“Marriage is the proverbial burning building. Instead of pounding on the door to be let in…queers should be stoking the flames!” Conrad and Castonguay (2007)
On 26th June 2015, just over a year after the UK’s 2014 bill for marriage equality, the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal across all 50 of the United States of America. That morning, the U.S. Government updated their Facebook profile picture to an outline of The White House fused with the spectrum of the rainbow, a signifier of LGBT pride. This apparently seamless enmeshment of the emblem of patriarchal governance with a symbol for queer diversity beckons the question: is a symbiosis between the needs and cultures of queer communities with a system rooted in hetero-normativity possible? A backlash against the recent laws within gay communities suggests otherwise.
Digital archivists Against Equality are but one example of a queer collective working to unveil the issues at stake in marriage equality, compiling evidence of its damaging consequences worldwide. In their archived essay Marriage Will Never Set Us Free, theorists Dean Spade & Craig Willse argue that the laws compel gay citizens to aspire to hetero-normative ideals of success. Since marriage is at its core a tool of societal and familial regulation that establishes a reward system for those who attain it, it sets up a hierarchy within queer communities, with those who are married obtaining health and immigration benefits, and those who are not becoming further infringed. It makes inclusion into the patriarchal system the focal goal of queer communities for the sake of attaining basic benefits, rather than going further to challenge this unequal distribution of privilege. Spade & Willse give the example of hospital visitation and inheritance rights, which are only granted after marriage; that these are now available for married same sex couples is presented as a triumph, but this ignores that such policies refuse these rights to familial structures that don’t conform to a simple binary structure. In this sense, the law for marriage equality halts an attack on a hegemonic system due to what appears to be a queer victory.
Whilst gay marital rights give the impression that it’s never been easier to be LGBT, safe queer spaces are disappearing around the world. Soho in London, once a thriving queer labyrinth, is undergoing rapid and violent gentrification: drag nightclub Madame Jojo’s is just one of its many historical landmarks closing shop, only to be replaced by “family friendly” restaurant chains likes Muriel’s Kitchen. San Francisco, once the global locus of queer activism, is bleeding out institutions that cater for queer diversity; just a few of the many that have vanished include its last remaining lesbian bar The Lex, Esta Noche, a club frequented by gay Latino men, and the only bar for gay black men The Pendulum. That this gentrification of queer space is occurring simultaneous to advancements in marriage equality is not coincidental. The notion that being gay is now “verified” by heterosexual law is arguably leading to a “straightening out” of queer culture.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, many constitutional laws in America still term all those who are married – including gay couples – as “man and wife”, indicating how such advancements model gay relationships on a heterosexual framework. They do not take into account the multiplicity of non-conforming gender and sexual identities that exist in queer cultures, and thus the most “successful” gay couples are those who most neatly parallel ideal straight ones. As a result, fractures within gay communities are at their most severe. As observed with the homogenisation of queer environments in Soho and San Francisco, gay identities that work against the image of gay people as equally successful to the straight white working couple are losing their spaces; perhaps because they are viewed as vestibular in this now “inclusive” society. Furthermore, there is a trend towards the celebration of masculinity in gay male environments like never before, coupled with a stamping down of outwardly non-conforming identities. The term “straight-acting”, for instance, has become part of the gay urban dictionary; being so is now for a large proportion of gay men a mandatory dating requirement, and sits emblazoned upon 1/3 of all Grindr and Gaydar profiles. Of course, marriage equality cannot be held solely responsible for this internalized homophobia, but the slow cultural shift towards gay people acquiring heterosexual privilege has certainly leaked hetero-normative ideals into queer spaces.
In Against Equality, this rejection of queer culture within queer space is known as ‘queer erasure’; suggesting that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality through a hetero-normative lens has accelerated the homogeneity of the gay landscape, leading queer people to forget their diverse history. Arguably, the propelled view that it is now “easy” to be gay – it having received this cultural stamp of “normality” – has led many gay people to reject any association with their historical “abnormality.” The disjunction between current fractures among gay communities compared to just a few decades ago is a sure fire indication of this.
The 80s, for instance, was a period of phenomenal collectivity for queer people. This is in part due to their socially weakened position and their limited access to basic human rights; an infringed status only enforced by the perception of them, once AIDS appeared, as diseased and monstrous. Not only were those suffering refused basic healthcare, but, with those infected immediately recognizable in their frailty, the disease left a strong visual imprint on the gay landscape. The importance of this collective history cannot be ignored when it comes to the behavioral shifts occurring in current queer spaces. A significant proportion of the gay men who would have continued and communicated the legacy of queer culture to our apathetic youth tragically passed away. Furthermore, the trend towards “straight-acting,” even “healthy” masculinity among gay men seems a self-induced cultural amnesia over a period of enormous social and physical fragility. In a sense, the current advancements in “equality” have enacted a cultural lobotomy over the very people who worked so hard to attain them, whilst simultaneously perpetuating a silencing effect over complex queer issues that are still at large: HIV is a continued pandemic within gay communities.
One way to combat this erasure is to maintain spaces that are exclusively queer, and in opposition to “regular” social space. For Michel Foucault, spaces that identify as “other” and sit excluded to the principles of “normal” social space are known as ‘heterotopias of compensation.’ Several queer communities are currently adopting such strategies as a mode of resistance. One such example is queer collective ‘Gay Shame’ in New York, a community that serves to remind gay people of their difficult but rich history, and to dissuade against the unquestioning acceptance of heteronormative privileges such as marriage. They describe the impetus for the organisation as ‘a reaction towards how Gay Pride was becoming gentrified…the goal of Gay Shame was to create a free, all-ages space where queers could make culture and share skills and strategies for resistance, rather than just buy a bunch of crap.’ In their use of the term ‘shame,’ they highlight their opposition to the cleaning up of queer behavior as well as to defensively reclaim their status as “monstrous” or “deviant” that occurred in past decades. Instead of being deemed shameful, they defend their past by taking ownership of their impious social position. Few queer spaces in London also continue this approach; take, for instance, the city’s last remaining nightclub for gay male fetish sex, The Hoist, which hosts nights for fisting, pissing, BDSM, gangbangs and more– use your imagination. As shown in groundbreaking documentary about the institution, Age of Consent, many of its members rally against the laws for marriage equality in their fear that queer culture is losing its transgressive vigour. That the venue is architecturally modeled on a prison serves to remind that its community see themselves in a self-imposed exile from dominant hetero-normative law.
Such collectives work to preserve what little is left of queer culture; their self -imposed segregation is not an attack on the patriarchy as much as it is a defence against it, necessary just for survival. They provide a much-needed sanctuary for those of us who don’t neatly conform to a heteronormative binary. That these spaces are being torn apart by the people they were created for is a devastation. As these pockets of alternative behavior become destroyed, the hope is that those left who do define as queer, like the ever-shifting meaning of the word itself, find new sites of definition in their nomadic search for a home.
As we progress into a period where “equality” is in lawful abundance, we must ask ourselves what it is exactly we are trying to equal out. Rather than earning equality in inequality, it is the responsibility of queer people, more than ever, to resist the lure of hetero-normative approval, and to fight for diversity.