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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For...

So we have a new government. Democracy in action, messy, imperfect, but it still beats all the alternatives (except for me being Dictator of the World!).

We now have openly gay and lesbian MPs all across the Parliament, from the Greens to National. Not quite every party, but all the biggest ones. Even our Attorney-General, a National MP, is an out gay man.

What I find both bizarre and wonderful is that no-one has commented on his sexuality. Have we perverts become so mainstream now that when a right-wing Government appoints an open homo to one of the most important positions in Parliament there is no response? And what does this signal? What does it mean for us?

In some ways, it is the culmination of what “we” fought for – the right to be accepted for who we are as full and equal human beings, regardless of our sexuality. In other ways, it the opposite. Let me explain.

There have basically been two streams to the movement for our rights over the last 100 years or so. The one with the longer pedigree is the less radical, simply calling for us to be able to live our lives without the fear of legal persecution. There were some variants to this, with some asking for us to be positively protected, but in general the goal of this movement was toleerance and assimilation, not revolution.

The other stream was distinctly revolutionary and radical in its outlook and goals. This strand is rooted in the classical radical idea that we need a complete revolution in society, and that the emancipation of same-sex attracted people is part of the struggle to free the oppressed all over the globe, which will only be truly achieved through the eradication of Capitalism. Rather than assimilation, it sought a radical re-ordering of the entire social fabric. In its latest guise it has come to us as “Queer Theory”, which made a number of grossly inflated claims as to the importance of sexual identity. It is this last stance that sees all those of us who are outside the norms of mainstream sexual practice and identity as having a common ground to stand on and a common enemy to fight against: heterosexist patriarchal Capitalist society. And this common oppression is supposed to help us form our community.

What happens to that community when the oppression lifts?

What we now have as a result of our efforts for law reform etc are gay conservative politicians who are able to be out and by doing so cause no reaction. We have become normal, no longer exceptional. OK, for NZ, for us to be truly normalised we will need an out All Black whose last minute actions cause us to win the Rugby World Cup. Then we will be unassailable.

This, however, is not the revolutionary result Gay Liberation was fighting for. Instead of working for radical change, we now have an out gay Attorney General who, it could be argued, is working for those forces that the radical wing would say continue to oppress us. But it cannot be denied that the fact the lesbians, gay men, and transsexuals can all be elected to our Parliament now without causing much concern, and this surely is a positive thing. It is a distinct improvement on the days, not that far gone, when being sexually different in any way was illegal, when even the whisper of an MP perhaps being gay was enough to destroy a career. If you are a teenager wrestling with your sexual identity, the very fact that being gay has become so much less of an issue must be good.

What I suspect this assimilation, this normalisation of us as people will mean is this: the importance of sexual identity as a unifying bond that forms a community will weaken even more over time. Our gay community was at its most productive, its strongest, its most challenging, its most exciting and vibrant when we were banded together in our gay ghettos, fighting for our rights, fighting against HIV and the prejudice it engenders and living lives that placed us on the outer of the mainstream. Now many of those ghettos have lost their hearts to property developers and gentrification. Now we are legal and protected, the impetus to band together for political rights has largely gone. I know gay men who voted for every major party. I know gay men who are legally coupled and who live lives of happy obscurity in the suburbs. They did protest once - now they see no need. And many younger gay men coming into the world just don't see the need for "community" that we all once did.

The promise that sexual identity would be a major force in radicalising the world seems to have failed. Instead we have become more and more just a part of the wallpaper. What I think we will see more and more, is that gay men and lesbians will be able to come out, and to be ourselves, and excite little interest. Without a common enemy or cause to unite us, instead of forming a vaguely coherent group, we will stay far closer to our initial social positions. If you are born into a network drawn largely from urban Maori then this will be your main point of reference. Likewise if you are born into the white middle class, it will be this, rather than your sexual identity that will be the main part of your identity. The need for us to exist as a distinct social entity will lessen and fade.

Now I am not for one minute denying the difficulties, emotional and personal, and the prejudice that many of us still have to face, as well as the violence that seems to permeate so much of New Zealand society, but there has been a qualitative change in how we live, how we are perceived, and how we get to interact with our society that I think this appointment to the Attorney-General’s office highlights.And of course, little old New Zealand is not the world - what has happened here is perhaps only comparable to the more liberal parts of Europe - I'm not saying this is the situaiton everywhere.

But the question remains: Is this really what we all wanted?

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