I’ve never been much one for slogans but I understand they sometimes hold value in their partial promotion of a point. I also understand that this point can be corroded by time, and so we see slogans of the past, such as “A Woman’s Right To Choose”, that point to a very sensible proposition, in this case that women must have unimpeded access to reproductive medicine, used to signify an entirely unrelated quest.
In recent years, this slogan has found its way well beyond its original application and is used often to “defend” the “right” to a range of consumer and beauty choices. Botox, apparently, is a “woman’s right to choose”. The slogan is offered as though plastic surgery were a liberty not already available to the well-to-do or well-known women who plainly seek it. As though the perfectly legal practices of a brow lift or a tit job were things for which women and their allies were morally compelled to fight. As though the struggle for women’s reproductive autonomy was somehow assured and that its slogan was now retired and available for use by all-comers with saggy tits and brows they wish to amend to seek a social advantage. As though “choice” were synonymous with freedom and that “freedom” could be detected in the acceptable post-surgical body.
Another re-emerged slogan whose use we can trace to a more radical past is “Love Makes a Family”. Once used by queer activists to assert the unique networks that had been built over decades by a particular community, this slogan has been newly adopted by advocates of what is broadly known as “marriage equality”.
Once, “Love Makes a Family” was the brag of a community with a unique and self-made legitimacy. Now, “Love Makes a Family” is an appeal for approval by someone else. We’ve switched from bragging to begging.
The “fight” for legitimised relationships, of course, seems very reasonable to many people who hold that this “choice” when it is given will be both signifier and guarantee of freedom. “No one is forcing anyone to get married”, they will say if you fail to dip yourself in rainbow glitter the minute the US Supreme Court passes a decision that, they eagerly remind you, finally gives same-sex couples “equal rights”. Of course that the recent US decision only confers economic and legal comforts on those couples who can either afford to or are inclined to marry is “not the point”. That US domestic partnerships, both same and opposite-sex, remain in a very unequal half-light of recognition so weak, it seems powerless to stop the end of employer-provided healthcare benefits to same-sex couples, is seen as an oversight.
Well, unless you choose only to think of state-administered marriage as a “self-evident” or natural right and not something as constructed and culturally enforced as silicon tits, this exclusion is not incidental. Exclusion, whether economic, social or cultural, is intrinsic to the institution of marriage. In the US, you are, if unmarried, actively excluded from a range of legal and economic entitlements.
In Australia, if you fail to make the legal promise to forsake all others, you won’t be excluded from any economic privileges. Just cultural ones. The fight for “equality” in Australia is a fight to join an insufferably smug club that believes marriage not only to be “meaningful” but sufficiently meaningful to require intervention by the state. It is also, in my view, a “fight” to erase the existence and history of Family. The “fight” for “equality” as it is currently enacted is also the defeat by assimilation of queer history. And, of course, a tip-of-the-hat to the state, which is now the thing expected to “Make a Family”.
You can knock yourself out insisting that US legislators are “ahead of us” in passing this judgment, but you’d betraying your unconcern for major changes to Australian law made through tireless LGBTIQ lobbying. In 2008, a suite of changes to law based on the recommendations of the Same Sex, Same Entitlements report were passed by Labor Attorney General Robert McClelland.
With the exception of adoption laws, regulated by States and Territories and yet to be amended in Queensland, the NT, Victoria and South Australia, same-sex couples now enjoy the same entitlements as opposite-sex couples whether in what is now called a “domestic partnership” or a marriage. So, before you change your Facebook profile pic to an ejaculating Independence Day rainbow which “celebrates” the progressivism of a Court, which in the same spirit and week of Freedom ruled to uphold the use of lethal injections, it may interest you that a same-sex couple currently living in Australia is afforded more entitlements than a same-sex couple in the USA who does not wish to wed. Which is to say, the Supreme Court decision makes the “choice” easy for people with same-sex partners: get married or suffer in your jocks.
Marriage within these parameters becomes as much of a “choice” as it is for an actress over 35 to have her fine lines surgically evened.
Certainly, Commonwealth changes, on which McClelland’s Coalition predecessor Phillip Ruddock had failed to act, were welcome. It was, for example, plainly idiotic to be able to take bereavement leave only if your dead partner was of an opposite sex. But, what the law changes could not manage to do was reflect the fact of “Family” as it had come to be known in communities where a non-normative view or practice of sexuality was the only condition for membership. And what changes to marriage laws, both in the US and at home, will not do and cannot do, despite a bajillion well-meaning claims to the contrary, is enable the function of Family.
In the past, Family signified involvement in a network of others. If you were gay, lesbian, genderqueer, bi, trans, poly or kinky, you were, if you chose to be, Family and could reasonably expect the benefits of kinship. We used to say “She’s Family”, not only as a form of encryption in the case poofter-bashers were in earshot but as a shorthand for describing the very real and often very complex networks of care that had formed in the community.
This is not to say that this Family didn’t have its share of disputes. It is true that white, cisgender gay men were the noblest fathers and that trans-men and women were the most forgotten cousins. But, what is also true is that Family upturned some surprising moments of function and this is seen clearly in the DIY scientific trials for HIV/AIDS therapy. Thanks in very large part to the unpaid efforts of queer lay people and doctors, many of whom did not have the virus, a treatment plan was not only found but broadly distributed. The lived concept of “Family” also provided effective makeshift support to the seriously ill long before more official welfare groups arose, later to drop the ball. Or, to be de-funded when all interest and capital in “gay politics” shifted from material welfare to the question of marriage.
Despite prominent and newly re-written histories that propose the “fight” for marriage equality is what queer activists had been demanding since Stonewall, this movement has not long been occupied with the matter of marriage. And, while there are wholesome gay celebs who will take to talk shows to say that their desire to be “normal” or “suburban” is also the long-held desire of all Family, this is, in fact, utter bollocks.
Marriage, as US academic Yasmin Nair explains here, has not long been seen as inevitable or natural by queers nor is it the desired outcome of decades of activism. “The secret history of gay marriage is that it was never a topic of huge concern in the LGBTQ community until the rise of the mainstream gay organisations in the mid-1990s.” And even then, as Nair writes, it was not an especially representative desire led in the past, as it is now, by those US lobbyists sufficiently wealthy to profit from the loss of particular taxation headaches.
If you lived around Family up until the end of last century, you would know its function. You might have seen older drag queens provide material support to younger lesbians rejected by their homophobic parents. You might have seen queers cook and deliver much-needed hot meals when tax-exempt “Christian” groups avoided the new lepers of HIV/AIDS. You might have seen gay publicans lend rooms at no cost to old homeless poofs.
Sure, in the ’90s, you had a greater chance of getting beaten bloody in the street and a much smaller chance of having a narrow version of your sexuality “celebrated” on TV by wholesome monogamous lesbians who are “just like everybody else”. Family formed not only out of compassion but necessity. But, it also formed something that was, in my view, much more broadly instructive, not just to queers but to everyone, than the unambitious parameters that so-called “marriage equality” strives to provide.
You can, if you choose to, believe that the “natural” state for humans is to live long-term in sexual relationships with other humans and that it is, by extension, only “natural” to codify and privilege this instinct. You can, if you choose to, ignore the lessons of a past that has claimed many victims by the assertion that there is such a thing at all as a “natural” state. Or you could consider for a minute that, as Nair puts it, the “complicated and caring networks of friendship that exceeded the limitations of biological family or commonly understood relationships” we see developing in urban queer histories are now at risk of being forgotten and quashed. And not, as they should be, documented and discussed and used as a template for future legislation. Or, more to the point, its lack.
I welcomed the ALP government’s changes to over 100 laws which were found to discriminate against those in same-sex partnerships. These were good, short-term and easy-fix solutions to what had become niggling problems created by the exclusionary institution of marriage. But what they were not was a way to address what queers wrote explicitly on banners and many others knew by experience and that is Love, which comes in many forms, Makes a Family. Not the State. Not a ring. Not children or a “life partner” or any formally recognised or culturally celebrated thing.
Love can come from the publican at the end of Oxford Street who, remembering how you gave him courage as a young gay man, gave you a place to live until you died. It can come, whoever you are, from an old distant relative, a new close friend or flow through all the networks of whatever community you inhabit. Where it fails to thrive is in codification. Where it dies is when one kind of it is privileged above another.
This is not, for a moment, to undervalue the emotional benefits of a long-term sexual relationship. And clearly, it is not to dispute that guardianship of children is something that can just be left to anarchy. But it is to suggest that overvaluing such relationships in continuing to demand their recognition by law necessarily undervalues others. In advancing the state regulation of marriage, you absolutely are saying that some love is more worthy than others. Which, it seems to me, is a view that caused the problem in the first place.
I personally have very few libertarian urges and, within current parameters, I’m a great fan of meaningful intervention in social inequality by the state. Price emissions. Fund public education. Build shelter for homeless queer kids. But, don’t renovate an institution formed on principles of exclusion and don’t, by extension, consign all that Family who fall outside the margins of “normal” “suburban” partnership to the fate of non-regulation. I’m afraid I find myself in the company of nutty, gold-standard libertarians on this one. Take all references to and privileges of marriage out of law and let those who would seek it do so with private or religious organisations. Do not codify my “love”.
If we are ready to examine kinship structures and how these and the cultures of which they form units are governed by law, it seems to me now would be a good time to do it. Because, as you keep reminding me, it is Love that Makes A Family. Not the state.
If you want your relationship “recognised”, beyond the way it already is in law, then, I feel for you. But, I also feel for the many I have known whose relationships, frequently expressed financially, as carers, ex-lovers, tenants, patrons, trans mentors, muses, madams, drag house children, dependents and friends will never be recognised. Perhaps the only way to value one variety of loving relationship is to throw off the very old matter of state involvement in “valuing” relationships altogether.
Or, you know, continue to value what you mistake for “diversity” through the promotional misuse of old slogans and Facebook profile-pics. Because, after all, it’s a wonderful “choice” to adhere to the reeking remains of a codified relic which has for centuries punished those who refuse its stricture. Woo hoo. Party. To “celebrate” your independent “choice”, I’m off to have a face old enough to remember Family spiked with Botox. But, I’m doing it just for me. It is not as though a range of institutions compelled me to inject this particular poison. Thank goodness for freedom, the USA and its marvellously lethal Supreme Court.
Previously by Helen Razer: