruddock did when he failed to act on the Same Sex: Same Entitlements legislative advice that would offer, among other things, same-sex couples the right to use of these courts.

Since the Rudd government acceded where Howard’s wouldn’t to recommendations initially proposed by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, those living in ongoing same-sex relationships have the same rights, and the same responsibilities, as anyone identified as living in a domestic partnership. This domestic partnership category, whose impact extends from the requirement to declare Centrelink income to the right to claim bereavement leave, is, following the suite of changes to all kinds of tedious law, no longer practically different to marriage. So proposed changes to the Marriage Act, itself pettily amended by the Coalition government in 2004 with the support of the opposition, won’t Change Lives as much as is popularly believed.

Although barely reported at the time of its passage — and of no apparent political interest to any of the straight, compassionate souls now so eager to be seen to support what they refuse to stop calling “gay marriage” — the Same Sex: Same Entitlements package was the most significant change to Commonwealth law for those with non-normative sexuality since Keating permitted no exemption to immigration for same-sex partners in 1995. Again, the under-reported result of arduous lobbying by queer people that received no mainstream support. Just like the 1991 parity changes to age of consent laws in NSW attracted little mainstream interest.  Just like the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, starting in South Australia in 1972 with thanks to Don Dunstan, was of minimal interest to “allies”.

There’s a reason that many prominent commentators and politicians are now eager to be counted among those who support “gay marriage”, despite the rights that many still presume it would deliver were passed into law unmet with mainstream support or applause. You could say, I suppose, that same-sex relationships are now so broadly accepted that this glorious moment of hope is one shared by the majority of Australians. Or you could, if you were someone in a same-sex relationship during the years that no one gave much of a toss about the boring-but-important legislative changes that took so effing long to pass, be a bit more cynical about what the putative “support” for homosexuality now means. And, by extension, what it will mean in the future for those who endure social discrimination.

Certainly, there are those who mean very well. The current campaign for a legal recognition, which is different from the legal equivalence that was meaningfully passed seven years ago, is probably very well-meant, most particularly from Millennials only just old enough to participate in any political battle. It seems conservative to oppose “gay marriage”, and it is easy to make the emotional calculation that the legal right to marry will produce better lives.

But, most particularly given the surfeit of conservative support for same-sex marriage, there is something else at play here. And it’s something that doesn’t augur well for the meaningful policy needed to truly transform the lives of those who do not perform a normative sexuality. It doesn’t mean that anyone will care about addressing the risk factors that find non-heterosexual people experiencing homelessness, physical violence and mental health concerns in disproportionate numbers. It means, at best, that people think that the right to marry will modify these risk factors, which is an unsupportable claim. Marriage, after all, does not protect women from violence. At worst, it means that people think that proposed legislation will revive the institution of marriage.

Well-regarded British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has argued best and most openly in these terms. A known advocate for gay rights, he says that marriage itself will be an institution improved by queer participation. Today in Crikey, Father William Grimm says something similar, albeit from a concern for the health of Rome rather than that of progressivism. Grimm supports same-sex marriage for what it will offer Mother Church. Both thinkers, from different perspectives, are arguing for the revival of traditional institutions. And it’s these urges to both uphold the constraints of the past and to normalise relationships that gives me the irrits.

Personally, I wish legislation would pass quickly so that claims that it is nominal endorsement by the state, and not policy action by the state, that will Change Lives can cease. I don’t object to the idea of marriage so much as I do the implicit idea on both sides of this debate that legally enshrined marriage is a desirable state. The conversation about same-sex marriage has been one that has achieved little save for the handy outing of true stupidity of the “sexed twoness” type and the revelation that the left has become almost as neoliberal as neolibs.

The intellectual and social value of gay lib over its 50-year lifetime has been, at times although not exclusively, to show the very unpleasant effects of a normalising sexuality. What happens when a society codifies sexual acts and identities in its institutions is necessarily to create sexual acts and identities that fall outside the norm. When an ideal is produced, so is its opposite.  So the passionate fight for marriage, of a sort that can no longer offer any legal entitlements unavailable in current law, when it is won will produce a class of others.

Those who do not have the means, opportunity or inclination to marry will exist outside a new normalised convention. And one can say, as neoliberals are wont to do, that all this constitutes is a “choice”. But normalising ideals are not a choice. They are a form of power to which anyone who fails to meet their terms is cruelly subject. And in this case, marriage and inclusion is seen as a panacea for a wide range of complex social problems. But inclusion has never been the solution to exclusion. Rather, inclusion is exclusion’s necessary precedent.

After 150 years of mistreatment by the state and its juridical and mental institutions, many homosexual people, and their new “allies”, continue to believe that the state can save them. I tend to believe that the ardour for this recognition in law will found a new category of despised queer. I tend to believe that the need to reinvigorate marriage, an institution that began a fast decline the minute people were permitted no-fault escape from it, is deeply conservative.

And I believe that those many who insist that this is a moment of great solidarity whose expression will continue into the future as large numbers fight to have the material burden of homelessness and violence addressed is pants. The battle for true freedom to any social class is, as gay rights activists have found, tedious and unsexy and largely done with no assistance from “allies”. Unless, of course, they can expect something for themselves. In the case of “gay marriage”, that would be the affirming glee that comes from citizenship in a fundamentally anti-social democracy that allows it and a little affirmation that the way heterosexuals have organised the world for so long is great.

Same-sex marriage legislation must pass, if only to stop this meaningless debate about the things that constitute social change and the idea that a state endorsement of a particular practice is not the same thing as a right.

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10 thoughts on “… and Helen Razer makes the queer case against it

  1. davidh

    Thanks again Helen for a voice of intelligence and real analysis in this.

    For me at 65 and in a 31 year long relationship, “Gay Marriage” strikes me as the Charlie Hedbo moment of the queer movement in it current sorry state of lubugrious immersion into bourgeois culture and the meaningless symbolism of “marriage” for all of us. All – as you say – after fifty years of gay/queer politics which has achieved all the changes you’ve duly noted and which are now basically forgotten, since the sixties. Look at the people you’re joining hands with in this so called “fight” – and think again. I wouldn’t be seen dead with most of them.

    We moved to NZ from OZ two years and just a couple of months after their legalized marriage bill passed through the NZ Parliament. I have to say there’s a lot of emotional arousal from seeing so much joy in people’s faces and hearts but the reality of daily life after what’s no more legally than window dressing and yet more business opportunities for the Marriage Industry until that niche tourism to NZ tourism from OZ fades away.

    To add one more critical bill if I may to your list of real breakthroughs in Australia, and the people who brokered it, let’s add the toughest one of the lot, IMO and the one that was still being fought tooth and claw by every single fucking religious group from their tax exempt towers of rectitude: legitimizing gay adoption (from already lawful gay fostering)in NSW back in 2011.

    Being steadfastly oblivious to the gormless embourgeoisement of anybody who wants to get legally married I watched this one with great interest and have never forgotten (and was profoundly moved) by some of the genuinely surprising people who voted for it against such a vicious anti campaign – Christina Keneally (until that day no liked by me), then Lib Leader Barry O’Farrell and future Right wing based Labor leader Luke Foley along with many others on both sides. These people had actually thought and reasoned and saw what the change itself was up against. They had real guts, not the bellwether shit from Shorten and the like who really have zero to “lose”.

    That was the last time I will feel any great emotion and relief on any gay/queer cause in Oz. The remaining Marriage fluff is a genuinely tokenistic bellwether that’s being kicked around by everyone who wants to get brownie points with the “enlightened” crowd without really doing any hard work.

    Again Helen, bravo for speaking the truth of it.

  2. Nicholas

    Helen, yours is an argument for the abolition of marriage altogether, not at argument to shut up about same-sex marriage.

    What is the link between neoliberalism and marriage? Neoliberalism has been ascendant for forty years; state-recognized marriage has been around somewhat longer. When did marriage acquire its neoliberal hue and by what means? What prevents a couple from being married without living according to the tenets of neoliberalism? Plenty of people value marriage yet somehow manage to live values which contradict neoliberalism. How could this be?

    I question your assumption that approving of choices for people is related to neoliberalism.

  3. wiki

    Helen Razer’s diatribe is not based on fact and constitutes a re writing of history.The gay rights changes in Australia kicked off in South Australia in 1974 when I as a back bencher in the SA House of Assembly introduced a private members bill to de criminalise homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private.Don Dunstan did not introduce the bill.Helen Razer says this legislation was of minimal interest to allies.In fact it was introduced promoted and passed as an action of an ally of the gay community.Further more the main extra parliamentary support for the measure came not from Gay organisations [which in the early 1970’s were thin on the ground]but from the SA council for Civil liberties.An allied organisation.I never benefited politically from promoting the homosexual reform bill.On the contrary in my working class electorate of Elizabeth I was regularly abused by conservatives as “that friend of poo pushers”As an ally of the gay community for 40 years I find Helen Razer’s impuning of allies motives disappointing and dispiriting. Peter Duncan.

  4. davidh

    Peter you’ve got the wrong end of the stick in calling Helen’ piece a diatribe. That it aint. If it’s calling anything out it’s this tedious marriage debate when in fact all the actually meaningful legislation for “Equality” and recognition was implemented in the decades before, down to finally Rudd and then A-G Bob McLelland in 2008 to legislatively finish off for couples what that bastard Howard had stalled or acted against in Commonwealth legislation.

    Helen’s griping about all these fucking bourgeois kids who want to get married. It aint about us!!

    For history I think you really must start with activism on the campuses in the late 60s and then the very first broader gay/queer movements from the major state Universities to other State reform groups and then to the Parties “Youth” branches and onto mainstream politics. These groups catalysed the discussion both within and without the political parties but certainly created the intellectual framework for the law reforms that followed

    Certainly you and Dunstan in SA were the first, in two steps, to enable decriminalization, then the Commonwealth, and the other states one by one as you correctly say. All our other stories should be remembered but this article isn’t the place for that. Helen just isn’t writing that story Peter. I believe she’s writing about the trivialization of the old movement to popular culture and the “soft” feelgood politics of “gay marriage”.

    This article does bemoan the fact that all the details of the previous 50 years (to extend back to the activism that generated the political and legislative activities) and the brave individuals, including activists and politicians all of us men and women of quality, who are now largely forgotten. Well, not all.

    Give Helen a break, although I have no doubt she can answer her own critics.

  5. bronwyn hazell

    I absolutely agree with you Helen. Thank you for writing this piece.

  6. AR

    If Razer were not paid by the word would her pieces be more coherent & less tedious?

  7. Norman Hanscombe

    AR, I really don’t believe Helen doesn’t enjoy writing, regardless of its quality.
    wiki,it’s unexpected to find anything about this topic written about on a crikey thread that’s as accurately as your contribution.

  8. Ken Lambert

    Are we witnessing the coming out of Peter Duncan as wiki? Brave Pete – joining the ranks of those who write under their own name.

    Now for Ms Razer’s effort today….better than her usual confused babble…though I do believe she has produced the Gillard line on marriage in general…whether Gay or Straight.

    Its only a piece of paaaaper and for the determinedly childless with a live-in hairdesser and a string of dodgy ex-boyfriends, the old fashioned marriage is sooo non necessary. The Gillard line in opposition to marriage in general with a twist of respect for her trad Welsh parents.

    I love this line: “I tend to believe that the need to reinvigorate marriage, an institution that began a fast decline the minute people were permitted no-fault escape from it, is deeply conservative.” Quite true.

    And then Helen does this: “But inclusion has never been the solution to exclusion. Rather, inclusion is exclusion’s necessary precedent.”

    Could we rephrase this as “IN has never been a remedy for OUT, but there must be IN to have OUT?” Is this the old IN and OUT group psychobabble??

    Lets face it Helen, the gloriously committed Gays want all the trappings of traditional State sanctioned marriage purely because they can’t have it.

    They produce all the arguments for pieces of State stamped paper which would do traditionalists like Fred Nile proud.

    When they get it, no doubt all the schlock will fall away and Gays will come back to the field of Straights in divorce rates and other symptoms of marriage breakdown. In fact given the Gay propensity for much higher partner counts (nice term for promiscuity), Gay breakups promise to be much more colourful, particularly if half children by surrogates are involved.

    Returning to the one towering truth of your otherwise mordant piece: Marriage as “an institution that began a fast decline the minute people were permitted no-fault escape from it”.

    Somehow I can’t help feeling that had Helen chanced on Mr Darcy emerging from that summer pool, she might have seriously risked becoming mistress of Pemberley.

  9. mark petrolo

    I’m gay but I love being alone and can’t imagine the benefits of having a boyfriend let alone a husband. Can we redefine marriage to include/celebrate people like me who are not aggressively codependent? If not I will have no choice but to be offended.

  10. Red Bob

    Well, yes, why not get rid of ‘marriage’? Why is ‘married’ still the pinnacle of the relationship hill; the prize by which all other relationships are measured? My partner and I have been together for 25 years, and four children later, we still do not understand why people are so keen to jump into the marriage pool. Do they like spending lots of money on a one day event; or do they need an anniversary date to circle on the calendar? I’m with Julia – marriage is an outdated and irrelevant concept (and what’s with women STILL changing their surname to their husband’s?).

    Why don’t we concentrate on commitment instead.

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