It turns out “us” includes “them”: marriage, bigotry and cheese.

I kind of get it, the furore about opening up marriage to everyone.

Let me explain it using the medium of cheese. We all understand cheese.

Let’s say there was this little village, and historically the village made cheese. It was very variable cheese. Some batches of it were good, some were rubbish. But the good ones were so good that, for all its faults, this cheese obtained a reputation worldwide. It was aspirational cheese. It was cheese everyone wanted to try.

And then one day another village discovered how to make that cheese. Their cheese was also of variable quality, but the good stuff was every bit as good as the first village’s cheese.

The original village was fed up. “Hey!” they complained. “We invented this damned cheese! It’s our THING. It’s what defines us. If you start making the same cheese as us, we are no longer The Village That Makes That Amazing Cheese. We are just some village, somewhere.”

And that’s what this is about. Oh, there IS bigotry involved – massive, towering homophobia from some quarters. But after reading and reading and reading about this, precisely because I couldn’t understand the sense of hurt that emanates from some writers, I’ve concluded that quite a lot of the people who don’t want gay people to get married aren’t protesting on the basis of homophobia per se, but because they perceive the institution of heterosexual marriage as part of their cultural identity.

It is the cultural equivalent of being annoyed because someone else has turned up at the party wearing the same dress as you. But I CAN understand the sense of diminishment and disappointment. It makes perfect sense, providing we’re willing to indulge, for a moment (go on, stretch your mind, you can do it), the idea that gayness – that gay identity – is a distinct culture.

It is, of course. Gay culture, gay art, gay identity is a thing, loud and proud. But no person is made of one cultural identity. A lot of people probably think they are, but they’re not. You have the culture of your family. The culture of your town. The culture of your race. The culture of your time. The culture of your gender. The culture of your sexuality. The culture of your religion. And your mix of those cultures is unique. Nobody else is going to have the blend of practices and opinions you picked up from your mum, your football team, your priest, your school, that girl you went out with at uni. What hangs us together as a people are those things we share: marriage is one of them. And thus far it has been available to a very defined set of “us”-es.

There is a sense that this is a battle not between gayness and straightness, or between left and right, but between two fundamental identity paradigms. There are people who need small, defined social groups with a fence around them in order to feel safe. And there are people who want to remove barriers between social groups and celebrate all our common areas.

We call this dissolution of barriers “progressive”. It is the move from having each village make one particular kind of cheese, to having an enormous city, where all sorts of cheeses are made by all sorts of people. This form of identity is inclusive: we want to share our cheesemaking techniques. We want to have a go of yours. That drive to share is itself an identity.

We call the urge to keep the villages separate “conservatism” (in the British, rather than the American sense). It is a form of identity which is based on exclusivity. We are us because our ways are not your ways. A sense of separateness is itself an identity.

Neither of these things is evil. They’re as inherently human as being introvert or extrovert. However, one of those attitudes is more workable in the modern world than the other, and the drift of society from exclusivity to inclusivity seems (is) inevitable.

But with this in mind, our social, legal and financial systems in the UK remain stacked to favour the original cheese-making villagers and the exclusive form of identity.

They get tax breaks for making their cheese (this issue was addressed). They also get a special cheese-party and a special label for their cheese that has its feet deep in a beautiful myth. A myth they consider theirs alone. The original village’s cheese-label still carries a special kudos. The new village’s cheese is every bit as good: but it’s not treated as such.

“But why should the second cheese-making villagers want the same label as us?” cry the original villagers. And this is where people’s compound identity comes in. Because the assumption that someone’s gay identity trumps all others is wrong. There are gay Jews, gay Muslims, gay Catholics, gay Anglicans. The identity that the first village thought was just theirs has never been just theirs. We all have a deep understanding of what marriage is. We are all – gay, straight, trans, bi, poly, pro-marriage, anti-marriage – ALL in that group of people for whom marriage has a specific and deep cultural resonance.

There are bigots in the picture, people who specifically find gayness repulsive and who specifically disapprove of homosexuality. But what’s unsettling a lot of people who are not specifically filled with hate for The Gays, is the realisation that what they thought of as their culture – a small and clearly defined culture for People Like Us[1], already includes gay people.

Gay people, it turns out, are People Like Us.

For some, not necessarily because they’re bigoted, but because they have never stopped and thought about how broad certain elements of their cultural identity truly are: how a lot of people who differ from them profoundly also share that cultural identity – this removes “marriage” as their private, distinguishing feature. It doesn’t nibble at their sense of identity. It takes a whacking great bite out of it, and it seems to me that that bite is not just about what happens in the future (the removal of marriage as an exclusive identifying factor of one group), but on a deeper level the realisation that Gays Are Us Too means that marriage has never been an identifying marker. It was incorrectly labelled as such. It always belonged to everyone. “Us” did a wrong thing by not sharing it.

That is a demanding, (and therefore unwelcome), lesson. I’m thrilled to watch gay marriage become just “marriage”, as soon as possible please. It is time this long-standing wrong was righted. But I have some understanding of people who are not filled with hate for gay people, but who nonetheless feel their sense of self has been deeply affected by this change, and who are at a loss to explain quite why they feel this way.

Ultimately, the right thing is happening. But it probably feels hard and scary to some people, and calling them bigots devalues the word and misses the point.

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About chiller

Rachel Coldbreath spent 20 years working internationally as a technical specialist on large data collections for law firms, before becoming disabled. She blogs on a variety of topics from the news and politics to gardening and how very annoying it is, being disabled. Habits include drilling holes about 1mm away from where they ought to be, and embarking with great enthusiasm on tasks for which she is neither physically nor intellectually equipped.
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20 Responses to It turns out “us” includes “them”: marriage, bigotry and cheese.

  1. njbdartford says:

    I seem to be commending your posts more often than not these days ;0) But my ‘anchor’ post http://ow.ly/hqWDv maybe explains why I agree so strongly. I think the battle between the underlying us/them instinct and a liberalised concept of ‘us’ based on reason and a meta culture, has been going on for as long as humans were able to play host to ideas as well as to DNA. But I think it is now hotting up because communications and interpersonal connections are so much richer. It’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them’ that makes people emotional now… it’s the greater conscious labour required to frame an ‘us’ at all… just as you say.

    [1. "Now" maybe means the last 50-80 yrs rather than Anno-Internet - but still an evolutionary blink for our clannish brains. 2. Ironic that the core Christian concept of 'the universal neighbour' could be one of the earliest identifications and advocacy of the liberalised 'us' ... and that it seems to be one of the defining tenets of that religion?]

  2. almost witty says:

    Thanks for demystifying some elements of this for me :)

  3. queeriodical says:

    In a sense, they could be seen as victims of their own hegemony – the dominant culture, that of the privileged group is not simply seen as the best, but simply the default, neutral, culture. So whilst there is straight (/white) culture, it is not recognised in those terms; culturally specific practices are seen as just what people do. Perhaps that is why their sense of the few things they can grasp on to as clear manifestations of that culture are guarded so preciously.

    Of course, marginalised groups can be equally protective of culture, but I think it is generally for different reasons, more to do with appropriation and visibility.

    • chiller says:

      I think you’re exactly right, and the reason people feel so embattled and protective of what they see as a thinning out of race / tradition / whatever, is precisely because those things have not been defined and celebrated as a culture in the same way that more marginalised cultures have been celebrated or publicised (and the marginalised cultures had to be, or be stomped to death under the boot of what was “the norm”). From this I think a lot of bigotry, whether racism or fear of immigrants, or fear of other sexualities comes – it isn’t actually bigotry (it becomes it, mind you), but people’s inability to define or articulate their own culture, and thereby to have a clear and comfortable understanding of where they end and everyone else begins. There needs to be a big poster somewhere saying “This is just your culture. It is not HOW IT IS AND HOW IT SHOULD BE, everywhere, to everyone.”

      Or, to put it another way, “Welcome to how everyone else has felt for a very long time.”

  4. iHijinx says:

    The heart goes where the heart is happy. The heart knows no boundaries and nor should it. My family is mixed race and I teach my children that they are unique in the world but equal to everyone.

    Marriage has a religious base. I know of no religion where same sex relationships are accepted because, according to religion, God created man and woman to be together – not same sex couples. This is fact no matter how much we argue about the unfairness of it all. My religion teaches that homosexuality is unacceptable (putting it mildly). I don’t agree. I love everyone and everyone has a place in my heart. It’s one of the biggest issues I have with my faith but it’s an internal struggle which I must find peace with.



    However, some things can’t be decided in parliament because parliament don’t make ALL the rules.

 What is really being argued here? Acceptance? Equality? Isn’t this a battle already won?



    As a Muslim my marriage wasn’t accepted in English Law so I had to have a Civil Ceremony too. I wanted to be married religiously and have my relationship recognised legally. Thousands of people do the same every year.



    Gay people need to search within themselves to find their own religious peace. It is not an answer they will find in parliament no matter how hard they argue.

    I hope they do find peace in what ever form that takes.

    • chiller says:

      This is not correct the UK has had non-religious marriage since the 1800s. So to say that marriage is a religious institution in this country/culture is incorrect, and has been for a long time.

      Alas, the battle for acceptance and equality are very far from being won. You said it yourself: your religion teaches that homosexuality is unacceptable. So do many others. Many secular people feel the same way. Is that equality? Acceptance? No.

      This isn’t about gay people’s religious peace: that is a different – and as you have pointed out, a much harder – battle entirely (exemptions have been given so that some religious organisations cannot be required to carry out the marriage of same sex couples). This is about the ability for someone to call themselves “husband” or “wife”, with all the cultural resonance and acceptance that contains. Since we are all brought up in a society where being married is one of the most important cultural markers of maturity, of being socially accepted, then this must be open to all – religious or not.

      • iHijinx says:

        I’m not saying marriage is a religious institution (that phrase borders on draconian to me) but the roots of marriage are deeply connected to religion, religions that have been around for hundreds of years – and therein lies the struggle.

        I have gay friends who are married. The guys call each other husband and the girls call each other wife. They have always been accepted and treated equally by the community around them (including me) even before they were married. It has as much to do with their attitude as it did with the rest of us.

        To take another example, there are laws against racism and yet I regularly encounter racial abuse. Does it make me feel less equal? Does it make me feel less accepted? No, because of how I feel about myself.

        What I’m saying is that peace within – whether religious or not – can only come from the individual. Not laws.

        Thank you for taking the time to respond, I really do appreciate it. This discussion has caused me to think more deeply about my position.

      • chiller says:

        The point is, if you’re in the UK, you do NOT have any gay friends who are married.

        You have gay friend who are civil-partnered. Because marriage for gay people is not let legal in the UK.

        And if you’re happy with them (as you say they do now), calling one another “husband” or “wife”, then why not let them be married truly, with a wedding ceremony as their parents were no doubt married, and as any children they have may well be.

        I hate that you encounter racism. And no, it doesn’t mean you are less equal in the law. But it does mean that your treatment in society is likely to be unequal. Gay people get beaten to death for being gay too often. It is now more acceptable, more mainstream, socially, to be openly homophobic than it is to be racist. And as you know, there is still PLENTY of racism around, sadly.

        I hope we can get rid of all these “isms” and just get on with being loving humans, where everyone has the same rights to celebrate themselves and their relationships.

    • Bridget says:

      You say, “God created man and woman……this is fact” Actually, this is something that was written in a book by a man/men a very long time ago, and is not in fact fact.

      • iHijinx says:

        Actually, I said, “according to religion, God created man and woman to be together – not same sex couples.”

        For clarity I BELIVE that we are ALL equal – no matter what colour or sexual orientation. I know how it feels to be discriminated against – I could make your toes curl with my experiences – no one deserves it.

        I’m still refining my thought process on this subject. I am open.

        This issue needs discussion, understanding and, most of all, respect – on both sides of the argument.

  5. iHijinx says:

    My gay friends would disagree with your first point. Not only that but, I know, they would be hurt by it. They are truly married because they have entered into an agreement with one another in front of witnesses to promise themselves to each other. I honestly do not know anyone – other than yourself now – who disagrees with them. They choose to define themselves their way.

    Social ‘norms’ are different for each social group – we can’t fix them all. I learned a long time ago, you pick your battles. The police/law have always been very supportive but one can’t go running for help at every turn because life would become a battle. Unfortunately we all have to find our own way however long that takes.

    It’s a tough road and talking can only move us forward.
    Thanks, again, for raising the issue.

  6. Pingback: Wrap Up: 2.4.13 – 2.9.13 « crazy dumbsaint of the mind

  7. kantal113 says:

    Excellent explanation of the issue. I live in the US, and honestly, the main reason I believe people are so opposed to legalizing gay marriage here is because of hatred and fear and the nonsensical bible issue. I hate the way religious folks pick and choose which parts of the bible to take literally and push on people.

    There are a lot of things written in the bible that people don’t preach so adamantly about. Stoning, for example. Everyone and their mom should be stoned for one thing or another in the bible. Why don’t we go about stoning promiscuous women on the steps of their father’s houses? Or rebellious children? Why don’t we stone them to death? Can you imagine? The human race would be in serious trouble if we stoned all rebellious children to death.
    Anyway, it seems arbitrary for the religious folks to choose homosexuality as one of the few things in the bible that they champion against.

    I agree with you. The sooner that we start referring to gay marriage as simply marriage, the better. And if people can’t handle the idea of two men being married, then they should just not associate themselves with gay folk. Saying that gay people shouldn’t be married because it offends you is like saying that houses shouldn’t be blue because it offends you.

    Sorry for the long ranty comment. Fantastic post. I’ll be sharing it on my fb page. :)

  8. Brilliantly written, compassionate and insightful. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Phil Brummell says:

    I think you’re spot on. My partner, who is in no way homophobic, also has trouble in accepting marriage for everyone mouthing “It’s not right” every time it comes onthe news but without any conviction or coherent argument. I suspect it’s a knee jerk reaction to her catholic upbringing!

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