Has The Campaign For Equality Failed?

Gay equality is being thwarted by the European Courts and the Labour government. Can anything be done to give the campaign for equal rights a new momentum?


The campaign for lesbian and gay human rights is getting nowhere. We’ve just suffered an absolutely devastating legal defeat. There was, however, no outcry. No mass protests. Nothing. Not even a whimper!

Lisa Grant’s appeal against discrimination in the workplace has been thrown out by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. It ruled that employers, such as South West Trains, can lawfully pay lesbian staff less than their heterosexual counterparts. European law does not, the judges decided, prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This means that Terry Perkins’s appeal to the European Court of Justice to overturn the ban on gays in the military, which was to have been heard in May, is now doomed to failure.

The legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, bought by four ex-military personnel, still stands. But the possibility of victory is receding fast. In the summer, the ECHR is being reconstituted to accommodate judges from the former Soviet-bloc countries that have recently joined. Judges from these countries are notoriously homophobic. It is feared they will tip the balance of the ECHR away from gay rights. The likelihood of winning equality through the ECHR now looks bleak.

This means that the strategy of using the courts to reverse inequality is, for the foreseeable future, dead in the water. Stonewall tried their hardest, but they didn’t succeed.

On the political front, the prospects for equality look no better. The Blair government has made it clear that the only reform it will support is a free vote on the age of consent. Despite the Bolton 7 prosecution, Labour are refusing to back the repeal of the gay-only offence of gross indecency. They won’t even consider lifting the ban on gay sex involving the presence of more than two men.

Tony Blair and Jack Straw support the discriminatory status quo. The chances of law reform, beyond equalising the age of consent, are grim.

It is abundantly clear that Stonewall’s strategy of lobbying the government isn’t working. Despite all the cosy meetings with Ministers, Labour appears to have no serious commitment to homosexual human rights. While Downing Street proclaims its commitment to equality, it is not delivering any practical reforms.

Both political lobbying and legal challenges have come to a dead end. It is time we faced up to that stark reality, and began to think afresh. What’s needed is a new strategy to revive the campaign for equality.

Last Saturday, 27 of us met in the Edward VI pub to discuss a new way forward. Representing most of the key lesbian and gay rights organisations in London, we all share the frustration that very little progress has been made in terms of law reform, despite the millions of pounds that has been poured into Stonewall over the last 10 years. Sadly, no one from Stonewall attended the meeting, but they did ask to kept informed.

Among some of those present, there was a feeling that many community groups are being excluded from a meaningful role in the campaign for equality by Stonewall’s style of high-level, behind-the-scenes negotiations. While these negotiations are, of course, necessary, they are not conducive to a broad-based movement.

Another serious problem is that gay rights campaigning is often fragmented because different groups are pursuing different agendas, with little coordination between them.

There was unanimous agreement among all 27 of us that the existing strategy has not produced the desired results, and must be replaced with something more likely to succeed.

We hit on a number ideas. One was the creation of an umbrella organisation – a Standing Forum – to bring together all the diverse campaign groups in a united front for equality. There was a strong desire to work more closely together, pooling our resources and pursuing joint initiatives. If everyone pulls together, so the argument goes, we will be more effective.

It was resolved to have a further meeting in a month’s time, involving more groups,

to thrash out a common agenda.

There is, of course, one big problem. Much of the lesbian and gay community is now tragically depoliticised and apathetic. For the last two years, influential gay voices have been pushing the line that activism is passe, and that the battle for equality is more or less won. Stonewall is doing very well, they said. The European Courts and Tony Blair will deliver us equality, they promised. The need for activism is over, they declared.

There is constant sniping at anyone who dares to question the new orthodoxy that equal rights are just around the corner. Worse still, this denigration and dismissal of activists has contributed to the demise of previously high-profile campaign groups like Lesbian Avengers. Even OutRage! came close to collapse. I can think of many brilliant, effective campaigners who dropped out because they got fed up with being ridiculed and slagged off. Now, when we need them, many of the best and brightest are not around anymore.

Proof of the way the gay community has been politically disarmed in recent years is the total absence of any protests against the Lisa Grant judgement. Even more alarming was the mere 400 letters sent to the judge appealing for the Bolton 7 not to be jailed (out of an estimated 50,000 people who were contacted and asked to write). If these terrible injustices cannot stir the lesbian and gay community to action, what will?

Metropolis, 12 March 1998

Copyright Peter Tatchell 1998. All rights reserved.