The gay marriage ‘debate’ is, in many ways, made for liberals on social media. It’s easy to slot it into the ‘barbarians at the gate’ narrative which writers like Charlie Brooker have made a career out of, flattering the egos of a self-identified ‘enlightened’ group by contrasting them with an oppressive, bigoted ‘other’. Related to this, it allows that smug, trite superiority which many non-believers feel over the religious, who have become the symbolic receptacle of any and all anti-marriage sentiment (which itself has become synonymous with homophobia.) The debate feeds the unpleasant self-victimisation which is clung to by many privileged (white, middle-class) gay people – witness, with tiresome inevitability, the speed with which these people have once again rushed to analogise their ‘plight’ to that of black people (apartheid! segregation!) More than anything, it facilitates the sense of certainty and being right which Twitter absolutely thrives on.
As a result, yesterday largely seemed to consist of shrieking slanging matches where many people were acting like they believed themselves to be the UK’s modern-day equivalents of Rosa Parks. Yet rather than fury resulting from an engagement (even in an unproductive way) with people who believed differently, this largely seemed to feed off another one of Twitter’s more dangerous traits – that of it serving as an echo chamber. I could find barely anyone who was making arguments against gay marriage – instead there were scores of people shouting ‘me too!’ while working themselves into a frenzy and almost competing to see who could be most outraged. This reached a bizarre peak with hysterically overblown attacks on Labour for apparently indicating that they would give their MPs a free vote on the issue. This was, it seemed, the worst thing that had ever happened to the labour movement. Never mind clause 4 or the Iraq war, tuition fees or complicity in torture, adoption of most of the worst excesses of Thatcherism or woeful acquiescence to the austerity agenda – it was this procedural issue (one which will surely not even be noticed by most people) which had people threatening to leave the party in droves. This was especially odd given that Labour’s record on gay rights isn’t exactly as straightforwardly glittering as we’re now led to believe. Even more so since we only have to look to recent history to find Labour members assuring us that many gay people didn’t want marriage and civil partnerships brought “joy and security”. Indeed, a search for ‘Labour’ and ‘gay marriage’ in the final year of the Labour government brings only 21,500 results – in the past year this returns 340,000 results. Gay marriage is an idea for which the time has come and it’s very obvious that even many of the most vocal supporters did not even think about it only 2 years ago, making the righteous fury seem very ill-fitting.
This seems to stem from the rise and rise of Labour as ‘the Tories but nicer’. Economic issues, once the raison d’etre of the party, have increasingly been hollowed out and replaced by liberal concerns. Make no mistake, Labour today is a liberal party rather than a socialist one. It was notable that yesterday’s chorus of opprobrium drowned out confirmation that Labour will oppose one of the most shameful and harmful aspects of Osborne’s Autumn statement. This is the direction many of us want Labour to go in and one which has potential to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people – yet only a week after a statement which found the government’s plan for the economy in tatters and them further heaping the worst of this failure onto the poorest in society, much of the left was tearing itself apart over the almost-entirely symbolic issue of gay marriage. Some canny observers noted the timing of the government’s gay marriage announcement with suspicion. Judging by yesterday’s response, it’s difficult not to believe that they were correct to do so.
This of course raises wider issues, not least the question of what ‘equality’ means. The gay marriage debate is concerned only with a very narrow legal equality (and perhaps in a wider sense with civil rights) and almost no-one who loudly bangs on about it seems to pause to think about ‘equality’ in any other way. Yet many who oppose gay marriage do so not because they are homophobic but because they believe that we should be pulling away from the state privileging certain relationships between consenting adults over others, not striving to cement it further. This is partly why some have readily agreed with David Cameron that gay marriage is an inherently conservative (and Conservative) idea, something which the angry righteousness of many supporters cannot possibly allow for. To go even wider, gay marriage is almost completely and utterly irrelevant to economic rights and economic equality, things which should be at the absolute core of any left-wing party. Yet we have the perverse spectacle of activists thanking a government, which is increasing inequality and poverty while dogmatically attacking those on benefits, for their stance on gay marriage. Do gay people exist outside of the economic sphere? Only the most sheltered and privileged of people could possibly expect a homeless gay person, a gay person whose benefits have been cut, a gay person who has been made unemployed, a gay person forced to use food banks, to be intrinsically grateful to the government because they will be able to call their partnership a ‘marriage’.
Inevitably, any move away from the state’s power to privilege certain relationships over others (‘marriage’) would upset some religious people. ‘Some’ being the important part of that sentence. The outpouring of hatred and contempt for the religious which many have engaged in as part of this ‘debate’ is horrific and certainly no better than the vile homophobia engaged in by some in the name of God. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British population has supported gay marriage since even before civil partnerships were introduced. Given that the latest census indicates that around 25% of the population is atheist, it surely follows that many religious people support gay marriage? Rather than devoting so much energy to the loud minority who espouse homophobic views it would perhaps be more productive to engage with the quiet majority who don’t. Having been raised Catholic, attending church regularly and going to a Catholic school, I tend to find the lazy superiority of many self-proclaiming atheists to be utterly repugnant. Being religious doesn’t mean you abandon your critical faculties and being atheist doesn’t mean that you are a brave champion of rationality. I still have many religious family members, friends, workmates and acquaintances and absolutely none of them, whether Christian or Muslim or Sikh, has ever had a problem with my sexuality. So as flattering to your ego as it is to celebrate your intellectual superiority over those who believe in ‘old men sitting on clouds in the sky’ (why is it always variations on that?!) I think debate and progression would be better served by getting off the war horse and realising that most folk are actually pretty decent (and indeed that not everyone opposed to gay marriage is religious or even homophobic.)
This applies generally and, of course, takes me back to the beginning because Twitter and the like are fundamentally based on self-validation and polarisation rather than deep engagement or self-reflection. The gay marriage question being played out on these forums has rendered it enormously tiresome and poisonous and we would do well to think about the nature of ‘equality’ and how our own treatment of others is inescapably part of that. Social media has ill-served this debate.