From Gay Power to Gay Rights

Marriage equality has finally come to Ireland. But what does the victory say about the state of the gay liberation movement?

Pro–marriage equality campaign graffiti in central Dublin. Paulo Nunes dos Santos

The news media around the world is abuzz over the results of Ireland’s recent marriage referendum. In the world’s first popular vote on gay marriage, voters said “yes” to marriage equality, by a resounding 62 percent to 38 percent.

Much of the coverage has been understandably upbeat — stories of emigrant Irish citizens (many of them economic exiles from the 2008 crash) racing back home to vote, of prominent public figures coming out as gay in the run-up to the referendum, of independent-minded clergy breaking ranks to support the Yes campaign. Not least surprising is that all this should happen in Catholic Ireland, a country that only legalized homosexuality in 1993, has yet to properly legalize abortion, and where, as late as 1979, it was impossible to buy contraception legally.

No major party in the Dáil, the Irish parliament, advocated a “no” vote; for many in Ireland, the referendum has been yet another sign that the power and institutional authority of the Catholic Church continues its downward spiral.

There is obviously much for Irish citizens, and for those who support equality globally, to be pleased about. That the No side was populated by some of the most retrograde elements of Irish public life (David Quinn’s Catholic fundamentalist astroturf group, the Iona Institute, and perpetually outraged hard-right columnists like Breda O’Brien, Kevin Myers, and John Waters) could only add to the euphoria.

Little wonder, then, that Ireland’s ruling politicians are basking in all this positivity. The beleaguered Labour Party, unpopular coalition partners in an austerity-driven government, are hoping that the referendum can salvage their standing. Prime Minster Enda Kenny was already being labelled a “reluctant gay icon” in the days before the vote. And Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who recently came out as gay, proudly spoke of a “social revolution.” Ireland is apparently now “a beacon of equality and liberty to the rest of the world.”

The hyperbole alone should be cause for concern. The fact that the referendum was so strongly supported by the country’s two dominant conservative parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, should be even more disquieting.

That Varadkar recently revealed he is gay should not distract from the fact that, as health minister, his overriding concern has been a Thatcherite approach to health provision. That Kenny has impromptu photo-ops at gay bars should not obscure his wider political agenda, not least his government’s ongoing drive to privatize the water supply. Whatever social revolution the likes of Varadkar or Kenny offer will be neither revolutionary nor social.

In fact, the Irish referendum shatters a commonly held myth about gay marriage: that it is a purely progressive political project, rather than a potentially conservative one. The focus on gay marriage represents a major shift, in both ideology and strategy, for the LGBTQ movement.

One need only look back at some of the pre- and post-Stonewall groups to see the radical origins of the gay rights movement. US organizations like SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals, a vigilante group formed to protect gay men in New York), the Third World Gay Coalition, and the Lavender Panthers were part of a movement that was less domesticated, possessing both a thoroughgoing socioeconomic critique and an emancipatory vision.

The 1971 manifesto of the London-based Gay Liberation Front, for instance, espoused a liberatory politics decidedly outside the mainstream of the contemporary gay rights movement:

Throughout recorded history, oppressed groups have organised to claim their rights and obtain their needs. Homosexuals, who have been oppressed by physical violence and by ideological and psychological attacks at every level of social interaction, are at last becoming angry.

To you, our gay sisters and brothers, we say that you are oppressed; we intend to show you examples of the hatred and fear with which straight society relegates us to the position and treatment of sub-humans, and to explain their basis. We will show you how we can use our righteous anger to uproot the present oppressive system with its decaying and constricting ideology, and how we, together with other oppressed groups, can start to form a new order, and a liberated lifestyle, from the alternatives which we offer.

They denounced families (“the most basic unit of society”), the educational system (“a new liberal dynamic of secondary schooling, proves to be little more than an extension of Christian morality”), the Church (“whose archaic and irrational teachings support the family and marriage as the only permitted condition for sex”), the media (“used as reinforcements against us, and make possible the control of people’s thoughts on an unprecedented scale”), and business and law (“virtually all employers are highly privileged heterosexual men”). And there was little focus on marriage or normative gender relations:

Gay shows the way. In some ways we are already more advanced than straight people. We are already outside the family and we have already, in part at least, rejected the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ roles society has designed for us.

In a society dominated by the sexist culture it is very difficult, if not impossible, for heterosexual men and women to escape their rigid gender-role structuring and the roles of oppressor and oppressed. But gay men don’t need to oppress women in order to fulfill their own psycho-sexual needs, and gay women don’t have to relate sexually to the male oppressor, so that at this moment in time, the freest and most equal relationships are most likely to be between homosexuals.

Heavily influenced by British gay politics, early gay activist groups in Ireland, such as Gays Against Repression (organizer of the country’s first gay pride parade in 1976) and the Dublin Gay Collective, also embraced a transformative politics. The latter group, later renamed the Dublin Gay and Lesbian Collective, were avowedly socialist and aimed for “radical change of our system of law” — not just for gays, but also “women and minorities.”

This is miles away from the rhetoric, politics, and imagery that have more recently come to dominate the gay rights movement. The radical currents that were the mainstream of gay politics in the 1970s and early ’80s have been pushed to the margins.

In Ireland, “respectable” organizations like the Irish Gay Rights Movement and the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform crowded out more radical groups by the 1980s. And as the Irish establishment embraced neoliberalism and a supposedly post-Catholic sense of freedom and equality in the 1990s and 2000s, a gay politics defined along the lines of individual rights was increasingly amenable to the times.

For instance, Marriage Equality Ireland speaks the language of a normative sexual order. They seek “equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples in Ireland” and hope “to mobilise support for legislation that will enable same sex couples to marry and establish legal recognition of children in LGBT families.”

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), the successor to Ireland’s earlier, more radical gay groups, do still work with trade unions but have little to say about non-sexual forms of inequality. They are comfortable not only with co-operating with the political right and employers, but with the existing power structures of Irish society.

US-based groups similarly couch their arguments in assimilationist language. Marriage Equality USA “believe in a world that protects and celebrates families without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.” The Human Rights Campaign “envisions a world where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.” That workplaces, societies or communities themselves could or should change goes unquestioned.

The gay power movement, in Ireland and the rest of the advanced capitalist world, has become a more conservative gay rights movement.

To be sure, this neoliberal drift has its opponents. In the US, the recently defunct Queers for Economic Justice took aim at the right-leaning mainstream of the gay rights movement as well as increasing corporate presence at gay pride parades. Their 2006 statement called for the movement to go “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” by addressing issues of homelessness, welfare provision, restrictive definitions of the family, and state power.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance linked gay politics to broader issues of class and economic inequality when it called for a “yes” vote in the Irish referendum: “We need a campaign for a Yes vote that actively engages people to counter the lies of the conservative right, while also highlighting the other inequalities LGBTQ people face. Civil rights alone are not enough if people do not have the means to access them.”

Notwithstanding such views, however, it seems undeniable that the main emphasis of gay politics has shifted from a collective politics to a narrower discourse of individual rights. This parallels the shift from post-1945 Keynesianism and the possibilities of a socialist future to neoliberalism, freedom as defined by the market, and a perpetual present tense. Indeed, it is hard not to feel that gay marriage has become a successful issue in the early twenty-first century precisely because it fits within a neoliberal social regime.

It is equality defined at the individual level, rather than at the communal. It is a right bestowed by society and overseen at a distance from a supposedly light-touch state. And as it opens up one new vista for equality — sexual equality — it helps move us away from discussions of economic equality.

From a neoliberal standpoint, this is a remarkably convenient way to address a thing called “inequality.” In Ireland, where economic inequity has only gotten worse since the collapse of 2008, many people, including those in government and business, can take solace in the fact that debates over inequality focus so strongly on the personal rather than on larger structural issues of wealth disparity, unemployment, or access to housing and health care.

None of this is to detract from what is a genuine victory in Ireland. Marriage equality represents a potentially major chipping away at an older, conservative social order. And belying easy narratives about Dublin elites leading the push for social progress, this was a bottom-up movement led by working people.

Nonetheless, we should recognize that when neoliberals like Varadkar talk of liberty and equality, they are using these terms in strictly limited ways. In Ireland and elsewhere, we can’t let marriage equality detain us. If we want emancipatory change, we’ll have to set our sights much higher.