The Stonewall riots of 40 years ago led to demands for liberation.
Now we meekly hope for equality
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 26 June 2009
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York when, for the first time in history, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people fought back against decades of police harassment.
Previously, LGBT people worldwide had largely complied with arrest and criminalisation. But not in New York on the nights of 27 and 28 June 1969. What began as a routine police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, turned into sporadic street battles. In the aftermath of this history-making queer resistance, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in New York and similar groups sprang up across the US and the world. The modern LGBT rights movement was born.
There had been earlier homosexual law reform and welfare organisations in the US, Britain and the Netherlands. But these were small, discreet lobby groups. Their members were brave trailblazers but very defensive and mostly closeted.
The global GLF movement was radically different. It was a watershed in queer consciousness – the moment LGBT people discarded victimhood and stopped apologising. Instead of pleas for tolerance, the demand was unconditional acceptance. Thousands came out. This had never happened before.
I joined London GLF, aged 19. Our slogan: Gay is Good. These three simple words were revolutionary. Until then, nearly everyone – including many LGBTs – believed that gay was bad, mad and sad. Whereas mainstream society saw homosexuality as a problem, we said the problem was homophobia. Straight supremacism was, to us, the equivalent of white supremacism.
Our vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – queer and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate”.
GLF never called for equality. The demand was liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. Equal rights within a flawed, unjust system struck us as idiotic. It would mean parity on straight terms, within a pre-existing framework of institutions and laws devised by and for the heterosexual majority. Equality within their system would involve conformity to their values and rules – a formula for gay submission and incorporation, not liberation.
We argued then, and I still argue now, that accepting mere equality involves the abandonment of any critical perspective on straight culture. In place of a healthy scepticism, it substitutes naive acquiescence with the hetero mainstream. Discernment is surrendered in favour of compliance. While heterosexuality has its good points, it also has its downsides, like the machismo of many hetero men, which is linked to gang culture and violence against women.
In the 40 years since Stonewall and GLF, there has been a massive retreat from that radical vision. Most LGBT people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo. On the age of consent, the LGBT movement accepted equality at 16, ignoring the criminalisation of younger gay and straight people. Don’t the under-16s have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them. All they got was equal injustice.
Whereas GLF saw marriage and the family as a patriarchal prison for women, gay people and children, today the LGBT movement uncritically champions same-sex marriage and families. It has embraced traditional heterosexual aspirations lock stock and barrel. How ironic. While straight couples are deserting marriage, same-sexers are rushing to embrace it: witness the current legal fight in California for the right to marry. Are queers the new conservatives, the 21st-century suburbanites?
Don’t get me wrong. Despite my critique of marriage and my advocacy of a more democratic, flexible model of relationship recognition and rights, I oppose the ban on same-sex marriage. It is homophobic discrimination. Sadly, most of the LGBT movement in Britain is now too feeble to demand marriage equality. It meekly accepts civil partnerships instead of civil marriage. This is not equality. Separate laws are not equal laws. There would be riots if the government banned black people from getting married and offered them civil partnerships instead. It would be denounced as apartheid. Well, that’s what civil partnerships are: sexual apartheid. Same-sex couples are banned from civil marriage (homophobia) and opposite sex couples are banned from civil partnerships (heterophobia). Two wrongs don’t make a right.
The LGBT community’s retreat from radicalism signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism. It has succumbed to the politics of conformism, respectability and moderation. What a shame. GLF dared to imagine what society could be, rather than accepting society as it is – and so should we.