After Equality

When British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed his 2011 party gathering at their annual conference on the cusp of autumn, he did so against a "gay rights" landscape that had been transformed by the previous Labour governments of Tony Blair and, to a much lesser extent, Gordon Brown.

Between 1997 and their loss of power in 2010, the Labour Party equalized the age of consent and introduced goods and services protections preventing discrimination in accessing anything from a hotel room to buying a can of beans. New adoption rights, fertility rights, and further equality protections all followed, together with the decision to pass civil partnerships legislation in 2004, which was perhaps one of the most significant moves, with the first ceremonies taking place in 2005. This measure was distinct from marriage and, after some Parliamentary debate, was the exclusive preserve of same-sex couples. It quickly became colloquially referred to as "gay marriage" and appeared to be a similar institution, although it lacked a requirement to "consummate" the partnership, and the ending of a civil partnership would result in a "dissolution" rather than a "divorce." For many this seemed a question of semantics, but a comparatively low-profile campaign persisted in calling for "equal marriage," and this is reflected in the ongoing "Equal Love" campaign, which seeks to utilize European human rights law to enable different-sex partners to enter into civil partnerships, and same-sex partners, marriage.

Since being elected as Conservative Party leader in 2005, Cameron sought to position himself and his party as a more moderate force than his predecessors had done. As Prime Minister of the U.K.'s first coalition government in over 60 years, he has by necessity found that those policies on which he could hold himself out to be liberal are now claimed as victories by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. He therefore used his conference speech to say something that would be seen as wantonly pushing his party onto more liberal turf. In his speech he proclaimed:

I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn't matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we're consulting on legalizing gay marriage.

And to anyone who has reservations, I say: yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us, that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.

In this short passage, which was as notable for the lack of impact it seemed to have in the media and collective public consciousness as it was for achieving an applause from a Conservative conference gathering, Cameron appeared to be further repositioning his party, but he was in fact repositioning gay rights in the most overt way since 1967.

Republican figures in the United States must surely look on with puzzlement, unable to compute the squaring of this equality circle. The current GOP race for the presidential nomination has typically featured the same-sex marriage question as one of left vs. right, Christian vs. heathen, good vs. bad. Yet Cameron's skill lies in his ability to recognize marriage as a fundamentally Conservative concept -- it is about promoting "the family," a stable monogamous relationship rooted in two adults raising children. The gay rights project that has steadily gained momentum since the legalization of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 has morphed from one defined by liberation into one defined by equality. This concept is about abolishing difference rather than celebrating it.

A gradual restatement of the values of sexuality as rooted in the family, monogamy, anti-public sex, anti-unsafe sex (unless to create children) amounts to the abolition of homosexuality as we knew it. It redefines homosexuality as "gayness" and in doing so highlights the very fluid nature of this concept. What exactly is it to be gay today in this new legal world?

These new legal protections are designed to free but in fact create new bonds of identity. Take public sex, be it cruising parks or tearooms, "cottaging" or any other rapid rendezvous in a public place: it is no longer necessary, as men can meet in bars and restaurants like "normal" folk and can seek to settle down, raise a family and be monogamous with a partner (with the occasional affair) just like "normal" people. It is striking that these activities are redefined as the acts of "necessity" rather than as the expressions of desire they often once were (and remain for many).

Just as we live in the age of legal equality, it seems we also live in the age of the homosexual revisionist. We are redefining our history as one of pure tragedy. AIDS becomes the inevitable consequence of promiscuity and bareback sex. Thank goodness we don't do that anymore. The very arguments that would once have incensed the gay rights and liberation movements are now advocated by gay charities and activists across the globe.

Not that we are living up to this ideal identity. We continue to engage in public sex -- as evidenced by continued law enforcement attention and occasional public complaints. We continue to party and engage in promiscuous sex, and as research and our porn-buying habits show, we are not only practicing unsafe bareback sex, but many of us desire and enjoy bareback sex. All of which increasingly sits at odds with the public persona of the modern legal homosexual. We are effectively jumping back in the closet, but this time we are hiding from ourselves.

Cameron's speech represents a public evocation of this defeat of liberation. The legal changes of recent years are important and to be welcomed, but they should not be mistaken as an end-point. These developments merely serve as milestones on the road to a legal and social recognition of sexual diversity, of a law that enables people to have their chosen lifestyles protected and recognized rather than constrained and defined.