Stonewall’s focus on lobbying and law reform has its limitations. Direct action also has a vital role to play in the struggle for queer freedom.
The Stonewall Group’s absence from the huge march against the Criminal Justice Bill in July was symptomatic of its creeping complacency. This Bill reiterates the system of ‘sexual apartheid’ which treats gay people as second class citizens. It enacts a discriminatory gay male age of consent of 18, and restricts civil liberties in ways that are likely to increase conviction rates for cruising and cottaging. Incredibly, there has not been a squeak of criticism of the Bill from Stonewall – only silence and inaction.
In June, the House of Lords voted against two amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill. One would have lowered the age of consent to 16; the other would have reversed it to 21. The Lord’s endorsed 18.
Stonewall expressed satisfaction with this outcome, saying that the decision “simply confirms the status quo”. Since when has the status quo of 18 been something to feel satisfied about? Worse still, Stonewall dismissed the age of consent vote as “the last gasp of extreme prejudice in parliament”, as if all homophobic laws are on the verge of being swept away.
Despite the failure of their lobbying tactics to secure equality, Stonewall has bizarrely trumpeted the age of consent campaign as a “success”. It claims that the legal recognition of male rape is “an historic development” and “the beginning of a new era in which the criminal law will be concerned less with policing homosexual activity”. This preposterous claim coincided with increased police raids in Manchester, London, Newcastle, Bournemouth and elsewhere.
By over-stating its achievements, Stonewall is in danger of encouraging apathy among lesbians and gays. If people are given a false sense of success, many may feel they don’t need to do anything themselves to challenge discrimination. It can lead to the complacent attitude: “No need to worry, Stonewall will take care of it”.
Stonewall’s exaggerated claims of “success” seem to stem from a belief that having lost the age of consent vote it needs to justify its lobbying tactics and proclaim their efficacy to a now understandably sceptical queer community. This belief has also led Stonewall to disparage direct action as “the ghetto of purely protest politics” and as “hysterical, huckstering and shocking”. Indeed, Stonewall’s recent book, Stonewall 25, rewrites history to completely exclude the crucial role of direct action in our community’s advancement.
Undoubtedly, lobbying is important and Stonewall has made a valuable contribution to the campaign for equality. However, lobbying also has its limitations. In six years of laudable efforts, Stonewall has not secured any significant law reforms. It’s attempt to portray minor changes as major successes is grating, as is its attempt to claim sole credit for every tiny improvement in our legal and social status. This refusal to acknowledge that other lesbian and gay organisations have made a contribution is plain arrogance.
Lobbying is a problematic tactic because it inevitably involves our dependence on a straight-dominated parliament. We have to rely on heterosexual MPs. The success or failure of lobbying turns on their whims and fancies. This puts us in the humiliating position of being supplicants, forever at the mercy of straight parliamentarians.
Furthermore, lobbying invariably imposes restraints and compromises on the lobbyists. We see this in Stonewall’s dependence on the votes of Labour MPs to win law reform. As a result, Stonewall rarely criticises Labour when it fails our community. Even when 39 Labour MPs voted against an equal age of consent, which scuppered our chance of 16, there was not a word of condemnation from Stonewall, just “disappointment”.
Another downside of lobbying is that it mirrors the elitism of the parliamentary system. Stonewall emphasises the key role of professional lobbyists; thereby discouraging members of our community from taking responsibility for their own emancipation. The involvement of ordinary queers in Stonewall’s campaigns is limited to “write to your MP, send us your money”. This reduces political action to a private, individual act. It fragments our community and denies us a sense of our collective strength, which is profoundly disempowering.
While Stonewall’s focus on law reform is important, it is not without pitfalls. Since the legal system has been devised by and for the straight majority, equality for lesbians and gays inevitably means equal rights within a framework determined and dominated by heterosexuals. We get law reform on straight terms.
The truth is that equality is not good enough. Getting an equal age of consent of 16 for gay men would be a positive advance on 18, but what about the under 16s? It is time that they, too, were no longer treated as sex criminals.
Perhaps the biggest danger of Stonewall’s limited agenda of equal rights is that it risks complicity with assimilationism. Seeking equality on straight terms invariably encourages conformity to straight values. We become invisibilised and absorbed into heterosoc, losing our own distinctive queer identity and culture. This robs us of everything unique and worthwhile that the lesbian and gay community has created and valued.
The idea that lobbying tactics should have primacy in the struggle for our liberation, which is what Stonewall now seems to suggest, is misguided. Although lobbying does have a role in changing laws, it is not particularly effective when it comes to changing public attitudes and cultural values. In addition, some forms of homophobia are not susceptible to lobbying. A polite letter or meeting with Pope John Paul, Terry Dicks, Shabba Ranks or Gary Bushell is unlikely to modify their bigotry.
Contrary to Stonewall’s dismissive attitude, direct action has an important and distinctive contribution to make to the battle for queer freedom.
The Stonewall model of political campaigning is based on ‘representative democracy’, whereby an elite coterie of experts and leaders act on behalf of lesbians and gay men (whose role in campaigning is reduced to little more than letter writing and envelop stuffing).
In contrast, direct action is rooted in the idea of ‘participatory democracy’, which encourages people to take charge of their own lives and to fight for their own liberation. The OutRage! model of direct action is about creating a queer civic ethos of self help, responsibility, participation and empowerment.
What is more, direct action can achieve things that lobbying can’t. Media coverage is vital to make queer issues visible and create pressure for reform. Lobbying MPs and writing letters, although worthwhile, are rarely newsworthy. To get media attention necessitates being provocative. The shock tactics of direct action are more likely to grab the headlines. They put queer rights on the political agenda, promote public awareness and debate, pressure the authorities, and build a momentum for change (which helps the work of lobbyists).
Faced with intransigent bigots who are impervious to lobbying, the confrontational tactics of direct action can expose, ridicule, embarrass and unnerve homophobes in ways that make them think twice before again openly voicing their prejudices. The fear that their intolerance will lose them public esteem and credibility (and possibly cause them financial losses), is often sufficient to silence bigots.
This is what happened when OutRage! zapped the Evening Standard Film Awards in protest at that paper’s homophobia. Shamed, humiliated and fearful of losing readers, the editor responded by ordering a change in editorial policy which years of lobbying had failed to achieve.
The bottom line is that no movement for social justice has ever succeeded without rocking the boat. The direct action tactics of the Chartists and Suffragettes were condemned in their time as being ‘extremist’. Yet it was precisely their controversial, confrontational methods that forced society to sit up and take notice. If there is any lesson to be learned from history it is that being noisy and troublesome has a key role to play in the struggle for queer emancipation.
Gay Times, October 1994
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1994. All rights reserved.