Gore Vidal, the famous writer and literary critic, was recently buried next to his long-term partner, Howard Austen. The couple, who met in the 1950s, had lived together happily for decades. They were in many ways the kind of same-sex couple frequently valorised in contemporary gay marriage campaigns. Vidal and Austen, however, could not serve as emblematic figures for this campaign, and not only because the two men had no interest in marriage. Vidal, who reportedly had over a hundred lovers, both male and female, once attributed the longevity of their relationship to its platonic nature; both men continued to sleep with other people, and they reportedly stopped having sex with each other after they moved in together (Vidal, Palimpsest, 131–32). A relationship that decoupled monogamy, romance, companionship, and sexuality, and reconnected them in a way that challenged the accepted truths of institutionalised marriage, stands as an implicit questioning of the way in which gay marriage campaigns construct the possibilities for life, love, and sex. It is this questioning that we draw out in this article.
In his writing, Vidal also offers a perspective that challenges the assumptions and certainties of contemporary politics around gay marriage. In 1981, he wrote “Some Jews and the Gays” in response to an article entitled “The Boys on the Beach” by conservative Jewish writer Midge Decter. Vidal’s riposte to Decter’s depiction of the snide superiority of the “boys” who disturbed her beachside family holidays highlighted the lack of solidarity conservative members of the Jewish community displayed towards another persecuted minority. From Vidal’s perspective, this was because Decter could not conceive of gay identity as anything other than pathological:
Since homosexualists choose to be the way they are out of idle hatefulness, it has been a mistake to allow them to come out of the closet to the extent that they have, but now that they are out (which most are not), they will have no choice but to face up to their essential hatefulness and abnormality and so be driven to kill themselves with promiscuity, drugs, S-M, and suicide. (Vidal, Some Gays)
In response, Vidal made a strong case for solidarity between Jews, African-Americans, and what he termed “homosexualists” (or “same-sexers”). More importantly for our argument, he also contested Decter’s depiction of the typical homosexual:
To begin to get at the truth about homosexualists, one must realise that the majority of those millions of Americans who prefer same-sex to other-sex are obliged, sometimes willingly and happily but often not, to marry and have children and to conform to the guidelines set down by the heterosexual dictatorship. (Vidal, Some Gays)
According to Vidal, Decter’s article applied only to a relatively privileged section of homosexualists who were able to be “self-ghettoized”, and who, despite Decter’s paranoid fantasies, lived lives perfectly “indifferent to the world of the other-sexers.”
In the thirty years since the publication of “Some Jews and the Gays” much has clearly changed. It is unlikely that even a conservative publication would publish an article that depicts all homosexualists as marked by idle hatefulness. However, Decter’s self-hating homosexualist continues to haunt contemporary debates about same-sex marriage, albeit in sublimated form. Critiques of gay marriage campaigns, which are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, often focus on the politics of inclusion and exclusion, whether on the terrain of gender (non)conformity (Spade), or the campaigns’ implicit and racialised assumption of a white, middle-class homosexual couple as the subject of their efforts (Riggs; Farrow). While our article is indebted to these critiques, our argument is focused more specifically on the unintended effect of the Australian debate about same-sex marriage, namely the (re)creation of the married couple’s other in the form of the adolescent, promiscuous, and unhappy homosexual. It is here that we find the source of our title, also chosen in tribute to Vidal, who in his life and writing disrupts this dichotomy. We argue that the construction of the respectable white middle-class same-sexer who sits at the centre of gay marriage discourse relies on a contemporary manifestation of the self-hating homosexualist – the sexually irresponsible queer constructed in contrast to the responsible gay. The first half of this article traces this construction.
In the second section, we argue that this process cannot be divorced from the ways that advocates of same-sex marriage depict the institution of marriage. While critics such as Judith Butler have attempted to separate arguments against homophobic discrimination from the need to advocate for marriage, we argue that the two are intrinsically linked in marriage equality campaigns. These campaigns seek to erase both the explicit critique of marriage found in Vidal’s article and the implicit possibility of living otherwise found in his life. Instead of a heterosexual dictatorship that can be successfully avoided, marriage is proclaimed to be not only benign but the only institution capable of saving self-hating queers from misery by turning them into respectable gay married couples. This is, therefore, not an article about today’s Midge Decters, but about how contemporary same-sex marriage supporters rely on a characterisation of those of us who would or could not choose to marry as, to return to Vidal (Some Jews), “somehow evil or inadequate or dangerous.” As queer people who continue to question both the desirability and inevitability of marriage, we are ultimately concerned with thinking through the political consequences of the same-sex marriage campaign’s obsessive focus on normative sexuality and on the supposedly restorative function of the institution of marriage itself.
Hateful Queers and Patient Gays
Contemporary supporters of gay marriage, like Vidal so many years earlier, do often oppose conservative attempts to label homosexualists as inherently pathological. Tim Wright, the former convenor of “Equal Love,” one of Australia’s primary same-sex marriage campaign groups, directly addressing this in an opinion piece for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, writes, “Every so often, we hear them in the media calling homosexuals promiscuous or sick.” Disputing this characterisation, Wright supplants it with an image of patient lesbians and gay men “standing at the altar.” Unlike Vidal, however, Wright implicitly accepts the link between promiscuity and pathology. For Wright, homosexuals are not sick precisely because, and only to the extent that they accept, a forlorn chastity, waiting for their respectable monogamous sexuality to be sanctified through matrimony.
A shared moral framework based upon conservative norms is a notable feature of same-sex marriage debates. Former Rainbow Labor convenor Ryan Heath articulates this most clearly in his 2010 Griffith Review article, excerpts of which also appeared in the metropolitan Fairfax newspapers. In this article, Heath argues that marriage equality would provide a much-needed dose of responsibility to “balance” the rights that Australia has accorded to homosexuals. For Heath, Australia’s gay and lesbian communities have been given sexual freedoms by an indulgent adult (heterosexual) society, but are not sufficiently mature to develop the social responsibilities that go with them: “Like teenagers getting their hands on booze and cars and freedom from parental surveillance for the first time, Australia’s gay and lesbian communities have enthusiastically taken up their new rights.” For Heath, the immaturity of the (adult) gay community, with its lack of married role models, results in profound effects for same-sex attracted youth:
Consider what the absence of role models, development paths, and stability might do to those who cannot marry. Is there no connection between this and the disproportionate numbers of suicides and risky and addictive behaviours found in gay communities?
It is this immaturity, rather than the more typically blamed homophobic prejudice, bullying or persecution, that is for Heath the cause of the social problems that disproportionately affect same-sex attracted adolescents. Heath continues, asking why, after journalist Jonathan Rauch, any parent would want to “condemn their child to…‘a partnerless life in a sexual underworld’.” His appeal to well-meaning parental desires for the security and happiness of children echoes countless insidious commentaries about the tragedy of homosexual existence, such as Decter’s above. These same commentaries continue to be used to justify exclusionary and even violent reactions by families and communities when children reveal their (non-heterosexual) sexualities. As for so many social conservatives, for Heath it is inconceivable to view a partnerless life as anything other than tragedy. Like Wright, he is also convinced that if one must be partnerless it is far better to be forlornly chaste than to participate in an “underworld” focused primarily on promiscuous sex.
The opinions of those condemned to this purgatorial realm, either through compulsion or their own immaturity, are of little interest to Heath. When he states that “No families and couples I have interviewed in my research on the topic want this insecure existence,” we are to understand that it is only the desires of these responsible adults that matter. In this way, Heath explicitly invokes the image of what Mariana Valverde has called the “respectable same-sex couple”, homosexualists who are socially acceptable because being “same-sex” is the only thing that differentiates them from the white, middle-class norm that continues to sit at the heart of Australian politics.
Heath goes on to describe marriage as the best “social safety net”, adopting the fiscal rhetoric of conservatives such as former federal leader of the Liberal party, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull argued in 2012’s annual Michael Kirby lecture (a lecture organised by Southern Cross University’s School of Law and Justice in tribute to the retired gay High Court justice) that same-sex marriage would save the state money, as other relationship recognition such as the 2008 Rudd reforms have. In one of the few passages widely reported from his speech he states: “There will plainly be less demand for social services, medical expenses, hospital care if people, especially older people, like Michael [Kirby] and [partner] Johan, live together as opposed to being in lonely isolation consoled only by their respective cats.” Same-sex marriage is not simply a fight for equality but a fight to rescue homosexualists from the immiserated and emotionally impoverished lives that they, through their lack of maturity, have constructed for themselves, and which, after a brief sojourn in the sexual underworld, can only end in a lonely feline-focused existence funded by the responsible citizens that constitute the bulk of society.
We are told by gay marriage advocates that the acceptance of proper adult relationships and responsibilities will not only cure the self-hatred of same-sexers, but simultaneously end the hatred expressed through homophobia and bullying. In the most recent Victorian state election, for example, the Greens ran an online Q&A session about their policies and positions in which they wrote the following in response to a question on relationship recognition: “It would create a more harmonious, less discriminatory society, more tolerant of diversity. It would also probably reduce bullying against same-sex attracted teenagers and lower the suicide rate.”
This common position has been carefully unpicked by Rob Cover, who argues that while there may be benefits for the health of some adults in recognition of same-sex marriage, there is absolutely no evidence of a connection between this and youth suicide. He writes: “We are yet to have evidence that there are any direct benefits for younger persons who are struggling to cope with being bullied, humiliated, shamed and cannot (yet) envisage a liveable life and a happy future—let alone a marriage ceremony.” While same-sex marriage advocates consider themselves to be speaking for these same-sex attracted youth, offering them a happy future in the form of a wedding, Cover reminds us that these are not the same thing. As we have shown here, this is not a process of simple exclusion, but an erasure of the possibility of a life outside of heteronormative or “respectable”, coupledom. The “respectable same-sex couple”, like its respectable heterosexual counterpart, not only denies the possibility of full participation in adult society to those without partners but also refuses the lived experience of the many people like Vidal and Austen who do not accept the absolute equation of domesticity, responsibility, and sexual monogamy that the institution of marriage represents.
A Good Institution?
The connection between marriage and the mythical end of homophobia is not about evidence, as Cover rightly points out. Instead it is based on an ideological construction of marriage as an inherently valuable institution. Alongside this characterisation of marriage as a magical solution to homophobia and other social ills, comes the branding of other models of living, loving and having sex as inherently inferior and potentially harmful. In this, the rhetoric of conservatives and same-sex marriage advocates becomes disturbingly similar. Margaret Andrews, the wife of former Howard minister Kevin and a prominent (straight) marriage advocate, featured in the news a couple of years ago after making a public homophobic outburst directed at (queer) writer Benjamin Law. In response, Andrews outlined what for her were the clearly evident benefits of marriage: “For centuries, marriage has provided order, stability, and nurture for both adults and children. Indeed, the status of our marriages influences our well-being at least as much as the state of our finances.” Despite being on the apparent opposite of the debate, Amanda Villis and Danielle Hewitt from Doctors for Marriage Equality agree with Andrews about health benefits, including, significantly, those linked to sexual behaviour:
It is also well known that people in long term monogamous relationships engage in far less risky sexual behaviour and therefore have significantly lower rates of sexually transmitted infections. Therefore legalisation of same sex marriage can lead to a reduction in the rates of sexually transmitted disease by decreasing stigma and discrimination and also promoting long term, monogamous relationships as an option for LGBTI persons.
Here same-sex marriage is of benefit precisely because it eradicates the social risks of contagion and disease attributed to risky and promiscuous queers. To the extent that queers continue to suffer it can be attributed to the moral deficiency of their current lifestyle. This results in the need to “promote” marriage and marriage-like relationships. However, this need for promotion denies that marriage itself could be subject to discussion or debate and constructs it as both permanent and inevitable. Any discussion which might question the valuation of marriage is forestalled through the rhetoric of choice, as in the following example from a contributor to the “Equal Love” website:
We understand that not everyone will want to get married, but there is no denying that marriage is a fundamental institution in Australian society. The right to be married should therefore be available to all those who choose to pursue it. It is a right that we chose to exercise. (Cole)
This seemingly innocuous language of choice performs a number of functions. The first is that it seeks to disallow political debates about marriage by simply reducing critiques of the institution to a decision not to partake in it. In a process mirroring the construction of queers as inherently immature and adolescent, as discussed in the previous section, this move brands political critiques of marriage as historical remnants of an immature radicalism that has been trumped by liberal maturity. The contribution of Alyena Mohummadally and Catherine Roberts to Speak Now highlights this clearly. In this piece, Roberts is described as having used “radical feminism” as a teenage attempt to fill a “void” left by the lack of religion in her life. The teenage Roberts considered marriage “a patriarchal institution to be dismantled” (134). However, ten years later, now happily living with her partner, Roberts finds that “the very institutions she once riled against were those she now sought to be a part of” (137). Roberts’ marriage conversion, explained through a desire for recognition from Mohummadally’s Muslim family, is presented as simply a logical part of growing up, leaving behind the teenage commitment to radical politics along with the teenage attraction to “bars and nightclubs.” Not coincidentally, “life and love” taught Roberts to leave both of these things behind (134).
The second consequence of arguments based on choice is that the possibility of any other terrain of choice is erased. This rhetoric thus gives marriage a false permanence and stability, failing to recognise that social institutions are vulnerable to change, and potentially to crisis. Beyond the same-sex marriage debates, the last fifty years have demonstrated the vulnerability of marriage to social change. Rising divorce rates, increasing acceptance of de facto relationships and the social recognition of domestic violence and rape within marriage have altered marriage inescapably, and forced questions about its inevitability (see: Stacey). This fact is recognised by conservatives, such as gay marriage opponent Patrick Parkinson who stated in a recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald that a “heartening aspect” of the “otherwise divisive” debate around gay marriage is that it has marked a “turnaround” in support for marriage, particularly among feminists, gays and other progressives. Malcolm Turnbull also explains his transition to support for same-sex marriage rights on the basis of this very premise: “I am very firmly of the view that families are the foundation of our society and that we would be a stronger society if more people were married, and by that I mean formally, legally married, and fewer were divorced.” He continued, “Are not the gays who seek the right to marry, to formalise their commitment to each other, holding up a mirror to the heterosexuals who are marrying less frequently and divorcing more often?”
As Parkinson and Turnbull note, the decision to prioritise marriage is a decision to not only accept the fundamental nature of marriage as a social institution but to further universalise it as a social norm against the historical trends away from such normalisation. This is also acknowledged by campaign group Australian Marriage Equality who suggests that people like Parkinson and Turnbull who are “concerned about the preservation of marriage may do best to focus on ways to increase its appeal amongst the current population, rather than direct their energies towards the exclusion of a select group of individuals from its privileges.” Rather than challenging conservatism then, the gay marriage campaign aligns itself with Turnbull and Parkinson against the possibility of living otherwise embodied in the shadowy figure of the sexually irresponsible queer.
The connection between ideological support for marriage and the construction of the “respectable homosexual couple” is made explicit by Heath in the essay quoted earlier. It is, he says, part of “the pattern of Western liberal history” to include “in an institution good people who make a good case to join.” The struggle for gay marriage, he argues, is linked to that of “workers to own property, Indigenous Australians to be citizens, women to vote.” By including these examples, Heath implicitly highlights the assimilationist dimension of this campaign, a dimension which has been importantly emphasised by Damien Riggs. Heath’s formulation denies the possibility of Indigenous sovereignty beyond assimilationist incorporation into the Australian state, just as it denies the possibility of a life of satisfying love and sex beyond marriage. More generally, Heath fails to acknowledge that none of these histories have disrupted the fundamental power dynamics at play: the benefits of property ownership accrue disproportionately to the rich, those of citizenship to white Australians, and political power remains primarily in the hands of men. Despite the protestations of gay marriage advocates there is no reason to believe that access to marriage would end homophobia while racism, class-based exploitation, and institutional sexism continue. This too, is part of the pattern of Western liberal history.
Our intention here is not to produce an anti-marriage manifesto—there are many excellent ones out there (see: Conrad)—but rather to note that gay marriage campaigns are not as historically innocuous as they present themselves to be. We are concerned that the rush to enter fully into institutions that, while changed, remain synonymous with normative (hetero)sexuality, has two unintended but nonetheless concerning consequences. Gay marriage advocates risk not only the discarding of a vision in which people may choose to not worship at the altar of the nuclear family, they also reanimate a new version of Decter’s self-hating gay. Political blogger Tim Dunlop encapsulates the political logic of gay marriage campaigns when he says, rather optimistically, that barring homosexualists from marriage “is the last socially acceptable way of saying you are not like us, you do not count, you matter less.” An alternative view proffered here is that saying yes to gay marriage risks abandoning a project that says we do not wish to be like you, not because we matter less, but because we see the possibility of different lives, and we refuse to accept a normative political logic that brands those lives as inferior.
In casting this critique as adolescent, as something that a mature community should have grown out of, the same-sex marriage campaign rejects what we see as the most important social contributions that “same-sexers” have made. Where we think Vidal was mistaken back in 1981 was in his assertion that we “same-sexers” have been simply indifferent to the world of the “other-sexers.” We have also turned a critical eye upon “heterosexualist” existence, offering important critiques of a so-called adult or responsible life. It is this history that queer writer Sara Ahmed reminds us of, when she celebrates the angry queer at the family dinner table who refuses to simply succumb to a coercive demand to be happy and pleasant. A similar refusal can be found in queer critiques of the “dead citizenship” of heterosexuality, described by José Esteban Muñoz as:
a modality of citizenship that is predicated on negation of liveness or presentness on behalf of a routinized investment in futurity. This narrative of futurity is most familiar to those who live outside of it. It is the story of the [sic] nation's all-consuming investment in the nuclear family, and its particular obsession with the children, an investment that instantly translates into the (monological) future. (399)
In the clamour to fully assert their membership in the world of adult citizenship, same-sex marriage advocates negate the potential liveness and presentness of queer experience, opting instead for the routinised futurity that Muñoz warns against. Imagining ourselves as forlorn figures, standing with tear-stained cheeks and quivering lips at the altar, waiting for normative relationships and responsible citizenship is not the only option. Like Vidal and Austen, with whom we began, queers are already living, loving, and fucking, in and above our sexual underworlds, imagining that just possibly there may be other ways to live, both in the present and in constructing different futures.
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