LGBT Rights: The Perils of Becoming Mainstream

22 July 2015, 0914 EDT

To begin with a confession, I have spent far too long contemplating what to write about as my first post, due in no small part to sharing fellow Guest Duck Tom‘s nerves about joining such formidable paddling of regular Ducks. However, Wendy‘s post on human rights having gone mainstream and no longer being revolutionary has given me exactly the push I needed to get started.

Specifically, I want to explore Wendy’s argument in relation to claims for LGBT rights. My aim is not to counter Wendy’s argument, which I find persuasive, but rather to use it as a starting point for thinking through the implications of becoming mainstream and, in particular, consider the potential downsides of becoming “accepted and discussed” – what is lost when one’s claims cease to be revolutionary and/or “subversive”?

Before going any further, however, it’s worth noting that the idea of LGBT rights, or, more accurately, recognising LGBT people’s human rights, is still most definitely revolutionary and subversive in many parts of the world: homosexuality is still criminalised in 77 countries and political homophobia is evident in many countries – including perhaps most infamously Uganda and Russia.  So, even though 20 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, the UN has thrown its weight behind the slogan that “LGBT rights are human rights”, and a small group of Western actors, including the US and EU have designated protection of LGBT rights a foreign policy issue,  on a global level it would be more than a little premature to say that LGBT rights have become mainstream. Indeed, despite the UN’s supportive statements, there’s no mention of LGBT rights in the draft of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to date and many major development donors still do not have any formal policy or strategy that explicitly includes LGBT people. And that’s before we take into account that legislation and declarations do not necessarily translate into LGBT-friendly societies and organisations, as the results of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights’ LGBT Survey amongst many other surveys and reports demonstrate.

That said, at least in  the case of Western states and Western-led institutions , it seems entirely reasonable to talk about LGBT rights having gone mainstream as a human rights issue, and I couldn’t agree more that there’s nothing revolutionary about it. Where I diverge from Wendy, however, is on her conclusion that this is a good thing.

The term “LGBT rights” is used to refer to a whole gamut of rights, ranging the “right” not to be killed or beaten because of one’s choice of intimate partner and/or one’s gender identity, to the right to marry and the same partnership rights and family rights as heterosexual couples. At issue here is not the various rights claims that are made, but rather the nature of socio-political change that is being sought. In inevitably overly simplistic terms, there’s a choice to be made between assimilation and emancipation/liberation.

Assimilation envisages a future where LGBT people are treated as “normal” people who are just like everyone else. On the face of it, this would appear to be an entirely sensible and desirable goal that it’s difficult to dispute – at least if one is pro-LGBT rights.  But let me try phrasing it differently: assimilation envisages a future where LGBT people enjoy the same rights and privileges afforded to people who are just like them in every respect except the gender of their intimate partner. In this case, it becomes evident that other vectors of privilege and marginalisation operating in relation to class and socio-economic status, race, religion, and gender normativity (amongst others) remain undisturbed and unchallenged, or put more graphically, “the gay quarterback gets to be the homecoming king, but the freshman who likes wearing make-up and listening to showtunes is still a f-g–t“.

For the mainstream LGBT rights movement, rights claims have been advanced under a dual banner resting “just like you” and “born this way“. The aim of “just like you” is to humanise LGBT people and challenge the notion that they are somehow fundamentally different from heterosexual and cisgender people, while “born this way” functions to portray one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity as an innate aspect of one’s identity that is not chosen. In combination, these two lines of argument facilitate a shift from thinking about sex (awkward and embarassing, potentially threatening)  to thinking about love (warm and fuzzy, far less threatening), as illustrated by many of the statements and slogans used in relation to gay marriage in the US and Ireland this year: in the run-up to the Irish referendum, proponents argued that  voting for gay marriage “isn’t about religion or parenting. It’s just about love“, and the outcome was quickly hailed as a “Victory for love and equality“, while the hashtag #LoveWins once again proliferated on Twitter after the US Supreme Court’s ruling a month later and President Obama proclaimed that “Love is Love“. Even when gay marriage is not the specific goal, love remains the central concept. Amongst other examples see Human Rights Campaign’s “Love Conquers Hate” in response to Russia’s anti-gay laws, Singapore’s Pink Dot “Supporting the Freedom to Love“, and Amnesty International’s assertion that “Love is a Right, Hate is a Crime“. Not a single mention of anything sexual, despite the fact that to all intents and purposes, we’re talking about sexual rights.

As a strategy for advancing rights claims, it’s undeniably been very effective and has led to tangible improvements in the lives of many LGBT people, not only in the form of the right to marry, but also (depending on the state) the decriminalisation of consensual sex, the depathologisation of homosexuality, equalisation of the age of consent, greater protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the right to serve in the military. It would be remiss of me not to note here that recognition of trans people’s rights lags behind the progress seen by lesbians and gays quite significantly, with being trans still frequently viewed as an illness and trans people often being particularly vulnerable to marginalisation and violence, as the horrific statistics from the Trans Murder Monitoring Project show all too clearly. As for intersex rights, there’s even further to go, although the last few years has seen some important developments.

So what’s the problem? Even if we’re not yet in a world of rainbows and unicorns, there’s been significant progress legally and societally, with gays and lesbians more accepted than ever in many places, and, going on progress so far, LGBT equality is just a matter of time, surely? That’s certainly the optimistic conclusion. Except there’s nothing inevitable about equality for lesbian and gay people. And, even if there were, with the assimilationist “just like you” framing, it would only be for the “right” LGBT people – the ones who fit in with current societal norms of behaviour, gender, and relationship arrangements. The price of love for LGBT people, it seems, is homonormativity – a word coined by Lisa Duggan in her essay “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism” (part of the edited volume Materializing Democracy) to describe

…a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption (Duggan 2002: 179)

Looked at this way, far from being revolutionary, at the systemic level the homonormativity of LGBT rights claims makes them reactionary as they end up supporting and perpetuating current societal and political structures and dynamics of privilege and marginalisation. At the individual level, this creates the risk that respectable “good gay citizens” may happily consume the human rights that have been gained, but neglect to advocate for those under the LGBT unbrella who are not “like them” – the “bad queers” who do not conform with dominant societal norms and are thus deemed disreputable and less worthy of rights.

Gay marriage is a case in point. Already a “middle-class luxury item” for many heterosexual couples, the extension of marriage rights is great financial news for those in the wedding business and, obviously, for those couples who want to get married but previously couldn’t (and I am categorically not looking to deny people this right or their enjoyment of of it). But what of those who cannot or do not wish to participate in this privileged institution? What of the single and those in polyamorous relationships? What of those people, gay, straight or queer, who view marriage as a patriarchal institution that needs abolishing rather than expanding? These people now find themselves a little bit further away from meeting society’s norms and a little bit more affected by cultural biases against them (not to mention the potential loss of currently available partner benefits if they don’t “opt in” to marriage). Via its expansion to same-sex couples, marriage has strengthened its claim to being the “gold standard” against which all other relationships are measured.

Such consequences, even if unintended, are starkly at odds with the goals of liberation and emancipation that groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists’ Alliance espoused in the 1960s and 1970s before the framing of LGBT rights as identity-based human rights began to take shape. Long time activist Peter Tatchell, an activist with the Gay Liberation Front recalls:

…we shared a radical idealism – a dream of what the world could and should be – free from not just homophobia but the whole sex-shame culture, which oppressed straights as much as LGBTs. We were sexual liberationists and social revolutionaries, out to turn the world upside down.

GLF espoused a nonviolent revolution in cultural values and attitudes. It questioned marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy – as well as the wars in Vietnam and Ireland. Although against homophobic discrimination, GLF’s main aim was never equality within the status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust and sought to change it, to end the oppression of LGBTs – and of everyone else.

GLF aligned itself with the movements for women’s, black, Irish, working-class and colonial freedom. We marched for troops out of Ireland and against the anti-union Industrial Relations Act. Although critical of the “straight left” and often condemned by them, most of us saw ourselves as part of the broad anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement, striving for the emancipation of all humankind.

The loss of this wider political consciousness and  recognition of the importance of solidarity with those who, while not “like you”, also experience marginalisation and discrimination  is, I think, something to mourn.  Yes, it was idealistic, utopian, even unrealistic, as well as messy, fractious and chaotic. At the same time – and at the risk of being accused of romanticising the past – there was explicit recognition that individual liberation is dependent on everyone’s liberation.

Marriage equality, meanwhile, will never set us free. If this is what becoming mainstream means in practice, then beyond a veneer of acceptability and discussion, we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained as the normativities proliferate around us. Revolutionary thinking that names inequalities, interrogates their intersections and which challenges us to unlearn normal is needed more than ever.