It is becoming increasingly important to give a name to the ways in which gender and sexual rights are being resisted. Those opposed to gender and sexual rights no longer employ the spectre of the ‘disgusting’ gay man or heap scorn on ‘fallen women’, as such tactics are barred, both legislatively (including criminalising hate speech) and culturally (Ireland as an egalitarian place is becoming core to national identities).
However, resistances to sexual and gender rights remain and they now take a different form than in the past: they employ a framing we name as ‘heteroactivism’. Heteroactivism operates distinctively in places where ‘unnaturalness’ cannot be linked to the figure of the ‘disgusting homosexual’ because this figure is now generally seen as accepted as part of the nation. Instead, heteroactivists focus on ‘natural’ procreation and genetics, thereby seeking to reassert heterosexuality as the ‘normal’, common sense and unquestioned centre. Heteroactivism relies on a particular form of heterosexuality (married, childrearing couples, composed of normatively gendered men/women), claiming not only that it is ‘best for children’, but that such configurations are the ‘best for society’. Whilst it may seem that the notion of heteroactivism most clearly applies to opposition to same-sex relationships and families (as well as to the very existence of trans people) heteroactivism is also a useful term to understand those who are opposed to abortion/choice.
Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans (LGBT) activists have been perplexed as to why anti-abortion groups engage so fervently in same-sex marriage debates. However, the distance between LGBT and anti-abortion policies is not so great for those opposed to the liberalisation of sexual and gender rights. The seemingly disparate causes of opposing abortion and same sex marriage are both part of what heteroactivists see as the undermining of the rightful place of heterosexuality and it reproductive imperative. Indeed, organisations that campaign against sexual and gender rights regard LGBT and abortion rights as overlapping and intersecting manifestations of liberal or progressive agendas. Heteroactivists see these rights and the ideas behind them as promoted by a small but coherent and well-organised cohort to the detriment of society.
In Ireland, those who protest the advancement of sexual and gender laws, such as same sex marriage and abortion develop parallel arguments illustrated in the campaigns against the legalization of same sex marriage and the liberalizing of abortion laws. In the Vote No campaign for the same sex marriage referendum 2015, the use of ‘surrogacy’ was a key way in which gay men were evoked but not mentioned, for example the Vote No poster below. Instead, the focus was on the ‘love’ of the mother and the ‘need’ for ‘a’ mother, as a way of suggesting that gay men were dangerous and could not be trusted to make the ‘right’ choice with regards to children. Subtly bringing the ‘predatory gay man’ into the debate is a crucial discursive tactic which serves to vilify gay men without suggesting that they are all ‘deviant’, instead focusing on ‘prospects’ and potentials. These subtle and unspoken references are heard clearly by LGBT people and the furtive link to concerns regarding children is a powerful heteroactivist tactic.
Vote No poster from the 2015 Irish Same-Sex Marriage Referendum
The Vote No logo with a heart in the ‘o’, indicates love. Countering accusations of homophobia and hateful speech levelled against heteroactivists, the heart suggests hope. It makes a no vote one that is made with, and for, a specific form of heterosexual love. The homosexual other is implicitly rejected by invoking moral society debates to create a specific Irish (hetero)sexualised nationhood, making gay men in particular less than, and other to, the Irish Mammy.
In the anti-abortion campaign, there are echoes of these tactics which are specifically designed not to expressly vilify women who have sex outside of marriage, and to focus on care for ‘the mother’ and the baby. A prime example of this is the ‘love both’ sticker which echoes the ‘love’ of the vote no poster.; here the love is for ‘both’ and instead of a heart, the use of 2 O’s creates an interconnected entity that is mutually dependent. The argument is that you cannot separate the love of mother and child, you must ‘love both’. This is important because ‘both’ implies the existence an entity that can be loved, that must be loved, the fetus implicitly becomes something that demands to be loved, to be cared for in ways that will not be possible if the 8thamendment is repealed.
The representation of the connected Os also creates an imaginary pregnant woman, and one that is quite advanced in her pregnancy, well beyond 12 weeks. However, it is not simply a pregnant woman. This visual is representing a woman and her unborn child, both. The imperative is to love, but this love cannot be only afforded to the woman, it must be given to both. In loving both, you are also ‘protecting both’ through ‘protecting’ Ireland’s 8thamendment. The call to ‘love both’ is crucial tactic for anti-abortion activists to avoid the either/or situation of either supporting the mother (choice) or protecting the foetus (anti-choice). Like many heteroactivists, they seek to occupy a ‘middle ground’. They reject the mother or foetus opposition arguing that this enables them to ‘love both’.
Despite these efforts however, the crux of a referendum vote is choice. Yet it is not only about a choice, but who can choose. The imagery and text point to the idea of who can make ‘good choices’ and of course those who cannot, and therefore should not be allowed to do so. Those who cannot make ‘good choices’ must be prevented from making choices about their pregnancy, their body. To love both then is to remove choice and to ‘protect’ in place of care for the mother, or the foetus.
It is clear then that the links within resistances to LGBT equalities and abortion are more than organisational. There are parallels that can be drawn in the campaigning tactics and visual language being used. This campaign is specifically Irish and the call to ‘Protect Ireland’s 8thamendment’ points to a specific form of Irishness, one that uses love to prevent access to ‘immoral’ choices, and seeks to draw on the ‘equalities’ of a ‘modern Ireland’, to ‘love both’. This is very different from the vilification of immoral sex out of wedlock, with a focus instead on the love for mother as well as child. This protective love asks to remove choice, whether this is the choice to marry or reproductive and health choices. Naming this as heteroactivism enables engagement with new resistances to sexual and gender rights.