Peter Tatchell argues that the lesbian and gay movement should be committed to a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience to force the repeal of Britain’s discriminatory anti-homosexual laws.
Every year in Britain, probably in excess of 10,000 lesbians and gay men suffer discrimination, violent assaults and criminalisation.
In 1989, for example, an estimated 5,000 gay men, plus a small number of lesbians, were convicted for consenting sexual relations and acts of affection under prejudiced laws which apply only to homosexuals.
Thousands of other lesbians and gay men are subjected to discrimination in cases involving child custody and adoption, housing, employment, immigration, youth care orders, local government grants, customs censorship and membership of the armed forces and the merchant navy.
In total, about 20 different points of law either explicitly or by omission discriminate against the lesbian and gay community. A quarter of this discriminatory legislation was introduced or amended during the last decade of Conservative government.
In every sense, lesbians and gay men are treated as second class citizens. We are denied equality in law and subject to institutionalised police and judicial repression.
Up till now, with occasional exceptions such as the abseiling lesbians, the homosexual rights movement has tended to focus on orthodox and legal forms of struggle: demonstrations, lobbies of parliament, and letter write-ins.
Though important and worthwhile, these are all very safe, reformist tactics which imply our loyalty and submission to the laws of a society which systematically devalues our existence. While these methods of struggle do achieve some successes, they do not seriously challenge the moral authority of an intrinsically homophobic State or the legitimacy of legislation which stigmatises and illegalises our sexuality.
It is also true that the often aggressive masculinist mode of these marches and pickets has inadvertently presented a very unattractive image of lesbians and gay men and of the principles we are fighting for. Ugly contorted faces shouting bellicose slogans are hardly likely to convince other people to support our cause. Nor do light-headed slogans like “2-4-6-8! Is that copper really straight?” get across the gravity of our oppression and the seriousness of our demands. Instead of dignifying our struggle, they demean and trivialise it.
Another problem is that much of our lesbian and gay rights campaigning has been reactive and defensive. The fight against Section 28 was classic example of how we are so often responding to a political agenda that our oppressors have forced upon us. Faced with attacks, of course we have to fight back. However, we also need to find a way to set our own agenda and make our own demands; thereby forcing our oppressors (rather than us) to justify themselves.
There is, therefore, a need to substantially rethink how we can best put pressure on the State and win the battle of public opinion (what Antonio Gramsci called the struggle for ideological “hegemony”). We don’t have to abandon our existing campaigns. However, we do need to supplement them with a new approach that can undermine the legitimacy of State repression, build up the moral authority and persuasiveness of our equal rights demands, and thereby enhance the dignity, respect and support for our struggle.
Civil disobedience is the hardest method to achieve this, but it is also the most radical and effective. If we see value in our sexuality, and are proud of ourselves as lesbians and gay men, then we should be prepared to publicly refuse to obey unjust anti-gay laws and to refuse submission to the will of the State authorities who enforce them.
Of course, at some time or another, probably every lesbian and gay man in this country has privately broken the laws dictating a discriminatory age of consent and the statutes banning affectionate embraces in public and sexually explicit homo-erotic imagery.
What we now need to do is to bring this normally covert lawbreaking into the open with conscious and defiant acts of civil disobedience to directly challenge discriminatory laws.
Infringing our human rights, these laws are morally invalid and the State has no legitimate right to criminalise our live in this way. All lesbians and gay men have a positive duty to openly defy homophobic legislation and publicly assert our right to equality in law.
The new lesbian and gay direct action group, OutRage!, has begun to recognise this. In early September, it organised a “Kiss-In” in Piccadilly Circus to challenge the way the indecency laws are often interpreted by the police and the judges to prohibit lesbians and gay men from kissing, cuddling and holding hands in public places.
The OutRage! action involved a low risk of arrest. In the future, however, we may have to be prepared for actions involving substantial arrests, convictions and imprisonment. That is probably what it will take to force society to recognise the injustices we are subjected to. Nothing would better capture the headlines and provoke public debate about the rights of homosexuals than the repeated arrest and gaoling of dozens of lesbian and gay rights campaigners (all the more celebrities so if they included celebrities like Tom Robinson, Miriam Margoyles and Jimmy Somerville).
As a method of political action, civil disobedience is uniquely suited to achieving a turn around in public attitudes towards homosexuality and forcing the State into a position where it feels obliged, by popular pressure, to make concessions to the lesbian and gay community. Given the huge reservoirs of anti-gay prejudice in society, our willingness to undergo the hardship of arrest and imprisonment would attest to the strength of our convictions, be emotionally stirring and morally powerful, and thereby enhance our chances of winning public sympathy for our cause.
Civil disobedience is premised on dignified, non-violent defiance of the law. It could, for example, include a mass “Importune-In” at Victoria Station to protest against Section 32 of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act which forbids gay men to meet each other in a public place with a view to arranging sexual relations. (In 1988, 545 men were convicted under this anti-gay “sus law”). Civil disobedience might also involve more indirect actions such as blockading the road in Parliament Square, chaining the doors of the Home Office, and hunger-striking outside Downing Street. The purpose is to deliberately provoke the authorities and expose their homophobic laws.
A commitment to civil disobedience involves an acceptance of the risk of arrest and imprisonment (to pay fines would be collusion with an oppressive State, a recognition of unjust laws, and an acceptance that the courts have the right of authority over us).
By these acts of personal courage and sacrifice for the sake of our beliefs, the aim is to appeal to people’s conscience and win their respect and solidarity.
Rejecting the belligerent posturing of so many left-wing demonstrations, which tend to be counter-productive and alienating, civil disobedience is explicitly committed to peaceful and dignified forms of “non-masculine” protest. It is nevertheless capable of making radical and persuasive political statements in an emotionally powerful but non-threatening, way. This encourages sympathy and support, and attracts public opinion to our cause instead of deflecting it.
By seizing the moral high-ground, these civil disobedience tactics are a form of political “ju-jitsu”, having the capacity to undermine support for our opponents and throw them off balance. Psychologically disarmed by the willingness of a small and ostensibly weak lesbian and gay minority to endure suffering in the name of it’s ideals, our homophobic adversaries can be put on the defensive.
The struggle for lesbian and gay equality is one of the great historic movements for human emancipation. On a par with the momentous campaigns for the rights of women, black and working class people, it represents a significant new extension of the concept of human rights into the realms of sexual identity, choice and expression. It is a struggle, the eventual success of which will have an immensely liberating effect on the lives of literally hundreds of millions people worldwide.
It is tremendously important, therefore, that we recognise the significance of the struggle of which we are a part, and that we invest this struggle with a dignity of method which reflects our dignity as lesbian and gay people. A non-violent civil disobedience strategy does just that. And it works. It has been central to the success of all the great emancipation struggles of recent history: from Chartism to the movements for women’s suffrage, Indian independence, black civil rights, and democracy in Eastern Europe. It is long overdue that we made it work for lesbian and gay emancipation too.
Peter Tatchell is the author of Out In Europe. A 36-page guide to lesbian and gay rights in every European country, East and West, it is available from: Out In Europe, PO Box 4000, London W3 6XJ. Price £2.50 (Cheques payable to ‘Channel Four’).
Rouge, Autumn 1990