This year I was invited to 10 Downing Street for a reception celebrating the same-sex marriage act which passed into UK law recently. I felt truly ambivalent about attending the event because I see both highly positive and very negative aspects to this change in the law. So here I want to offer some reflections about possibilities that this shift has the potential to open up, as well as what it risks closing down.
Me and Jen Yockney (of BCN) at No.10
Clearly the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act does something extremely important in legally accepting that relationships between two people of the same gender are as legitimate as those between two people of different genders. Whilst civil partnerships brought us some way towards this, marriage is the way in which our society currently recognises relationship commitment, so the cultural impact of this on people who love people of the same gender cannot be underestimated.
As David Cameron rightly remarked in his Downing Street address, the potential impact of this on people’s everyday lives is immense. Whilst many lesbian, gay and bisexual people currently experience painful responses from family members when they come out, and even total exclusion from families, the message that same gender romantic relationships are as real and valuable as different gender ones may well help matters a great deal. Parents at such times often express concerns that they have lost the opportunity to see children reach the important social milestones in life such as getting married and having children, and clearly now this is not the case.
Along similar lines, the statistics on homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools make frightening reading. As Cameron also suggested, it may well be the case that the knowledge that future relationships will be equally valued, whether they are with people of the same or different genders, will result in some decrease in this bullying culture, greater confidence on the part of teachers in challenging it, and an increase in the comfort in LGB&T people being out in schools, and in their neighbourhoods and workplaces.
When we look back over the last few decades, to the times when having same-gender attraction was regarded as a psychiatric disorder, and when it was not even allowed to be discussed in schools, this seems like a huge step forward which many LGB&T organisations could not even imagine until very recently.
Also, regarding my own particular area of activism and research – bisexuality – the Downing Street event marked an important step forward. Last year was the first year in which a bisexual organisation was invited to the number 10 LGB&T garden party (Bi Community News). This year, my own group, BiUK, was also invited along. As Jen Yockney from BCN playfully pointed out, if the number of bisexual organisations included continues to double year on year then this will be a fantastic achievement for bisexual visibility!
More seriously, there have been real issues in the past with the lack of bisexual input into UK LGB&T policy, both nationally and locally. The last couple of years have seen a major shift in this, including regular meetings between UK bisexual organisations and the Government Equalities Office, and the inclusion of BiUK on the National LGB&T partnership (of the Department of Health), and the LGBT Chief Executives’ Network.
The inclusion of bisexual groups at the Downing Street event, and the use of terms ‘equal marriage’ or ‘same-sex marriage’ in the act and by the Prime Minister, were important steps in the recognition that many bisexual people have same-gender relationships as well as lesbian and gay people. Given the previous lack of visibility of bisexual people and their relationships, and the potential knock on impact of this invisibility on their comfort with being open about their sexuality, and their mental health, this is also extremely important.
However, there are several concerns following the same sex marriage act which need to be taken seriously. Broadly speaking these are the remaining issues facing LGB&T people which the act does not address, and the relationship and family issues which the focus on romantic/sexual relationships (whether same or different gender) does not cover.
In both areas there are legitimate concerns that the passing of this act will lead people to believe that all the work has been done and that we no longer need to fund, research, and address LGB&T issues (on the one hand) or relationship issues (on the other).
The saddest moment for me yesterday occurred in David Cameron’s speech when he commented that Britain was now “the best place to be gay, lesbian or transgender anywhere in Europe”. UK bisexual groups have fought hard for many years for recognition that bisexuality is a vital part of the LGB&T grouping and that bisexual people face many bi-specific issues, as well as having shared experiences with lesbian gay and trans* people (and of course many people are both bi and trans*). It was hard to hear the B left out of the LGB&T by our Prime Minister.
There is a strange sense sometimes that there is only space for one more spot in the acronym (after L & G) and that bisexuality and trans* have to fight for that place. Many times T is left off by organisations which only speak for LGB people, despite the fact that there are large overlaps in the agendas of these communities, and the involvement of trans* people in the gay rights movement from its early days. Other times people assume that bisexuality is covered by ‘lesbian and gay’, and so they only need to add the T (as in yesterday’s speech and in references to ‘homophobia and transphobia‘, which miss out biphobia).
I realise that this may seem like a picky point to those who are not as immersed in bisexual politics as I am. The reason that it is important to include the B is that our culture tends to regard sexuality as an either/or thing: either you are gay or you are straight. The inclusion of bisexuality in the LGB&T acronym means recognising that some people are attracted to, and form relationships with, more than one gender. Statistics on how many people this covers range from 3% to 20% so it is a significant grouping. When the B is left out this, it perpetuates commonly held assumptions that bisexuality is somehow a questionable identity (‘just a phase’ or ‘a confusion’), or that it doesn’t exist at all. This makes everyday life tough for bisexual people, who may have to come out multiple times due to people disbelieving them. It also means that we very rarely see depictions of bisexual people in the media. And the knock on effect is that many bisexual people don’t feel confident about their identity or experience, and may not have access to any support from those around them. We know that being invisible or constantly doubted and disbelieved by those around you takes a major toll on mental health and other aspects of well-being. Perhaps a useful thought experiment is to imagine what it would be like if you had to repeatedly remind people that you were straight after they kept assuming you were gay, or if – as a gay man – you had to access services that were labelled as for ‘lesbian, bisexual and trans*’ people.
The issues around trans* inclusion in the same-sex marriage act are perhaps even more significant than those around bisexual inclusion. An amendment to the act means that married trans* people applying for a gender recognition certificate will now require the consent of their spouse in order to receive this. There is a real danger that this sends a message that being trans* is not really legitimate, and that transitioning implies a massive change in one’s relationship, which it does not for many people. Given the level of transphobia in our culture, we could really do with changes that make trans* people more confident that transitioning is a totally acceptable thing to do, and that enable the significant people in their lives to be more supportive of them in doing this (whether or not they decide to remain in the same kind of relationship together).
Finally, on this note, there is a fear amongst many LGB&T people and groups that same-sex marriage will be regarded as the end point in the journey towards LGB&T equality: that it will be assumed that now we have achieved this there is nothing else to do. People are worried that funding will be withdrawn from LGB&T organisations or that remaining issues will be dismissed. Of course there are still many problems facing LGB&T people which are not addressed by same-sex marriage (such as hate crimes, homelessness, and specific health issues facing older LGB&T people and black and minority ethic LGB&T people to name just a few). And there are the specific remaining problems of biphobia and transphobia eluded to above. Globally, of course, we are reminded that progress towards equal rights can easily be reversed, as in Russia at the moment. It was concerning that the presentations by both David Cameron and Ben Summerskill at Downing Street yesterday seemed to suggest that same-sex marriage meant that we had achieved total equality around sexuality.
My other concern about the same-sex marriage act is that, whilst it gives a strong message that same gender and other gender relationships are equally valid, it also reinforces the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are more valid than any other kind, given that these are the only kind that are legally recognised and celebrating in front of friends and family.
In his speech, Cameron outlined his view that relationship commitment is the best basis for both families and for society as a whole. I agree with him that it is important for humans to commit to each other in all kinds of ways. For example there is the commitment that parents and other people in their lives make to care for children, the commitment of adults who support other adults in their lives in all kinds of ways, and the commitment that those of us who work together make to mutual endeavors and to help each other to achieve our goals.
However, I’m not convinced that commitments between romantic/sexual partners should be regarded as the most important kind of commitment, or the only legitimate basis of families and societies. This is for two reasons: first, this kind of pressure on relationships is actually often damaging rather than helpful; and secondly, there are other kinds of relationships which may be equally valuable for both families and for society as a whole.
To take the first point, the pressures that we currently have on romantic/sexual love to provide us with all our needs and to last forever (many of which are underlined in the common marriage vows), are – I think – to a large degree responsible both for people remaining in very painful and damaging relationships, and for people having non-ambicable and even devastating break-ups. Each of these situations is not only hard on the two people involved, but also very troubling for those around them (including any children they may have as well as other family, and friends and colleagues who may be called upon to ignore the suffering of their friend or to ‘pick a side’ in a separation).
I would like to see romantic and sexual relationship bonds become more flexible such that it was acknowledged that a ‘successful’ relationship can be one which lasts a lifetime, but equally one where people recognise when it has run its course. Also it would be great if the multiple roles that people have in each others’ lives could be equally valued such that it was easier for people to remain co-parents, close cohabiting friends, or engaged in mutual work projects, for example, even if a relationship has ceased to be sexual or romantic, or if other sexual or romantic relationships have been forged.
To me this would seem to fit with some of the current government’s ideas about ‘big society’. When we are constantly focused on our romantic/sexual relationships – because we are desperate to find one, because we are totally caught up in one, or because they have become painful and hard – we are very turned in towards our internal worlds and our individual lives. If there was less pressure on such relationships, and more of a sense that all the relationships in our lives were valuable, people might find more time and energy to focus outwards on their wider communities, and to connect with diverse people in their lives rather than just those who were seen as ‘family’ or ‘like them’.
Such a perspective might, for example, involve a return to considering the potential of extended family networks where multiple adults are involved in any child-rearing or support of other adults which needs to happen. It might involve people making more flexible commitments in (all) their relationships which recognise how such relationships can – and do – change over time. Societally it might be about finding ways of celebrating all kinds of relationships (not just romantic/sexual ones), of defining success in other ways than longevity, and of reconsidering the promises that we make on formal occasions like weddings. As with many issues we’re currently facing, a good starting point for this might well be a form of relationship education which values all the relationships children currently have – and may have in the future – and considers, with them, how they might engage with these in mutual, kind, and ethical ways.