Beyond ‘Equality’

Over the past 15 years or so the LGBT movement has embraced ‘equality’ as a buzz word in its ongoing battles for rights and recognition.  More importantly is the meaning behind the word ‘equality’ that requires some interrogation to reveal its misdirected implications, at least from a critical queer liberationist perspective.  Equality is used as the antithesis to charges of discrimination.  We have seen it used in campaigns such as the ‘Campaign for Equal Families’, ‘Equal Marriages Campaign’ to the ‘Equality Forum’ extravaganza held in Philadelphia each year.  The message being, ‘we (LGBTs) are just like you (straights) and all we ask is to have the same rights, benefits and responsibilities you have.  We want an equal opportunity to live our lives just as you live your lives.’

For many queer liberationists there is a concern that this can lead down a slippery slope to the assimilationist pit.  Is our movement about becoming like straight people?  Do we aspire to model our lives after the lives of straights?  More disturbingly, is this the path that will lead us to acceptance and respectability?  These are troubling questions that lead queer liberationists to trouble the concept of ‘equality’.

A couple of brief examples illustrate the dangers of moving in this direction.  The hard fought for and high profile battle for same-sex marriage was put forth as an equality measure that ‘elevated’ those same-sex couples that opted to marry entry into the institution of marriage to become ‘equal’ to other straight married couples.  Thus, they gained a privileged status in a society in which marriage is highly sanctioned.  But why is marriage more privileged than other kinds of relationships?  What about queers who opt not to marry?  The ‘equality’ gained by those same-sex couples that married means the further marginalization of those who don’t, as the latter do not receive the same privileges and benefits.  Where is the equality in that?  Critical queer liberationists question the privileged status of marriage as an institution.

Another example is that of the annual Pride festivities. Earlier Pride events were driven by political protest for recognition and respect.  There is no doubting the political power of declaring one’s pride in such a visible event and this individual ‘progress’ is extended communally for the fact that so many communities are now hosting Pride festivities.  A closer critical analysis reveals that in essence these events of late are for the most part celebratory and less about political action to affect change.  Increasingly, queer community groups (political, social, cultural and supportive) and businesses are replaced in the Pride parade procession by large profit-making capitalist ventures advertising their product (condos, liquor and beauty products).  Some will argue this is a sign of success, as for-profit businesses are not afraid to participate in the Pride Parade and are demonstrating their support for our communities.  Critical queer liberationists are left asking, who is being represented/recognized and for what purposes?  How does giving access to capitalist ventures hawking products of questionable value to our communities about equality, when our own grassroots organizations are marginalized in the process?

Striving towards equality is a limited and limiting process.  It will only take us as far as our heterosexually dominated society has gone.  Queer liberation raises the bar beyond equality.  It argues for equity, as it recognizes that we are a diverse society made up of different people (such as queers) who need to be differently recognized according to our varied realities.  Queer liberationists think outside the box seeking creative ways of living that is not necessarily defined by societal norms and mores.  Critical queer liberationists trouble the concept of ‘equality’ for at the personal and societal level of integrity, it may require a compromise that is disingenuous.  ‘Equality’ in and of itself can be troubling.

– Nick Mulé  –  January 29, 2010