The gay marriage backlash

Labour MP Louisa Wall speaks after the Marriage Equality Bill passed the vote by 77 votes to 44 making same-sex marriage ...

Labour MP Louisa Wall speaks after the Marriage Equality Bill passed the vote by 77 votes to 44 making same-sex marriage legal in New Zealand. Photo: Hagen Hopkins

Last month, Mark Carson, a 32-year-old gay New Yorker was shot on the streets of Greenwich Village, a traditionally gay-friendly area of Manhattan and home of the Stonewall riots that kicked off the gay rights movement in 1969.

Carson’s murder brought the number of New York City’s gay hate crimes to 24, up from 14 at the same point in 2012, which in turn had seen a 13 percent increase from 2011, the year that New York State passed the marriage equality bill. 

In California’s Orange County hate crimes against the lesbian, gay, and transgender community are increasing even as hate crimes in general are on the down trend. In Tennessee, FBI data shows hate crimes based on sexual orientation doubled from 2010 to 2011. 

People from the VONS grocery store chain march in the 43rd L.A. Pride Parade last weekend.

People from the VONS grocery store chain march in the 43rd L.A. Pride Parade last weekend. Photo: David McNew

The violence on America’s streets, even in otherwise progressive neighbourhoods, reflects a growing trend across the world.


On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) presented the findings from the largest ever study of violence against the LGBTI community with 93,000 Europeans completing the survey. The FRA found that: “At a time when the fundamental rights of LGBTI persons are being discussed in national parliaments across the European Union, initial survey findings reveal that nearly a half of all respondents had felt discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation in the past year before the survey.” 

Meanwhile, in France, a recent 400,000-strong protest against the legalisation of same-sex marriage and adoption turned violent, with protestors attacking journalists and clashing with police. One of the many huge banners sported in that rally read ‘No to a change in civilisation.’

LGBTI community: Welcome to your backlash.

The journey to full LGBTI rights as exemplified by the inexorable march to marriage equality (13 countries and 12 US States now recognise same-sex marriage) has seen a corresponding rise in anti-gay activism and hate crimes that recall a similar backlash faced by other marginalised groups who have had to fight for the basic right of being treated as full human beings.

Violence targeting African-Americans skyrocketed during the post-slavery Southern Reconstruction era. As freed slaves gained legal rights, a violent backlash was spawned with the white southern population responding with both random and organised bouts of deadly violence guided by vigilante group the Ku Klux Klan.

Women too are no strangers to backlash. In 1991 Susan Faludi published Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, in which she outlined the numerous ways in which the hard fought gains of the women’s movement were being undermined by media and cultural forces.

Faludi documents how, beginning in the early 1980s, even as women were being fed the narrative that they had “made it” with the battle for equality “largely been won”, popular media and academic journals alike were running a never ending stream of stories lamenting the numerous crises facing women, including “burnout, “infertility epidemics” “stress-induced disorders” and  “man shortages.” 

Female writers in magazines from the conservative National Review to the liberal L.A. Times, blamed feminism for robbing women “of one thing upon which the happiness of most women rests—men”, and denounced women’s liberation as “The great Experiment That Failed.”

The anti-feminist backlash was set off, Faludi wrote, “not by women's achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line."

So too, the anti-gay backlash is a reaction to the threat of equality, not equality itself. And not all of it is violent. The past decade has seen the emergence of ‘straight pride’ groups, parades and websites, including this one calling itself ‘Straight Pride UK’ which appears to exist for the sole reason of demonstrating Poe’s Law.

As Australian and British politicians draw out the battle for same-sex marriage, (lagging behind New Zealand who legalised it this year) anti-gay voices are growing louder in the media and it has become a regular occurance to hear of gay couples being refused hotel accommodation. 

Those who discriminate against gay couples do so under the guise of protecting their own rights, with one private guesthouse owner declaring, “Everyone knows what homosexual activity is. It's quite clear if two guys rent one bed you know what's going to happen. We have to protect our other guests." 

One wonders what these adult guests need protecting from. What imagined threat do homosexuals hold, apart from recognition of their right to exist in the public sphere? It is maddening that it actually needs to be said, but there is no need for ‘straight pride’ parades because there is no history of institutional criminalisation, marginalisation and discrimination against hetereosexuals. No straight person has ever had to grow up being told that their orientation was an “abomination.”

And that’s what it comes down to. Like the backlash against women, which gave rise to paranoid Men’s Rights Activists, the LGBTI backlash is not about loss of equality but loss of straight privilege. It is an attempt to preserve the status quo and remind the target of the backlash of their “rightful” place; for women, it is in the home, for gays, it is in the closet.

As the struggle for full LGBTI legal and social recognition continues, it is worth keeping in mind that the backlash is a two edged sword. On the one hand, if the backlash against women is anything to go by, it shows just how much a strong backlash can stymie social progress. Who’d have thought that twenty odd years after Faludi released her book, we’d still be treated to a never-ending succession of articles lamenting the inability of women to “have it all”? That our first female Prime Minister would be derided for her “barren womb”? And that abortion would still be technically illegal in Australia and increasingly difficult to obtain in America?

On the other hand, the very existence of a backlash means the LGBTI community is gaining ground. In Gandhi’s famous phrase, this is the part where “they fight you”. The only thing left to do now is win.