A March 2013 issue of Time magazine declares the same-sex marriage wars are over.
Amidst the cheers for same-sex marriage, it is easy to mistake the cause as the ultimate goal for gay rights, after which we are all supposed to live happily over the rainbow, or depending on who you ask, the ultimate doom for mankind, hastening the end of the world. Both sides forget that there is a diversity of responses to same-sex marriage as there are ways to form relationships.
Same-sex marriage legalisation will not impact gay and lesbian communities alone, but everyone concerned about such developments. For those against LGBTs, marriage equality may be a sign of decline of society. For those in support, it may be a sign of progress. But this is not always a clear division. In fact, many LGBTs in Malaysia are too busy worrying about more pressing things to be concerned about marriage: being discovered and fired from work, being discovered and disowned by families, being arrested, being bullied in schools, being forced to leave someone we love in order to be married to someone we don't love.
There are of course some Malaysian LGBTs who have managed to live openly among their friends and families. While some may be happy enough just to be accepted, it is in the nature of humans to hope for more, for equality, for legal recognition, for celebration.
We must be aware there also exists those who don't care about marriage. Whether gay or straight or bisexual, some people see marriage as nothing more than a social pressure, a legal recognition of a personal relationship, a state's attempt to regulate private relationships. The legal, economic, social privileges we give to married people have created another inequality that we no longer question: the unequal status between married and unmarried people. Unmarried people have been made to feel as if we are incomplete, irresponsible, immature, if we don't marry, and that, magically, we would become whole when we do.
From young, we have been taught to desire marriage for its social value. As a result, we conform ourselves and our relationships into shapes recognisable by society. And hence, many LGBTs desire marriage and try to change themselves, even marrying the opposite sex, in order to become legal subjects before the law, to belong within local norms.
I don't mean that marriages are all meaningless but that we have to recognise that a lot of its meanings are constructed through cultural institutions, from everyday language to faith rituals to gender roles, all doubly reinforced through legal discourses. Couples who chose to define their relationships or marriages on their own terms are often frowned upon, if not made to be outcasts all together. The state remains ever a cold, ruthless, machine that passes judgments on matters of the heart with heartless laws. I would rather we have less state in our private relationships, and more state in regulating corporations and politicians.
At the end of the day, the state shouldn't have any business regulating relationships at all. And this means it neither has any business legalising nor banning marriages. Adults of age should just be allowed to call their romantic relationships what they will, and negotiate that relationship among their other familial and social relationships how they will.
Before you accuse me, don't worry, I am aware I sound like an anarchist, or some free love hippie stuck in the wrong decade! I do recognise it is unrealistic to expect the state to withdraw its investment in control and power (at least not until our collective imagination dreams up a better, workable system other than the nation state to organise the planet, and also a system to produce consensus on that!). I hope, however, it won't stop us from asking ourselves: What exactly are we asking for when we approach the state to legislate our relationships? What are the good and bad ramifications and how can we overcome the bad ones? And how can we stop the state from over-reaching its jurisdiction?
Yes, it is great when adults are allowed to marry each other, and this right should be celebrated wherever people realise that that should be the case. But it is neither the most important right for LGBTs nor should it be the only socially desirable destination for everyone, whether gay or straight.
This right would be meaningless if society and community remains so rigidly structured and are taught to alienate and reject those we don't understand. In fact, our social and national identity is largely defined by who we exclude and who we hate. The state wants to produce a homogeneous society where everyone can be taught to vote the same way and buy the same way, and everyone else who doesn't conform must be an enemy. Why do we need the state to tell us who we can love or hate?
We are taught to hate, misunderstand and reject, based on the fear we absorb through state policies and political discourse around who is acceptable as a citizen and who is not. Perhaps our definition of who is a citizen has to evolve. Perhaps it shouldn't be left to politicians and leaders to determine who are citizens. Citizenship should be a process that is democratic, people-led, inclusive, transparent, evolving. Outcasts, non-conformists, dissidents and LGBTs have as much to teach us about living together as anyone else. Perhaps the space needs to exist where everyone in Malaysia can freely discuss their hopes and dreams and loves without fearing prison.
I for one, long for the day when people are simply given the choices to determine who they are, who they love and who they want to tell that to, while their families and communities are encouraged to support them. And that together, we are recognised through our love for each other rather than our hate.
Pang Khee Teik is the co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka and currently a graduate student at University of London in the United Kingdom. The column is originally written in response to questions from a reporter at The Star newspaper in Malaysia. The article Activists: Legalising gay marriages in Asia won't solve Malaysia's LGBT issues was published in The Star on Jul 29. 2013.