Ottawa
2 min

The problem with equality

The "we want in" mantra is inherently conservative

Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by being too single-minded in demanding equality? Is equality even possible? Is it desirable?

At its heart, equality-based advocacy circumscribes too narrowly what constitutes an injustice — and can lead to willful blindness.

The equality movement isn’t equipped to make judgments about bad, repressive laws that are not discriminatory. Lacking the tools and vocabulary to fight invasive, creepy legislation that is target-neutral, it’s tempting to say “not my fight.” After all, at least on the surface, most legislation targets both gay and straight people.

Equality-based ethics have been a powerful force in Canada — from such, we’ve won security against discrimination in housing and employment, pension and partner benefits, and most recently gay marriage. And of course, that battle isn’t over for trans people.

Ending discrimination in housing and employment — it’s hard to argue with that. Overt homophobia, such as the case of the lesbian fired by London Ontario-based Christian Horizons, now gets challenged.

But even seemingly straightforward equality victories are troubling. Take for example the right of lesbians and gays to fight in the Canadian military. It is perhaps not surprising that Kim Campbell, when she was justice minister and attorney general in 1992, was the one to instigate this reform. 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? Through the lens of equality, we’re blind to these questions.

Equality-based activism reached a fevered pitch with gay marriage. As many readers know, staff at Capital Xtra and its parent company, Pink Triangle Press, voiced concerns with the project, especially since we’d already been granted partner benefits in 2000 (although those reforms were also flawed).

Many agreed with the lesbian novelist Jane Rule’s assessment of government-sanctioned marriage. “With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there.” In fact, the mandatory reporting of cohabiting two-year relationships on tax forms had Rule wondering why we supported the amendments of 2000 in the first place.

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 to imagine 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 content 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. Polyamoury, same. BDSM, 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. And the paradigm of the bondage community — safe, sane and consensual — offers wisdom that can be applied outside of the dungeon.

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. I also hope that we haven’t forgotten that equality-seeking is a tool for a achieving social justice, but its logic is limited and won’t — on its own — lead to a just society.