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Marriage is not Equality: Thoughts on #MarRef from a worried radical queer

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This article is based heavily on the script for the 15/05/15 episode of my radio show, 30 km/s, which airs live online every 2 weeks on

I also recommend reading this compilation of writings put out by Aidan Rowe, one of the many people in Ireland eloquently providing a radical critique of the very concept of marriage equality, as well as other real problems with the Referendum campaign, from an anarchist-queer perspective.

It’s been with interest and trepidation that I’ve been observing the campaign for the Marriage Referendum from afar, desperately wanting to be there. Between the overt homophobic abuse spouted by the ‘No’ campaign and the rather horrid effect of single-issue liberal politics and policing of identity from the mainstream, acceptable parts of the so-called ‘Gay’ community, I’ve felt quite homesick for Dublin, where I lived for 11 years.

While I’ve resided in Glasgow for the past couple of years, I came out as a trans woman and a lesbian, and began transitioning, in Ireland. I was heavily involved in the LGBTQ community/ies, both with the mainstream and the more radical elements. I’ve been a member of numerous LGBTQ organisations, such as TENI, and the late Queer Spraoi and PinC, and was the content editor for the defunct BoLT magazine, a magazine by and for LGBTQ women and trans people of all genders. I am still a strong part of the community with numerous bonds of friendship and solidarity with my LGBTQ friends living there, and I try to make it over at least a few times a year (especially for my fave Pride festival, Northwest Pride, when I can manage it!).

However, I feel the referendum has brought out some of the worst aspects of Irish society, both the homophobic, bigoted, misogynistic right-wing elements (church-led and otherwise) as well as the assimilationist, clean-cut ‘we are just like you’ part of the gay community, which seems more focused on adapting to a cishet norm than actually fighting for queers in the streets. To the extent of advising people to call the police on LGBTQ people who take down and vandalise the homophobic posters put up by the No campaign.

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re in Ireland, do I think you should vote yes, no, or abstain?

Vote yes. Clearly. Obviously.

Voting no is simply objectionable. Voting yes grants LGBTQ people rights that we should already have. If you’re a particularly politically minded LGBTQ person, abstaining should not be an option, considering the rather ghastly politics that make up the No side, from the homophobic and misogynistic Iona Institute to other typical right-wing, antifeminist elements in Irish society. And for many people, the rights granted are crucial and life saving: Adoption, citizenship, visitation rights in hospital, etcetera are all sorely needed. The state declaring that same-sex relationships are equal in the eyes of the law can have a strong effect on other parts of society as well.

Are we cool on that? Because from this point on, things get complicated.

Let’s start with the institution of marriage. If you’re in love, committing to someone for life, if that’s what you’re both into, that’s rad! Go ahead and do it, more power to you. But why do we need the state to get involved?

On a practical level, the issues around rights I’ve highlighted above are an obvious answer. But I ask you to take a step back and ask yourself: Why does citizenship depend on marriage? The fact of the matter is, historically, the state are heavily invested in regulating who comes and goes from their countries, and how family units are organised -a cursory look at the last 30 years of Irish history is proof of this. At different points in history, states will encourage immigration or discourage it through policies as well as promoting xenophobia, like we have seen in recent years. So I pose another question: why are our rights limited by whether or not we get access to a specific state-sanctioned form of relationship? What if we need those rights but we do not want the state involved in our affairs? What about the other things we have a right to but are often marginalised in? Housing and homelessness, unemployment, poverty, which studies in Ireland, the United States and UK show LGBTQ people overrepresented in those categories in proportion to the general population? Not to mention many other areas of discrimination in every day life I couldn’t hope to cover. Check out the following studies and reports that show marriage isn’t the only, or even the central, issue:


List of publications by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (I couldn’t link just one they’re all bloody important)

United States

Injustice at Every Turn – A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey

New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community


An Examination of Poverty and Sexual Orientation in the UK

Debunking the ‘Pink Pound’ – LGBT Poverty and Place in Scotland

One answer is that marriage equality is something that is achievable within our lifetime. All of your radical ideas about no borders, abolishing capitalism, etcetera, are all well and good, but they are unrealistic and impossible to achieve, the argument goes.

But let me ask you: would we have gotten to where we are now in terms of achieving same-sex marriage in many countries, if people had not fought for that specifically? The interesting thing is that back in the late 60s, when queens and dykes and faggots were being beaten up by police in New York, incarcerated and abused in my native Argentina, when the revolutionary voices of Stonewall and so many other places rose up, were they calling for a seat at the table of mainstream acceptability? Were they asking for marriage equality?

No. They were saying the table rests on the back of people like us. the poor. the disabled. the ones who are not acceptable faces of a marriage campaign. The migrants, the sex workers, the people of colour, the people with mental health issues and physical disabilities. Not to mention the majority of people who live in poverty. In the face of this, Gay Liberation was a call to arms for us who were considered deviant by society due to breaking gender and sexual norms, for us to reform society from the ground up for a radical concept of equality. Not equality based on a single law, a single yes or no question, but rather on true equality for all.

My problem isn’t with marriage per se, but marriage does not exist in a vacuum. The fact is that same-sex marriage will change absolutely nothing for 99% of queers I know. I accept that is a biased sample, but most of the LGBTQ people I know fall under one of the many following categories: Disabled with either physical or mental disabilities; people of colour; survivors of abuse; migrants; with experience of homelessness; sex workers.

What does marriage do for us? We are poor. We are kicked out of welfare systems designed to keep us in poverty. Trans people are frequently targeted to be kicked out of social welfare system due to conflicting documentation.

We have an asylum system in both the UK and Ireland that is despicable in its utter dehumanisation of people. And if you add to that the extra scrutiny afforded to LGBTQ asylum seekers, the picture is grim.

Sex workers struggle with the violence of a state that will deny the right of vulnerable people to try to make a living, often in really difficult situations.

Racism in Ireland and the UK is an everyday occurrence, as is xenophobia, ableism, misogyny.

And let us not forget the elephant in the room: how marriage equality does nothing for those members of the LGBTQ community that need an abortion and are not able to get one in Ireland.

We can’t address all of those issues at once, of course. But is ticking ‘yes’ on a box all we can really do? Is our political imagination so constrained? Why must we accept reducing everything we are and all we live and suffer through to whether this referendum passes?

Here’s where the rub comes in for me: the famous saying that a society or community can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Irish LGBTQ community as a whole has an appalling record in this regard. Racism, misogyny, ableism, and even transphobia have been rampant and unchecked for a long time within it, and not enough has been done to fight this. The mainstream LGBTQ community does precious little work for asylum seekers and people of colour. There’s virtually no campaigning around LGBTQ people with disabilities and/or in poverty.

So, with all of these issues, I have more questions to ask: Why are we campaigning for marriage now, instead of working to help the vulnerable sectors of the LGBTQ community in Ireland? Where is the money coming from for all the signs, vans, etcetera? And after the referendum, if it’s a Yes, where will all that money, energy, door-to-door canvassing, go to? If Ireland follows precedent, all that political mobilisation will vanish overnight. If we’re lucky, it will help mobilise for gender recognition for trans people as it did in Argentina, but even that will not fix all the other problems I’ve mentioned.

The fact of the matter is that marriage, in general, is a reform that is easy to attain and does not disturb the capitalist, patriarchal status quo. Marriage has always been, from the point of view of the state, about organising workers and property, determining who lives where and how. It is not a revolutionary institution and it will not bring about the change the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in Ireland sorely need.

Will the money and huge organising energy from the Yes campaign go to campaigns to abolish the direct provision system? Will money be raised by the big orgs to help out LGBTQ asylum seekers? What about campaigns to help improve the standard of living in local communities?

Ireland has a chance in this regard, because in all other countries, once they got what they wanted, these campaigns disbanded. They didn’t mobilise the LGBTQ communities over which they have so much sway to fight poverty, police violence, or for the decriminalisation of sex work. The system of global capital will still stand. Will the Yes campaigners stand with us?

7 responses »

  1. That last line is an interesting question, and one I’m curious about also.

    I think few people would argue with you on the lack of the revolutionary potential of marriage as an agent for change in terms of gross inequality that burrows down into society in all the ways you’ve set out here. As well as being an act of solidarity in a relatively straight forward and effortless way, it’s also an opportunity for many to seize the opportunity to further promote the flowering of a fresh reality. One inhabited by an middle-aged generation intent on using the ballot box for unfinished business, and further severe ties with Catholic authority; and the rise of a new generation and first-time voters buzzed up to participate in politics and society in ways they currently comprehend. It is the direction and motivation of this section of the electorate that will be worth watching.

    Will middle aged jaded moderate Catholics apply similar efforts to fighting for the removal of church patronage in our schools? It’s a fight that appears as potentially straight forward as marriage equality but there are no takers yet. Perhaps this referendum will be its own watershed moment in mobilising new ways of thinking and taking action. Though I suspect not. I always remember Jean Kennedy’s word on leaving Ireland. Asked for her observations, she remarked how she couldn’t fathom our lack of outrage.

    This was a really interesting read.

    • Ariel Silvera

      Thank you for your comments and thoughts. The issue of catholic dominance of health and education institutions in Ireland is something that really should have a huge campaign around.

  2. Worth mentioning too that not a single Irish LGBTQ org was willing to speak out against the criminalization of sex work, and issue that hugely affects lgbtq youth. Respectability politics is their main aim it seems

    • Ariel Silvera

      Respectability politics is a huge problem in a lot of NGO work, and especially in LGBTQ issues. Which always leaves the vulnerable out to dry. Thanks for your comment!

      • aformersexworker

        …so it is not just me who sees this?

        Though I supported and fought for gay marriage before it was respectable to do do the win today is breaking my heart.

        Now we all have equal rights…except sex workers…just another of many statements about the good things in our society that get a lot more accurate with the suffix “…except sex workers” and that fells like a blunt knife slowly draw through my guts, particularly if you are willing to sacrifice impact to accuracy and add “…and autistics” (a category to which I belong) “…and transgender people” a category my dearly loved Grandsprog is taking the time to make up the mind about joining…add your own…

        I have been doing some research lately into two quite separate issues. One being the, thankfully deceased, US reality TV series “8 Minutes” (very objective and empirical) and the other being yet another enemy I let way too close who did not stack up *EVEN* after factoring in a selection of mental illnesses and personality disorders (very subjective and microcosmic).

        When I kept coming up with the same, or similar answers in both instances a truly terrifying picture began to emerge of an extreme right wing Neo Puritan Revivalist movement with tentacles in literally everything. I learned a new word too:

        The LGBT mainstream hierarchy seized on abolitionism, in part (much of it was good old fashioned power and ambition) as a “show not tell” counter to the argument that gay marriage would be a slipperly slope ending in a gateway to every conceivable form of decadence.

        Here is the thing, after a little digging it looks very much as if the global abolitionist movement to which they rushed to subscribe is controlled by the same spiderweb of Neo Puritanism that regards fighting to see homosexuality of mind treated as a disease and homosexuality in practice punished as a crime as a far more important issue than abolitionism. (They don’t have a good attitude to transgender people either, to say the least, but autistics will finally get equality – as they infantilise everyone except their “Elders” anyway). Let me be very clear about this, it is all so tightly sewn up that the same names crop up over and over again.

        I don’t think anyone even bothered to check facts before joining forces and junketing.

        Y’know what? I’ll leave this at “draw your own conclusions”.

        • amusedPasserby

          I’d say that sounds way too much like a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory, to be honest, complete with a shady and immensely powerful organization (that indeed exists but is exceedingly unlikely to be that powerful and that well-coordinated… since it’s made up of mere humans, and humans are frail, easily distracted, and short-lived).

          I guess any social group eventually develops such a “megadversary” concept, with varying degrees of realism (conservatives ascribe such properties to Masonic groups, US Libertarians blame both Masonic lodges and “Fed”*, religious folks blame satanists and “gay agenda” – also occasionally Masonic lodges**, etc.)

          * this is deeply ironic, given the masonic involvement of US “founding fathers”
          ** this is doubly ironic, given that at least 50% of masonic organizations maintain a commitment to a monotheistic supernatural “creator”).

          Personally, I think that focusing on one issue at a time is tactically (and, likely, strategically) a proper approach.

          Now it’s time to work with the public to demonstrate that 1) abolitionism is morally questionable and insidiously subverts personal autonomy 2) criminalization/prohibition is consistently empirically ineffective 3) Nordic approach, as well as every single other version of “punish the buyer” is an empirical failure

          Empirical evidence is on our side.

          And no matter what postmodernist and armchair marxists would like to believe, empirically driven, evidence-based policies always win in the end.

  3. Pingback: “The Republic of Love” | Bully Bloggers

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