My relationship is not a political statement. These are the words I repeated to myself over and over again when I first started going out with my boyfriend. But I’ve come to realise that these words were highly naive, and that my relationship is inevitably political. Every single act of affection I make is an act of defiance of social norms.
Holding hands in public is a daring act, provoking stares, even comments. Kissing in public turns you into a spectacle. Absent minded affection is not something I can understand, every single gesture of love in public must be weighed against the risk of a negative or even violent reaction. Travelling as a couple is another thing that is fraught with difficulties, we have to do considerable research as to how gay friendly our destination is, and adjust our behaviour accordingly. Even securing a double bed in a hotel room can be a battle. I am currently barred from getting married in 18 EU member states, as well as part of my home country, Northern Ireland. The daily reality of a same-sex relationship is a struggle against a constant stream of straight expectations.
Growing up gay in Western Europe has been a mix of coming to terms with my own oppression and my own privilege. The knowledge that in some parts of the world people are ostracised, brutalised, criminalised and even executed for being like me both disturbs me and makes me realise how lucky I am. I’m also extremely lucky to have accepting family and friends, I’ve managed to come out successfully, and, unlike so many young gay people, I have never contemplated suicide. But we are still far from equal; coming out in itself is a sign of this inequality. Straight is the default, and we’re still a strange aberration.
But I won’t listen to those who say I should be thankful that I don’t live in a violently repressive society. There is a dangerous new trend from the right, weaponising the issue of gay rights for racist and Islamophobic reasons. Consider the audacity of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson comparing same sex marriage to bestiality in one breath, and stating that a Muslim should not be president because of Islamic intolerance of homosexuality in another. The gay community must fight this appropriation of our cause and fight any narrative that the battle for equality is over in Western countries.
For me, the struggle for gay equality is all about the radical notion that gay people are just people. Our opponents seek to dehumanise us, to turn us into a social problem and a threat. Harvey Milk’s call on all gay people to come out was truly powerful and on point. Only by coming out can we prevent our erasure, or worse, our demonization. For some, coming out just isn’t possible, they risk losing their family, their home and even their lives. But for those who can, coming out is a powerful tool for changing attitudes. When straight people come to realise that we are their colleagues, friends, and, crucially, family, it will be harder to dismiss our rights.
Two years ago, I was keen to run away from the political struggle that my relationship entailed. But no more. I now embrace the political implications of openly loving another man.