Same-sex mirages: Beyond the marriage debate

Equal marriage rally in WellingtonBy Anne Russell
Originally published on

A thousand people marched to Parliament in support of Louisa Wall’s same-sex marriage billon the 29th of August. As a conscience vote, the bill drew support from almost all parties, with the exception of New Zealand First, and passed its first reading with 80-40 votes. Such widespread support shows that the same-sex marriage debate seems to be almost an afterthought, piggybacking the Civil Union debate which happened in 2005. Moreover, unlike providing employment security, healthcare and housing for sexual minorities who have been discriminated against, changing the definition of marriage will not cost any money. Hopefully, the passage of the bill will be short and sweet.

 However, as the Wellington-based Queer Avengers said, “we’re only just getting started”. Jacinda Ardern’s same-sex adoption bill was drawn from the ballot on Thursday morning, and will make for a more difficult and prolonged debate. It seems that New Zealand culture is about to undergo a rigorous assessment of what constitutes both relationships and family.

 It’s a hard task. There are roughly three categories in which we place people we care intensely about–family, friends, and relationships–and the lines between them are becoming ever more blurred in contemporary society. To look at what is arguably the foggiest one: what on earth is “a relationship”? For most people, it seems to involve some sort of emotional and sexual agreement. Although not all sexual interactions are relationships, few non-sexual interactions are referred to as relationships (asexual romantic relationships being an uncommon exception). But does a relationship involve sex all the time? (Unlikely.) Do you have to spend all your time together? Who does it involve? Can it involve more than two people? At what points are you having sex with this person, or seeing them casually, or dating, or in a relationship? People usually sort these kinks and labels out themselves, but there is still overwhelming societal pressure to quantify sexual relationships so we can comfortably categorise them according to social and institutional standards.

Marriage is understood by many to be the highest category of relationship, so it’s no wonder many queers want to access it. But, as in everything else, queer people in relationships have to work twice as hard against thrice the odds to be seen as half as good. Conservatives are only prepared to accept their queer brethren if they come shining and whole, ready to fit into the definition of Recognised Relationships. Kevin Hague stood in Parliament and pointed out that his partnership has lasted 28 years so far, “longer than most heterosexual marriages”. Many seem to believe that relationships must win the monogamous endurance race in order to be valid. While same-sex marriage supporters may not personally believe this, it’s a problematic way to play at public relations. Having individual autonomy should be an impersonal, impartial right, not one granted when an individual behaves perfectly in all areas. In reality, queers have relationship difficulties just like anyone else, and may well end up having marriages as short as Britney Spears’ 55-hour one. We queers are just like you after all, but you may not like what the mirror shows.

As alternative sexualities become an ever more visible part of society, their threat to the established order is diminished. On some levels, this is the point of queer liberation. Queer sexuality should never have been unusual or condemned. The word ‘homosexual’ was only coined in 1869, and ‘heterosexual’ around 1892. Prior to this there was little understanding of sexuality as a personal identity rather than separate practices. When practices such as sodomy were legally repressed, subcultures of those who liked sex with their own gender developed, and sexuality became a central part of a person’s identity and moral character. Same-sex marriage is another step in allowing the LGBTI community to be people, rather than queer people.

However, the assimilation of queers into this particular society can be troubling, given how poorly it functions. Identity politics without any political, internationalist or economic qualities would decree that working class queers must link arms with the very CEOs and National Party members who perpetrate their economic oppression. As some of these people are gay or lesbian–Chris Finlayson, for example–the gay community clearly has class divisions within it; ones that are often masked for the sake of presenting a unified front. Classism within the transgender community is also starting to emerge; a transgender academic cried foul at stereotypes of transgender people as sex workers on the street, where she and her transgender friends are lawyers and “high achieving people”. Such statements put the responsibility for gender discrimination in the workforce combined with economic downturn onto queer minorities, an assumption of their guilt and failure because they are not just like you.

What will be the fate of the ones who don’t neatly fit in the just-like-you box? The genderqueers, the unemployed, the sex workers, the ones struggling with depression, the ones in prison, the polyamorous Wiccans? Will we talk about their love in the same breath as we talk about monogamous same-sex marriage between suburbanites? Will we recognise that love is love and rights are rights when they involve people we dislike, or people we find scary, or even people who have done bad things? As Anthea at The Hand Mirror writes:

Jostling at the edges, or maybe staying home, will be those who will never look good in the papers, but found in the queer community a home of sorts, or those who were never welcome even there. We’ll pick up our placards and we’ll march, because we know this fight has to be fought, this game has to be won. We may even have a share of the winnings, or we may have a penalty deducted. It won’t have been our fight. It won’t have been our liberation.

The don’t-scare-the-horses attitude surrounding much of the same-sex marriage debate is understandable, if frustrating, given how society is still overwhelmingly geared against LGBTI people. Although progress has been made, many are still tightly clinging to the heterosexual nuclear family paradigm, despite its frequent failings. Conservative church leaders and community groups came out (so to speak) to oppose queer marriage at the Parliament rally. A dozen or so counter-protesters claiming to be representative ministers of Korean churches in Auckland held signs saying “Don’t break the definition of marriage!!” and “One man, one woman: That’s marriage!!!” [Exclamation marks in original.] Additionally, a joint statement from seventy churches reads thusly: “Marriage has uniquely been about the union of male and female. The State should not presume to re-engineer a basic human institution. The complementary role of male and female is basic to the very character of marriage, along with having and raising children.” [Emphasis mine.]

This language comes up in both conservative and progressive discussion of the bill; marriage is either a “basic human institution” or a “basic human right”. Such expressions either miss the point or are fundamentally incorrect. The conservative statement in particular is pure conjecture with little to no historical basis. The existence of same-sex marriage in the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire, and early Soviet Russia shows that the one-man/one-woman model of marriage has not been universal over the centuries. And it still is not. Some cultures do not marry at all, and conduct romantic relationships in ways that are radically different to Western norms. (The Mosuo ethnic group in the Himalayas provides an interesting example of this.)

Likewise, the nuclear family is a recent invention, primarily upheld by Western capitalist culture (although not exclusive to it). In mediaeval times, rich Europeans would live in comparatively large houses of multi-generational families, where peasants would live in one or two-bedroom huts. The reverse is true today; though slowly changing, the paragon of Western familial success is still, by and large, a married heterosexual couple living in their own house with 2.5 kids. Both capitalism and the nuclear family ideal reached their peaks in the West during the 1950s. This is no coincidence, but reflects how changing economies influence personal life to profound degrees.

Advances in technology are key components of this. The Industrial Revolution meant that production was removed from the home and farms to factories. Immigration to urban areas and subsequent crowding were factors in confining sexual relations; it was around this period that myths about masturbation as unhealthy came up, for example. Given both the change of economy and the urgency to keep sexual relations repressed, marriage changed from being more or less a financial agreement–three goats in exchange for my daughter, good sir!–and became more heavily involved with romantic and subsequently monogamous ideals. This ideology, I propose, is part of what has given rise to the idea that taking another lover is an often irredeemable emotional betrayal of one’s spouse. In this framework, where love is a scarce resource to be competed for, “forsaking all others as long as we both shall live” looks like a good way to secure a permanent supply of companionship. The traditional economic aspect of marriage, however, can be a double-edged sword; the assumption that marriage partners will be willing and able to support each other financially can be used to lower much-needed benefits or student allowances. Splitting society into little two-person financial communities can often mean that collective responsibility for people’s welfare gets cast aside.

All these reasons are part of why casting monogamous marriage as a “basic human right” is somewhat inaccurate and inappropriate. In theory, having autonomy over one’s personal life is generally regarded as a basic human right, although such rights are all won socially rather than automatically granted. In our current society, legalising same-sex marriage is a part of enabling personal autonomy, easing up things like childcare, immigration, visitation rights, inheritance of property and so on for queer couples. However, it is clear that marriage is a decision made within a highly particular socioeconomic framework, not a universal or innate human norm.

Marriage has been an exclusively heterosexual institution in recent times, but so has much of the rest of our society. More radical queers sometimes accuse their marriage-inclined counterparts of trying to mimic heterosexuals, but this explanation does not entirely suffice. Same-sex marriage serves to make marriage a less heterosexual institution, and lesbian/transgender/genderqueer marriage in particular undermines its patriarchal tendencies. Since it is mostly liberal and conservative queers who wish to marry, it would be reasonable to conclude that the LGBTI marriage fight is more about fitting into a particular class than a sexuality.

Relationships and the nuclear family are not entirely sexuality or gender-specific issues, but are also deeply rooted in issues like ethnicity, class and economics. This is where seemingly innocuous things like housing and urban planning become hot political issues. Most New Zealand houses and apartments are still built for the nuclear family, which can put some families at a distinct disadvantage. Failure to fit into buildings designed with ideological understandings of what constitutes a family can affect some Pacific Island families, for example, who often have multiple generations living in the same home. Overcrowding of large families into three-bedroom houses enables disease to spread easily, especially given New Zealand’s problem with damp housing. The emergent problems–poor health and nutrition, for example, or reliance on benefits so the whole family can get by–can make it very difficult to climb out of pre-ordained poverty. Without structural understandings of oppression, such problems can further entrench racist attitudes in society; ideas come up that Pacific people are unhealthy and poor because of personal faults, and therefore unemployable, which makes them poor etc etc–the cycle continues. Queers who wish to have one long-term partner and 2.5 kids do not directly oppress such families, but the oft-voiced assumption that Louisa Wall’s bill is a victory for all queers can serve to marginalise the voices of other minority groups.

The way current paradigms of sexuality are changing, legal acceptance of all sexualities seems inevitable, if slow. Legalising same-sex marriage is one of the easiest discriminations to remove from the books, and will hopefully open the door for further changes. Although liberal queers such as Louisa Wall seem to wish otherwise, the slippery slope argument posited dramatically by conservatives may have some truth in it. I will be unsurprised if a serious debate around polygamy–marriage with more than two partners–takes the floor in the next few decades, although much of both the straight and queer community will oppose it. (Though frequently used for scaremongering, legalisation of incest and bestiality is not part of the same category because of consent issues. Not that people with widely accepted sexualities–even the married ones–are always great with consent either, as our rape culture shows.)

Classism will undoubtedly emerge in all these debates, for personal relationships always have political and economic concerns acting in tandem. The emerging trend of sidelining radicals in sexuality movements is troubling–at Wednesday’s rally we were told to smile at our detractors, applaud the police and not chant anything inflammatory. Crafting a neat and tidy fascade to erase other marginalised groups’ presence will slow progress down to a snail’s pace, as middle-class queers get first pick of the crumbs spilled from the straight table.


Author’s note: The Queer Avengers recently began a project called “Beyond Marriage”, which addresses concerns around queer liberation and the family. Go to for more information.

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