Hopes that Europe and Labour would deliver equality have turned out to be wishful thinking.
We queers used to have “plenty to feel outraged about”, but not any more. “Hostility is giving way to acceptance” and equality is just around the corner. In case you didn’t notice, we are in the “last stages” of the battle for lesbian and gay rights. Once the age of consent is won, the need for campaigning will be “largely over”.
These reality-defying fantasies have been gushing from the pages of The Guardian(and elsewhere) for months. The facts are, alas, somewhat different. Far from making great strides forward, the campaign for equality is in serious trouble.
Remember all the wishful thinking? It was a foregone conclusion, we were told, that Lisa Grant would win her appeal in the European Court of Justice. The judges were certain to rule that discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal. This would have the knock-on effect of ending the ban on gays in the armed forces and, eventually, pave the way for overturning many other inequalities. Unfortunately, this particular fairy story didn’t have a happy ending.
In February, the gay community suffered its biggest defeat since Section 28. The European Court of Justice rejected Lisa Grant’s appeal. It ruled that South West Trains is entitled to pay queer staff less than straights. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is, it declared, lawful.
This landmark decision was backed by the Labour government, which sent a lawyer to the European Court of Justice to defend South West Trains’ right to discriminate. Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, justified the government’s action by arguing that Labour was against equality being imposed by Europe. Ministers want “legislation, not litigation”, he said.
So where is this Labour legislation for workplace equality? It doesn’t exist. The government condemns discrimination, but refuses to use its power to legislate equal rights.
The Lisa Grant case signifies the defining moment we have now reached in the battle for human rights. Our hope that Europe would deliver us equality has proved groundless. Turning to parliament, we find that the only reform Labour is offering is a “free vote” on the age of consent. Apart from equality at 16, there is no immediate prospect of any further gay law reform.
Call me ungrateful, but it’s not bloody good enough! You think I’m fussing over nothing? Take a reality check for fuck’s sake. We queers are little more than slaves in a gilded cage. The glitter of the gay scene has created the illusion of freedom, but no amount of fucking, snorting, clubbing and shopping can erase the fact that we are still treated as second class citizens. That must not be allowed to continue.
It’s time for a radical rethink. The existing campaign strategies have failed. We need a new direction. But what?
More than 40 lesbian and gay groups met in London last Saturday to discuss how we can revive the stalled movement for equality. This newly-emerging human rights alliance is planning co-ordinated campaigns to turn up the pressure on the Labour government for reform. After the smug complacency and demise of activism in recent years, the growing mood of anger and determination is a heartening development.
Some groups have already succeeded in getting this year’s Pride March themed around the demand for the repeal of Section 28. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the ban on the promotion of homosexuality, the aim is to make Pride’98 the biggest civil rights march in British history. With reports that Labour is next year planning a Local Government Bill – which might be a method of reform – Pride is the perfect moment to re-launch the campaign for an end to Section 28.
Shortly before Pride, MPs will debate the age of consent. OutRage! has come up with the idea of a mass protest outside parliament on the night of the vote to draw attention to the many other legal inequalities that won’t change one iota, even if we do get 16: the lack of partnership rights, workplace discrimination, the ban on gays in the military, restrictions on fostering and adoption, and the bias in sexual offences law.
It’s time to tell the mother-fucker of all parliaments that this system of sexual apartheid has got to go. If we don’t, who will?
Published as “Equality Measures”, Time Out, 15-22 April 1998