Marriage equality and the trickle-down effect


I’m writing this on a Saturday, before tomorrow’s* March for Marriage. Marriage equality is something incredibly important to me. It’s important because I care that my friends all deserve the same protection and dignity under the law. It’s important because I want any future relationships I’m in to be judged on something other than single letters on our respective legal documents. It’s also incredibly important because I never seem to have enough chances to dress up pretty and cry in public.

But here’s the thing. While marriage equality is essential, I worry that it might be taking attention from all of the other things that we need to do if queer people are to live our lives with the same dignity and respect given to our straight friends and loved ones. I worry that equality under the law is taken as synonymous with social equality. I worry that assumptions of equality could mask some of the most horrific excesses of homophobia and transphobia.

I worry, in short, that marriage equality isn’t going to Make It Get Better. It’s not going to stop queer kids being excluded, being abused, being kicked out of their families, ending up homeless and dead.

Marriage and Equality
The first thing I’d like to reiterate is that I am absolutely and without reservation in favour of marriage equality. It’s one of the few things that will get me off the sofa and on to the streets. The right to have our families equally protected and respected regardless of the gender(s) of the people who make them up? It’s essential. It’s essential both practically and symbolically, and it’s essential that we legislate for it now, because there are kids out there who are legal strangers to their parents, there are people forced to live thousands of miles away from their loved ones, there are people without rights to visit their sick partners and bereaved people having their homes taken from them. And there are people getting sick of the airquotes around “husband” and around “wife” when people talk about their relationships.
None of this is okay. It is absolutely a good thing that we campaign and work towards marriage equality, and it’s frickin’ awesome that we’re making (sloooooowww) progress.

Marriage equality is very, very important. Essential, even. And yes, I do expect that the legal rights it grants same-sex couples, as well as its symbolic importance, will absolutely do something to erode some of the most pernicious aspects of homophobia in our societies. But it’s not the universal panacea that it’s made out to be, and I want to discuss that.

Equal legal rights are not the same as equality, as anyone with a background in anti-oppression work will know well. They’re an essential part of attaining equality, but they’re just the beginning. Once equal marriage rights are achieved, we’ll have reached an important and visible milestone. We’ll be able to point to the laws of our country and see that they acknowledge our equal dignity and that of our relationships. But will still have a hell of a lot more work to do. The legal system, while all-pervasive and incredibly powerful, is not the only institution of this kind in our societies.

Our laws, you see, are the easy bit. They’re written down, for a start. We have specific and recognised methods for changing them. We have specific and recognised methods for enforcing them. It’s relatively easy to tell at a glance if our laws discriminate against us. If someone disagrees with this we can simply copy and paste the laws that discriminate against us, go make a cup of tea, and automatically win the argument.

Making our society a place which values queer folks as much as straight, though? That’s hard work. A lot harder than legal equality. It’s a job every single one of us has to do every day. It’s a relatively-thankless job, where the things we’re working against are varied and often vague, and it’s hard to tell if we’re making any progress at the time. We’re talking about everything from violent homophobia to unconscious prejudice and heteronormativity, and the whole godawful spectrum in between. We’re talking about making every workplace, every school, every hospital, every hotel, every village and town as welcoming for queer folks as it is for straight.

I don’t say this because I’m looking for some kind of utopia. I say this because I’m sick of hearing about homeless queer kids. I’m sick of hearing about dead queer kids. And I’m sick of hearing all of the concerns of LGBT people narrowed down to “gay marriage”.

Like I said before, I am absolutely in favour of marriage equality. I’m planning on marching for marriage equality tomorrow*. It has huge legal significance. It has even bigger symbolic significance. And I truly hope that the wonderful momentum and energy that’s gone into marriage equality can be harnessed for all the other, fuzzier, but still incredibly important work that needs to be done. But that’s not going to happen by itself.

So what do you think? Do you think I’m asking too much? Or not enough? How do you think we can harness the energy of the marriage equality campaign and put it to work elsewhere? Do you think we need to?

*Last week, to You Lot. I’m trying out writing posts in advance for once.

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2 thoughts on “Marriage equality and the trickle-down effect

  1. Marriage equality is a big step in the right direction. I came out in the 70s (in Britain) when few did. In those days LGBT people inhabited a kind of twilight parallel universe hidden from view out of necessity and simple survival. We were routinely branded as sick child molesters whose only desire was to recruit the young. We lived in fear for our lives and our livelihoods. Today we live in more enlightened times. It’s been a hard slog but every change in the Law has had a beneficial effect on social attitudes. Believe me Britain is a very different place now. The battle is not over. There will always be people with hatred in their hearts. But, we’ve come a long way.

  2. You’re definitely not asking for too much. But it seems that most rights movements work like this. Fighting for one thing, finally getting it, and then saying, “That’s not enough.” Fighting for another thing, finally getting it…

    Which isn’t to say that we can’t say, “but that won’t be enough,” *while* we’re fighting. It’s a good, good thing to keep in mind.

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