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The symbolic victory of same-sex marriage

The symbolic victory of same-sex marriage

by Anne Russell
April 19, 2013

Over the past year or so, the marriage equality bill has essentially served as a filter through which New Zealand has discussed queer sexuality and gender identity. Marriage is perhaps one of the least threatening manifestations of contemporary queer identity, reassuring all but the most raving queerphobes that queerdom does not, in fact, destroy the fabric of society as we know it. Many of the speeches made in Parliament opined that there were no reasons not to support marriage equality. National MP Maurice Williamson has made international news for his speech, for which 3News has labeled him an "unlikely gay icon".

Unlikely indeed, given his position in a historically queerphobic party, combined with his own emphasis on what a minor law change it is. The public demonstrations of gratitude to Williamson and his right-wing colleagues show how little the queer community has come to expect from politicians. It also demonstrates the extent to which marriage equality has co-opted queer struggles in the West. At this juncture, it's far more common to hear straight allies in the public sphere proclaiming their support for marriage equality than for queer equality.

The widespread, cross-party support for marriage equality has partly materialised because it allows most politicians to walk a comfortable ideological middle ground. Progressives and the queer community will be pacified somewhat by the inclusion of queers into certain areas of society, but some conservatives may also feel reassured when queerdom is normalised and publicly confined to traditional institutions like exclusive monogamy. Economically speaking, the business sector receives more opportunities to market towards the queer demographic; tourism companies are already rolling out the rainbow welcome mat. The 77-44 vote demonstrated that opposition to marriage equality is not an easy political position to maintain.

Owing to the nature of both legislation and the media, the queer movement, like any other demographic, typically needs focal events to rally popular support. Single-issue queer politics can make it difficult to maintain an ongoing public discussion of queer rights. The debate around marriage equality has managed to keep queer issues in the media spotlight, which may fade as the queer movement catches its breath.

After all, this bill in itself is not a victory for all queers. The proposition that same-sex marriage will have knock-on benefits for lower-class queers is no more than queer trickle-down theory, an excuse to direct extensive activist forces primarily at middle-class issues. The prioritisation of marriage ignores the fact that much of queer oppression exists independently of the practice of intimate relationships--getting beaten up or fired for one's non-normative appearance, the dearth of queer sex education or history in schools, and the internal repression of desire. Many queers who are at highest risk of violence and death may not ever make it to an intimate relationship, let alone have the worry of what they call their partners.

But a few more may survive thanks to the public process of enacting the legislation. The main victory of the marriage equality debate was to highlight queer identity and relationships and treat them as legitimate. It has given some queers the courage to come out to their communities, and convinced some straight people to support them. The obviousness of the bill could arguably become a strength, as many straight allies have newly noticed the ridiculousness of denying people equal rights on the basis of queer identity. If queer rights activism continues to focus on the family, many more people may start attacking more urgent inequalities, such as the rates of queer youth homelessness in this country.

It will be interesting to see where the queer movement goes next. The marriage equality bill represents a symbolic and semantic change, rather than a transformation of the material conditions of people's lives. Action like queering education policy across the board, allocating tax dollars to transgender healthcare, making bathrooms gender neutral, and enabling adoption rights requires redistribution of power and material resources. Moreover, issues like poverty and poor housing, that were arguably sidelined by the marriage equality debate, disproportionately affect the queer community and need queer attention.

As such, it may be much harder to convince queerphobes that further political action won't affect them personally. Future political framing will hopefully not end up permitting queerphobes to exercise their oppressive ideology at all. However the marriage equality debate was framed, it is undeniable that extreme queerphobia lost this round. Congratulations to all the queers and their allies who worked on getting this bill through.


Anne Russell is a Wellington-based journalist with a degree in political science and religious studies. She occasionally blogs at and is on Twitter: @elvisfchrist.

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