Equality within status quo is not liberation
London, UK – 26 June 2019
By Peter Tatchell
LGBT+ people worldwide are gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots, which led to the formation of the modern LGBT+ movement. More significant than the riots themselves was what they ignited: the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in New York.
GLF inspired thousands to come out and join protests for LGBT+ rights. It organised the first Pride march, which took place in New York in 1970, and its revolutionary ideas and activism soon spread worldwide, including to the UK.
Aged 17, I was part of this Stonewall-era gay liberation movement. I later joined the newly-formed London GLF.
Unlike earlier cautious law reform movements, GLF had a much more radical agenda of social transformation, rather than assimilation and equality within the status quo. Sceptical and discerning, we questioned what was and agitated for what could be. Our goal was an inclusive queer utopia that embraced the whole rainbow nation. We sought to overturn straight supremacism, sexual guilt and traditional gender roles.
GLF also uniquely sought political alliances with other marginalised communities to work for our common emancipation. It advocated unity and solidarity between all victims of injustice.
In contrast, much of today’s LGBT+ movement has retreated from the ideals and vision of the GLF pioneers. Almost entirely LGBT+ focused, it rarely links with other social movements.
Our community organisations have become increasingly corporatised and exploited, with UK Pride parades often dominated by big business sponsors and floats, vote-seeking politicians and state agents like the police, who brag about their LGBT+ inclusiveness but have not apologised or compensated us for their decades of oppression.
Pride is now capitalism with a pink hue. It has become monetised: we pay to march, the city authorities extort vast charges from the Pride organisers and we are encouraged to buy rainbow branded merchandise to express our sexual and gender identity. Much of LGBT+ is part of the neo-liberal Establishment.
Most queers no longer dissent from the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They happily settle for equal rights within the existing social order; often uncritically seeking what straights have, no matter how dubious. Increasingly, LGBT+ culture has lost its critical edge. We have been mainstreamed, which at one level is great, but mainstreamed on heterosexual terms. Many of us seem to aspire to little more than a LGBT+ version of straight family life.
The trend is to become carbon copies of heterosexuality. We’ve internalised straight thinking and become ‘hetero homos’ – straight minds in queer bodies. Our LGBT+ psyche has been colonised by a hetero-normative mentality.
How times have changed. GLF was so different. It never campaigned for equality. Our demand was LGBT+ liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. Our battle cry was “innovate, don’t assimilate.”
GLF set out a far-sighted agenda for a non-violent revolution in cultural values and attitudes. It questioned not just anti-LGBT+ prejudice and discrimination but also marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy. Making common cause with the women’s, black and worker’s movements, gay liberationists wanted fundamental social change and pursued an intersectional strategy of standing together with all oppressed people.
Our vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. Erotic shame and repression would be banished, together with the privileging of monogamy, the traditional family and rigid male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. And for straight, non-binary and cis gender people too.
As well as opposing the way things were, GLF outlined an alternative imagination of how society and personal relationships could be. This included living communally and cooperatively, gender subversive radical drag and non-possessive multi-partner open relationships. These were revolutionary ideas, and they still are.
But look what’s happened since then. Whereas GLF derided the family as a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children, the biggest LGBT+ campaigns of recent years have been for marriage and parenting rights. The focus on these safe, cuddly issues (worthy though they are) suggests that queers are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat. Many of us would, it seems, prefer to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations, rather than critique them and strive for a liberating alternative.
This political retreat signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism. It signals that the LGBT+ community has finally succumbed – like much of mainstream society – to the depressing politics of conformism, respectability and moderation.
As we remember Stonewall at 50, let’s also remember that GLF showed that the world doesn’t have to be this way. In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”