In April 2013, New Zealand finally legalized marriage for same-sex couples. There was considerable discussion among left-wing queer and trans activists about whether marriage equality should be supported as a democratic right, or opposed on the grounds that marriage is a bourgeois institution. In October 2013, the Queer Avengers organized a conference in Wellington entitled “Beyond Marriage” where this issue, among others, was discussed. Reprinted below is a speech given at the conference by Bill Logan, a leader of the successful 1985-86 struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in New Zealand and a supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency.
Like most of us, I’m far more interested in love than marriage, but I want to consider the connections and antagonisms between love and marriage today. I don’t want to attempt a precise definition of love here, but I don’t merely mean deep caring for our fellow humans, or close friendship, or filial affection, or warm companionship. All those are great things, and often in the world we live in today, they are our best sources of personal security. But what we are talking of here is passionate, spontaneous, sexual love.
Now, in this sense, love and marriage both have long histories in Western culture, going back thousands of years, but they are almost entirely separate histories. Love and marriage have quite simply had nothing to do with each other. Even the fiction that love and marriage should somehow be combined is rather recent, and rather unevenly applied. Marriage has always been about status and property. Even in the last two hundred years, when marriage has attempted to appropriate love for its own purposes, it is a debased, deformed kind of love that marriage has sought to incorporate—a love where the perfect match involves celebrity, power and money, and where your grandmother tells you it is as easy to fall in love with a rich woman as with a poor one. The ideal marriage requires you to love a millionaire, a film star, or preferably a prince—all of whom are probably pretty unlovable.
The Pet Shop Boys [a British electronic pop duo] are not exactly right that love is a bourgeois construct—it would be more true to say that love is a feudal construct, because the modern ideology of love is primarily shaped in the ideals of the knightly chivalry of the Middle Ages. And, of course, love under chivalry was always outside marriage, and about either unfulfilled yearning, or unadulterated adultery. Marriage was about power and property, and love was counterposed to it.
If love penetrated the ruling classes during the age of chivalry, it had a pre-history, which is largely unwritten. Before chivalry, love was confined to the lower orders. Citizens of Athens and Rome did not love their wives, though they may have been infatuated with a slave-girl or a boyfriend. But servants and shepherd boys, whose lives went mostly unrecorded because they didn’t matter, were able to love each other, and love intensely. Although the record is sparse, traces are inevitably left in song and verse.
We live in a cynical age, and intelligent people are not supposed to believe in love. However, in hints and traces, and also in anthropological studies of pre-class societies, we can see that patches, incidents or explosions of love have formed in most of the different kinds of social arrangements our species has tried out. We can see that love is sometimes capable of great heroism against the predominating institutions of society. And we can see that love has been most widespread where power, status and property are weakest. Indeed, what I want to argue here is that love can appear in many environments, and has extraordinary potential for social disruption, but if love is to transcend the exceptional and episodic, and if there is to be a generalized freedom to love, then class society must be dismantled.
Of course, the spontaneity and diverse forms of love—its passion and sheer joy—do not sit easily beside the authority and hierarchy necessary to run a class society. So marriage has become a tool for the organization of love. Love is a danger, and marriage is put into service for its moderation and debasement, and to render it uniform.
So heterosexual marriage is the standard, against which all other relationships are measured. Parental expectations, housing policy and architecture, family law, and popular music all tend to push toward a marriage-like form. To the extent that a relationship is in the nature of a marriage—a heterosexual marriage—it is judged successful.
And so we have the modern nuclear family under capitalism as an instrument for the mass organization of domestic tasks and reproduction, and for disciplined training of the workforce. The ideal wherein love and marriage are combined has a dual function—of bureaucratizing and routinizing love to render it socially harmless, and of spicing up marriage to make it acceptable.
This is not to say, of course, that there is no real love in the world today—indeed many get a taste of genuine love, and some get a full serving, but the commercial mass-media love industry and the attempts to tie love to the institution of marriage have profoundly misshapen it. The pursuit of love is combined with a pursuit of money, power and fame, and the experience of love is twisted by crass commercialism, showy weddings, and the legal and social controls that define marriage.
Nor is this to say that marriage at an individual level is necessarily a betrayal of love. Each of us must make their way as best they can in this broken world, and marriage helps many negotiate a path. But as a cultural institution, marriage is fundamentally conservative.
And so we come to the struggle for same-sex marriage rights, which has emerged with remarkable historical speed on a global basis very recently. When I was a younger man fighting for homosexual law reform in the 1985-86 campaign, gay marriage was not something we thought of as a possibility to be considered.
In the context of the way marriage is carried out, its social role and its debasement of love, it is frankly not surprising that radical queers looked on this movement with great suspicion. Why would we want to buy into the process whereby the creative, disruptive, passionate power of love was tamed to fit the conservative straightjacket of marriage?
But marriage will not be transcended by maintaining the limitations and constraints on it, but by opening it up, and by freeing it of the compulsions which surround it—compulsions which are ideological, legal and material.
So of course, most of us took a deep breath, and supported the marriage reform. We supported it quite simply because legal prohibition is not an instrument of liberation. Many of us don’t want to join the army or the police force, or to become a truck driver, or adopt children. But we want the same rights to do those things as anyone else. The point about the fight for the right to get married was not that we were advocating that all of us queer people should actually get married, but that we should be allowed to get married.
While there were some attractions in the argument that we want the right to be different, not merely to be the same as the majority, the truth is that the fight against oppression (whether sexual, religious, national or economic) is always a fight for equal rights, the right to be the same. Separate but equal, is not equal. Where Muslims or atheists do not have the same rights as Christians, they are pushed to make their beliefs about religion invisible. Where queers do not have the same rights as straights, they are pushed to make their queerness invisible. It is only through winning the right to be the same that we really gain the freedom to be different.
So we supported the campaign for equal marriage rights. But it was hardly an earth-shattering episode, and although our little victory in that campaign was quite satisfying, mostly because we don’t get to experience very many victories, it was not exactly a turning point in history. The campaign was an occasion for some highly reversible mass consciousness-raising, and possibly laid some groundwork for the more important struggle to protect queer kids from bullying in high schools. But the objective and concrete achievement of this campaign was actually just a tiny logical extension of bourgeois democratic rights, which will have very little impact on our real lives. At the end of the day, it was not a big deal.
When the celebrations died down, queer and trans people still faced discrimination and oppression in families and schools and workplaces, as we always knew we would. In my counseling practice I still see heteronormativity pushing people to the brink of death. I see very high levels of stress and addiction among queers. I see the Independent Youth Benefit denied to adolescents who have nothing—no family, no accommodation, no job [though it is routinely given to youth who are not queer or trans who are cut off from financial support by family breakdown]. There are in fact extraordinary levels of unemployment among young queers right now. I still see health professionals refusing to take seriously the problem of queer and trans suicidality, and gay boys bullied at school, and trans teenagers kicked out of their homes.
It sometimes feels like we’re in a battleground, and in the context of the trauma that surrounds us, and the lesser, but still urgent, practical needs, our imaginings of a future utopia of polymorphous perversity seem a bit indulgent. We might want a world where the privileges of monogamy are dismantled, where there is a culture of celebrating diversity and a universal validation of relationships with many different shapes. But right now what we have to concern ourselves with is that almost all queer and trans kids grow up in fear of bullying at school, and a significant number want to kill themselves because they have been kicked out of home with no resources.
What I want to argue is that we should not separate, but rather we should link, the struggle for immediate needs and the struggle for a more profound liberation. Indeed it is only in the struggle to meet immediate needs that we can lay a path to profound change and a fundamentally better society.
To take the example of housing: it is clear that an abundance and a variety of subsidized housing would be an enormous step in meeting immediate needs—helping counter the effects of poverty and taking a lot of the sting out of family transphobia and homophobia. If even modest housing were immediately accessible, it would take much of the stress and conflict out of adolescent coming-out crises. There are depressions that would lift, and suicides that would not happen.
In fact, it’s not just queer and trans adolescents who need access to accommodation separate from their parents. Most families with adolescents at certain points need more housing options. And as well as addressing the immediate needs of adolescents, good accommodation options would also address the needs of married people when their marriages were in trouble, or they were merely needing a little space. Whether it is a question of domestic violence, irritations about the relatives visiting, or a new sexual configuration disturbing the equilibrium of the household, access to housing would remove one of the most important constraints that too often turn a marriage into a prison.
When there are children, one of the compulsions that ties the couple together and makes it difficult to escape a marriage even though it has passed its use-by date, is the expense of setting up accommodation that allows genuine co-parenting. People are forced to stay in the marital home in order to keep connected to their children or, in leaving the marriage, they also leave most of the parenting to one of the former partners, usually the mother. Decent accommodation options for families that are coming apart would remove another of the compulsions that shape marriage.
So while certainly it is true that family law, fairy tales and Hollywood are important forces shaping and maintaining the institution of marriage, actually it is too often simply the absence of an alternative place to live, or even to stay temporarily, that keeps a given marriage going, or determines its shape.
As with housing, so with decent free childcare, which is another thing we should be fighting for. It would remove another set of compulsions that keep in place the marriage system and gender inequality. A program to remove those largely economic compulsions and see what people make of their lives without them seems a far more sensible way of approaching the world of the future than to try to imagine in advance how it will look, because that is something we simply cannot know.
We cannot know the future of marriage, but we can fight for the removal of the constraints on domestic relationships. If there were true material security, which would of course include guaranteed access to well-paying jobs, the compulsions that today hold marriage and the currently prevailing family system in place would be removed. With material security can come enormous sexual freedom and diversity of domestic arrangements.
Of course, we are told that the system simply cannot pay for full employment, easily accessible decent housing and childcare, and I guess that the people who say this to us know their system and that they are right. This system can’t pay for these things. So much the worse for the system. Throw it away.
And so the struggle for domestic freedom is indivisible from the struggle for socialism. The running costs of the capitalist system are simply too high. There is an awful lot of corruption and freeloading involved in running capitalism, and also an awful lot of paperwork, all of which eats up human lives without giving anything back. And then there is the human effort wasted in financial shenanigans, and whole industries that add very little to the sum total of human happiness—banking and insurance and advertising. Capitalism is profoundly wasteful.
But the resources exist. There is a study on the basis of data for the year 2000 by the United Nations World Institute for Development Economic Research. It reports that the three richest individuals in the world possessed more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined. It reports that the richest one percent in the world owned 40 percent of global assets.
So the program for a world beyond marriage must be a program that addresses the obscene inefficiency and inequality of the capitalist system. Only a program of socialism can create the conditions for transcending marriage.
Exactly how will we live under socialism? We cannot know. We cannot know what will replace our current marriage and family arrangements. But we can suspect that when issues of material security are behind us, people’s personal preferences will trump any considerations of family pressure or popular prejudice. And we can expect that our domestic arrangements will be extremely diverse.