Lizzie Spencer is an activist involved in the global justice movement and has been involved in numerous NGO campaigns to tackle global poverty, including climate justice and gender equality. Lizzie’s research interests include alternative models of development, moving beyond economic measures to consider well-being and quality of life. This week, Lizzie personally reflects on her relationship with equal rights activism and the narratives recently used in the coverage of the same-sex marriage bill.
A few weeks ago in the midst of public debate about gay marriage and parenting, I took what could be considered the easiest form of activism… the Facebook rant! Full of righteous indignation, I expressed frustration at the language being used by MPs, religious leaders and media, and at the degree of opposition to equal rights which prevails in our government and religious institutions. Not discounting the progress that was made by the approval of same-sex marriage bill in the House of Commons, authority figures were continuing to warn of the threat of same-sex partners hold to family values and the sanctity of marriage, whilst others were talking about gay marriage (aka marriage) as if it was granted as a special favour to same-sex couples instead of a right. As religious institutions maintained the power to lawfully discriminate by refusing marriage at their discretion, those more sympathetic religious figures were emphasising the need to be ‘tolerant’ to same sex couples and parents, instead of considering acceptance of difference and valuing the choices gay people make. This rhetoric of disapproval and the array of misinformed judgements sparked a visceral reaction in me, which in turn led to the Facebook outburst… and I must admit, it felt good to see those ‘likes’ from my supportive friends!
However, when one of these friends approached me to write about equal rights activism, I began to question two things. Firstly, it made me query what had sparked my reaction and what frustrations had fueled the outburst. Secondly, I considered my dubious status as an equal rights activist, hesitant to declare myself worthy of writing after my armchair activism. This second point resonates with an on-going personal dilemma, as a woman who has relationships with women; to be a gay rights activist or not to be, and if to be, then how? Do Facebook updates suffice, or should I be using my resources to channel the anger I feel at the injustices of inequality and become an agent of change?
The starting point in deciding what to do is exploring why it matters. Consider the opinions of political leaders such as MP David Burrowes who smugly predicts that at the next stage of approval, equal marriage legislation will receive considerable opposition in the House of Lords, or of Welsh Secretary David Jones who recently asserted that gay couples can’t raise children. Are they worth getting worked up about and do they matter at all? I believe so, ultimately because the underlying homophobic messages being conveyed are damaging for both individual well-being, and for the development of a fair nation. Both political and religious leaders have the right to express their views, but such comments amount to moralisations and judgements about right and wrong family set ups, about the capacity of people to bring up children based on gender, and about the validity of companionship between two people. Such archaic fantasies of a good British family and matrimony seem so illogical and dated and need to be challenged for the sake of same-sex couples, but also for diverse families around the UK. The imposition of authority figure’s ill-founded opinions onto the public is worrying enough, but when combined with their decision making power over family and marriage legal rights and policy, it becomes clear that they need to be questioned. Since the reasoning of many government and religious figures appears to be fueled by fear of people who love each other and want the freedom to commit, their position to regulate others relationships must also be discussed; if my personal is political, it’s essential to be engage with these politics. To prevent homophobia manifesting throughout society, to be able to live a meaningful life where goals of matrimony and family life are unhindered by institutional discrimination, and to overcome treatment as a lesser citizen on the basis of who one happens to love, I must act.
So, with the need for action quite clearly defined, the next big question is what form of activism should I take? Starting with my chosen method, Facebook. Evident from the role that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had in the Middle East uprisings, social media has huge potential to share information, imagery, stories and campaign information from around the world. Yet when reflecting on my Facebook activism for equal rights and many other salient issues of justice, I do wonder about its potential to engender change. Although my rant, sent from behind the safety of my computer screen, was ‘liked’ by a few friends and family, they are likely to share similar views and to support equal rights issues anyway. There is a chance that some may be inspired, so spreading my views and encouraging the signing of online petitions may be making a difference. But really, taking this form of activism in isolation, it does feel like a bit of a cop out! It could even be considered an exercise of seeking reaffirmation of my beliefs through approval, rather than challenging homophobic opinions of others directly. There must be more I can do to reach a wider audience and actually do something out in the physical world?
More tangible forms of activism in the form of campaigning and awareness raising by organisations have been crucial in attainment of the rights and quality of life gay people have today. Being conscious of not taking the perseverance and efforts of dedicated people for granted, I have often felt I should be part of resistance movements, being an active subject who participates in organised efforts to fight hatred and prejudice. It is curious then that I am not presently affiliated with any organisations, apart from receiving the occasional update of the latest scandal from Stonewall. Considering why, I thought about what a gay rights activist looks like; images conjure of hardcore activists, mostly men, such as Harvey Milk the US gay politician assassinated in the 70s for his equal rights campaigning. Immersed in the scene, Über gay, aggressively proud, consistently loud… is that really me? Deconstructing my stereotypes of gay rights activists, I realise it comes down to a matter of identity. Activism in any form is very much interconnected to identity; I don’t identify myself with the label ‘lesbian’, or ‘gay rights activist’, which may have made me shy away from organised activism. This is partly for fear of not being gay enough, influenced by experiences of in-group discrimination in the past where I have been accused of not being a ‘real’ lesbian through not conforming to dress codes, hair styles and other cultural markers. The issue of identity is also combined with caution of getting involved with prescribed campaigns that could be valuable, but risk conveying a simplistic ‘us good vs them bad’ message. It’s easier just to not get involved.
Now, my disengagement with campaigns certainly doesn’t seem like a useful type of activism, it’s pure idleness! Let’s face it, doing nothing because I am cautious is even more of a cop out than Facebook rants! In fact, my reluctance to get involved in gay rights organisations could even be perceived to be based on the same concerns as the aforementioned authority figures; fear of the unknown and lack of understanding. There is nothing stopping me from becoming more informed about campaigns and choosing which ones I engage with carefully. I may easily find alliances with people who I can share a set of visions and beliefs, nurturing solidarity and deciding how best to tackle homophobia together. And I may well do, one day. However for me, one of the strongest forms of activism involves practicing and talking about the concepts of equality and fairness in everyday life. Activism can be manifested in the conversations I have on a day to day basis, by engaging in critical debate in multiple social spaces with people who can be encouraged to rethink and stretch their imageries of relationships, families, and what’s considered ‘normal’, valued and respected. By instigating conversations and coming face to face with challenging opinions, this may increase my own understanding of the source of fear and prejudice in others. Only by considering others beliefs in a non-judgmental and open manner can mutual understanding and positive change ever be reached. To compliment this challenging task, I believe one of the strongest forms of activism is living out the reality of love, commitment and togetherness in everyday life, which is enduring and can never eroded by adversities such as legislation and prejudicial judgments. Through this, seeds of change can be planted and ideas can inspire; that that love between two people and families can enrich rather than damage communities and nations, and that diverse family units are not a problem but are valuable.
The action I decide to take in the future remains to be seen, but I have begun to formulate an ideal. I have confidence that through daily actions to nurture understanding, I can work with others to challenge the ignorance which acts as a barrier to equality for same sex couples. Through human interactions and conversations, we can actively become free from the tyranny of negative perceptions, learning new ways to understand difference and experience, not just tolerating, but accepting. At the risk of sounding hippy happy, I believe in the strength of the human spirit: hope, creativity, courage and most importantly love to actively challenge the adversities faced. I believe the struggle to challenge discriminating structures and legislation can be faced, and I have confidence that all over the country and throughout the world (where gay people commonly face unimaginable challenges to living a free life), people will take action in their own ways to contribute to fairer society. And as I continue to decide my personal forms of activism, I might just have the occasional Facebook rant too!
RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM has also collated some online resources that you may be interested in:BBC (2013) Gay marriage: Can online activism make a difference? HCA (2013) The Hall-Carpenter Archives: a study of gay activism in Britain.
Kitlinski, T. (2012) Queering Cameron’s Britain, Souciant Lipp, M. (2013) Comment: The power of online activist & social media in the fight for LGBT equality, Pink News LSE (2013) Gay Liberation Front