Comment: Will LGBT people fall into matrimony with the arrival of equal marriage?

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Gary Powell writes on whether the signing into law of equal marriage for England and Wales will also herald in a new era of social conservatism for the LGBT community.

Now that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has been passed in England and Wales, and Scotland is very likely to follow suit, LGBT couples will soon have the opportunity to become conventional and mainstream as never before. So what is going to be best for our LGBT psyches and for society as a whole: do we walk through the matrimonial door that has been opened to us, or do we snub it in disdain or indifference?

It is not surprising that there are many LGBT people who feel they still have an account to settle with the conservative institutions of society, and do not feel they are ready to join a club that has treated us with brutal discrimination in the past. In my PinkNews article of 25 July, I detailed some of the appalling treatment meted out to LGBT people in Britain only thirty years ago.

A profoundly homophobic society makes LGBT people feel anxious, guilty and ashamed about our sexuality, and repressive school environments force LGBT people, when children, to hide something of fundamental importance to our identity and to our psychological and social development. When people are treated like that, it will take them a long time to feel like a full and accepted member of the wider community who can identify with its values, even for some time after that community has become more enlightened.

When British society was so repressive and unjust to LGBT people, it was healthy to be “counterculture”. Years of suffering homophobic discrimination as a young person will take their toll. We are made to feel that our sexuality is so abhorrent that we cannot legitimately interact with society on the same terms as everyone else. Shame, anxiety and low self-esteem are toxic to the human soul, and the best initial antidote to them is anger: anger towards a homophobic society and towards the people in it who are responsible for perpetuating the discrimination and ignorance that cause so much harm.

Anger emerges with the consciousness that one has been wronged, and replaces the misguided and socially-programmed belief that one is in the wrong as an LGBT person. Anger is a marker of having suffered an injustice and of the party responsible being in the moral wrong. As such, anger restores one’s proper sense of legitimacy in the world, of being a morally good being, of being someone worthy of respect and decent treatment. Anger marks a revolution in the consciousness: the beginning of our becoming active, self-confident, self-affirming and equal players in our social world, rather than mere passive, anxious and self-deprecating survivors.

When we eventually overcome internalised homophobia and achieve a degree of self-acceptance, a great deal of healthy and justified anger can emerge: anger that is often directed towards a society that was responsible for our suffering in the past. We may be in no mood to endorse institutions that are pillars of that society.

The Conservative Party has had a dismal past history of homophobia, and it is an institution that still fills may LGBT people with aversion. David Cameron, supported by many of his colleagues, has made very significant progress on the journey towards LGBT equality by pioneering equal marriage in the UK. This was an extraordinarily brave and principled commitment for him to make as the only conservative world leader to support the measure, and in the face of fierce political and personal hostility. Unfortunately, many people still remember the homophobia of Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and many of their contemporaries: homophobic politicians whose actions continue to blot the Conservative landscape. The Conservative Party, and the contract of marriage, are both institutions towards which LGBT people may still feel a visceral aversion on the basis of past experience: despite, in the case of the Conservative Party, its ever-increasing number of members and voters who passionately support LGBT equality, and its ever-diminishing number of members and voters who do not.

What is the effect on us of feeling we do not really belong in the society in which we happen to find ourselves? The counterculture mode that rejects the institutions and values of the society that rejects us, can initially be an important attitude to adopt for the development of our self-esteem. However, in that mode, we are always outsiders: and human beings are never at our most content as outsiders. The institutions of mainstream society, even after they reform, may still continue to be tainted by association with the suffering and injustices of the past.

So now, one of those institutions – marriage – has been thrust into the limelight, and has become a contemporary symbol for many people of LGBT liberation. As a gay activist in the 1980s, I remember the institution of marriage being regarded by many gay and lesbian people as a “petty-bourgeois” and patriarchal institution that had the primary function of preserving class society and the rules governing the transfer of property within it, and of controlling human sexuality in an ultimately repressive and harmful way. The influence of Marxist thinking on the Gay Liberation Front, and on the political movements that developed from it, was unmistakable.

Gay and lesbian people still did, of course, get together in couple relationships, but there was often a sense that we were not working towards a permanent commitment, and that the expectation of sexual exclusivity in that relationship was unnecessary or even unreasonable. Nonetheless, a number of people still forged long-term, committed relationships.

One of the great flaws in Marxism is that it focuses too much on explaining history in terms of money and property, and too little on the many other things that contribute to human happiness, well-being and motivation. As well as being a tremendously positive experience for many people, marriage can also be a tremendously oppressive experience for many others: especially for those who are trapped in a relationship with an incompatible person by a dogmatic religion, or by financial circumstances; or for people who are victims of physical or emotional domestic abuse. Yet the legalisation of equal marriage challenges us now to ask ourselves whether taking this step into a very conventional institution, and becoming more integrated with traditional, conventional, mainstream society, might be something that is good for us, as well as good for society as a whole.

Perhaps the counterculture opposition to marriage and to the ideal of a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship, was an example of the baby being poured out with the bathwater. There was much about mainstream culture that deserved to be rejected: but marriage is perhaps something that will be better at providing for our emotional needs as LGBT people than the less traditional and less rule-governed relationship models that have prevailed to date.

Counterculture ideals are not the only influence that has forged today’s rather amorphous and anarchic models that govern LGBT relationships. In parallel with the political movement to emancipate LGBT people, capitalist markets have developed in response to the new LGBT clientele. These markets have had the function of providing places for LGBT people to meet, of increasing our visibility, and of providing places for our entertainment. Yet capitalism has been far more successful at meeting our surface needs than our deeper, emotional ones.

In addition to internet hook-up sites, there are the pubs, night clubs and saunas that abound in many major cities of liberal Western nations, which have a particular appeal to the young. They provide environments where those who feel inclined to do so, can dance, drink alcohol, take recreational drugs of uncertain short-term and long-term safety, and meet other people for casual sex. They can be places to be admired for one’s youth, for an attractive face, for a fit body, for good taste in designer clothes, for one’s wealth, and perhaps for some impressive, well-rehearsed dance moves.

Capitalism, where it is unhindered, can be fantastic at meeting certain basic human needs. But where the modern commercial gay scene is concerned, it is time to question whether the deepest needs of LGBT people are being met; and, if they are not, to question what needs to change in order to make that happen. The commercial gay scene has been dominant for so long that it would be very surprising if it has not had a profound influence on how we LGBT people perceive ourselves, on how we behave, on how we see other people, and on what kind of values we develop.

We must also give ourselves permission to think critically about the LGBT commercial scene and about the values and behaviours that have developed as a result of it. There is no reason why we should automatically identify ourselves with any negative values and behaviours encouraged by, or associated with, the commercial gay scene. It is not “homophobic” to refuse to endorse behaviours that are common on the gay scene if they are destructive or antisocial behaviours. If what has developed in our society is not meeting our needs, or is encouraging attitudes and behaviours that are harmful to us, we are perfectly entitled to try to change them.

We fought for years to have the right to have sex without risk of imprisonment or ostracism, and without inappropriate guilt; and that is a very good thing. Apart from facilitating social contact and lowering inhibitions, sex, alcohol and recreational drugs (notwithstanding the potential dangers of all of these) can have the effect of enabling people to escape momentarily from oppressive thoughts and worries, and of achieving a short-term feeling of how they might like things to be permanently.

The problem is that such behaviours can, of course, become unhelpfully habitual, or even addictive: and they do not bring about lasting emotional well-being and security. Especially where the intense euphoria of sexual interactions is concerned, the belief can develop that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the opportunity for legal sexual excitement whenever the opportunity for it arises. That is not a mindset that is conducive to beneficial longer-term outcomes, including the longer-term outcome of not losing our capacity for intimacy, and not losing a valued relationship because of infidelity.

The popular objectives of short-term satisfaction and self-centred sexual competition that have developed on the commercial gay scene are detrimental to some valuable outcomes. These outcomes include the pursuit of intimacy and deep connection; the making and keeping of commitments that involve personal challenge and sacrifice; and the inclination to honour and respect other people (and ourselves) as complex, multifaceted individuals with important needs and feelings. When we have developed the habit of going for short-term satisfaction, and when we have internalised the superficial values of the commercial gay scene, we may find ourselves too easily judging people simply on the basis of how handsome, beautiful, youthful, physically impressive or fashionable they are.

Recently I read a very disturbing article about a disabled gay person and wheelchair user who attended a Pride event and was repeatedly made to feel unwelcome and unequal. Notably, this treatment also came from a group of familiar people who, in other contexts, had behaved positively towards the person concerned, but who, in the public forum of this LGBT event, seemed to become embarrassed by the presence of a person in a wheelchair at their table. Reading about this made me feel angry and dismayed: but based on my own experience and observations at LGBT venues over a long period of time, I knew it was all too credible.

It is often the case that LGBT people dread turning fifty – or forty – or sometimes even thirty – because of a consciousness of how our status on the gay scene, and ability to attract youthful mates, will diminish as a result. Far too commonly, we LGBT people become almost obsessed with our weight, with our body shape, with our wardrobe, with our hair, with our complexion, and with various status-associated trappings apparently associated with being a popular gay or lesbian person. At the same time, this is often accompanied by a serious neglect of the development of our inner selves. Even when we have invested a great deal of time, money and energy in a smart, fit physical appearance, our difficulties in reaching out to other people, in achieving intimacy and connection, and in doing truly worthwhile things with our lives that give us the inner satisfaction and confidence we lack, simply continue to cause us dissatisfaction and alienation.

The possibility of marriage now presents the LGBT community with a new option: the option of transcending the counterculture that we have needed in the past, and of transcending the commercial culture that has historically served us fairly well, but that has never met our most important needs. We have the option to prioritise the pursuit of our need for intimacy, for genuine acceptance, and for authentic connection, over the possibility of short-term excitement, and over unrealistic expectations whose pursuit has distracted us from making realistic and achievable improvements in our lives. One of the most common causes of unhappiness in people’s mature years is a sense of loneliness and disconnection: and, of course, it is the same kind of loneliness and disconnection felt by many younger people who yearn for intimacy, but who discover that such a yearning does not get met on the commercial gay scene, including on the internet hook-up scene that capitalism has cleverly provided in recent years.

Being willing to commit to one person, to try to make that relationship work in the long-term, to invest in the intimacy of that relationship, and to protect it from derailment by making it sexually exclusive, all involve a big leap. On account of the consciousness that has developed in mainstream LGBT culture, that big leap may go against the grain for many of us.

One thing that big leap entails is the abandonment of the aspiration for perfection. Very few people meet their ideal partner, whether in terms of their sexual attractiveness, or of their attentiveness and degree of considerateness, or of various other possible qualities on the Perfect Partner Checklist. But neither do we ourselves need to be perfect. The high premium placed on appearance and youthfulness on the commercial gay scene has had the same kind of damaging psychological effects on LGBT people as have the fashion industry and youth media on the self-esteem of teenage and even pre-teenage girls.

All too often, we feel we must always aspire towards perfection – the perfect body, the perfect outfit, the perfect set of gay-scene-consistent opinions and cultural tastes, the perfect sex life, the perfect partner for our arm – and we feel we need this perfection to compensate for basically not feeling good enough. And we only have to look at the inevitable effects of social exclusion and stigmatisation of LGBT people for years on end, as well as at the ruthlessness and depersonalisation of the commercial gay scene, to see that there are some very clear explanations as to why we often feel so diminished deep-down.

But the truth is that we are good enough, just as we are. We will benefit from abandoning the negative, depressing and stressful belief that we, or our life partner, must be nothing less than perfect in order to be “good enough”. We will also benefit from shedding the romantic notion that a great life partner will transform our lives beyond recognition, and meet all our emotional needs. Ultimately, we may have a lot of work to do on ourselves on our path towards emotional well-being. But our partner may well be on the same path, and he or she might be a great person to share that challenging journey with us. Suddenly casting him or her aside because sex is not so exciting any more a year into the relationship, and because someone more thrilling has (often temporarily) turned up, can be an irreversible act of wanton destruction towards someone who is a fantastic soul-mate. When the disposable consumerist culture invades our intimate relationships, that natural point in a relationship where sexual excitement starts to wane and a new phase of deeper connection and intimacy begins, can be a very vulnerable time for many a good relationship.

Old habits die hard, and a number of people will find it very difficult to make an exclusive commitment to one person, with the hope and intention that the commitment will be maintained for life by both parties, so long as the relationship does not become in some way abusive or permanently marred by infidelity. Many of us have been deeply wounded in the past by betrayal in relationships we had believed to be secure, and pursuing intimacy will always carry a risk of being badly hurt, rejected, and let down. But perhaps there really is something to be said for having someone on whom one feels one can always depend, with whom one can share the joys and the tribulations of life, and who genuinely cares about our well-being.

The satisfaction of being needed and loved by that person, and of feeling the same way towards them, are supported by the organically-evolved and socially-endorsed ancient framework of marriage, where public declarations of commitment are made to one another, and nobody is in any doubt as to what is expected. We see from heterosexual marriages that, sadly, around half of them do not last; and it is sometimes the case that couples really do discover they are incompatible. But having that framework, and that aspiration, available to us now, may well encourage many LGBT people to think about whether we can make our peace with a very conservative institution, should we be fortunate enough for the opportunity to tie the knot with someone special. As the old Chinese proverb says, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.” In the context of marriage, perhaps doing things differently, and becoming more socially conservative and mainstream, will be a transformation that furnishes many of us with a new sense of belonging, connection and authenticity.

The views expressed in this article may not necessarily reflect those of