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Abandon equality

Abandon equality

Equality-based advocacy circumscribes too tightly what constitutes injustice
The decade in which “same-sex partners” turned into gay “husbands” and lesbian “wives” is winding down. In a few weeks, the naughties will be over and we’ll be into 2010. Holy shit.

It’s a decade that was ushered in by Jean Chretien’s Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, which granted gay couples civil partnerships. It was a decade dedicated to marriage, partner benefits and adoption rights.

I mean, that’s the dominant story: over the last 10 years, equality-based crusaders won all kinds of things for gay couples. Go us.

The other side of the story is a bit different: In the 2000s, we had major bathhouse raids in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary, and we demanded that charges be dropped (to mixed effect). We challenged censorship at Canada’s borders, and won an ultimately hollow victory. There was a big win in the courts for sex clubs and swingers, but hookers and rent boys are still duking it out for the freedom to work safely.

So, on one hand, we have a rosy set of equality-based victories, mostly benefiting long-term gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, we have a host of sexuality- and freedom-based battles, many of which are ongoing.

You’re going to hear a lot more about this from me over the next little while. I’ve just arrived in Toronto to take the helm as Xtra’s new managing editor. (I’ve been redeployed from Capital Xtra in Ottawa.) Like the folks who’ve sat in this chair before me, I believe we should be focusing on the second basket of issues — in particular, the struggle for sexual freedom. The equality stuff has largely run its course for gay people.

Equality-based ethics has been a powerful force in Canada — from such, we’ve won important victories, including security against discrimination in housing and employment. And of course, that battle isn’t over for trans people.

But at its heart, equality-based advocacy circumscribes too tightly what constitutes injustice. Take for example the right of lesbians and gays to serve in the Canadian military, a right we won in 1992. Gays in the military: is that progressive, or should our communities have been pushing for peace and the reform of the country’s armed services? We can’t even ask that question if we’re tethered to equality.

But of course, such is the logic of equality activism. Its dominant critique is “we want in,” which is not a critique of institutional power. In fact, a critique of institutional power is impossible in a “we want in” paradigm. Why not change the world to make it better instead of settling for full participation in the way things are now?

Since equality-based logic has no yardstick to measure the virtues of a law, other than to advocate for its equal application, the equality movement will always remain essentially conservative.

Under the logic of equality, criminalizing gay sex is bad because gays and straights should be treated equally. But prostitution — so long as the laws apply equally to all sexualities — is fair game for state intervention. Polyamory, same. SM, park sex, porn: same, same, same.

The good news is that most equality seeking gays and lesbians I know use multiple filters for judging laws good or bad, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality. From the feminists: my body, my choice. From civil liberties advocates: get the state out of our sex lives. From the bondage community: safe, sane and consensual.

You can see how a sexuality-based movement (framed by “my body, my choice,” “get the state out of our bedrooms” and “safe, sane and consensual”) has a different scope than an equality-based one.

I do hope we haven’t sacrificed these rubrics in our quest for equal treatment. As we move forward, let’s not forget that equality-seeking is a tool for achieving social justice, but its logic is limited and won’t — on its own — lead to a just society.
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Comments

Gay Marriage a bad thing?
it's a step in the right direction.

here's my post regarding gay rights:

http://ericinmiami.blogspot.com/
Equality is far from here
While it's nice to think that heteronormativity is the definition of equality, it's not. There are so many "periphery" issues such as employment rights, gender identity, safety... The struggle for equality encompasses far more questions than those which are media-worthy, which is why it is difficult to bring them to the fore. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Also, props to Fed Up for highlighting how rural Canada really hasn't benefited from progress to nearly the same degree. As a former (and always, I suppose) Northern Ontario boy I remember the different social climates and the impact they have on LGBT persons. Apart from the documented experiences of writers or those who migrate away from their homes the voices of non-urban queers are often lost. Try even finding stats for LGBT life outside major urban centres.
Great editorial
Fran Lebowitz said that when you take all the gay influence out of American culture, you're left with "Let's Make a Deal." One of the things I've grown to love about being gay is the perspective it affords me, should I choose to peer about through its queer lens, for instance, to question the bill of goods we're told is 'just the way stuff is.' It's a mission -- should we choose to accept it -- to critique society and culture, not to mimic existing institutions with their own functions that aren't really about us.

Yes, we've helped to make things more aesthetically appealing, but we're also keen observers of the social. So I don't seek conformity, and 'equality' in that sense comes at too high a price for me. It's that sense of queerness that makes all the shit worthwhile. Most days, anyway. Very good start, Marcus!
not a gay utopia
fed up - you make some good points in your post but I'd just like to add that Toronto may be more gay friendly than most places in Canada but even here people can get killed for holding hands in public, gay bashings happen all over Toronto, even in the gaybourhood. That just goes to show the limitations of legal equality and how social equality is something lacking everywhere in Canada. I do know of course that it is much easier being gay in a large city, that's why I moved to Toronto, I'm a gay refugee from small town Ontario, but even though things are easier and safer in Toronto, I've never felt threatened here like I did in my home town, there is still a long way to go even here towards achieving social equality.
put your money where your mouth is
More nice words from the privileged white kid who lives in the gayest region in Canada, and conveniently talks the talk about justice.

Funny, though, how Marcus' columns consistently shame and attack queers who disagree with his approach to politics.

You write: "In fact, a critique of institutional power is impossible in a 'we want in' paradigm. Why not change the world to make it better instead of settling for full participation in the way things are now?"

Equality rights might not be enough but they're sure as hell better than nothing. Everybody knows that the System is fucked and we should tear it down. But in the meantime, holding the safety of rural and working-class queers hostage for the 500 years that will take is hardly better than terrorism.

For fuck sake, Marcus--do you really think that gays have anything even remotely like equality in Flin Flon, Manitoba? Easy for you to criticise when you live in a city where coming out doesn't mean an absolute absence of medical care, police protection, a job, or the love of your family. Equality laws mean shit all when you can't afford or even find a lawyer who will take your case, and if you live in a rural area even winning your lawsuit can make the public shunning worse for you. Why don't you move to Radville, Saskatchewan and try out all your fancy rhetoric in the local saloon? And see if you can get a job in Humboldt when all the Catholic families find out you're in town.

Sexual liberties are all fine and good and I support the polyamory and sex worker movements 100%. But in the meantime don't be so goddamn smug about the equality rights you are already enjoying--which other people struggled for decades to provide--because in most parts of the country people can still get killed just for holding hands in public.

Get your head out of your gaybourhood.
Hogwash
I agree that same-sex couples should be spared governmental bias based on equal protection laws, but saying that polyamory (the practice of conducting more than one loving intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge of all involved) is fair game for governmental interference is pure hogwash. There are many thousands of non-religious polyamorists today in the US and Canada who are hurting no one and who deserve the same right to engage in adult consenting relationships as anyone else. On principle even legal marriage ought to be an option, though retooling the legal system to accommodate more than two spouses (or "spice" as we polyamorists say) would understandably be a complex task. Better for government to get out of the marriage business entirely and retool for single individual tax and benefit system that are truly fair across the board.
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