Free to Be All That We Are, Part 2

To mark the Wheeler Centre’s Big Gay Week, Rodney Croome, campaign director of Australian Marriage Equality and an honourary lecturer in Sociology at the University of Tasmania, writes yesterday and today on marriage and gay men. Read the first part of this essay, published yesterday.

Recent whole-of-population studies provide a picture of gay men being no less – and in some studies actually more - monogamous than others. The notion that gay men are sexual experimenters is a slander from those who think it a bad thing and a conceit among those who think it good.

The fundamental similarity of gay and straight relationships comes as a surprise to ordinary Australians. Growing tolerance of same-sex relationships has seen gays and lesbians increasingly spurn inner-city ghettos and relocate to, or stay in, suburban and regional areas. In turn, this has familiarised heterosexual Australians with the daily lives of same-sex couples. An excellent example is the large factory in Hobart where my partner and several other openly-gay people work. The most remarkable thing about them is that their relationships and families are so very unremarkable in the eyes of their mainly blue-collar colleagues. Naturally, when these heterosexuals see that the lives of their gay friends and co-workers are much like theirs, they begin to ask why their legal rights aren’t too.

My assertion - that there is no relevant difference between straights and gays that would disqualify the latter from marriage as we know it - is bound to spark accusations that I am an assimilationist out to dismiss all that is good about being gay. That would be wrong. I am all for the acknowledgment and celebration of difference, where it exists. For example, on the question of Tasmanian identity, the Hobart-born Altman and I take opposite positions to the ones we hold on gay sexual identity. Altman dismisses the idea there is anything significantly different about Tasmania. I hold firmly to the view of Richard Flanagan and others that Tasmania is geographically and culturally “another country”, and a fine one at that. I also recently defended the importance of a distinct gay identity in response to Helen Razer’s assertion that there is no need for it, especially in culture and the arts where she believes it simply marginalises and trivialises the contributions of gay people.

But my case for gay distinctiveness is not one that seeks to draw a thick line between two inherently different sets of people. It is not based on the black and white view that the only choice minorities have is to be separate or the same. At best, gay men (and for that matter Tasmanians) are embellishments in the stories other people tell. We are parodied, demonised, lionised and generally not taken on our merits. Mostly, we are missing altogether. This means that, more than others, we are called on to question who we are, who others are and where we fit. We have to negotiate more boundaries and rely more on own narratives. By doing so we become more self-conscious and more conscious of others. It is the insight and cultural richness that may arise from all this which is a difference worth celebrating.

In my response to Razor I illustrated this more nuanced view of the value of identity by drawing on that period of European history that gave us Marx, Kafka, Freud and Einstein. When Europe’s Jews were released from their ghettos in the 18th and 19th centuries, I wrote, they didn’t all suddenly cease to be Jews. They were freer to identify to whatever degree they chose with their inherited ethnic and religious identity, to enrich the broader society of which they had become a part with whatever they considered valuable about this identity. The result was a contribution to western culture from the descendants of emancipated Jews that was unthinkable while the ghetto lasted, and without which the contemporary world would be unimaginably different. I imagine the same future for LGBT people. As we are freer to interact with the society around us in more complex ways, so we will also make a far richer contribution to that society than is imaginable today, a contribution drawn from but not limited by our sexual or gender identities. Integration will not mean assimilation.

So it is with same-sex marriage. Allowing same-sex couples to marry will not profoundly change marriage or gay people. Culturally and legally each has already grown to meet the other. Like other steps towards legal equality and social integration, marriage equality will mean gay people are increasingly free to contribute to society all that we are, including the experience we have gained from being excluded, and from our struggle to end that exclusion.

Helen Razer will be speaking Thursday lunchtime at the Wheeler Centre as part of the Lunchbox/Soapbox series. Her topic will be ‘Giving Up on Art’.

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