Sex and society (6): Liberation or Equality?

by · July 15, 2015

Early Gay Liberation Front protest in NYC

Early Gay Liberation Front protest in NYC

Welcome to the sixth and final blog in the Sex and Society series.

Over the past five blogs we’ve looked at the growth of the nuclear family, its connection to class society, and how the oppression of women and queers manifest today. Last time we looked at love and marriage — how our modern manifestations of love continue much of the oppressive nature of the nuclear family.

Today we’re going to end by looking at the challenges to these structures. If, as I’ve argued, the nuclear family is an oppressive norm, what are the alternatives?


There have always been those who have questioned our norms of sex, gender and the family. Recently for example I came across the story of Fanny and Stella, two pioneering trans* activists from Victorian-era England who faced court for engaging in “immoral behaviour”.

Yet, for the purpose of this blog we’re going to start in the 1960s and 70s, and two key movements — for gay liberation and feminism. Of course these two are interlinked, but let’s look at them both individually.

The roots of the modern gay movement are often placed in 1969 at the Stonewall riots. Here, a group of drag queens, trans* people, gays and lesbians began rioting after they became fed up with the oppression of police. Stonewall immediately gave extra life to an international movement, and in particular the birth of the highly influential Gay Liberation Front (GLF). GLF took a distinct liberationist approach to its politics, one that challenged what they called the “gender roles” of our society. The root of oppression for gay people, they argued, lay in the family, and it was through challenging the family that gay liberation was possible.

Much of the work of the GLF lined up with similar feminist critiques of the family at the same time. The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s focused much of its critique on the family and, in particular, marriage. Second-wave feminism is probably most famous for the slogan “the personal is political,” and this in many ways encapsulated much of what we’ve spoken about. This was a direct challenge to the “standard narrative” we spoke about at the start of the series — a narrative that stated women were destined to fulfil their role as being lower in society.

Both of these movements brought significant critiques to the nuclear family as it was understood at the time. The gay liberation movement saw the nuclear family as the major institution that oppressed queers, while feminists argued marriage and domestic life were the primary social arrangements through which women are oppressed. And a clear part of this critique was a challenge to much of the capitalist underpinnings of these institutions. Marxist feminists for example drew on socialist ideals to argue for a greater influence to be placed on domestic work — both through the proper sharing of housework but also through wages for the activity.

Both the feminist and gay movements have achieved huge success ever since. Homosexuality for example has now been legalised across the western world, while women have entered the workforce in force and are increasingly being represented in higher levels of power in our society. But how deep is this success?

Underlying these wins there is an unfortunate reality. While gays for example can now marry around the world, many others still face significant poverty, discrimination and violence. While some woman are reaching the top of our power structures, the wage-gap remains seemingly intractable, violence against women takes lives every day of the week, and restrictions remain on abortion rights in most of the world.

The question we have to ask is, is this just the cost of slow progress, or are we not tackling the issues in the way in which we need to?

I argue that it fundamentally comes down to the latter.

National Equality March in Washington DC, October 2009

National Equality March in Washington DC, October 2009

There has been a major shift in the direction of the gay and lesbian movements in recent decades. In both mainstream organisations and even grass-roots activists, early ideas of liberation have been replaced with a mantra of equality. This pervades our movements — from campaigns for same-sex marriage to the feminist arguments for equal representation on boards or in Governmental cabinets. While we can all argue that equality is a good thing, this shift goes well beyond just that basic principle. Equality has not only begun to absorb all of our resources, but has shifted our mindsets as well. Marriage equality advocates for example have argued that we are out to “queer marriage”. Yet the reality is that it has in fact straightened us, whether it is through campaign imagery built around pictures of the “white wedding” or advocates embracing the virtuousness of monogamous relationships.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the perverse nature of the equality agenda has been the way the capitalist and political classes have adopted so much of it with fervour and excitement. I have noted this in the past looking at the acceptance from many conservatives for same-sex marriage — a welcoming of gays into the norms of the nuclear family and an expectation we will live up to all of the responsibilities of taking on those roles.

But this expands to even some of the least controversial elements of the progressive agenda. The best example is female representation in the workforce. One of the key demands of the second-wave feminist movement was, rightly, that women should have equal capacity to enter and succeed in the workforce. While of course initially resisting, capitalists slowly society began to adapt. In a growing neoliberal economy in fact women became essential — they provided a significant increase in capacity to boost profits even more. But this seeming equality, achieved solely within the capitalist system, occurred almost entirely on capitalist terms. While women entered the workforce they were expected to continue their familial roles — whether it be the exception to have many children or their continued domination of domestic duties. When society needed it women were expected to stay at home, with the wage-gap that came with that entrenching itself almost indefinitely.

Here is the dilemma. Capitalism has proved itself to be excellent at adaptation, and it has done an excellent job at adapting to the demands of the gay and feminist movements. It has slowly, but surely, provided space for new entrants to the economic system and the nuclear family, as long as the bounds of the system are not broken.

This is the challenge we can lay out at the end of this series. I named this series “Sex and Society” as an acknowledgement that these two are inherently linked. Sex impacts our society, but more important than that how our society is structured impacts how we have sex. To demand equality without questioning the fundamental nature of our society is therefore a very difficult position to uphold.

We have to go deeper than equality. Some are doing this, whether it is those talking about queer theory, or the activists of “Against Equality” in the United States. But these connections are thin on the ground and must be made stronger.

I cannot tell us how to do it. One person cannot instruct us on how to build a social movement. I just know that we are not doing it now.