Members of the original 1978 Sydney Mardi Gras in a 2008 photo. Some older gays don’t support same-sex marriage. AAP Image/Jane Dempster
According to the foremost campaigners in Australia for same-sex marriage, The Equality Campaign, “Research shows only a small group of Australians firmly oppose marriage equality”. Oddly enough, this “small group” may include a number of gays over the age of 50.
In a revealing article in The Conversation, an experienced researcher into the lives of gay men points out that there is a clear divide between the aspirations of younger and older gay men. Peter Robinson, of Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, has just published a study of older gays in Australia, Gay Men's Working Lives, Retirement and Old Age.
In 2013 he interviewed a small international sample of gay as part of his research into sexuality and ageing. At that time, it appeared that “Most of the men over 50 were dubious, if not opposed, to gay marriage, while most of those under 30 were supportive”.
Why? Most of the rhetoric defending same-sex marriage in Australia’s plebiscite has assumed that all gays think the same. Take this paragraph from The Equality Campaign’s website:
Marriage means every relationship is equal and has the same value. LGBTI Australians and our family members and friends just want the same recognition and value for our life-long, loving and committed relationships. All couples want to be there for each other through thick and thin, grow old together and be able to retire with dignity — and know that their life-long relationships are equal.
But equality is exactly what some – it’s hard to say how many – older gays do not want. Robinson quotes a 59-year-old black gay activist from San Francisco:
I … don’t for the life of me understand why the gay community has decided to emulate an institution that doesn’t work for even straight people … It is laughable.
And this American is no exception. “He is typical of many older gay men who are bemused by the younger generation’s desire for marriage, reflecting the radically different experiences of those who grew up in far more restrictive and intolerant decades.,” Robinson writes.
Why have these men been silent during the bitterest political debate in Australia in many years? Perhaps because they are reluctant to shatter the illusion of gay unity — and because they would be shame-stormed if they did. Robinson writes:
These older men have largely remained silent in the current same-sex marriage debate. I suspect this is because they do not want to be accused of betraying their own kind or exhibiting “internalised homophobia”, which for decades has been the accusation hurled at gay people who do not conform to the prescribed norms of the sub-culture.
The intellectual godfather of gay rights, Dennis Altman, is a pioneering Australian activist. He has made no secret of his scepticism about the marriage equality movement, although he is reluctantly backing the Yes vote in the plebiscite as a way of expressing solidarity with other gays. His view is that “The argument against same-sex marriage is strongest when it is an argument against marriage per se.”
But a couple of years ago, the elder gay statesman had some harsh words for a younger generation of gays pushing same-sex marriage:
I think there’s a real danger of the marriage equality movement marginalising people who are not in long-term relationships. I’ve had people come up to me crying when I’ve said it, saying to me “I’m so glad you said that because I’ve never heard anyone say it.” The marriage equality movement are quite good at bullying. I’ve had more attacks for statements that are in any way critical of marriage from other homosexuals than from straight people.
Robinson points out that gay activism has done a back-flip since the heady days of the 1970s, when the catch cry was “sexual liberation”. The aim of gay activists was the freedom to experiment with new forms of sexual relationships, not servile imitation of “straights” and the boring suburban domesticity of one-man-one-woman-plus-kids. Older gays fear that “the push for same-sex marriage is having a ‘mainstreaming’ effect on gays and lesbians, that is, that they are being turned into ‘pseudo straights,” says Robinson. “Should same-sex marriage be approved, the fear among radical queers is that it would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy.”
Only now, when the plebiscite is nearly over, are these tensions emerging in the media. Who knows? Had they received more publicity earlier, perhaps the campaign would have taken a different turn.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.