The History of Homosexuality: Radicalisation vs Assimilation

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From my Facebook timeline yesterday

For hundreds of years when being queer was criminal in western society, the public face of queerfolk was the most visible members of the community, those who were unable to hide by passing as heterosexual and consequently, those most often brought before the law. Trans* individuals, cross-dressers, and those who eschewed the gender binary were obvious, easy targets. When the political climate became unbearably repressive, and the civil rights movement to emancipate other minorities took off, one of the first acts of the community was to change the image of queerness in the public consciousness.

It is no coincidence the gay rights movement started at the same time the government and police were targeting queerfolk who had historically held passing privilege. Previously, if one were a straight-acting, white, middle class man, one could reasonably expect the establishment to turn a blind eye to sexual transgressions (think of the Cambridge spies, for instance). During the Lavender Scare, however, it was precisely those men who were deemed the biggest threat to national security, because only they could rise to a position which would make their blackmail by enemy forces worthwhile. The initial fightback might have been started by the non-conforming individuals at the Stonewall Inn and other queer haunts that were raided with depressing frequency, but their civil disobedience was soon co-opted by organisations which sought to put a “respectable” spin on queer identity. And by “respectable,” they meant straight-acting.

The very term “straight-acting” still has social and political weight. You don’t have to look far on gay dating apps like Grindr to see people privileging the ability to pass as heterosexual.

63151013-300x300 The History of Homosexuality: Radicalisation vs AssimilationThe queer rights movement has been split into two factions ever since. The narrative started by early societies like the Mattachine continues with the likes of the HRC, the narrative that queerfolk are just like everybody else, that we have the same lives, desires, and goals. It’s a narrative that has been very successful in recent years, leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in a whole domino cascade of countries, and its making meaningful strides in the arena of employment and non-discrimination rights. In many western nations, queerfolk are afforded the status of protected minority, meaning employers can’t fire someone for finding out they’re gay, bi, or trans*.

In many ways, that narrative is a true one. Prior to the Supreme Court heading which made same-sex marriage legal across the United States, polls revealed there were already 390,000 same-sex married couples living in the country: around forty percent of all same-sex households were legally joined. That’s a pretty strong argument in favour of queerfolk wanting the same social and legal recognition of their relationships that has been available to straightfolk since forever. However, that isn’t the whole story.

In 2014, the population of the US was somewhere in the region of 319 million. About 250 million of them were adults. Assuming 3% of the population are queer (an extremely unlikely underestimate), that means there were 7.5 million queer adults living in the US just before the SCOTUS ruling. 1.2 million were living as same-sex couples. It isn’t hard to see a significant majority of the queer population was completely omitted from the statistics pertaining to same-sex marriage because they didn’t live in a monogamous couple.

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“Normal people”…?

Obviously, a proportion of those missing millions will have aspired to meeting someone, settling down, and yes, getting married. Being queer and being an adult doesn’t prevent one from being single. But were there really 6.3 million single queers out there in 2014-15, or are there other relationship configurations, other lifestyles, and other forms of household being maintained that pollsters and census takers haven’t caught up with yet? I think so.

Marriage is an assimilationist desire — one that people legitimately have and want, and something I think should be available to everybody — but just because there’s been a long, bitter fight for it doesn’t mean that’s the only model to which queerfolk aspire. Since the mollies of the seventeenth century began parodying marriage to formalise their relationships, queerfolk have been reinventing and redefining what it means to be in an established relationship. Throuples or threesomes, open relationships, swinging, longstanding associations with commitment without cohabitation, or choosing never to settle down, are are just as much a part of straight life as queer, but they haven’t been whitewashed as effectively from the queer narrative as heterosexual; in part because there are more queerfolk prepared to defend their right to live an alternative lifestyle.

That this is so isn’t surprising. Historically, queerfolk have been persecuted for an innate characteristic, and the sense of injustice that stems from being criminalised by an accident of birth runs deep. For every person who seeks to highlight the similarities between queer and straight people, there’s another who doesn’t feel the need to hide who they are, given how long and hard the community fought for that privilege. Pride has always been a celebration of the diversity of the queer community, but as the memes on this page show, that diversity makes Pride contentious even among queerfolk.

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