Gay marriage: The road from the margins

The legalisation of gay marriage is a victory for sexual freedom - but, in this society, a fragile one, argues Paul Demarty

Twenty-six years ago next month, a Tory government passed into law the Local Government Act, which had as its most infamous provision section 28 - prohibiting local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”. Last week, a subsequent Tory government succeeded in legalising same-sex marriage.

How, it seems, times change. The 1980s were turbulent years, in matters of sexual freedom, as in many others. Increasing influence in the broad left for gay rights activists was felt most keenly in Labour-controlled municipalities. Margaret Thatcher’s government, on the other hand, expertly drummed up authoritarian conservatism and went to war with the ‘loony left’ councils, using press moral panics - including over the more outré ideological fashions in the gay liberation movement - to crush their opposition to central government. The spread of Aids further fuelled homophobic revanchism, with gays pilloried as debauched animal-fucking disease-carriers, but it is no accident that section 28 appeared in legislation on local government.

Thatcher is now dead. Her most vile colleagues - such as Norman Tebbit - are reduced, mercifully, to carping in irrelevance. In her place, there is David Cameron, who has fairly rammed the equalisation of marriage rights through admittedly rather pathetic opposition from the increasingly tired and fogeyish usual suspects.

Cameron says his law sends “a strong message” about British values, but what has been remarkable about the whole saga in the last few years is how mealy-mouthed and miserable previously fire-breathing bigots have become. Backbench Tory rebels disdained to discuss the issue at hand, claiming instead that same-sex marriage was a “distraction” from more important matters. George Carey, bigoted former archbishop of Canterbury, was reduced to comparing his distress at being called words like ‘bigot’ to the suffering of the Jews in Auschwitz.

Opponents of this bill certainly have an air of the antediluvian about them that they would not have done even 10 years ago, when the Tories - including one David Cameron - voted in large numbers against the repeal of section 28. It is now the case that many out-and-proud gay men and women (Stephen Fry and Clare Balding come to mind) are unproblematic ‘national treasures’. By the reckoning of most pollsters, around two thirds of Britons support equal marriage rights.

Yet it is hardly an entirely rosy picture for LGBT people in the world today, or even in Britain specifically. While it may be difficult to find a significant member of the establishment prepared to engage in the same gay-baiting that was common from such people in the 80s, there is a small fly in the ointment for Cameron, as he basks in the right-on glory of it all: the UK Independence Party.

Cameron’s (better to say Osborne’s) overall political strategy in the run-up to the 2015 general election has, among its major priorities, ensuring Ukip does not poach sufficiently significant numbers of Tory votes to throw the election to Labour. And Ukip is on the march. Every Daily Mail op-ed throws more votes to Nigel Farage and company. Frederick Barclay, co-owner of The Daily Telegraph, is now an enthusiastic Ukip backer, and he and his brother have led their papers in ever more histrionically reactionary a direction since taking over.

Nigel Farage, like George Carey and company, declines to take on the gay marriage issue directly. He claims to oppose it while Britain remains a member of the European Union, on the grounds that the European Court of Human Rights will force churches to consecrate gay marriages - a frankly preposterous notion, given that it could not be bothered to intervene to force their legalisation through. It does, however, conveniently allow Farage to decline to openly taking sides either with the Mail Online comment thread lunatics or the ‘out of touch liberal elite’ he so despises. (We are reminded, alas, of Nick Griffin’s refusal to clarify his views on the holocaust on the grounds that European law made statements either which way legally actionable.)

If Farage is too slick an operator to ‘come out’ for anti-gay bigotry, we may expect that many among his party’s members will do so - and probably in embarrassing fashion. David Silvester, a Ukip councillor in Henley-on-Thames, argued to widespread ridicule that the recent floods in Britain were down to the government’s ‘gay agenda’, which had provoked the Almighty to dish out his regulation punishment of “storms, disease, pestilence and war”.

He was expelled; but we can hardly imagine that the advancement of gay rights is unconnected to Ukip’s growth in this period. If those who support anti-gay legislation are fewer in number today than 30 years ago - and they verifiably are - the remainder are getting better organised and more vitriolic.

This is even clearer in the United States, in fact; the Obama administration may have repealed ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, which coincided with the piecemeal legalisation of gay marriage on a state-by-state basis, but it has also seen the rise of the Tea Party, which has united more or less every hot-button issue for petty bourgeois enragés in one big tent.

Both sides to this story - the apparent ‘progress’ on the question, and the persistence of anti-gay prejudice - must be explained with reference to capitalism. While homosexual practices are, by any reasonable estimate, common to all societies and modes of production (and, indeed, common enough in many species of animal), it is capitalism that makes possible, specifically, homosexual subculture: modern urban society provides the material basis for social groupings which do not directly contribute to the reproduction of the species (leaving aside technological innovations such as artificial insemination and so on).

Arrayed against that is the fact that the family remains, under capitalism, the ‘basic unit’ of society and the site of the physical reproduction of its members. This situation is particularly acute for the petty bourgeoisie, which is sharply reliant on control over younger generations.

Perhaps equally important is the reliance of the capitalist system on ‘extra-economic’ means of ensuring its political dominance - we may mention here the church. While sometimes the role of the de facto or de jure official church is ambiguous on such ‘family values’ matters - as in Britain, where it is sometimes unclear as to what the Church of England actually believes, beyond the idea that Jesus was a jolly nice fellow, should it turn out he existed - in all cases, anti-gay prejudices are enthusiastically driven forward by religious organisations, which stand in the conservative imagination as the pinnacle of civil society, of the non-economic forces driving it forward.

The unmovable reality of homosexuality - not merely as a sexual practice, but as a socially reproduced practice - makes victories like this weekend possible. Short of wholly deindustrialising society, it is ludicrous (apart from being repugnant) to imagine that homosexuality will be successfully repressed. In accordance with their basic nature, people will have sex with whomever they want, provided the attraction is reciprocated.

The present official discourse - that gays quite as much as heterosexuals should be permitted the boundless joys of marriage - is the sanitised result of decades of campaigning, both by organisations of radicalised non-heterosexuals and by those sections of the 1960s-70s left who bothered to take the issue seriously, and fight for it to become the ‘common sense’ of the labour movement. While there are plenty of homophobes in society at large, the left regards such individuals among its own ranks - rightly - as weirdoes. It was not so clear-cut 30 years ago.

It is equally the case, moreover, that reversals can be very rapid. It suits the British state - and more particularly the Tories - now to present a liberal, tolerant face. It suited the regime of Boris Yeltsin, under whom homosexuality was legalised in Russia for the first time since Stalin ended the brief period of sexual freedom following the revolution. Look at Russia now, however; in little more than a decade the position of gay people is deteriorating rapidly.

In that context, as I and many others have argued before, homosexual rehabilitation is a function of an authoritarian-populist reaction to the chaos of the 1990s. Anyone who believes that Russian-style repression could not happen here ought to take a long, hard look at the rise of Ukip.