Time to Abandon Gay Rights


The time has come to abandon gay rights campaigning in favour of a broader human rights agenda. Instead of promoting separate, exclusively gay equality legislation, homosexuals should push for comprehensive human rights laws to protect everyone.

Right now, however, the battle cry of “gay rights” totally dominates the thinking of the gay community. While homosexuals want “their” issues addressed – and rightly so – relatively few pause to think about the needs of other disadvantaged minorities and our common interest in overcoming discrimination. This fragmentation of the battle for universal equality is short-sighted, and often self-defeating.

The way forward is not more narrow-focused gay equality legislation like the recent Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, but new broad-based equal opportunities laws offering redress to all those who suffer victimisation.

Separating gay rights from other human rights issues makes no sense, especially nowadays when the lesbian and gay community has made significant strides in cultural visibility and public acceptance. A go-it-alone gay law reform strategy marginalises the queer agenda to the fringes of political debate, and sets up gay rights bills as sitting targets for homophobes.

Equally counter-productive, it limits the potential for alliance-building, down-sizes our base of support, offers nothing to heterosexuals, and reeks of selfishness.

The idea of no longer campaigning for specifically gay legislation is heresy to many in the queer community. But the gay liberation pioneers of three decades ago always envisaged homosexual freedom as part of a wider process of social change for the benefit of all.

It is a sad reflection on contemporary gay politics that their inclusive vision has been reduced to a narrow, self-obsessed gay rights agenda.

The short-sightedness of many homosexuals is not surprising. Amoral hedonism and historical amnesia dominate gay culture. Few queers realise or care that the gay liberation era began 30 years ago next Monday. On 28 June 1969, a routine police raid on a New York gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, provoked an unprecedented reaction: gays and lesbians rioted against police harassment. This rebellion sparked the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), beginning the modern, world-wide movement for queer emancipation.

The new movement spread to Britain a year later. I joined, aged 19. It was an exhilarating, empowering experience. We were no longer passive victims of injustice. For the first time, thousands of lesbians and gay came out and marched for freedom. Our slogan – “Gay is Good!” – was a revolution in consciousness. Back then, nearly everyone, including many homosexuals, thought being gay was a sin and sickness.

Unlike today’s often self-centred gay activists, GLF pursued lesbian and gay rights within a wider sexual liberation agenda, challenging not only homophobia but also puritanism and patriarchy. With a more expansive notion of queer freedom than mere legal equality, it bid to transform society in ways that would, ultimately, emancipate people of all sexualities. By questioning the power of the Church, sex-repressive laws, and traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, GLF offered liberation to straights as well as gays.

The equal rights politics of earlier homosexual law reformers was deemed inadequate. GLF acknowledged that equality was important, but realised it had a down-side too. The legal system was, historically, devised by and for the heterosexual majority. Legislation on matters such as sexual offences, marriage, sex education and pornography, reflects traditional straight lifestyles and morality. Equal rights for gay people therefore inevitably involve equality on heterosexual terms. We conform – albeit equally – to their system. This was not, in GLF’s view, liberation.

Rejecting equal rights within the flawed status quo that diminishes both queers and straights, GLF wanted to change society to forge a new, higher, more liberating version of equality. It rewrote the gay rights platform to articulate policies that benefited everyone.

The contemporary gay-rights-only strategy – despite limiting its objectives to the minimalist demand of equality – is not working. There has been no major homosexual law reform since 1967. The sole gains are a few minor changes, such as the reduction in the gay age of consent to 18. But this reform, by rejecting equality at 16, merely served to reinforce and perpetuate discrimination.

The legal status of lesbians and gay men remains a form of “sexual apartheid”: one law for heterosexuals and another for queers. We are still refused partnership rights, banned from the armed forces, denied redress against discrimination in housing and employment, and criminalised by age of consent and gross indecency laws that apply only to gay men.

This continuing suppression of gay human rights is shocking. But it is also shocking the way some homosexuals seem to think that straight people live in a sexually liberated paradise. They don’t. Heterosexuals get a raw deal too. Perhaps they need a Straight Liberation Front? Or may be HetRage?

In the meantime, the gay community can do everyone a service by reframing its agenda around comprehensive legislation to tackle issues affecting both gays and heteros, such hate crimes, sexual offences, partnership rights, sex education and protection against discrimination.

Take the issue of partnership rights. Marriage is currently the only way couples can get adequate legal recognition. Even cohabiting heterosexuals have few rights. Is that the type of equality we want for gay lovers? The same lack of legal protection? Rather than demanding equality within a flawed legislative framework, would it not be better to push for new legal rights for all unmarried partners, gay and straight?

Apart from cowardly politicians and homophobic pressure groups, such as the Anglican Church, the biggest obstacle to an inclusive gay rights agenda is homosexuals themselves. Too many define their whole lives by their gay identity and cling to the gay ghetto mentality of Old Compton Street. Having built an entire lifestyle around the notion of difference, they are stuck in single-issue politics, reluctant to expand gay rights to embrace the interests of heterosexuals.

In contrast to these divisive, selfish attitudes, the early gay liberationists were right: the key to queer freedom is a new, comprehensive, transformative politics that incorporates lesbian and gay rights into a broader human rights agenda for the emancipation of everyone.

* Peter Tatchell was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, and is now a spokesperson for the queer rights group OutRage!.

An edited version of this article was published as “Let us cease these gay campaigns”, The Guardian, 24 June 1999.

Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.