Labour Vetoes Gay Equality Thirteen Times!
Labour's sad, shameful record on gay human rights.
Labour has a dirty secret. On 13 separate occasions since winning power in May 1997, it has blocked queer equality and endorsed homophobic discrimination. Once would be bad enough. But 13 times!
Even on the age of consent, which Millbank and Downing Street keep touting as proof of their commitment to equality, the government has not willingly bought forward legislation. It was forced to do so by the adverse ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, and it still refuses to officially endorse equality at 16.
Tony Blair's policy is that equalising the consent laws is an issue of individual conscience. Labour MPs are free to vote for or against equality, according to their own whims and fancies. In contrast, Labour never leaves black and women's equality to a free vote. It insists that all Labour MPs vote against discrimination. Why the double-standards?
Prior to the 1997 election, Labour made three specific pledges on lesbian and gay human rights:
HATE CRIMES - At a Stonewall-sponsored meeting in the House of Commons in February 1997, Jack Straw promised swift action against homophobic hate crimes. In 1998, however, he vetoed an amendment to the Crime & Disorder Bill that would have extended the tough new penalties for racist attacks to all hate crimes, including those motivated by homophobia. Gay Labour MP Stephen Twigg spoke against this amendment in committee. Labour's opposition to action against homophobic hate crimes came just a few months before the Soho bomb, making Minister's subsequent messages of condolence to the gay victims ring hollow and hypocritical.
SECTION 28 - At the same Stonewall meeting, Straw pledged that Labour would promptly repeal Section 28. But for two and a half years after coming to power, the government refused to say when or how. It was only following the Scottish parliament's announcement of plans to repeal Section 28 that Tony Blair was bounced into following suit. But even then, the repeal Bill was introduced in the Lords, which means that the Lord's vote against abolition cannot be over-ruled by MPs - effectively ending all hope of repeal before the general election.
MILITARY BAN - Before the 1997 election, Labour declared its intention to lift the ban on lesbians and gays in the military. However, within 10 days of winning office, Labour ditched that pledge. For over two years, it fought tooth-and-nail in the European Court of Human Rights to maintain homophobic discrimination in the armed forces. In the European Court of Justice in 1998, the government fought successfully to uphold the right of the military to deny queers equal treatment. The ban was eventually lifted only because the European Court of Human Rights ruled it illegal, forcing Labour to accept homosexuals into the army, navy and air force.
On every key gay rights issue, Labour's record in office has been characterised by the same yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.
Soon after wining the 1997 election, Tony Blair sent a message to that year's Lesbian & Gay Pride Festival pledging that his government would "build a new Britain free from discrimination". This promise is directly contradicted by Labour's repeated refusal over the last three years to support any legislation for queer equality:
PROTECTION AGAINST DISCRIMINATION - In 1998, Labour vetoed an amendment to the Human Rights Bill, which sought to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status. None of the out lesbian and gay MPs voted for this amendment.
EQUALITY AT WORK - Labour has three times scuppered legislation to stop discrimination against queers in the workplace. It blocked the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill in 1997, and in April and July 1999 it thwarted similar amendments to the Employment Relations Bill. The government is now offering a purely voluntary code of practice that employers will be free to accept or ignore.
SEXUAL OFFENCES - During the passage of the 1998 Crime & Disorder Bill, Labour manoeuvred to prevent attempts by backbench MPs to scrap three sexual offence laws that apply only to gay sex: the gross indecency statute outlawing many forms of consensual gay relations; the criminalisation of gay sex involving the presence of more than two people; and the homophobic bias of the Sex Offenders Act, which results in men convicted of consenting homosexual relationships with 16 and 17 year olds being branded as child sex abusers, while men involved in heterosexual relations with girls of the same age are not penalised at all.
NO MORATORIUM ON PROSECUTIONS - After the House of Lords overturned the vote for an equal age of consent in July 1998, Jack Straw refused to use his discretionary powers to initiate a moratorium on the prosecution of 16 and 17 year old gay men and their partners, insisting that prosecutions must continue because it is "the law of the land". And prosecutions did continue, with a 19 year old man being jailed for consensual sex with his 16 year old boyfriend.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES - In May 1999, the government blocked attempts to strengthen the equal opportunities powers of the new Greater London Authority (GLA), including powers to promote gay equality and tackle homophobic discrimination. Only after months of pressure did Labour grudgingly agree to give the GLA some limited powers to pursue equal ops.
PENSION RIGHTS - Labour used its voting muscle to reject a proposal in October 1999 by Lady Turner of Camden to allow lesbians and gays to inherit pensions on the death of their partner, leaving hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples without legal rights.
These are 13 specific instances when Labour had a chance to overturn turn homophobia, and instead opted to maintain discrimination. Labour talks equality, but rarely delivers. When it comes to the crunch, the government is more interested in appeasing Middle England and the Daily Mail than in enacting equal rights for queers.
Published under the title "New Labour: Gay rights heroes or appeasing zeroes?", Outcast, Number 7, March 2000.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 2000. All rights reserved.
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