Gone to the dogs: pup play devotees at Pride in Toronto (Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

October 15, 2020   6 mins

With hindsight, it probably was bad manners to bring a male one-night stand back to the lesbian commune where I lived.

At the time, in Noughties London, I really believed that what I was doing was radical and creative: embracing fluidity, self-construction and impermanence, against the rigid constraints of a single-sex environment and the gender binary.

I blame some of this insufferability on queer theory, whose ideas I absorbed as an undergraduate. From (among others) Judith Butler I learned that the identity categories of sex and sexuality are imposed on us by oppressive outside forces, while (confusingly) also being open to constant individual reinvention.

In this worldview ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ aren’t stable categories, and neither are ‘man’ and ‘woman’, except inasmuch as they’re imposed by un-hip Forces of Bad: the oppressive ‘cisheteropatriarchal status quo’. And the only way to stick two fingers up at this dread hegemon is to mess about with the categories. Hence feeling so pleased with myself, 15 years ago, for doing something as ground-breakingly subversive as calling myself a lesbian, moving in with a bunch of lesbians and then hooking up with a man.

I share this not especially stellar episode not just as belated apology to my ex-housemates, but because since then queer theory has eaten culture. Everyone’s subverting identity categories now. The abbreviation ‘LGB’, which seemed more than expansive enough in the late nineties when I started university, has ballooned to ‘LGBTQQIAAP’ with activists still pushing for further inclusions. Facebook offers an ever-lengthening list of genders to put on your profile (71 at the last count). And the rainbow flag associated with the Pride marches has multiplied, with at least 24 different ones now available to wave, including a ‘Pup Pride’ one for people who like to roleplay as dogs.

Anyone boring enough to simply accept the identity assigned them by the ‘heteropatriarchy’ is marked with the (supposedly descriptive but really derogatory) epithet ‘cishet’. This is a mark of ignominy, as one Reddit user made clear, asking: “What is a ‘cishet’ and why is it bad?’. “I keep seeing the word cishet in the context of tumblr and my SJW type acquaintances,” the post explains, “usually with them saying that the cishets cause all of their problems and need to die.” One reply cuts to the chase: using cishet is “like derisively calling someone else a ‘normie’.”

In this ‘anti-normie-ism’ we hear echoes not just of the name, but also the ideas, contained in the Reformation-era Christian heresy of ‘antinomianism’. This doctrine held that salvation is available solely through faith and divine grace, and true believers are under no obligation to follow rules, laws or traditions. While antinomianism was rejected by mainstream Protestantism, it ended up having the last laugh: for today the heretics are those who resist the wholesale attack on rules, norms and traditions that characterises anti-normie-ism.

Far from being condemned as heresy, like antinomianism, anti-normie-ism is celebrated in the annual festival of Pride Month, during which millions join in a peculiarly modern ritual of simultaneously celebrating and subverting shared identity. Big brands fall over themselves to monetise the festival.

This moment, and movement, has been some time in the making. In 1793, having defeated the Ancien Régime, the victors in the French Revolution set out to sweep away all the irrational and traditionalist remnants of reactionary Catholicism in favour of a new, atheistic religion of rationality. To this end, they held a Festival of Reason in Notre Dame; where the altar had stood, a papier-mâché mountain was raised on which an actress dressed as Liberty bowed to the flame of Reason.

In that moment, anti-normie-ism dispensed even with the polite antinomian fiction of having God on direct-dial as justification for binning the rules. The Catholic political theorist Adrian Vermeule characterises the subsequent history of our fight against normie-dom, and in favour of individual freedom and self-expression, as continuing the tradition of that 1793 Festival. The Festival of Reason is ongoing: the old must be smashed, traditions swept away, sacred items burned and the march of progress celebrated, a dynamic and relentless drive which “constantly, and at an ever-increasing tempo, disrupts deeply-cherished traditions among its subject populations”.

But over time, as once-edgy positions become mainstream, the Festival’s appetite turns cannibal. Having solidified into social norms, progressive victories become in turn targets for demolition. And this is the position in which many formerly progressive gay and lesbian people find themselves today.

The onward march of same-sex equality has been steady over the last half-century: gay sex was decriminalised in 1967, when the Conservative peer Lord Arran explained that his reason for sponsoring the Sexual Offences Act was his two life goals “to stop people buggering badgers, and to stop people badgering buggers”. The same-sex age of consent was 21 when I was a teenager in the Nineties, and is now equalised at 16 with the heterosexual one. Thanks to another Conservative, David Cameron, same-sex marriage today has the same civil standing as the heterosexual sort.

But the march of progress hasn’t stopped. The word queer, once a term of abuse, was first reclaimed by gay and lesbian people — and is now the territory of anyone, including heterosexuals, who don’t want to be shamed as cishet.

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The actor Nico Tortorella, for example, has been in what to me looks suspiciously like a heterosexual relationship for some 14 years, with the ‘lifestyle entrepreneur and LGBTQ activist’ Bethany Meyers. The couple even married in 2018. But Tortorella identifies as non-binary and prefers to be referred to as ‘they’ and ‘them’, while Meyers identifies as a lesbian. Thus despite having an (in the biological sense) entirely ordinary heterosexual relationship, Tortorella and Meyers are celebrated as a ‘queer couple’.

And their embrace of polyamory means that Tortorella and Meyer arguably are more anti-normie than of those stodgy gay people who prefer dull old monogamy. And Meyer’s re-interpretation of ‘lesbian’ is expansive enough to survive a 14-year relationship with a biological male, a fact that surely queers our understanding of sex and gender far more radically than those reactionary homos who insist on excluding people from their pool of potential partners on the grounds of anatomy.

Thus, by queering ‘queer’, the new heteroqueers have wrestled the baton of queerness from those lesbian and gay people who might once have been targeted for ‘queer-bashing’. And thanks to the ongoing Festival of Reason, the exclusively same-sex-attracted sexuality that launched the whole ‘queer rights’ enterprise has in turn come to seem conservative, if not outright bigoted.

My late great-aunt epitomised this kind of non-queer gayness. She was a staunch Tory and local councillor, wore trouser suits and kept her hair short, and lived her entire adult life with the same ‘friend’, in a relationship that was indistinguishable from any other petit-bourgeois marriage except that both of them were women. They went on cruises, finished each other’s sentences, were pillars of the local community — and didn’t have a ‘rainbow’ bone in their bodies.

She died around the same time as I was misbehaving in houseshares, and I never discussed my own reflections on queer theory with her. I wish I had, as it would have given me much to think about. For my great-aunt was many things: a public servant, a citizen, a lesbian (though I don’t think she would have used that word) but one thing her devoted relationship absolutely wasn’t was ‘queer’.

And this in turn gives us a clue to the nature of ‘queerness’ as it’s celebrated today. “Love is love”, claims the Pride slogan, merrily sweeping aside millennia of philosophical and theological thought on the ways love may in fact differ from love. In his influential 1936 theological work Agape and Eros, for example, the Swedish bishop Anders Nygren unpicks the distinction between eros, the ego-centric, acquisitive and desire-based version of love first delineated in Plato’s Symposium, and agape, the Christian understanding of a love based in self-giving and a willingness to sacrifice self for others.

To complicate things further, the ancient Greeks had three words for love: eros, agape and philia, love for friends and family. Nygren argued that over time, even in Christian theology, agape became subordinate to eros — that is, to desire; while Nygren was criticised by other theologians for himself ignoring philia. But today, the juggernaut of Queer Theory, for all that it claims the mantle of ‘love’, ignores both philia and agape. Instead, ‘love’ in the queer theory sense is pure eros: desire.

And this is the bait-and-switch at the heart of queer theory. Decent, compassionate mainstream people hear ‘love’ and think of those same-sex couples they know whose lives embrace all three — the passionate eros, the sociable philia and selfless agape. Few in modern Britain would disagree that these can and do flourish just as well in same-sex as opposite-sex partnerships. Having won sympathy by gesturing at philia and agape, though, the juggernaut of queerness aggressively promotes only an eros increasingly impatient of any constraint.

This means monogamists of all orientations go under the bus: for inasmuch as monogamy constrains desire, it’s by definition un-queer. We see this reflex, for example, in the brickbats flung at too-monogamous-to-be-queer Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg; or sneery terms like ‘homonormativity’. And all such jibes share the same loathing of any social structure that calls not for unchained desire but fellow-feeling (philia) or self-sacrifice (agape).

And in this way, the political campaign for gay acceptance has been colonised, cannibalised and ultimately displaced by a consumer marketing campaign for the limitless expansion of desire. It was 2004 when the Pride march in London stopped being classified as a political protest and became a ‘parade’; that change, questioned by many LGB people at the time, marks the decisive shift in balance of power from gay acceptance to anti-normie-ism. And this is a problem for gay normies.

For as Vermeule points out, the Festival’s inexorable appetite foments “unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash”. And indeed, evidence suggests that support for LGBTQ rights has peaked and is now falling again. The marketing campaign for unchained eros is today actively undermining public acceptance of same-sex relationships.

The campaign to de-stigmatise same-sex relationships was a huge gain for human dignity. I don’t want to see that reversed by the oncoming reaction against our now established religion of anti-normie-ism. The only beneficiaries of the takeover are brands selling rainbow leisurewear in Pride Month. But the front-line casualties, when the reaction begins in earnest, will be those gay normies who only ever wanted to be left in peace.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.