Selfish Activism Or Equal Rights For All?

The separatist agendas of women, gays, black and disabled activists are divisive, and undermine the campaign for equality.


Why is the black community promoting a Racial Harassment Bill that protects only their own members against victimisation, but not women and those with HIV?

Why are feminists in the Labour Party demanding a Ministry for Women to combat sex bias, but relegating the fight against racism to the relatively powerless Commission for Racial Equality?

And why is the disability movement pressing for legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, but offering no protection to the victims of homophobic prejudice?

These sectarian separatist demands are undermining the campaign for social equality. They are setting one disadvantaged community against another, as each seeks to prioritise its own legislative agenda. The result: division and disempowerment.

Surely it’s time there was a common campaign to challenge all forms of discrimination and unite everyone suffering social exclusion and injustice?

The deficiencies of the current sex and race discrimination laws have been obvious for years. Despite protective legislation, women and black people still don’t have equal rights. Other communities are not deemed worthy of any protection against bias. Lesbians and gay men, the disabled, and people with HIV have no legal redress at all against discrimination.

A major shake-up in equal opportunities legislation, to ensure it’s effective and comprehensive, is long overdue.

For discriminated communities to pool their resources and work together around a joint agenda for equality has got to be the best way to increase their collective political influence.

The legislative reform that could provide a focus for this shared agenda and common campaign is an all-embracing Equal Rights Act: guaranteeing equal treatment to all people, and outlawing discrimination and harassment on the specific grounds of sex, race, class, religion, political opinion, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and HIV status. This would do more than any other single reform to tackle discrimination across the board.

In contrast, if we campaign for separate legislation to deal with the particular needs of women, black people, the disabled and lesbians and gay men, there is a danger that we set one community against another and create a legislative log-jam. How will we decide who gets priority?

This separatist approach would also make it much easier for right-wingers to accuse us (falsely) of demanding special privileges for certain communities. However, by arguing for legislation to protect everyone against discrimination we avoid this danger and make it more difficult for the Right to mobilise against us.

The special significance of an Equal Rights Act would be its establishment of a legal framework through which all aspects of discrimination could be challenged and overturned. Once the principle of ‘equal rights for all’ is established in law, it would be hard to sustain any form of discrimination against anyone.

The desirability of an Equal Rights Actis suggested by the experience of France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. In these countries, the Left has already won similar comprehensive equality legislation which has been shown to be effective in remedying discrimination and giving individuals practical redress against bias. Although it doesn’t mean that all prejudice is eliminated, it does lessen overt discrimination and make unfair treatment easier to stamp out when it arises.

There is, of course, little value in an Equal Rights Act unless it includes mechanisms to ensure its effective implementation. That requires the creation of a powerful government Department for Equal Rights – headed by a Minister of Cabinet rank – to monitor, promote and enforce equality of opportunity for everyone.

Within this Department, there would need to be separate secretariats to deal with the different forms of discrimination. Each have distinctive causes and effects. They require different remedies. Homophobia is not the same as racism. Hence the need for a specific Lesbian & Gay Rights Secretariat, Race Equality Secretariat and so on.

To ensure that everyone can exercise their right to non-discrimination, one of the Department’s functions must be the provision of free expert legal advice and representation to those seeking to challenge victimisation. Individuals must be given the legal power to take out injunctions to halt discrimination and to sue for damages and compensation.

In addition, the Department for Equal Rightsshould be empowered to scrutinise the practices of all public and private institutions and, where necessary, to issue legally-binding recommendations to rectify discrimination.

An Equal Rights Act along these lines would enable many diverse forms of discrimination to be combated simultaneously. Allpeople would have a swift and effective legal mechanism for asserting their right to equal treatment. For that reason, a united campaign for an Equal Rights Act is in everyone’s interest and ought to be a priority in any Left campaign for social justice.

*Peter Tatchell is a member of the lesbian and gay direct action group, OutRage!, and author of Europe In The Pink: Lesbian & Gay Equality In The New Europe, GMP (£5.95).