It’s Only Words: Same-sex marriage & destroying the Other

Originally published here:

I have taught English as a second language to adult students at a university for over four years, and in that time I have worked with devout muslims and catholics, the religious-less Chinese, gay Brazilians, (surprisingly) agnostic Saudis, argumentative French, and alcohol-friendly Iraqis. I’ve taught women who would perform a mercy killing on their daughters if they brought shame to the family; Koreans obsessed with saving money for plastic surgery to remove the epicanthic folds of their eyes; people from war-torn countries suffering from overt post-traumatic stress disorder; and students from two of the most violent cities on the planet (Caracas and Baghdad) sitting next to each other, sharing a knowing laugh. Of course, all of them have been “educated” ergo from a fairly middle-class background. Their identities swim around in my petri dish, while I reflect on my own, in between moments when I remember to teach.

A part of language lessons are the ‘getting to know you’ games – exercises that allow the students to practice their listening and speaking skills, and a good opportunity for me to memorise their names, overhear their level of English and any interesting points of view they may have. When they get to relationship status vocabulary, they have the choice of saying they are single, have a boyfriend/girlfriend, are engaged, married, or divorced. There seems to be no need to learn the words ‘de facto’ or ‘partners from a civil union’. And you never learn the word ‘gay’, or ‘homosexual’ unless those adjectives apply to you.

In the higher level classes, we sometimes get the students to debate ‘controversial’ issues. These topics include the death sentence, abortion, euthanasia, and the like, and yet only a couple of text books will include gay rights and/or same-sex marriage – depending on when they were published. Students learn language like: “I understand your point of view, but I disagree…” and “I agree with you, however…”, and we discuss the English ways of compromise and the levels of politeness that use the conditional (“I would like that very much!” or “I couldn’t possibly!”). I have tentatively included gay rights into the mix on a few occasions and students will almost always treat it as a taboo subject: they will speak about it like it’s a problem for people they’ve only ever heard about – the underclasses of the West, or the embarrassment of their nation. Gay people are Other. And if students have the choice, they will never continue the discussion further. Usually they forget to use “I think” or “I believe” and cut it down to the categorical “They are”. I tentatively use the topic in my lessons because this homophobia and ignorance hurts. I can rationally compartmentalise what they say as a product of their cultural upbringing. I don’t judge them for that. But on another level it bruises. It shakes the self-esteem (am I not accepted?). It’s a blow. And it would be easier to compartmentalise as “something only ignorant foreigners say” (and thereby ‘othering’ them), if in the lift on my way out of the building I don’t also have to endure overheard homophobic comments from Australians, too, flippantly making me feel Other in my own country, where I thought we valued critical thinking and a fair-go.

Being ‘Other’ is the crux of the same-sex marriage debate. It’s not just about marriage. It’s not just about “love”, or even about a pragmatic, legal way of sharing assets. (People dismissively suggest if that were the case, a civil union would be just fine. You know, like it was fine being forced to sit at the back of the bus because of your race – because you were still on the bus.) I could have a de facto relationship with a Spaniard, and he could move to Australia after we prove a yearlong commitment which would benefit from similar legal recognition as marriage as far as immigration is concerned. However, I can’t marry him (as it’s legal to do) in Spain and have it recognised in Australia as marriage. The issue here is that I’m being told I can’t have what my own brother has. I’m ‘othered’ from my own family. That hurts.

In light of the recent political and social debate on same-sex marriage, every Australian has been given the chance to form an opinion on the topic. Whether pro-marriage equality or against, it’s a positive thing that the vocabulary of the marginalised has entered national dialogue, out of the realm of taboo, like in my classroom. Now, the words “same-sex” and “marriage” are up for a good old semantic scrutinisation.

A few years ago, when I was studying my undergraduate degree, the student newspaper put out a “Queer” edition in which, being recently out and vitriolic, I wrote several pieces all addressing the fact that I hated the word “queer” and that there shouldn’t even have to be a “Queer” edition of anything. I was studying semantics and psychoanalysis at the time and took offense at being ‘othered’. In that edition of the newspaper, the straight, male editors otherwise tip-toed around the theme, leaving it to the gays and lesbians on campus to fill the pages. At the time, even the words “gay community” were being debated, with “LGBT community” replacing them. (Now it’s the lengthy acronym LGBTIQ. Its length, I think, demonstrating how fluid and irrelevant a person’s sex-life is to their place in society. Why not also add A[sexual], C[hild-free] and then to be inclusive and not self-‘othering’, H[eterosexual]?) I still have a problem with “community” as it conjures the image of a secular society where, once you’ve labelled yourself Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Trans, Inter-sexual, or Questioning, you get an ID card and attend regular meetings. It was another way of ‘othering’ non-hetero sexualities. My vitriol came from the fact that I believed “gay rights” weren’t just the problem of LGBTIQ people, but everyone – it’s a human right. Guaranteed there’s someone residing in that sexuality spectrum somewhere in your family or friendship group. Thankfully, in the five years since then, I’m seeing a surge of heterosexual students and social commentators write just as fervently on marriage equality. It has entered the national psyche.

Personally, I don’t care if I get married (it’s outdated – I respect it only because my parents have made it work, though they’ll be the first to say that they have never felt contained or constrained by it) – but I sure as hell care if I’m allowed access to the word. Traditionally, and globally, “marriage” means a formalised legal contract of commitment between two people. Let’s forget about religion – if it’s purely a union for God’s eyes, then I can list scores of family and friends living in married sin (and no one’s screaming for their arrest). Also, there are churches which welcome non-hetero sexualities into the fold – that’s a parallel evolution already happening. Let’s forget about white dress weddings, Bridezillas, and honeymoons: this is the commercial side of marriage, much like how we bemoan Hallmark cashing in on Valentine’s Day. You can still throw a party for a civil union ceremony. In 21st century Australia, marriage is simply a rite of passage (and for the few who still manage to schedule it in, it’s a practical legality for breeding). We should forget about the word “love”, too. Love is much too vague and subjective (and a cliche for the writer). The most important word in this debate is “equality” – “marriage equality” rather than “equal love”. And it’s “same-sex” marriage insomuch as the campaign is for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry, rather than for gay people (or Ls or Bs or Ts or Is or Qs) to be allowed to have their own “gay” marriage – after eating gay cake on their gay birthday.

When I read social commentary against same-sex marriage, it hurts, just like it hurts to hear my students – with whom I’ve built a strong rapport with – say homophobic things; although I find it easier to keep respecting my students. Their paradigm of what constitutes a gay man doesn’t include someone like me (I’d need a silk chiffon number, make-up and complete rejection from society for that to make sense to a lot of them). But in this country we know better: in a country proud of its fair-go ethos, I don’t understand why there has been a delay to see that equality is being denied. It’s frustrating. However, I remind myself that there was a before-and-after for women’s suffrage, that there was a time not sixty years ago when Indigenous Australians were denied their right to vote as well. Who were the people that thought it was OK to treat them like animals from Terra Nullius? Well, that was/would’ve/could’ve been you and me.

Even though parliament seems to be stuck in a conservative malaise at the moment, I’m not giving up hope. People are predictable, people move in herds, people are resistant to change (I remember how long my parents hated the phrase “Seeya later” – now they use it liberally). Support for same-sex marriage is increasing, and not because activists are door-knocking and brainwashing the undecided. It’s because we live in a society that generally believes non-hetero sexualities are natural and normal. That there is nothing different between us as humans. Our unwarranted ‘otherness’ comes from a tolerance of fear and hate based on ignorance or a misinterpreted text in a holy book, not science nor, more importantly, anything wedo. I’m not giving up hope because those who aren’t fearful of same-sex marriage (or non-hetero sexualities) will never change their minds.

So for me – to calm my vitriolic rage – the most important thing coming from the same-sex marriage debate is not that one day John and Paul can spend thousands of dollars on a wedding party (although think of the economic boost!) – but that it’s making everybody, whether they like it or not, think about the fact that it’s possible – just possible – that being homosexual doesn’t preclude you from a rite-of-passage heterosexuals take for granted. That if same-sex couples could also marry (and hopefully soon, adopt), a person’s sexuality could no longer be ‘othered’. That’s the big ask: not just for the right to the adjective “married”, but for another step closer to losing the word “Other”. Now that it’s not taboo to talk about, I hope it’s only a matter of time before we look back on today as the beginning of the end of an embarrassing dark age.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to experiment with discussions on gay-rights in my classroom. If there’s one thing I’ve taken from my experiences teaching (and travelling) is that you cannot predict someone’s basic humanity from their country’s legislation or dominant religion. But I will tread carefully. I am, like most people, a follower. When your own country doesn’t have your back, it’s easy to remain fearful you’ll be rejected. And that’s what hurts the most.

5 thoughts on “It’s Only Words: Same-sex marriage & destroying the Other

  1. It’s always great to hear someone’s perspective on this ‘issue’, especially someone who is not only gay, but also someone dealing with it in another country. Just know that you have supporters out there, even here in the US, in the south no less. I quoted the word issue because its not as much of an issue as much as it is people fighting for equality, and ignorant people suppressing it. Honestly, I didn’t know the Australian stance on gay marriage, I guess I assumed that it was such a laid back country that it would be legal.

    Anyway, be assured one day people will look back with perplexion as to why this was ever debated. Stay strong, we as a world will get there

    1. Thanks! Australia is actually a weird place of progressiveness and conservatism… politicians play to the lowest common denominator too often, and our two major political parties are more or less centre-right in their policies. But things are changing. It’s becoming common that any social commentator makes a point about how same-sex marriage should be the next thing on the prime minister’s agenda.
      And I agree, I think we’re just living through a particular ‘dark age’… things will only get better.

  2. Lovely piece Sam. xx

  3. “… I wrote several pieces all addressing the fact that I hated the word “queer” and that there shouldn’t even have to be a “Queer” edition of anything.”

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one who experiences discomfort at the compartmentalising of people in this manner. I understand people seeking solidarity and support under the umbrella of terminology and collectivity but it makes me sad that it happens anyway. I hope that it is a evolutionary device and that in time the distinctions fade into history. Realistically though, I realise that it will take a long time – if ever. It still niggles me though.

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