2 min

Abandon equality

Equality-based advocacy circumscribes too tightly what constitutes injustice

The decade in which “same-sex partners” turned into gay “husbands” and lesbian “wives” is winding down. In a few weeks, the naughties will be over and we’ll be into 2010. Holy shit.

It’s a decade that was ushered in by Jean Chretien’s Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, which granted gay couples civil partnerships. It was a decade dedicated to marriage, partner benefits and adoption rights.

I mean, that’s the dominant story: over the last 10 years, equality-based crusaders won all kinds of things for gay couples. Go us.

The other side of the story is a bit different: In the 2000s, we had major bathhouse raids in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary, and we demanded that charges be dropped (to mixed effect). We challenged censorship at Canada’s borders, and won an ultimately hollow victory. There was a big win in the courts for sex clubs and swingers, but hookers and rent boys are still duking it out for the freedom to work safely.

So, on one hand, we have a rosy set of equality-based victories, mostly benefiting long-term gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, we have a host of sexuality- and freedom-based battles, many of which are ongoing.

You’re going to hear a lot more about this from me over the next little while. I’ve just arrived in Toronto to take the helm as Xtra’s new managing editor. (I’ve been redeployed from Capital Xtra in Ottawa.) Like the folks who’ve sat in this chair before me, I believe we should be focusing on the second basket of issues — in particular, the struggle for sexual freedom. The equality stuff has largely run its course for gay people.

Equality-based ethics has been a powerful force in Canada — from such, we’ve won important victories, including security against discrimination in housing and employment. And of course, that battle isn’t over for trans people.

But at its heart, equality-based advocacy circumscribes too tightly what constitutes injustice. Take for example the right of lesbians and gays to serve in the Canadian military, a right we won in 1992. Gays in the military: is that progressive, or should our communities have been pushing for peace and the reform of the country’s armed services? We can’t even ask that question if we’re tethered to equality.

But of course, such is the logic of equality activism. Its dominant critique is “we want in,” which is not a critique of institutional power. In fact, a critique of institutional power is impossible in a “we want in” paradigm. Why not change the world to make it better instead of settling for full participation in the way things are now?

Since equality-based logic has no yardstick to measure the virtues of a law, other than to advocate for its equal application, the equality movement will always remain essentially conservative.

Under the logic of equality, criminalizing gay sex is bad because gays and straights should be treated equally. But prostitution — so long as the laws apply equally to all sexualities — is fair game for state intervention. Polyamory, same. SM, park sex, porn: same, same, same.

The good news is that most equality seeking gays and lesbians I know use multiple filters for judging laws good or bad, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality. From the feminists: my body, my choice. From civil liberties advocates: get the state out of our sex lives. From the bondage community: safe, sane and consensual.

You can see how a sexuality-based movement (framed by “my body, my choice,” “get the state out of our bedrooms” and “safe, sane and consensual”) has a different scope than an equality-based one.

I do hope we haven’t sacrificed these rubrics in our quest for equal treatment. As we move forward, let’s not forget that equality-seeking is a tool for achieving social justice, but its logic is limited and won’t — on its own — lead to a just society.