AMERICAN academic, artist and activist Ryan Conrad caused a stir during his recent visit to Australia to, among other things, promote a book of essays he edited titled Against Equality.

The book shares its name with the “radical queer publishing collective” co-founded by Conrad in 2009, which offers critiques of LGBT political movements in the US around issues like marriage equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and LGBT-inclusive hate crime laws.

Against Equality publishes work from the US and around the world around with these themes, and has published a number of essay collections for a wide audience to engage with the topics.

It is probably the group’s critique of the marriage equality movement that has attracted the most attention locally, though Against Equality’s arguments are primarily rooted in a US context. Conrad and his colleagues argue the gay community should not fight to be included in a system that is fundamentally inequitable, and denies basic rights like healthcare to unmarried people.

The Star Observer sat down with Conrad to discuss the controversial and provocative group, and to get his perspective on the state of gay politics in Australia.

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The name “Against Equality” is clearly designed to provoke a reaction. What do you hope that reaction will be?

The name is a bit of a sucker punch to get people into the conversation. If you called yourselves “the rainbow coalition for universal healthcare, immigration reform and family law reform”, blah blah blah, no one cares… People at first hear the name Against Equality and they’re like, oh whatever, homophobes, I’m not engaging. But the subtext is, “queer revolution, not mere inclusion”. Or people go, “Against Equality, but it’s got rainbows on it. It’s clearly a gay thing, but they’re calling themselves Against Equality, so what does that mean?”

Maybe the name turns some people off with its confrontation. I think we probably lose some people… but for the most part I think it creates a bit of production confusion, which actually opens up space to have conversations about what the thing is that we’re demanding, as a larger LGBQTI social and economic justice movement.

Do you think that approach is working?

It’s important to be humble about what Against Equality is. We primarily function as an archival and publishing project, and the publishing is to activate the work that’s in our archive. We’re not a political movement, we’re not an organisation — we’re sort of a rag-tag digital archive that’s done some publishing work… I think our intellectual work and our archival work has opened up space for some people to have those conversations.

You’ve had some intense negative reactions to Against Equality over the years. What has that looked like?

Gay and lesbian people have sent us pretty detailed death threats that were also quite racist and anti-rural. I’m not from a big city, and there was quite a detailed death threat about how they were going to chop up my “redneck, inbred body” and distribute my body throughout dumpsters in the city when I came to do a talk. LGBT alumni organisations at universities have tried to have our events cancelled. That was in the early days, and I think it speaks a little to how things have changed since five years ago. Most states in the US have gay marriage now, so the stakes are quite a bit lower… Five years ago having this conversation was really difficult. People thought we were aligning with the religious right. They had this really George W Bush mentality of “you’re either with us or the terrorists”, so we were clearly aligning ourselves with the religious right because there’s a binary, you can only be a homophobe that’s against gay marriage or a good gay person or a good ally that’s for gay marriage. There was no other ground to occupy, and we weren’t in that binary.

We’ve heard some people dismiss Against Equality as simply being about nostalgia, that it’s a return to the 1970s politics of gay liberation.

I think that logic of return to this thing from the 70s as an attempt to dismiss it as archaic or nostalgic totally cuts the line of continuity. What we’re doing isn’t new. Feminists have been critiquing marriage for 100 plus years. An attempt to relegate something to the past or something that is oriented towards the past to dismiss something is completely ahistorical, because it doesn’t allow there to be a continuity… What Against Equality really does is offer an economic critique of the institutions that is in line with other political movements that have demanded a transformative political project or political vision, as opposed to just simply wanting to be included in the status quo. Maybe we are a little “gay lib”, but what the fuck is wrong with that?

How have you found the marriage equality movement here compared with the US? Do you see connections?

One thing that’s really surprised me, particularly being here in Australia, is the language being used by organisations like Equal Love — I did a radio interview, a dialogue with the convenor of Equal Love, Ali Hogg, and it was interesting to hear the rhetoric she was using is the same rhetoric we hear in the US around affect: “We just want to love, we just want to appreciate our partners”, without any real discourse about structure or materiality, about access to healthcare or access to state benefits, or immigration or any of those things. Those are the two competing discourses in the US: I want my rights, I want to be in love. Through de-facto marriage you have many of the things that people do not have any access to in the US. I think of the US as an imperial project, where they export cultural and foreign policy to everywhere else in the so-called west. It’s interesting to see that even on the so-called “left” in Australia they mimic the talking points of neoliberal LGBT political organising in the States.

Given how different the situation is here, as you’ve said, what arguments would you make against the marriage equality movement in Australia?

The Equal Love people and the Australian Marriage Equality people are largely fighting a symbolic battle. If the material benefits are largely there, it relegates it to a symbolic victory, and that’s just some middle-class aspiring bullshit. Symbolic victories don’t do anything that useful in my opinion. Sometimes symbolic victories are really important, but this does not seem like one of them. In terms of what could be argued, a political project or vision that puts the most marginal at the centre of our politics is the most useful strategy. Making sure that middle-class people have this symbolic victory of being considered by the state ‘full people’, I think well okay, let’s think about how queer people in poverty — what are their needs? Or let’s think about trans people, or racialised people, or other parts of our community — what are their actual needs? I would imagine a symbolic victory around marriage is not one of them. 

But again and again queer young people cite marriage equality as one of the most important political issues to them.

There are trans* people and poor people who are fighting for marriage equality — that’s a truth. You go anywhere and the marriage equality movement holds those people up as the face of the movement, and I think it’s so fucked up, because it seems to opportunistic and using people… I feel like people have been so, not brainwashed, but just confronted with the idea that this is the most important thing, and it’s hard.

To me, the answer is that it’s clearly just not true, first of all. Gay marriage is not going to stop people from killing themselves, when the reality is suicide happens for all sorts of reasons, and a lot of those reasons have to do with lack of support in terms of familial support or whatever kinship networks people have. The other thing is, poverty has a lot to do with issues of suicide. What access to resources do people have? Can you go to a therapist? Can you access whatever medications might help stabilise you? Can you access a safe home environment? I think if we actually addressed those needs of people it would reduce suicidality, as opposed to this idea that a symbolic victory for marriage would decrease suicidality.

For more information about Against Equality, visit their website.

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