Friday 3 February 2012

Same sex 'marriage', strategic essentialism and hypocrisy

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “So! indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

(From The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3.)

Strategic essentialism’ is the adoption of an identity for political purposes:

The concept of strategic essentialism is a “strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” ( Fuss 1994 : 99). It utilizes the idea of essence with a recognition of and critique of the essentialist nature of the essence itself. It is a means of using group identity as a basis of struggle while also debating issues related to group identity within the group. (Here.)

Within the current debate about same sex marriage, the adoption of a gay identity as a third sex makes for an easy political narrative of fairness: men can get married, women can get married. Why can’t gays get married? To deny gays marriage rights is as unfair as denying equal rights to men because they are men, or women because they are women. End of story. (An alternative but analogous strategy is the 'two group' one: straights can get married, why can't gays?.)

But of course, that’s the public story, the political story that’s being told in the public sphere to achieve political ends. Within the group of activists, the narrative is much more complex. Broadly, there are two sides. First, there is gay essentialism, the view that, indeed, there is an essential gay identity which has existed across times and places and has, certainly within Western culture, been suppressed and oppressed. Such a narrative is at one with the public narrative: no hypocrisy there. Second, there is the social constructivist/queer theory/postmo view which is that gay identity is constructed by a society/person –and usually, that this identity, as constructed by the exercise of repressive power, should be deconstructed and resisted. (For both these views and the development of a third, intermediate view, see ‘A Unified Theory on Homosexual Identity’ by E. M. Reccio, downloadable here. I disagree with much of Reccio's critical analysis but the very existence of the paper is evidence of the fluidity of debate in this area of gay identity.)

On the latter view, the public narrative of the oppressed third sex cannot be sustained: instead, the correct narrative should be about repressed desire. But such a narrative is neither as clear nor as evidently defensible as the third sex narrative: we don’t expect governments to institutionalize all desires; many desires, particularly sexual, are not endorsed let alone facilitated by society.

The current debate about same sex ‘marriage’ in Scotland is in part an exercise in strategic essentialism, or, to rectify our language, hypocrisy. Fundamental debates about the nature of sexual identity exist among activists in this area which are being covered up by a political campaign which mostly endorses only one narrative, that of the third sex, in order to bring along ‘useful idiots’ in its wake. We need to bring that debate into the open, to rectify our language and thus our thought on identity, before same sex ‘marriage’ should even be considered.

Of course, I fully expect that to happen as a result of the Scottish Government consultation…

The leaders of the Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberals and Greens in Scotland keeping their minds open on the same sex ‘marriage’ consultation whilst signing a pledge to introduce it at a reception held on Tuesday in the Scottish Parliament. (Article here.) 

[H/T to Quiet Riot Girl who got me thinking about this.]


  1. What you say is highly dubious.

    You have confused 'identity' with innate human sexuality. Human sexuality is neither a choice nor can it be changed, and it has a biological, not socially constructed origin.

    I agree that identity is socially constructed, and because of this the way in which sexuality is expressed varies according to social and cultural circumstances.

    You state that questioning and ultimately undermining homosexuality as a unifying identity relegates it to nothing more than a desire, not unlike other desires, which I presume could include pedophilic or zoophilic desire.

    Even if homosexual 'identity' is consciously adopted and a 'choice', homosexuality as a basic attraction is not. Homosexual desire is not a paraphilia or abnormality, and homosexual acts do not include non-consenting sex. Human desires do not sit on a common continuum- they all have very differing features, and for this reason some desires are criminalised while others are 'facilitated'.

    I can see how our case for marriage equality might even be improved and certainly not undermined by deconstructing homosexual identity- what basis is there to discriminate against a hard working, tax paying, law abiding couple whose only distinguishing feature is a minor variation in their sexualities?

    1. Thanks for the comment. It needs more than a combox reply so I've posted here: