Beyond equality: Why equal rights are not enough

Time to change the system, not just seek parity within it

Peter Tatchell
Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation

London, UK – 9 January 2018

Europe’s World / Friends of Europe


Equality is the mantra of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. A laudable aspiration, but it’s not enough. Although equal rights is a step forward, it represents a lack of imagination, confidence and vision.

Over the last half a century, Britain and other European nations have made great strides by repealing discriminatory laws and providing a wide range of legal protections for women and minorities. Starting with laws against racial and gender discrimination, we’ve gradually seen equality legislation extended to secure similar protections on the grounds of disability, religion and belief, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The equality principle was enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 and was repeated in the EU’s 2012 Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is also embodied in the UK’s Human Rights Act of 1998 and in our landmark Equality Act of 2010. The latter was a milestone achievement which replaced Britain’s uneven, fragmented patchwork of equal rights laws with a single comprehensive and uniform equality statute whereby all of us are equal before the law. Bravo!

But hold on. Equality is important, but it isn’t the panacea that many advocates claim. Equal rights for LGBT+ people, for example, means parity within a pre-existing framework of values, laws and institutions devised historically by and for the heterosexual majority. Equality within the established “straight” system involves conformity to their rules. This is a formula for assimilation and incorporation, not liberation.

Although getting rid of anti-LGBT+ discrimination is an important and commendable goal, it will not resolve all the problems faced by queer people. Some of our difficulties arise not from homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, but from the more general erotophobic and sex-negative nature of much contemporary culture, which also harms heterosexuals. These destructive puritanical attitudes are evident in the censorship of consenting adult sexual imagery, the inadequacy of sex education in schools and the criminalisation of sex workers and consensual sadomasochistic relationships in the UK and many other European countries. Equality with these restrictions hardly amounts to emancipation.

Equal rights is essentially about accepting the status quo and winning equal treatment within it. But who wants equality within a fundamentally flawed and unjust society? Surely the real prize must be to transform society, not merely secure equal rights within the confines of what exists? For true human liberation, we need a visionary agenda beyond equality – an agenda to change society from what it is, to what it could be.

Giving everyone equal legal protection against discrimination is just the first step. We also have to ensure these laws are effectively interpreted and enforced. There’s no point having good equality legislation if, for instance, employers don’t ensure equal opportunities and stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, or if police don’t crackdown on racist attacks, sexual violence and anti-LGBT+ hate crime.

The drawbacks associated with mere equality are not, of course, limited to sexuality. They also apply to women, most of whom are forced to compete on male terms to get ahead in the workplace. Despite formal legal equality between the sexes for many decades, UK women’s earnings are still nearly 20% lower than men’s and glass-ceilings prevent many talented women from becoming leaders in their professions. On top of this, women’s lives are often blighted by sexual objectification, rape, harassment and domestic violence.

We also see the limitations of mere equality when it comes to race. More than half a century after the end of racially discriminatory statutes in the US, the informal segregation of black and white communities in some parts of the country is almost as great as it was in the 1950s. Many poor black people are just as locked out of economic success as they were prior to the start of the civil rights era. Black people continue to account for 40% of the prison population in the US, but are only 12% of the population overall. Generally, black people tend to succeed only if they adopt a white middle-class lifestyle and assimilate into the dominant European culture.

As well as changing laws and institutional practice, it is also essential to change attitudes, values and institutions, to win public opinion in favour of accepting equal rights for all. If ignorant and intolerant attitudes linger, then prejudice, ostracism, hostility and informal discrimination will continue – and damage people’s lives.

So how can we transform the culture in a way that goes beyond mere equality with what is? The media and education have a key role to play. They must be a key focus of equal rights activism across Europe.

The media is our main means of social communication – a prime source of news, ideas and opinions impacting on our consciousness every day. It stands to reason that a more inclusive and ethical media can help undermine ill-informed prejudice and promote respect and equality, on issues such as refugees and immigrants. This is why it is so important that there are media watchdogs across Europe, to establish and enforce a legally-binding ethical code of conduct similar to that which the UK’s National Union of Journalists has had for decades. Contrary to what the scaremongers say, the NUJ’s code has never stopped any journalist from investigating and reporting stories. It simply encourages accurate and non-bigoted reporting – including the avoidance of lazy stereotypes and the use of biased language.

The other key means to secure the adoption of equal rights values is education. No child is born bigoted, though some become bigoted from the bad influences of adults and peers. Early and sustained equality education can help prevent that. To combat intolerance and bullying, education against all prejudice – including racism, misogyny, disablism, xenophobia, ageism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – should be a stand-alone compulsory subject in every school. Equality and diversity lessons should start from the first year of primary level onwards, with no opt-outs for private or faith schools and no right for parents to withdraw their children.

Classroom lessons in equality and diversity should promote the understanding and acceptance of Europe’s many different communities as well as the idea that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. These lessons should be subject to annual examination, ensuring that both pupils and teachers take these lessons seriously; otherwise they won’t. A pupil’s equality grades should be recorded and declared when applying for higher education and jobs, as it is in the interests of everyone to have universities and workplaces without prejudice. Bigotry harms people. It also saps morale and undermines individual and institutional efficiency.

These, then, are two transformative, constructive and practical ideas for going beyond the narrow confines of equality within Europe’s status quo – what I call equality-plus. Are there any government ministers, European Commissioners or MEPs who will champion them?



“Who wants equality within a fundamentally flawed and unjust society?”

 “We need a visionary agenda beyond equality – an agenda to change society from what it is, to what it could be”