Peter Tatchell says legal discrimination against lesbians and gay men is a form of sexual apartheid.
It’s time more of us got angry and challenged the straight supremacist laws which treat us as second class citizens.
British law is a system of sexual apartheid. Lesbians and gay men are subject to separate and unequal treatment. This discrimination is premised on the doctrine of straight supremacism: the idea that heterosexuals are superior to homosexuals.
Reflecting this belief, the law denies lesbians and gay men many of the basic human rights that straights take for granted.
In certain respects, this systematic denial of rights to queers is analogous to the race discrimination which was practised by the apartheid regime in South Africa.
It is true, of course, that lesbians and gay men have never been banned from living in particular areas, as were black people under apartheid. Yet we can be refused housing by a landlord who is prejudiced against our homosexuality, and we have no legal redress against such discrimination.
Nor are lesbians and gays in this country officially forbidden to use ‘hetero only’ bars or restaurants. But we can be lawfully refused service by any retail outlet which objects to ‘poofs’ or ‘dykes’ – and there is nothing we can do about it.
Furthermore, although we are not excluded from the right to vote which is what the apartheid regime did to blacks, we might as well be. Queer votes count for little in an electorate dominated by straights and in a parliament with an in-built hetero majority which legislates against lesbian and gay human rights.
In some ways, our oppression is even worse than the South African system. Black people under apartheid were never denied the right to marry and were never refused inheritance rights on the death of their partner, as happens to lesbians and gay men in Britain today. While black children in South Africa can count on getting love and support from their black families, gay kids grow up in the prison of a heterosexual home with straight parents who often despise and reject them.
Given the huge suffering caused by sexual apartheid, why are lesbians and gay men so passive and acquiescent? Why are so few angry and active?
If black South Africans had allowed themselves to be bought off by hedonism and consumerism like some lesbians and most gay men in Britain have, apartheid would have never been defeated. Fortunately, the black community spurned escapism, and instead had the guts to confront the racist regime.
In contrast, the lesbian and gay community in Britain can only offer a handful of Lesbian Avenger and OutRage! activists who are prepared to challenge the bigots face-to-face week after week. Most homos seem content to party all the way to the next queer-bashing.
As the American writer Larry Kramer has often asked, how much shit does straight society have to heap upon us before the majority of complacent faggots will wake up and demand to be treated with dignity and respect?
What’s even more galling is that so many lesbians and gay men do fuck-all for our human rights, and then criticise others who are doing something. Those of us who refuse to be kicked around by straight society get kicked around by fellow homos instead.
During the summer, OutRage! organised a protest against the new homophobic-inspired restrictions on nude sunbathing at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. Amazingly, we were condemned by some gay men for “ruining” their Sunday afternoon swimming. They never once condemned the Heath authorities. Homophobes can do what they like, it seems, but we must not do anything which disrupts party-time.
What makes these homos attack the people who are standing up for our rights rather than the authorities who are taking our rights away? It is not as if the Lesbian Avengers or OutRage! are extremists.
Sure, they confront the bigots, but always peacefully. Unlike black South Africans (and the Chartists and Suffragettes) who are now universally admired as freedom fighters, OutRage! and the Lesbian Avengers have never used violence. Why, then, are they often vilified by other lesbians and gays?
South African apartheid was not defeated by lobbying parliament and writing letters to MPs. It was not defeated by celebrity speakers or professional lobbyists. Apartheid began to crumble only when black people got united and organised, and took direct action to challenge their oppressors.
In Britain, if we want to end the system of sexual apartheid, our whole community will have to pull together to overturn the homophobia of parliament, police, press and pulpit. That means refusing to comply with unjust laws, and instead confronting the bigots who discriminate against us. By harassing, frustrating and embarrassing anti-gay institutions, we can help make homophobic discrimination unenforceable.
Unfortunately, standing up for our rights will sometimes involve disruption, inconvenience and sacrifice, just as it did in South Africa.
One lesson we can all learn from Nelson Mandela and the ANC is that those who suffer discrimination never get their freedom given to them. They have to fight for it. Lesbian and gay freedom is worth fighting for. What are you doing to help us overturn the system of sexual apartheid?
The Pink Paper, 7 October 1994