Peter Tatchell argues the case for civil disobedience.
When MPs voted an age of consent of 18 for gay men they voted to perpetuate discrimination and to reiterate the second class legal status of all homosexual men and women. Many of us feel betrayed by Parliament. Democracy has turned out to be a licence to discriminate.
Given that most MPs have shown themselves to be incapable of reason and compassion, we have no choice but to challenge a legal system that denies us equal treatment. Civil disobedience – the peaceful and dignified defiance of the law – has become a necessary tactic precisely because the democratic process has failed us.
OutRage! is not, of course, suggesting that the lesbian and gay community should cease lobbying MPs or abandon legal action against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights. These traditional campaign methods are still valuable. They should, and will continue.
However, there is an urgent need to raise the tempo of the struggle for homosexual human rights by adding extra pressures on parliament. The case for lesbian and gay equality is intellectually and morally unassailable. We have to ensure that it remains in the headlines, and that those who uphold discrimination are constantly called to account for their homophobia.
Civil disobedience – challenging unjust laws by breaking the law – is one way of keeping the struggle for equality on the national political agenda and of pressuring MPs to reconsider their support for discrimination. By helping sustain media coverage and public debate on the issue of equal rights, the civil disobedience tactics of OutRage! can complement and strengthen the Stonewall group’s lobbying efforts and its European court case. As the Chartists and Suffragettes discovered long ago, lobbying and direct action are not mutually exclusive. They reinforce each other to create a more effective campaign. We need both.
Sadly, some leading members of the Stonewall group no longer accept this. Nowadays, they often disparage direct action. Yet no community fighting against discrimination has ever won justice without being noisy, rebellious and troublesome. As the black community has frequently shown, it is only when the dispossessed kick up a fuss that the political establishment sits up and takes notice.
Since the law reform of 1967, being polite and respectable has achieved hardly any legal improvements for lesbians and gays. Politicians have treated us with contempt. Although the recent failure to win an equal age of consent has demonstrated the limitations of lobbying, the Stonewall group often appears to suggest that it is the only way forward. Nonsense! It is one method among many, and not always a very effective one.
So how do we progress from the shabby ‘compromise’ of 18? In many respects, the lesbian and gay community in Britain now faces a situation similar to the black community in the USA during the 1950s, when Congress refused to repeal racial segregation laws. The British legal system is sexually ‘segregationist’. It treats ‘queers’ as social and legal inferiors, denying us basic human rights that heterosexuals take for granted. Homophobic discrimination remains rife in the laws (or their interpretation) concerning employment, marriage, housing, sex education, fostering and adoption, political asylum, censorship, youth care orders, local council grants, sexual offences, immigration and the armed forces. A straight dominated parliament has repeatedly rejected calls for the repeal of anti-gay laws.
The black civil rights movement in the United States faced a comparable situation 40 years ago concerning racial discrimination. It responded to the intransigence of Congress by launching a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King led ‘freedom marches’ which peacefully and courageously broke the law to protest at the way black people were being denied legal equality. It was this defiant and brave refusal to accept the legitimacy of an unjust legal system which helped force the eventual legislation of equal rights for black Americans.
The resort to civil disobedience tactics by OutRage! is an attempt to follow the successful model of the black civil rights movement. We are no longer prepared to recognise the authority of a homophobic legal system which does not respect our human rights. By denying us equality, the law has lost its moral legitimacy. Faced with institionalised homophobia, we feel duty-bound to refuse submission to the will of a homophobic State.
OutRage! is, of course, conscious that civil disobedience needs to be very carefully calculated so as not to alienate public opinion, which would be counter-productive. But as the black civil rights movement in the USA showed, dignified and peaceful defiance of the law can often evoke public sympathy and even admiration. The justice of the case for human rights shines through, as does the injustice of State repression. A calm, non-violent act of civil disobedience can be emotionally and morally powerful.
OutRage!’s first big civil disobedience action after the age of consent vote was the ‘March On Parliament’ in defiance of the Sessional Orders which forbid demonstrations near the House of Commons while MPs are sitting. It took hundreds of riot police to block our way. This huge show of State power cast the forces of law and order as agents of oppression and ourselves as its victims.
This is, indeed, one of the secrets of success of civil disobedience as a campaign tactic. It pitches the moral power of the case for justice against the physical power of an unjust State. Vulnerability, which is seen normally as a weakness, thereby becomes a source of strength. The moral high ground is seized by those who put their personal freedom on the line in order to express their conscientious objection to injustice.
This civil disobedience philosophy has been central to the success of all the great emancipation struggles of modern history: from Chartism to the movements for women’s suffrage, Indian independence, black civil rights, and democracy in Eastern Europe. OutRage! is determined to make it work for lesbian and gay emancipation too.
An edited version of this article was published as “Daring to Disobey”, Civil Liberties Agenda (NCCL / Libertymagazine) , June 1994. see also “Complementary efforts”, Pink Paper, 11 March 1994