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The history of gay marriage supposedly goes something like this: In the beginning, gay people were horribly oppressed. Then came the 1970s, where gays – all of whom looked like the men of The Village People – were able to live openly and have a lot of sex. Then, in the 1980s, many gay people died of AIDS – because they had too much sex in the 1970s. This taught them that gay sex is bad. The gays who were left realized the importance of stable, monogamous relationships and began to agitate for marriage and the 1,000+ benefits it would bring. Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.
This is, obviously, a reductive and, yes, tongue-in-cheek history. But it is also, sadly, exactly the reductive history that circulates in both the straight and gay media.
So writes Yasmin Nair of the Against Equality collective, introducing the ‘Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage’ section of its anthology Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. The book is available from AK Press for $15, and if you’re at all interested in better commentary on LGBT issues, you should order it straight away.
The introduction is viewable online. Nair, whose influence in my writing shows at times, remains one of gay liberalism’s lucidest critics; other highlights here include:
Much of gay liberation was founded on leftist and feminist principles, which included a strong materialist critique of marriage. [And] AIDS activism in the 1980s called for universal health care, the demand for which has been abandoned by the gay mainstream in favor of the idea that gays should simply be given health care via marriage.
Liberals and lefties alike, straight and gay, look at gay marriage in countries like Spain and Argentina as the ultimate mark of civilization. They note approvingly that South Africa guarantees a constitutional right to gay marriage, but they have nothing to say about the fact that the same country has over five-million people living with HIV and no similar guarantee for health care.
If you are married, you get to be the good immigrant and bring over your immediate and extended family to set up a family business and send your children to the best schools after years of perseverance and hard work (at least theoretically). If you are not, you can be deported and imprisoned at the slightest infraction and not one of the kinship networks that you are a part of will count in the eyes of the state. In other words, a queer radical critique of the family is not simply the celebration of an outsider status, although it is often that, but an economic critique.
Not many know gay marriage is a legacy of AIDS. Attempts by same-sex couples at the turn of the nineties to have partnerships legally recognised – in Denmark, New York, Hawaii – were prompted, in the words of the New York Times, by an epidemic that ‘brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds’. The argument gained ground, in fact, that pushing institutions of monogamy would stem the flow of HIV. ‘[I]n the wake of AIDS’, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic, it would ‘qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.’
On calling gay marriage reactionary and citing this in evidence, I’ve been accused of gravedigging – unearthing arguments now twenty-five years old and foisting them anachronistically on current debates, regardless of historical context. But Sullivan’s logic never went away: it’s led to his acknowledgement in U.S. media as the contemporary gay agenda’s author, and is visible today all over moves for marriage reform.
‘LGBT history will be made’, the Advocate reported only yesterday, ‘on January 1, 2014, when a same-sex wedding takes place atop the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float during the 125th Rose Parade[.]
‘The wedding between Aubrey Loots and Danny Leclair, both gay men from Los Angeles, will be a first for the Rose Parade. The couple’s display of their love and commitment to one another invokes the parade’s 2014 theme, “Dreams Come True,” as well as the theme of the AHF’s float entry, “Love is the Best Protection,” which aims to celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men. The Foundation’s float will be designed to resemble a wedding cake, with each couple tying the knot atop the float as living cake-toppers.’
Setting aside this terrifying image, suggesting as it does some hideous gay version of the Hunger Games – ‘the best protection’? Really?
‘Love’ doesn’t equal the promise of monogamy; to say so is in the first place a fool’s errand, and an unkind one at that. But neither protects against transmission anyway. How have Catholic doctrines of sex within marriage worked out in countries with HIV-AIDS epidemics? How did chastity work out for those infected by a loved and trusted partner? How did vilifying ‘promiscuity among some homosexuals’, painting AIDS as the fruit of sexual immorality, work out for Catholic Sullivan himself, found posting Craigslist ads in 2001 for unprotected anal sex with ‘other HIV-positive men’? If he couldn’t practise what he preached, why take for granted lesser mortals will?
That spouses play around, with or without permission, isn’t news. Expecting they won’t amounts to abstinence-based disease prevention, which the AHF need only turn on the news to see in action. If not out of deeply conservative sexual ethics, why expect us all to swear monogamy anyway, when prophylactics infinitely more effective exist? Public health is guarded best by public measures, not the pretence of private virtue – in this case, access to condoms, sex education and healthcare and funds for medical research. And are those who do want to make vows prevented by not having them state-recognised? Does monogamy’s achievability depend somehow on access to a civil register?
In a Telegraph column this May that replicated almost exactly Sullivan’s original case, claiming ‘marriage acts as a “commitment device”, encouraging fidelity and discouraging high-risk behaviour’, David Skelton tacked on perhaps the most bizarre argument yet: that ‘[b]y making clear that gay people are fully equal members of society, equal marriage could also help to reduce the level of alienation felt by some young gay people’ – thus, presumably, quash their pursuit of risky activities as a contrived form of self-harm.
Neil Giuliano of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed much the same in the Huffington Post a month later, writing ‘When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression and isolation among gay people – particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: these activities lead to more cases of HIV.
‘On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.’
What data does Giuliano cite so ostentatiously? A study from 2009 at Emory University suggesting, in his words and its authors’, that constitutional bans on gay marriage in U.S. states ‘raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people’. Without, admittedly, having viewed the paper in detail, the nationwide infection rate according to Wikipedia is 0.6 percent, meaning the rise in question would push numbers from 600 per 100,000 to – wait for it – 604.
A fringe subculture of deliberate infection does exist, but the impression’s hard to avoid that Skelton and Giuliano are reaching opportunistically for any way to praise gay marriage, no matter how baseless or co-optative. According to government figures from 2010, UK diagnoses more than doubled between 1995 and 2009. This period saw Britain’s age of consent equalised, Section 28 scrapped and civil partnerships introduced, greater media visibility for LGBT people and falls in the prevalence of homophobic attitudes, all uncontroversially steps toward ‘bring[ing] people in from the margins’. If none of them stifled HIV transmission, why would marriage reform today? Persuading oneself it’ll solve a slew of other problems is a nice way of making the workload appear smaller while taking no material action.
We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t. Things that may actually help aren’t just condoms and clean needles, sex ed, med research and so on, vital as those are; they’re housing, healthcare and community support for those who fall into sex work, self-harm, drug use or homelessness, services Britain’s government cuts to the bone while commending itself for legalising gay.
A gay rights lobby that applauds it and others like it is one thing – but claiming cynically while doing so that marriage holds the key to HIV prevention is a fiction adding insult to infection.