Whatever happened to the good old days when the Left regarded marriage as an archaic, oppressive bourgeois institution?
“Abolition not of the natural family but of the legal family founded on law and property. Religious and civil marriage to be replaced by free marriage. Adult men and women have the right to unite and separate as they please, nor has society the right to hinder their union or to force them to maintain it. With the abolition of the right of inheritance and the education of children assured by society, all the legal reasons for the irrevocability of marriage will disappear. The union of a man and a woman must be free, for a free choice is the indispensable condition for moral sincerity. In marriage, man and woman must enjoy absolute liberty. Neither violence nor passion nor rights surrendered in the past can justify an invasion by one of the liberty of another, and every such invasion shall be considered a crime.”
–Mikhail Bakunin, Revolutionary Catechism
A question rarely asked about gay marriage is how it became such a massive flashpoint issue. In America and Britain, gay marriage has become one of the key issues of our time, with everyone from bishops to hacks feeling the need to tell the world where they stand on it. And yet the remarkable thing is that gay marriage has achieved this hot-potato status without the benefit of a mass movement demanding it, far less any public streetfighting or serious civil unrest by homosexuals determined to get hitched.
For all the self-flattering comparisons made by gay activists between their demand for gay marriage and black Americans’ demand for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, it is the differences between these two things that are most striking. Gay-marriage activists have not had to march for years on end, carry out mass boycotts, face water cannons, get attacked by dogs or run the risk of being thrown in jail for their campaign to achieve almost saintly status, winning the backing of leading politicians and commentators. The speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable – and revealing.
What it suggests is that gay marriage is more a tool of the elite than it is a demand of the demos. The thing motoring the gay-marriage campaign, its political engine, is not any longstanding desire among homosexuals to get married or an active, passionate demand from below for the right of men to marry men and women to marry women. No, its driving force, the reason it has been so speedily and heartily embraced by the political and media classes, is because it is so very useful as a litmus test of liberal, cosmopolitan values. Supporting gay marriage has become a kind of shorthand way of indicating one’s superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion.
The use of gay marriage as a platform from which to announce one’s superior moral sensibilities can be seen in the way that its backers, those ostensibly liberal reformers, look down with undiluted snobbery upon their critics and opponents. Those who are against gay marriage, whether it is Catholic bishops or conservative politicians, are not seen simply as old-fashioned or wrong-headed, but as morally circumspect, possibly even evil. They are even branded as mentally disordered, being tagged as “homophobic” (that is, possessed of an irrational fear) if they so much as raise a peep of criticism of gay marriage. Here, ironically, gay campaigners rehabilitate the very same psychobabble that was once used to brand homosexuality as a disorder of the mind and wield it against anyone who now dares to say “I don’t like the gay lifestyle”.
Indeed, liberal campaigners frequently claim that gay marriage, unlike every other issue in the world, is a straightforward black-and-white matter on which there is only one right answer – “yes”. As a writer for the Guardian puts it, “There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgement of subtleties and cultural differences. Same-sex marriage is not one of those. There is a right answer.” That is, there is no room for nuance, disagreement or even for debate when it comes to gay marriage – instead, paraphrasing George W Bush’s post-9/11 splitting of the world into good and evil camps, for many gay-marriage activists you are either for gay marriage or you are a lowlife.
The bizarre emptying-out of political debate from the issue of gay marriage, and its transformation instead into a clear-cut moral matter that separates the good from the bad, shows what its backers really get out of it – a moral buzz, a rush of superiority as they declare, to anyone who will listen, that they are For Gay Marriage. In this sense, supporting gay marriage has become less a declaration of truly democratic instincts and more a kind of provocation. In declaring your support for gay marriage, you can provoke both fusty old religionists and the backward masses into expressions of disagreement or disgruntlement, and then bask in the glow of your own superior, better-informed outlook.
This is the reason gay marriage has become so central to modern political debate in America and Britain, despite there being almost no societal drive or urge behind it – because it lends itself brilliantly to expressions of a very elitist sensibility. It allows the upper echelons of society both to distance themselves from the old and the thick and to advertise their own mental, cultural and moral superiority.