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, 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.