Liberation Generation: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality beyond 2000

Chapter 6

Fed up with waiting for crumbs


while lobbying for change in the law we also need to build the same sort of groundswell of resistance for mass action that defeated the poll tax


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A quick look back

PROGRESS FOR the gay and transgender community has emerged through a complex of avenues but the main strands can be identified.

The watershed development that cut a new, revolutionary mould for the gay liberation movement was the New York Stonewall uprising in 1969. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), to which it gave birth, broke the straitjacket of the closet and the apologetic style of campaigning which had predominated until then under the shadow of a century of illegality.

Against a background of immense, worldwide social upheaval, lesbians, gays and bisexuals came onto the street proclaiming: "We're proud to be gay". Natural alliances were made with the strong labour, trade union and socialist movements of the time. Gay oppression was understood to be linked to women's oppression and both, in turn, seen as rooted in the capitalist system.

For two heady, euphoric years, the GLF battered at the doors of convention and conservatism. Then the movement began to fragment, primarily around class and women's issues, but it left an important legacy.

A new confidence amongst a layer of gay activists stimulated important self-organisation within trade unions and political parties, and the development of community newspapers and self-help initiatives.

By the 1980s a strong left wing had developed inside the British Labour Party and trade unions. It enabled significant headway to be made by gay activists in influencing the Greater London Council (GLC) and other left-wing councils to promote more enlightened attitudes within local authorities and schools, and to support the development of gay community services.

(The Greater London Council was the elected body which co-ordinated London-wide local authority services. It was abolished by the Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985. She feared its potential, under left-Labour control, to become a block to the Tory government's driving though of public-sector cuts and privatisation.)

This boosted gay community organisation but an even bigger spur was to come in the 1980s from the devastating arrival of HIV and Aids. Unfortunately, it coincided with a reactionary ideological campaign by Thatcher and the Tory government of the time, which cynically exploited fears around HIV.

Thatcher's backlash

THATCHER'S GOVERNMENT had embarked upon a war against working-class rights and living standards. Prevailing expectations about the need for a welfare state, trade union rights, publicly owned industry and services, social housing etc, were battered down with a philosophy, which promoted individualism, privatisation and free market economics.

Victorian social values were idolised. Single parents and gay relationships stood accused of being the scourge of society, the cause of the crumbling social fabric.

The developing HIV epidemic was held up as the consequence of this 'immoral' behaviour. The Tory-supporting press fanned the flames of prejudice with screams of 'gay plague', provoking some ultra-right-wing Tories to openly incite gay bashing. December 1986 to November 1991 saw 70 gay men murdered.

The community had to get organised fast. Support groups and pressure groups emerged to provide services, carry out urgent education amongst the gay community and to counter the ignorance fostered by the government and media's bigotry.

But the Tories were relentless. New anti-gay laws were proposed which together represented the biggest attack on lesbian, gay and bisexual people since the 1950ís.

(The 1950s McCarthyite witch-hunts against communists and gays in the United States was paralleled in Britain by the viciously anti-gay Home Secretary Maxwell-Fyfe's 'clean-up' campaign which resulted in a five-fold increase in the number of arrests of gay men for gross indecency.)

In 1991, demonstrations took place against 'Clause 25' of the Criminal Justice bill which empowered the courts to view everyday contact between consenting gay men as serious sexual offences.

2,913 men were prosecuted for 'indecency' between men between 1990 and 1992. The sentiments of an Early Day Motion put down by Tory MP Harry Greenway to ban lesbians and gay men from fostering and adoption, were picked up by the junior health minister Virginia Bottomley. Her new government guidelines on the 1989 Children Act aimed at the same target but were defeated by the vigorous campaign against 'Paragraph 16'.

A further spur to the gay community came as the Tories prepared to hide an unprecedented attack on local government funding and services behind the smokescreen of Section 28.

Against the background of a period which had seen mass struggles develop against the Tories - the miners' strike 1984-85; the Militant-led struggle against council funding cuts in Liverpool of 1983-87 - the campaign which developed to stop the bill brought historic numbers out onto the streets to demonstrate. (Militant was the forerunner of the Socialist Party).

40,000 marched against Section 28 in 1988. That summer, 60,000 marched on Gay Pride day - marches in preceding years had never topped more than a few thousand. Since then, Pride demonstrations have increased in number each year.

Pink pound illusions

NEVER ONES to miss an opportunity, the business community spotted the profit possibilities that could flow from this more self-confident, increasingly out, gay population.

Moving in to develop the club scene, gay glossy mags, lifestyle fashions and on to take over the Pride demonstration and festival itself, it may appear that the 'pink pound' (i.e. gay spending power) is all that we need to achieve liberation.

An illusion has been created that the need for collective action is a thing of the past. Now we can liberate ourselves individually by spending our money, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right hairstyle and hanging-out on the scene.

But liberation for whom? For those that can afford the lifestyle, this commercialism can provide something of an escape from the bigoted outside world. But the rest of us still have to face the day-to-day prejudices ever present on our council estates, on the streets, in our workplaces, in our schools.

Bubble will burst

BUT THE bubble will burst. As economic crisis robs working-class and middle-class lesbians, gays and bisexuals of their livelihoods, rocking them with insecurity about the future, the possibility of retreat into a glossy pink pound world will recede.

But recession also gives a new twist to prejudice. The conditions of life which are usually confined to the bottom 20% of society become inflicted upon wider layers. The resulting instability brings all of the rot of society to the surface. Division, scapegoating and prejudice are encouraged by the bosses, anxious to avoid a mass movement against their profit system from developing.

Out of this maelstrom, alternative ways forward will be sought. The socialist alternative will be back on the agenda (see socialism).

 


 

What strategy to achieve equality?

A KEY lesson from our past struggles is that the greatest leaps in progress have been made against a background of collective, mass action.

But mass action does not come simply by calling for it. The gay community needs a strategy through which it can build such a movement - a movement which no government or employer can ignore.

Progress in combating prejudice has not taken place in a vacuum. Had the gay community not organised, no progress would have been made. At the same time, other deeper processes within society have provided opportunities for us to advance our demands.

These opportunities have been presented by a profound shift to the left in social attitudes generally over the last decade. Where the reality of people's lives has increasingly contradicted traditional ideas, more enlightened attitudes have been able to take root.

Support for issues like women's independence and equality, anti-racism, an understanding about the lack of social provision that lies behind youth crime and drug abuse, have held sway against the backward attitudes promoted by the Tories and now sections of New Labour, because they correspond to the every day experience of working-class people.

The sympathy of the press and large sections of the population towards the struggle of Stephen Lawrence's' family to seek justice against police racism and corruption is an indicator. It represents an unprecedented lack of trust in the police within the population at large, as well as a far wider rejection of racism than there has ever been in the past.

(Stephen Lawrence, a young black man from South London, was murdered by a gang of white racists. The case eventually went to a public enquiry which exposed the police corruption and institutional racism that had enabled the murderers to escape prosecution.)

Against this background, the direct action group OutRage! and lobbying group Stonewall have been able to make considerable impact. But will their tactics of shock publicity and lobbying MPs (respectively), suffice to see us through to the goal of full gay equality and liberation?

Mass campaign needed

THE LAW is never a trendsetter of progressive social attitudes - it follows rather than makes popular opinion. By the time the lobbying machines had started rolling, changed social attitudes outside parliament had already laid the basis for the government to consider equalising the age of consent.

That the unelected House of Lords could so easily force a retreat by the government over the age of consent, surely highlights the limitations of a strategy purely based on lobbying.

If New Labour had thought there would be thousands taking to the streets, strikes in workplaces, then they would have thought twice about bowing to the Lords. Look how quickly they bowed to the pro-hunting lobby after a 200,000 strong demonstration had been mobilised by the Countryside Alliance.

It is possible to achieve such a response if a mass campaign is conducted, taking the arguments to trade union members and workplaces generally, into the schools, colleges and youth clubs, into the communities and voluntary organisations, to rally support behind the call for equality.

Taking a broader approach, to find ways to link the battle for gay equality to the rights of other sections of working-class people, would enhance the possibilities for success in such a campaign.

A package of reforms could be advanced which would include rights for heterosexuals too. For example, it could include a section on non-discriminatory pension rights, which would cover non-married heterosexual couples too. In campaigning for reforms concerning sex education an appeal could be made to parents to show how non-biased sex education is in their child's best interest too. Do they know if their son or daughter is gay? Would they want their child's life to be at risk either through feeling stigmatised or through being left ignorant about the dangers of HIV infection?

Building a new movement for equality

AS ATTITUDES change within society, laws can become unworkable. The authorities are then faced with the need to change them to bring them in line with popular opinion - otherwise the legal institutions lose their credibility as they become increasingly out of step with reality.

The starting point for our strategy should surely be the aim of, in-effect, /repealing' anti-gay laws from below, to render them obsolete. While continuing to lobby for a change in the law, we also need to build the same sort of groundswell of resistance or mass action that defeated the poll tax in the 1990s.

'Repealing' laws from below

Section 28

BACKING DOWN from previous statements, the government has postponed repeal of Section 28 until after reform of the House of Lords. But should we just wait while schools and local authorities continue to self-censor discussion around gay sexuality?

There is no guarantee that reform of the House of Lords will deliver gay rights legislation anyway. In July 1998,the life peers' were enough to block the equal age of consent by 128 votes to 93. Almost a third of those voting were Labour peers).

On the same day that news broke about this delay, we learned that 15-year-old Darren Steele had been tragically driven to suicide because of anti-gay bullying at school. No more urgent note could have been struck.

A 1998 survey by the Health and Education Research Unit found that whilst 82% of teachers were aware the problems of anti-gay bullying only 6% of schools had policy to deal with it.

Another survey, by Sigma Research in 1997, showed that the need for safer-sex education is as vital as ever - one-third of gay men questioned were found to have had unprotected sex within the previous year.

While the government makes 'tactical' delays, young lives continue to be put at risk. But some authorities with more enlightened outlooks have taken action to find their own way around this law. Both Manchester Council and Northampton County Council have produced positive guidance to employees on finding their way around Section 28.

As the arguments have percolated through, bodies like the British Medical Association and the Local Government Association have called for Section 28 to be abolished.

The government's timid approach is not acceptable. A mass campaign of refusal to recognise Section 28 must be built to kill it dead completely, just as people dealt with Thatcher's poll tax. Conferences and open forums could be organised in every area, bringing together representatives of gay community organisations with local trade unionists, council workers, teachers, school and other students, to draw-up what anti-discriminatory services and policies are needed in that area. Inevitably these would contradict Section 28.

The campaign to resource those demands would necessarily need to link up with others fighting for proper resourcing of school and council services generally.

Sexual offences laws

GAY ORGANISATIONS must be prepared to go on the offensive regarding sexual offence laws, which are used in a discriminatory way against gay men. When the Bolton 7 (see above) were arrested, hundreds turned out for protests and public meetings.

Laws such as the unequal age of consent, 'gross indecency' and having sex where more than two people are present (used against the Bolton 7) are gay only 'offences' and have no heterosexual equivalent.

For every arrest made, police stations should be flooded with protests. Campaigns to get the charges dropped could mobilise support through public meetings, protests and street campaigns to take the arguments into local communities.

Waiting for crumbs or a civil rights bill?

THE SOMETIMES catastrophic effect that prejudice can have on people's lives has been spelt out to MPs by gay rights campaigners often enough, yet Labour does little more than throw crumbs from the table. As we saw during the age of consent fiasco in the summer of 1998, when they do take action it is softly-softly and the interests of the gay community come last.

Opportunities will arise for reform of individual anti-gay laws, and these should be grasped, but there are problems with piecemeal law reform.

The June 1998 attempt to equalise the age of consent and the failure to include repeal of Section 28 in the new Local Government Bill show how readily the gay rights section of a bill is dropped to make sure the rest goes through.

Alternatively, if gay rights reforms are hitched up with a bill that attacks the interests of working-class people generally then, in order to win our civil rights, the gay community is compromised by having to support a bill that we would otherwise be fighting. We were put in this position in 1994 when an amendment to equalise the age of consent was put into the Criminal justice Bill which also included massive curtailments on people's civil liberties.

So, whilst taking opportunities to reform specific anti-gay laws, our general strategy should be to go for comprehensive legislation that repeals all anti-gay laws whilst outlawing all forms of anti-gay prejudice and discrimination.

This could be in the form of an all-embracing civil rights bill which, by including rights for all, could unite the gay community with other sections of society who experience discrimination and working-class people generally. It would present the possibility of building a genuine mass movement for social change, following in the revolutionary traditions of the People's Charter in the nineteenth century and the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

(The People's Charter was a list of basic civil rights demands, including the right to vote, which became the focus of a decade of campaigning, inspiring countless meetings, marches and other events across the country.)

A national demonstration of hundreds of thousands, led by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, mobilised through their community groups and trade unions, would provide a focus for the launch of such a campaign.

We're fed up of waiting for crumbs - we want the whole loaf!

Will legal reform be enough?

Legal reform is a vital weapon in combating anti-gay prejudice and discrimination. It sets a standard in society that such prejudice is not acceptable.

Not least it will spare those lives that are being wrecked by convictions under these unjust laws - 25,000 men have been convicted over the last 20 years under laws for which there is no heterosexual equivalent. It will help to strengthen the confidence of the gay community to organise to insist on our rights.

But on its own, legal reform is not enough. The Race Relations Act was passed in 1967, yet it has failed to eliminate racial prejudice. A myriad of community and national campaigns has since developed in response to the inadequacy of the law in dealing with racial prejudice. Through the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon was forced admit to the existence of institutional racism within the police force.

Prejudice is intrinsic to the capitalist system, particularly at times of economic uncertainty. It thrives on the inequalities in society upon which capitalism is based and in the ideology advanced to justify the privileged existence of an elite at the expense of the majority.

Yet prejudice can be knocked back. Progress has been made over the last few years. But the basis for cranking up bigotry remains.

At times of economic and social crisis, the establishment tries to divert attention away from the real reasons behind it, i.e. the way the capitalist system operates. By beating the drums of 'moral disintegration' and 'people from outside eroding our traditional way of life' etc, they seek to create a reactionary climate of opinion out of which to gain support.

This was a feature of the Thatcher years, as it was during the Victorian era as the impact of rapidly expanding industrial centres brought huge social unrest and threatened revolution.

 

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