‘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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