Saturday, 19 February 2011

More equal than others

According to, the word 'gay' can be taken to mean "having or showing a merry, lively mood". So I'm starting to wonder whether we appropriated the wrong adjective to describe the homosexual experience, since it seems that gays are never happy.

It doesn't seem to matter how much time someone devotes to advocating for gay rights, there are always voices within the community that pipe up to criticise or condemn. The recent fall-out over Born This Way's explicit commercialisation of gay identity shows that we're never completely satisfied. But I guess that Curmudgeon Pride doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

The latest exercise in gifthorse orthodontistry comes courtesy of Facebook's decision to add a new range of relationship status options to users' profiles. Recognising that we're a generation that simply has to share every detail of our private lives in a public forum, the new functionality adds 'civil union' and 'domestic partnership' to the existing list.

Relationships have always been a thorny issue for Facebook users - nothing has quite the same sting as seeing your one-time beloved's status updated to read " single", or when the object of your unrequited affection is suddenly recategorised as " in a relationship".

Trouble at home? Then change your profile to "It's complicated" and just wait for the apologetic emails to flood your inbox. I reckon it's only a matter of time before the list extends again to include " looking for a way out", " cheating with a colleague" and " only staying together until the kids are older". 

Taken at Facebook value, this new enhancement should be seen as a step forward, since it recognises the existence of committed, legally sanctioned relationships that fall outside of the realms of 'traditional' marriage. However, to some commentators, this simply highlights the 'second class status' of civil unions and domestic partnership arrangements. With the battle over definitions of marriage still raging, this simply confirms how many people feel about the prevailing lack of equality. 

For the record, I think it's a step in the right direction, even though I'm not sure how 'civil union' translates into an adjective. No-one grows up dreaming of the day they become 'civilly unionised'.

A few years back, I had to endure a painful conversation with a call-centre customer services advisor for a car insurance company. I was trying to get my partner added to the insurance policy, and although the computer programme in question allowed the operator to list me as 'living with partner', the subsequent tabs offered no option to change the gender to male. In retrospect, maybe the computer system just had trouble believing that a gay man would be seen dead behind the wheel of a Ford Focus.

As a result, the operator got very upset at the injustice of it all, regaling me with the heart-rending tale of her best friend and the problems she'd encountered when coming out. I just wanted a new quote on my policy, not the life-story of a lesbian in the North East.

Despite the changes, many happily partnered gay men and women will refuse to use the new status options, preferring to list themselves as 'married'. It's their way of making a statement about the importance of the word marriage in the fight for equality. What really matters though, is the fact that at least we now have a choice. Because isn't that what really matters, where freedom's concerned?  

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