Recently, the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have been involved in an internet feud with singer songwriter Elton John, regarding comments they made about the “traditional family”. The whole thing blew up with a number of other celebrity names, such as Victoria Beckham, Courtney Love and Ricky Martin, joining Elton John in calling for people who can afford to buy D&G to boycott any further purchases. I want to discuss a number of issues that have been brought sharply into focus by this controversy.
For one thing, it is worth reiterating how unpleasant the initial comments, featured in the Italian magazine Panorama, were:
“We oppose gay adoptions…The only family is the traditional one.”
“No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”
“I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalogue.”
These comments not only marginalise queer people who want to have a family using IVF or by adoption, but infertile heterosexual couples and single parents who use IVF. Clearly to some extent this isn’t ‘natural’ – without reproductive technologies this process would not be possible. On the other hand, the same is true of modern medicine, or indeed most of technologically advanced society. It’s the classic naturalistic fallacy that underlies a lot of socially conservative thinking: a brief look into the brutality of the animal kingdom should highlight the inconsistencies in applying that reasoning to human behaviour.
There are two issues that arise from the reactions to these comments. The first is best exemplified by that astute social commentator Katie Hopkins, who in response to the call for the boycott of D&G products said:
“Surely being tolerant is accepting we all have different opinions and should be able to express them freely.”
It echoes comments Dolce has made in response to the outrage where he told CNN:
“Every people [has] freedom for choosing what they want. This for me is democracy. I respect you because you choose what you want. I respect me because I choose what I want… This [is] just my point of private view,”
They reiterate the banal and intellectually infantile trope, popularised on the Internet, that you can’t criticise me for statement X because “it’s my personal opinion”. So fricking what?! Personal opinions aren’t sacrosanct and free from criticism. Nobody is debating their right to hold whatever opinions they want, and nobody is advocating a thought police. People are criticising their opinions because they feel that they are disgusting and archaic.
Dolce and Gabbana expressed those opinions freely. What they have forgotten is that exercising freedom of expression is not ‘free’: it has a cost. Just as they are free to express their opinions, others are free to criticise them. If that criticism takes the form of a boycott such that the designers suffer financial and PR damage, then that is the price they have paid for exercising their right to speak out. You can’t claim democracy and at the same time expect to live in a world where exercising freedom of expression has no consequences.
A less immediately annoying but equally insidious reaction has been expressed in cries from some within the queer community, questioning how two gay men could possibly hold such opinions. As commentator Alex Andreou rightly pointed out in his Guardian article on this subject, members of oppressed groups expressing opinions which deny rights and freedoms of their group is sadly nothing new. Look at the women who opposed universal suffrage in the United States and the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Often these were the middle or upper class society women, which parallels quite nicely the rich, white, cis gay Dolce and Gabbana, who grew up in socially conservative Catholic Italy. Where heteronormative, cisnormative society fails to conquer resistance it tries to co-opt the most privileged of the resistance to uphold societal norms that oppress their own group.
Yet, as a closing note, just as we might call out opinions on the “traditional family”, we should also we wary of the obsession with family and marriage that has gripped us of late. We should fight for every member of our community to have the opportunity to marry and/or have children, but we should also resist the elevation of this picket-fence ideal to a gold standard.
Tom Meadows (GR. Comment Contributor)