New ideas for advancing the stalled struggle for queer human rights.
The battle for lesbian and gay freedom has reached an impasse. There has been no major homosexual law reform since 1967. The Labour government is now the main obstacle to queer human rights. It has the power to repeal discriminatory laws, but is refusing to do so.
Tony Blair and Jack Straw are all talk and no action. They promise equality, but maintain the laws that discriminate against us. Since May 1997, Labour has 12 times thwarted proposals for gay equal rights (full details on the OutRage! website: www.OutRage.org.uk/pride99.htm).
Equally shameful, the Labour leadership is cynically manipulating the gay rights agenda. It refuses to negotiate with any group other than Stonewall, and decides unilaterally what reforms are acceptable and what are not.
Having determined the limits of equality, Tony and his cronies then present their piecemeal, half-baked reforms as a fait accompli. “Take it or leave it”, seems to be Labour’s attitude.
Where do we go from here? A broader, united front of diverse lesbian and gay groups might be a good idea. That would make it harder for the government to ignore our concerns, and allow for a combination of tactics, ranging from sweet reasonableness to more robust negotiating and open protest.
It might also be more effective to incorporate lesbian and gay human rights within a wider, comprehensive human rights agenda. This has been the formula for successful queer rights legislation in countries such as Canada, Sweden, Australia and France.
The experiences of gay campaigners in these countries show that building alliances and creating coalitions with other marginalised communities can add to our collective strength and bargaining power. It also avoids the inherent danger that, in pursuing specifically gay rights legislation, we invariably push queer issues to the fringes of political debate and make our agenda a sitting target for homophobic campaigns.
This repositioning of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights involves inserting our demands within a broad-based, universal human rights agenda.
Instead of pursuing a go-it-alone queer rights strategy, we should, for example, seek to improve sex education and safer sex advice for all pupils, gay and straight; promote legislation outlawing all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of the sexual orientation and HIV status; ensure new legal rights for all unmarried couples, hetero and homo; and campaign for tougher action against all hate crimes, to protect every vulnerable community.
While there is still a role for respectable lobbying, perhaps the lesbian and gay rights movement should model itself on the women’s suffrage campaign, which involved a combination of polite negotiation and militant direct action. These two different tactics reinforced and complemented each other, both contributing to securing votes for women.
Faced with Labour’s intransigence, we could do with a bit more of the Suffragette/OutRage! style of confrontation. Tony Blair and Jack Straw need to be challenged, harried, embarrassed and shamed at every opportunity.
A series of high-profile, symbolic campaigns, such as a hunger-strike or a “Long March for Queer Freedom” from Edinburgh to London, could help put gay issues on the public agenda and pressure the government to deliver.
One thing is clear: the current one-sided strategy of behind-the-scenes lobbying is not giving us what we want. The time has come for fresh thinking and new methods of campaigning.
Published as an inset to “The queerest love affair this century”, Outcast, Number 1, September 1999.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.