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Put a Ring On It

My old friend the (gay) human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, once loathed by the popular press for his ‘radical extremism’, is the biggest, loudest voice in the UK calling for same sex marriage.

Or was, until he found himself in bed recently with David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, who stole his thunder somewhat by announcing at the Tory Party Conference this month his support for gay marriage – “Not despite my being a Conservative, but because I’m a Conservative.”

In the UK civil partnerships were introduced in 2004, giving same sex couples who signed up for them effectively the same legal rights – and privileges over single people – as married couples. Civil partnerships have been widely regarded as a success, and while it’s true that many lesbians and gays probably would want the option, unlike in the US there has been no great clamour for same sex marriage – no riots in Soho or MiLK-esque speeches at the BAFTAs.

In fact, the lack of much of a clamour for same-sex marriage (except for perhaps the one coming from Tatchell) is one of the reasons why Cameron was able to so easily co-opt – or ‘out’ – gay marriage as something essentially Conservative/conservative. And in the process complete his swishy remodelling of the Tories as the socially liberal, Nice to Gays, MetroTory Party, rather than The Nasty Party people remember from the 80s, 90s and much of the Noughties. While throwing his Coalition partners the Lib-Dems a boner.

And in an important sense he’s right about gay marriage: Conservatives don’t like new institutions, they like old ones. Really dusty, cobwebby ones that don’t work anymore. Although ageing hang ‘em and flog ‘em Shire Tories whom Holland Park ‘Dave’ clearly despises and who despise him back with interest won’t agree, better that gays line up to get married than go off and do their own civil thing. Especially when no one else is bothering to get married any more.

Unsurprisingly, half-hearted proposals to extend civil partnerships to cross-sex couples have been dropped – the reason cross-sex couples were barred from civil partnerships in the first place was due to fears that this would ‘undermine marriage’. The Tories, remember, want to prop up the lame duck industry of marriage by introducing a state subsidy for it.

But should Cameron succeed in legalising same-sex marriage, Tatchell isn’t going to get gay married himself. Despite his very personal identification with the cause of same sex marriage in the UK for several years, and his use of somewhat melodramatic rhetoric such as ‘sexual apartheid’ and ‘riding at the back of the bus’ to describe civil partnerships, he rejects marriage altogether – on political  grounds. Debating with Suzanne Moore (another old friend of mine) in Saturday’s Guardian in the wake of Cameron’s pledge, he repeated an argument he has made many times before:

‘Personally, I don’t like marriage. I share the feminist critique of its history of sexism and patriarchy. I would not want to get married.’

In other words, he sees marriage as a system of oppression and inequality which he wants nothing to do with. Though of course, this doesn’t mean he can’t crusade selflessly for the right of others to get oppressed:

‘But as a democrat and human rights defender, I support the right of others to marry. This is a simple issue of equality. The ban on same-sex marriage is discrimination and discrimination is wrong, full stop.’

Even without dwelling on the slight contradiction of campaigning for the extension of a system of oppression and inequality under the banner of equality, Tatchell is not presenting much of an argument here. Rather — and I say this as someone who owes Peter a debt of thanks for helping to get my first book published and for providing a cracking essay for my 1996 collection Anti-Gay — it’s a schoolmarmish piece of moralism designed to close down debate: ‘…discrimination is wrong, full stop’. Oh, no! The dreaded full stop! That’s it then. My powers of dialectic have turned to dust!

I’ve heard similar from liberal heteros who like to wear their support for gay marriage as a badge of their liberalism, and are crestfallen when you don’t pat them on the back for it. The poor dears usually end up irritably dismissing queer killjoys like me as ‘perverse’ and ‘eccentric’. Liberal do-gooders know best, even when they’re straight liberal do-gooders talking about gay marriage to gayers.

Thankfully, not all straight liberals think alike — in the Guardian debate Suzanne Moore dares to be the straight party-pooper at the gay marriage reception, airing many of the arguments that lots of LGBT people agree with but tend to keep quiet about in front of the Goyim. Like her, I’m not so much against same-sex marriage (what would be the point of that? Unless you have a kink for chaining yourself to church railings), as just not for it.

But agnosticism about gay marriage isn’t really permitted. After all, gay America, Tatchell, straight liberals and even David Cameron all say we have to be for it. Full stop.

Thing is, if you get with the programme and make equality for its own sake your god you can end up saying really daft things which you clearly don’t believe. Worse, by making it the measure of ‘equality’, you make even more of a fetish out of marriage than the traditionalists.

And someone like Peter Tatchell, who has a long, radical history, who rejects marriage as ‘sexist and patriarchal’, who would like to see civil partnerships made more flexible and extended to cross-sex couples (so would I, but it’s not going to happen under this Government), ends up saying stuff like: ‘marriage is the gold standard.’

Perhaps, despite his denials, Peter really does want to get married after all. Sometimes he sounds like a very old-fashioned girl.

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