• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Where gay matrimony meets elite sanctimony

For more than a decade gay marriage has been the hot-button issue in US politics. As I write, the New York state Senate is deadlocked in its vote on a gay marriage bill. The issue is set to play a similar role in Australia.

Recently the Queensland Labor conference passed a motion demanding support for gay marriage at the ALP national conference in December. Similar resolutions have already been passed by Labor conferences in South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. It is evident that for a section of the ALP, support for gay marriage is a matter of principle. This sentiment is also shared by opponents of gay marriage, such as Liberal senator Guy Barnett.

Whatever one thinks about the pros and cons of gay marriage, a tolerant society cannot deny the right of homosexual couples to formalise their relationship. But the campaign for gay marriage is not just about rights but about the contestation of values and attitudes.

From a sociological perspective, the ascendancy of the campaign for gay marriage provides a fascinating story about the dynamics of the cultural conflicts that prevail in Western society. During the past decade the issue of gay marriage has been transformed into a cultural weapon that explicitly challenges prevailing norms through condemning those who oppose it. This is not so much a call for legal change as a cause: one that endows its supporters with moral superiority and demotes its opponents with the status of moral inferiority.

As a result, it does not simply represent a claim for a right but a demand for the institutionalisation of new moral and cultural values. This attitude was clearly expressed last weekend by Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. The burden of his argument was to accuse Christians, particularly evangelicals, of being more troublesome than Muslims in their attitudes towards mainstream views. In particular he warned that “an old-time religion incompatible with modern society” was driving Christians to clash with mainstream views, especially on gay issues. Incidentally, by “mainstream” he naturally means views he endorses.

Phillips’s use of language implies opponents of gay marriage are likely to be motivated by “old-time religion”, which is by definition “incompatible with modern society”. From this standpoint, criticism or the questioning of the moral status of gay marriage violates the cultural standards of “modern society”. What we have here is the casual affirmation of a double standard: tolerance towards supporters of gay marriage and intolerance directed towards its opponents.

The declaration that certain values and attitudes are incompatible with modern society tends to serve as a prelude towards stigmatising and attempting to silence it. That is why the so-called enlightened opponents of “old-time religion” more than match the intolerance of those they denounce as homophobic bigots.

In the Anglo-American world, gay marriage has become one of those causes through which the cosmopolitan cultural elites define themselves and construct a moral contrast between themselves and ordinary folk. What’s really important for them is the sense of superiority experienced through the conviction that “we” are not like them. In this way, a clear moral distinction is drawn between the forward-looking attitudes of an enlightened, courageous minority and the backward-looking prejudices of a homophobic majority.

It is the sentiment that support for gay marriage symbolises a culturally sanctioned virtue that encourages otherwise apolitical pops stars such as Britney Spears to tweet last summer, “So happy! Today is a great day for love and equality”, in response to the news a US federal judge ruled that a California ballot banning gay marriage was unconstitutional.

The rhetorical affirmation of gay marriage places a celebrity on the right side of the cultural divide. No one with an aspiration to succeed in show business can afford to be on the other side.

Take the case of American comedian Tracy Morgan. After he was criticised for joking about homosexuals earlier this month, he quickly apologised. But he did not simply say “I am sorry”; he felt obliged to demonstrate his right-on credentials by coming out as an ardent supporter of gay marriage.

What his statement, “I believe everyone deserves the right to be happy and marry who they want: gay, white, black, male or female”, may lack in conviction is more than made up for by this ritual of acquiescence. In fact there was little else he could say if he wants his television career to flourish.

In the US, questioning the status of gay marriage is often depicted as not simply a rhetorical expression of disagreement but as a direct form of discrimination.

Consequently, the mere expression of opposition towards a particular ritual is recast as not a verbal statement but as an act of discrimination, if not oppression.

As American journalist Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian, gay marriage is not a suitable subject for debate.

“There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgment of subtleties and cultural differences,” she wrote, before adding that “same-sex marriage is not one of those”.

Why? Because “there is a right answer” she hectored in her censorious tone. The phrase “there is a right answer” represents a demand to silence discussion. And just in case you missed the point, she concluded that opposition to her cause should be seen for what it was: “As shocking as racism, as unforgivable as anti-Semitism.”

It is worth noting that the transformation of gay marriage into a crusade against sexual heresy coincides with the cultural devaluation of heterosexual marriage. In contemporary times, heterosexual marriage is frequently depicted as a site for domestic violence and child abuse.

A review of academic literature on the subject will indicate a preoccupation with the damaging consequences of heterosexual marriage. Terms such as the “dark side” of the family invoke a sense of dread about an institution where dominating men brutalise their partners and their children.

The preoccupation of professional victimologists is reflected in popular culture. Cinema and television transmit stereotypical stories about unhappy, failed and dysfunctional heterosexual marriages. In contrast, same-sex unions are treated with reverence and often depicted as a mature relationship between two equals.

Of course heterosexual couples continue to get married, but there has been no time in history when this institution enjoyed such feeble affirmation. Indeed, these days they are often likely to hear the refrains: “Why get married?” or “Why wait for marriage before having children?”

Paradoxically, in some quarters the idea that marriage for heterosexuals is no big deal coincides with the cultural sacralising of a same-sex union.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that behind the gay marriage discussion lurk profound questions about how to endow intimate relations with meaning.

In such circumstances elite-sanctioned snobbish intolerance is no more acceptable than anti-gay prejudice.

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