Against equality

‘Equality is inevitable.’

This has been the catch-cry of marriage equality campaigners for years now. A call to conservatives to ‘get on the right side of history’ and finally accept that we’re all born equal.

Look across progressive movements and you can see similar messaging. Demands for equality are everywhere. One of the biggest criticisms of the new Abbott Government has been the lack of equal representation of women on the front bench. Gay and lesbian campaigners have focused heavily over recent years on equal-access to social institutions, whether the military or marriage. Equality has become a key indicator of a socially just world and therefore a key focus of progressive campaigners.

But it is about time we considered whether equality is really what we want. Because when we look at it, we can see it as a really narrow, limiting, and potentially damaging framework.

Equality is built on one simple idea: that we are all the same. Queer campaigners argue that ‘all love is the same’. Feminists argue there are no differences between the skills and attributes of men and women, meaning everyone should have the same access to power and pay. The list goes on – we are the same and therefore deserve the same treatment in society.

At its heart it makes sense. The idea is about breaking down the unequal power structures of our society – a pretty good cause. But when executed, it has become extremely problematic. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the inherent problem with the idea of ‘sameness’. Simply put, if we are in fact all the same, then that creates some desired model we must aim towards ­– we must all have similar careers, relationships or life structures. Given that we aren’t actually all the same ­– we all have different attributes, desires, goals, etc – sameness becomes inherently limiting, shutting out those who don’t fit into a norm.

Second, when marginalised groups campaign for equality they are doing so within an existing power structure. Equality campaigns are about bringing marginalised groups into the systems of the powerful. They become about gaining access to that power structure, which not only is limiting, but also stops us from being able to critique those very systems.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

In the lead up to 2010, gay and lesbian campaigners waged a massive campaign to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the United States. Whilst the campaign made sense from an equality perspective, it very quickly became extremely problematic. To campaign for access to the military, activists had to give up any capacity to critique the military and its actions. In saying ‘we want access to it’, we had to start to express why we wanted access to it, why it was so important to us. In doing so, the movement starting making heroes out of gay soldiers and talked up the benefits gay soldiers could play within the military. We made heroes out a military that justice campaigners – the very base of a queer movement – had been criticising for decades as extremely oppressive.

In other words, a movement that was formed to fight against oppressive institutions ended up fighting for that institution, building its profile and so strengthening it.

The case of marriage equality is a little more complicated. Many feminist and queer activists have a strong critique of marriage, to the point where a significant chunk of those campaigning for marriage equality also acknowledge a need to change marriage, or to even tear it down. Yet, despite the critique, many still argue that the denial of equal access to the institution must end. We should all be able to ‘choose to get married’.

The problem is that marriage equality campaigns aren’t actually campaigns for full equality. State-based legislation will exclude trans* couples, while any legislation will exclude poly relationships. Once again, not everyone will be able to access marriage. That is because of one very simple reason: the institution of marriage is not an equal one. Marriage is built upon social practices, both in terms of traditions (that is, monogamy) as well as expectations, particularly the expectation that we all want to get married. Because of that, it becomes an inherently limiting choice. It has become the expected way of doing a relationship, a form of relationship that occurs in very particular ways. You have to fall in love, have a massive proposal, have a big white wedding and then live a happy monogamous life forever after.

So while marriage equality may give more people access to the institution, it is still not an equal institution. It is still seen as the institution that is above all others, making all other forms of relationships less equal. It is a powerful institution, one that makes a mockery of the idea of ‘equal relationships’.

This is where a lot of people talk about the ‘queering of marriage’ – that by gaining access to a powerful institution, we’ll be able to change it. Many have said the same about other institutions such as the military. The evidence, however, doesn’t show this. If you look at all the campaigning around marriage it extols the virtues of monogamy and true love, and talks about how we queers are ‘just like straight couples’. It buys directly into all the limiting factors of marriage – the things that when combined with significant social pressure make it oppressive.

In other words, equality has turned into campaigning for equal access to systems that are oppressive. With the military, it has meant equal access to a system that results in the deaths of thousands of people every year. For marriage it is equality in the ability to access to a form of relationship that is seen as more valuable than all other forms of relationships, mocking the very idea of equality in the first place. And in doing so we’ve ended up strengthening these institutions. We’re campaigning to get into oppressive institutions, in turn weakening our chances to criticise them and break them down.

I can see the value people place into such campaigns. I can see a case for being equal under the law, and, of course, I think campaigns for equal access to services and pay are essential (although I much prefer a framework that looks at making the whole system better rather than just getting equal access to bad systems). For those reasons I don’t really oppose the moves when they happen. But I have to question the energy put into them, and I really have to question the framing of equality as a big picture goal.

It’s not just that I think we should spend more time trying to build good institutions rather than gaining equal access to the crappy ones we have now, although that is the essential crunch of this argument. But it’s more than that. When critiques of these systems arise, equality campaigners often talk about these moves as being ‘important symbols’, a recognition that says ‘everyone in this society is the same’. Once we gain that ‘sameness’, they argue, then we will be able to critique the institution as equals.

While I can see the value in that symbol, I think there is a much stronger symbolism that could be established. A stronger symbol is for a movement to get up and say, ‘we don’t want to be part of these institutions and we don’t want to get access to them.’ It is much stronger to say, ‘we believe, collectively, that we need to build new institutions rather than buying in to the ones we have.’

But equality doesn’t do that. It simple spends time getting us into crappy institutions, wasting the time we could be spending on building new and better institutions. There is some inherent value in equal access campaigns but we must be more critical. I would prefer we spend our time building new and better institutions rather than trying to get access to the oppressive ones we currently have.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Simon Copland is a freelance writer, climate and Greens campaigner and masters student from Brisbane. He has an interest in all things politics, but with a particular focus on the direction of left-wing movements. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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  1. I liked this article a lot however I was concerned by the statement “wasting the time we could be spending on building new and better institutions”. These “new” and “better” institutions no doubt will suffer the same rancor that “marriage” et al suffers from the next group of activists who see them in the same light some activist currently see marriage. History teaches us that it is an ongoing refinement/change – one that actually doesn’t seem to have an end.

  2. If the army declared that from now on it would no longer accept black recruits because it considered them lazy, would you argue this was a good thing because it meant they weren’t being incorporated into a repressive institution? By the logic of your article, you should.

  3. I can see your point – but spare a thought for those of us who were born into relatively conservative families, and whose parents are so attached to the institution of marriage that they’re having trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that we might not get married at all. The message you’re sending to gay people is that it is not enough to want to be able to get married and love monogamously – instead, we should want to tear the whole institution of marriage down because it is repressive. Whatever your reasons for believing this, you must concede that it is a fairly politically radical point of view. Given that homosexuality is not a choice, is it fair to idelogically conscript people into the political left on the basis of their sexual orientation? The vast majority of Australians value marriage and monogamy and do not share your opinion that marriage is a ‘bad system’. People who are in a sexual minority, through no fault of their own, should not also feel obliged to be part of a political minority. A person’s politics should always be a matter of free, careful and considered choice. It should not be something that they are born into. It frustrates me to see gay people acting like lemmings. Just because we’re same sex attracted, we’re also supposed to have the same ‘queer’ values when it comes to relationships? What about those of us whose ideal relationship is a monogamous and committed one acknowledged, legitimised and celebrated by the families of both parties and protected by law – i.e. a marriage? I reject the notion that being gay makes a person inherently less inclined to monogamy, or more inclined to progressive politics – that gays are ‘fundamentally different’ to straight people, any more than individuals in a diverse society differ naturally from each other. Sexual orientation is separate from political activism. While we continue to conflate the two, it will be difficult to get the message across that former is not, like the latter, a choice.

    • If marriage is to exist, then I guess same sex marriage should exist. I guess Simon is offering a progressive view on marriage, whilst many gay folk may indeed be conservative in their political leanings, with their key radical life act being their sexuality. Those who engage in a radical lifestyle – who engage in acts of radical politics beyond just having sex/love with the same gender, I guess have to continue to rattle the structures to break. Just because one isn’t ‘straight’ doesn’t mean one isn’t straight. Those who are queer in multiple aspects of their life must just embrace the difference and remain loud and articulate about it.

  4. I think this was Julia Gillard’s argument (former Australian female Prime Minister). To me this is a very weak argument against equality.

    The argument is that these institutions are out dated, faulty or oppressive and this is reason why LGBT community should be excluded from them.

    This viewpoint is itself “out dated”. The feminist debate about marriage being an “evil” institution dates back to the early 70’s. Surely we have moved on.

    Why is marriage so popular?

    Marriage is all about celebrating to the world, your community, friends and family your commitment to a long term relationship. Surely LGBT community can now also celebrate such commitments.

    By including gay and lesbian couples. These institutions will grow and become all the more better.

    The military example is odd to say the least.

    People join the military to serve and defend their country. This public service should be commended.

    The change in the US policy didn’t prevent gays serving. It just recognized that being gay was no long an issue. If anything gays in the military is less oppressive.

    Thie whole argument is another way for people to stand against marriage equality, with out feeling guilty. Let face. anyone who is against gay marriage is usual religious or homophobic etc… Not a good look.

    Even some straight friends of mine have shared their uncomfort with the idea. I do understand people can be uncomfortable with the idea. It will take time for it to be fully mainstream.

    But there is so many positives with marriage equality. The economy with all the money spent. Gay youth coming to terms with their sexuality will see a future.

    Anyway interesting article.

    The only point I tend to agree with is the overly agressive stand some LGBT groups take on the issue. I always think it all could be reversed over night. I mean all the gains we achieved in the past 30 years.

    LGBT issues have become a little to “hip” or “fad” and we all know what happens to fads. They fade away.

    I am gay and in a long term relationship seven years.

  5. As an able-bodied, male, heterosexual, white Australian, with the social and economic privileges of a private school education, I would never claim to have experienced what it means to be treated as less than “equal”. I don’t take for granted the opportunities which were laid at my doorstep, by an accident of birth, and wish only that such opportunities were widely available to everyone.

    It is worthwhile asking why an individual or community would seek to remove a particular barrier associated with a fundamental characteristic of their identity – including marriage, and service in the armed forces – but this would seem a matter for the aggrieved to decide for themselves. The notion of a right to “equality” is the most accurate description for our collective sense of injustice about wanton and arbitrary discrimination – be it an indirect consequence of poverty, or a deliberate manifestation of prejudice – especially when it carries State imprimatur.

    While appreciating that the context of this article is the campaign for “equality” in marriage, specifically, I’m not sure that a global movement to address entrenched disadvantage, harmful traditional practices, persecution, and racism – as well as homophobia – should be reduced to a socio-biological notion of “sameness”. It seems to be missing the point. The characteristics which we share in common – LGBTI or “straight” – far overwhelm our differences and peculiarities as individual human beings. This is what makes us morally “equal”.

    Personally, I have no desire to enter into marriage – thankfully, nobody is suggesting that it should be mandatory – and share many of the same misgivings about the institution, outlined above.

    At the extreme end of the spectrum, I see countless young women and girls forced into arranged marriages with older men here in north-west Pakistan, where I’m presently working. At the other end, I have friends who believe that marriage will somehow strengthen or affirm their commitment, and bring a sense of family stability for any children.

    To me, the latter example seems to betray a worrying insecurity about their relationship, but I guess it’s a testament to the symbolic importance of marriage in almost all societies – albeit at the expense of those who choose to be single, or who prefer alternative kinds of (equally committed) relationships.

  6. I strongly disagree with the basic foundation of this article: that calling for equality = the presumption of sameness. I feel it’s a dangerous,inaccurate and irresponsible proposition. Why does calling for equality of human rights, equality of living standards or equality of access to opportunity inherently imply we are all the same? This article also ignores the whole ‘separate but equal’ and ‘affirmative action’ movements, the latter in which the sameness argument is put to the test by the realisation that in order to have a ‘same’ distribution of opportunity, there sometimes has to be an ‘unequal’ PROCESS of distribution for the very reason that there can never be a presumption of sameness. Notions like ‘closing the gap’ also speak to this. They’re not about entry to the ‘dominant’ culture/structure, but the ability to choose whether or not to engage with that structure and the means and right to do so if one pleases. The cry is not ‘we are the same and therefore deserve the same’ but ‘though we recognise that we are all different, we all deserve access to the same things in life.” This actually is the foundation of modern anti-discrimination law.

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