Laurie Penny: Gay marriage is one thing the Tories really don't get

For most Conservative policy-makers, gay rights are a matter of political expediency, not principle

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I have long suspected that most people who oppose same-sex marriage are just jealous that they haven't been invited to a gay wedding yet. It seems beyond question that, in the year 2012, same-sex couples across the world should be granted the same right to risk making a hash of their lives as anyone else. This week, however, the right wing of the Conservative party has turned on David Cameron for supporting equal marriage, while in the United States, President Obama is being forced to equivocate on the issue after senior Democrats made the mistake of publicly declaring doubt in the capacity of same-sex weddings to collapse the moral superstructure of American life.

Equal marriage apparently matters more to the electorate than the economy – or, at least, that's what Anglo-American conservatives, facing multiple drubbings at the ballot box, are desperately telling themselves. My own ambivalence extends only to the institution of marriage in general. I've just about got to the age when some of my friends are planning to tie the most expensive of knots for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration, and while the queer radical socialist feminist in me is always primed with a lecture about the history of marriage as a ritual to secure property rights, protect the bloodlines of the wealthy and institutionalise the domestic slavery of women, somehow my sentimental side always lets me down.

As such, any given wedding invariably finds me weeping snottily into my copy of On the Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. I have just been invited to my very first hen night and I'm already badgering the bride for dress details. My personal fantasies of eventual domestic bliss currently involve large cheerful polyamorous communes full of cats, computers and kissable people of various genders, but I secretly hope that at least some of my acquaintances remain traditionalists, because I want to keep going to huge parties in ridiculous hats.

Weddings are important. Beyond the useful package of legal rights already conferred by civil partnerships in the United Kingdom, a wedding – especially a church wedding – is the ultimate symbol of cultural assimilation. It's easy to understand why being able to have one matters so much to so many gay, lesbian and bisexual people and their families. You can also understand why others are frustrated that the fight for LGBTQ rights seems to have become all about getting married and joining the military – two things that many queer people have no intention of ever doing.

Nonetheless, the trend towards making LGBT rights as unthreatening as possible – as socially conservative as possible – seemed, for a while, to be working. While prejudice is still a daily danger for transsexuals, gay school schoolchildren, sex workers and many, many others, it really is easier than ever to be gay the more one resembles the average member of the parliamentary Conservative party – white, male, wealthy and raised in privilege.

Ironically, of course, those people are also the ones for whom anti-discrimination legislation has always been least urgent. To put it plainly, you just don't need to worry about homophobic violence in the same way if your house has a moat. Scantily concealed homoeroticism has always been an easy part of the culture of British conservatism, from whispered legends of locker-room fumbles at Eton to the rash of Tory tabloid scandals in the 1990s. I am assured by gay Tory acquaintances that when one is in no real danger of violence, subterfuge is all part of the fun, and legalising gay marriage might very well spoil the salaciousness of it all.

For decades, a policy of active prejudice against gay, lesbian and bisexual people fitted perfectly well alongside gay play in the more refined dining clubs. The British ruling class have always worked on the assumption that the laws they make for ordinary folk will not materially affect their own lives, and, by and large, they have been right. Nonetheless, when David Cameron declared that he was supporting equal marriage "because I am a Conservative" – alongside the party's core policy that marriage, mortgage and monogamy are the right way for everyone on an average incomes to live – some of us actually believed him.

Perhaps we weren't naive to do so. Who knows? Maybe equal marriage will be delivered by a party that, until very recently, had let down and sold out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people every step of the way. Maybe gay and lesbian couples will be welcomed to the dinner table by a government whose current members, including the Prime Minister, personally voted in 2003 to defend one of the most homophobic pieces of legislation in recent memory, Section 28. Perhaps David Cameron's entire outlook really has inverted in 12 years, and the few remaining manifesto policies of the liberal junior partners in this Coalition government will not, in fact, be tossed aside at the first sign of Conservative electoral crisis. It's not impossible: people can change, especially when their spin-doctors assure them that to do so might win vacillating liberal voters to the cause of public sector cuts.

For most Conservative policy-makers, though, gay rights are a matter of political expediency, not of principle. Right now, political expediency seems to be pointing back down the track of moral retrogression. While David Cameron's easy Tory flip is yet to flop on support for equal marriage, the more frothingly reactionary elements of his party are already blaming the proposal for the hammering the Conservatives just received in the local elections.

That includes our old friend Nadine Dorries, who never saw a bandwagon of vicious moral throwbackery she didn't like. For all its professions to being the party of moral consistency and temperance, the Conservatives are clearly prepared to abandon any principle if their grip on power is threatened. They are kidding themselves, however, if they think that simply reversing current policy on equal marriage will be enough to divert attention from a housing crisis, an employment crisis and a corruption scandal that has all but made it to the doors of Downing Street.

Conservative politics are full of convenient delusions. Right now, the most convenient delusion of all is the idea that culture wars can be summoned to distract the electorate from class issues. If senior Tories really believe that voters are abandoning the party because of equal marriage, rather than, say, because of its determination to make ordinary workers pay with their jobs and homes for the financial failings of the rich, then they truly have lost their constituency – and that should worry the old guard far more than a few gay weddings.

twitter.com/@PennyRed

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