Queer retreat from radicalism

The rise of LGBT conservatism, conformism & consumerism

By Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

QX Magazine – London, UK – 26 June 2014


The LGBT community is now respectable, and in some ways the worse for it. In the last decade, we’ve made fantastic, positive gains but we’ve also witnessed a retreat from radical idealism to cautious conformism.

As homophobic laws have been repealed, apathy and complacency have replaced activism and campaigning. Too many LGBT people are smug and self-satisfied.

At the beginning of the modern LGBT freedom movement in the early 1970s, we had a beautiful dream of a new sexual democracy but it is fading fast.

In the last 40 years, there has been a massive retreat from the ideals and vision of the early LGBT liberation pioneers. Most LGBT people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo – despite its many flaws and failings.

It was not always like this.

The first Gay Pride marchers saw the family as “a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children”. Four decades later, the focus on safe, cuddly issues like civil partnerships and marriage indicates how LGBT people are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat and are more than happy to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations.

This political retreat signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism. It also signals that even the LGBT movement has finally succumbed to the mainstream politics of conformism, respectability and moderation.

Gay conservatives and centre-lefts now dominate much the LGBT movement. Few of them were involved in the early gay liberation struggle. They stayed in the closet or were born in a later era. But all of them benefited from the gains won by the radical pioneers.

Only when it was safe to be out did these arriviste activists jump on the bandwagon and hijack the LGBT movement for their own middle-of-the-road agenda. The radical generation are now frequently dismissed as extremists and marginalised.

The first UK Gay Pride march in 1972 was organised by volunteer, grassroots activists.
Today, more and more gay organisations are run by paid career campaigners. These sharp-suited middle class professionals have infused the LGBT movement with their own cautious, respectable values.

Craving acceptance and advancement, they rarely campaign on contentious issues, such the hysteria over consensual sex between under-age partners, the censorship of sexual imagery and the criminalisation of sex workers and sadomasochistic relationships. It would be bad PR and might diminish their chances of OBEs and peerages.

The unwritten social contract at the heart of the recent campaigns for LGBT law reform is that gay people should behave respectably. No more cruising, orgies or bondage. In return, the ‘good gays’ will be rewarded with equal treatment. The ‘bad gays’, who fail to conform to conventional morality will, of course, remain sexual outlaws.

Is that what we want? A prescriptive moralism that penalises non-conformists within our own community?