Inevitable does not mean Okay: Respectability Politics, Erasure and Marriage Equality

Campaigns on both sides of the marriage equality debate have begun in earnest in recent weeks. On the No side, there are the predictable demonising of queer people, pleas to some kind of imaginary distinctiveness and special status of heterosexuality, and misguided calls to please protect the children. The actual children of same-sex couples are, of course, on the other side defending their parents and families from those who would seek to explicitly deny them. As, of course are people of all orientations and family situations telling their stories and asking for equal treatment.

So far, so good. The humanity of queer people- and the families and friends who love us- is what will win this referendum.

But marriage equality, far from being the universal arbiter of LGBTQ equality, is a single issue. And single issue questions breed single issue conversations. 

This is not always a bad thing. It feels inevitable that a narrowing of focus occurs when large groups of people are asked a particular question. And it’s definitely not a bad thing that an important LGBTQ issue is getting significant mainstream attention. 

A thing feeling inevitable doesn’t make it okay.

There are two negative impacts that this narrowing of focus has had. It’s meant that inconvenient facts get brushed under the carpet ‘for the time being’. Those queer people whose lives fit a respectable marriage narrative are showcased- and that is lovely. There are many wonderful queer couples who want to marry in this country. The narrative of queer couples falling in love and marrying is one that has never really hit the mainstream in this country until now. Much as those of us of a more radical persuasion would prefer marriage to not be a focus, there’s nothing about being born LGBT that leads to any particular political viewpoint. There are plenty of queer kids growing up who need to know that some kind of mainstream acceptance- fulfilling the same dreams as their peers, having the possibility of a future that doesn’t seem utterly alien- is possible.

We do need to emphasise the ordinariness and humanity of LGBT people. The problem is, of course, that this emphasis on our ordinariness has come at the expense of all of the things that make our communities and families unique and valuable. In saying “we are just like you”, we erase the decades of thought and intentionality that go into how we choose and create our communities and families. We erase the things that make queer community such a valuable place. And we erase the ways in which our families are better– more egalitarian, more embracing of difference, more resilient in the face of exclusion. In saying that we are just like you, we do three things: we insult the ability of the average person to comprehend more than one way of living your life (a little ironic, when we’re looking for the votes of people from all sectors of society). We contribute to the exclusion I faced by non-homonormative elements within our communities and the lack of role models for kids growing up into non-homonormative identities. And we deny the wider community the possibility of learning from us- from the lessons that queer communities have learned through creating home, family and support over decades of exclusion. That’s a hell of a sad thing.

Those are direct consequences, but something more insidious happens when we focus on winning a referendum to the exclusion of everything else. To paraphrase a saying I learned from poly communities (one of the groups, of course, whose lives are deliberately erased in marriage campaigning): the ability to care deeply about issues is unlimited, but time and resources are not. Energy that could have been used for other queer issues is now devoted to marriage.

That’s no small thing. To be treated as equal under the law is an important goal, both practically and symbolically.  But the vast majority of oppression that queer people face in our day to day lives is not legislative. Legal inequality is not the cause of wider social oppression. It is a symptom of it. We are not seen as unequal because we are treated differently under the law: we are treated differently under the law because we are seen as unequal.

Even on a purely legal basis, there are many injustices other than marriage that queer and trans people face in Ireland. It’s perfectly permissible for schools to discriminate with impunity against both staff and students. We still have no systems in place for people to determine the gender markers on their legal documents, and the legislation that is creeping through our government is over a decade out of date and would enshrine discrimination against children, the destruction of families and the medicalisation of the desire to have your gender legally recognised. That’s without even beginning to look at the many layers of exclusion faced by queer immigrants and asylum seekers, the way in which queer lives interact with the poverty and economic insecurity so many more people experience in Ireland today, and many, many more intersections between our queerness and other aspects of our lives.

Doesn’t it feel inevitable, though, that all of this would happen? After all, we have a referendum to win. Right?

A thing feeling inevitable doesn’t make it so.

Yes, with the marriage equality referendum we have an unprecedented platform to bring progress for LGBTQ people and lives in Ireland. This platform is a once-off, time-limited event. It ends on May 22nd.

We have a platform. What shall we focus on?

You see, we have a choice. The date and wording of the referendum have been set, yes. But how we respond to this focus? That’s up to us.

You see, the inevitabilities I’ve been talking about: the narrowing of focus, the erasure of non-homonormative queer lives- only seem that way. They only exist that way if we take the framing of this year’s events as read, accept its premise as laid down, and follow the rules of engagement for winning referenda as they’re set out, with the single aim of winning that referendum at all costs. We’ll probably do it. We’ll also alienate and exclude huge swathes of our own community, while we do it.

This is the strategy that you hear from many of the main campaigning organisations around the country, who have actively told myself and other inconveniently queer people to sit back, shut up and toe the party line because any sign of dissension will lose that precious middle Ireland vote. What matters is winning, right? We do what we need to do to win.

We could do that. Alternatively? We could take back the framing of this year’s events. We could make a decision that this time we as a community show respect for the very diversity that we’re supposed to celebrate. We could take that platform that we have, and decide that we say what we use it for.

You see, if we do that then we’re taking ownership of that platform that we’ve spent so many years building up. Now that we have the ears of the country, we’re using them for our purposes and on our terms.

Marriage equality is important, yes, and we continue to advocate for that. But we do so without erasing queer lives, and we do so while still shouting about the non-marriage-related injustices that we face all the damn time. 

They might be right. That might lose us a few middle-Ireland votes. But it might not. And if we do that- if we campaign in a way that doesn’t shove many of our community back under carpets and into closets- we will be forcing this society to not only tolerate us, but to genuinely respect and celebrate us.

To deny our own communities in order to beg for scraps from middle Ireland might win us a legal victory, but from a moral standpoint it’s nothing but hollow. I’d rather demand respect and liberation, not because we are almost the same as you, but simply because we are. In all of our inconvenient diversity we are part of this society, and we will be respected as such.


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Inevitable does not mean Okay: Respectability Politics, Erasure and Marriage Equality

3 thoughts on “Inevitable does not mean Okay: Respectability Politics, Erasure and Marriage Equality

  1. 1

    “We still have no systems in place for people to determine the gender markers on their legal documents”

    I’m sorry but as a ‘trans’ woman I have to say this is slightly unfair and untrue. All documents except the birth cert can be changed, passport, license, medical records, PPS details, etc.
    While the birth cert thing can be quite upsetting at times it isn’t used that much really. And even when you do have to present it you can also show all the proof of your transition and most places will mark you as the correct gender.
    I mean it’s not ideal, if you’re non-binary you’re out of luck and having to out yourself isn’t fun, but saying there are -no- systems is slightly unfair. All documents I would ever have to realisticly present on a daily basis say female.

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