In the 25 years since the Stonewall Riots it is queer self-help, not law reform, which has improved the lives of lesbian and gay people.
Twenty-five years ago, on 28 June 1969, hundreds of lesbian and gay people fought back against police harassment for the first time ever. Instead of passively accepting their victimisation, as others had done before, queers at a New York bar, the Stonewall Inn, vented years of pent- up resentment in three nights of rioting. Out of this Stonewall rebellion, the movement for lesbian and gay liberation emerged. It has since spread to almost every country in the world, and has given hope to millions.
Indeed, I first came out at the age of 17 in 1969, inspired by a press report of the gay protests which took place in New York shortly after the Stonewall Riots. My immediate reaction was that I, too, wanted to get involved in this new movement. Later joining the newly-established Gay Liberation Front in London, I have remained involved ever since.
Looking back at the impact of the lesbian and gay movement in Britain over the last quarter of century, the remarkable thing is how little has been achieved in terms of law reform. There are only modest gains, such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Isle of Man and the Armed Forces, and the recent vote to reduce the gay male age of consent to 18.
Since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, there has not been a single significant homosexual law reform in the UK. Parliament has repeatedly rejected proposals which would have ensured non-discrimination in the fields of housing, employment, immigration, adoption and sexual offences. Instead, the only substantive legislative changes since 1967 have increased discrimination.
In 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. Three years later, Section 31 (formerly Clause 25) of the Criminal Justice Act reclassified many forms of consenting gay behaviour as “serious” sex crimes and empowered judges to pass longer deterrent sentences.
While most European countries have scrapped their homophobic laws, with Germany and Russia being the latest to equalise the age of consent, Britain retains anti-gay legislation which originated in the Victorian era. In this country, but virtually nowhere else in the world, it is still an offence for two adult men to chat up each other in a public place. It also remains an offence to aid and abet consenting homosexual acts, even lawful ones. Both these ‘crimes’ are punishable by up to two years imprisonment. During the 1980s, about 25,000 men were convicted, and 2,500 imprisoned, for the mainly gay and consenting offences of buggery, soliciting, indecency and procuring.
Despite the outrageous lack of legislative progress, the quality of life of most lesbians and gay men has improved dramatically over the last two decades. This is largely due to queer self-help initiatives. When straight society has ignored our needs, we have responded by creating a secure and supportive lesbian and gay community, with helplines and social centres, legal advice agencies, bars and cafes, housing associations, newspapers and magazines, victim support networks, and much more.
These self-help efforts have enhanced the lives of millions of lesbians and gay men. It’s now much easier to get positive information about homosexuality, feel a sense of self-worth, come out, meet a partner, challenge discrimination, and get help when in need. In just over two decades, our own initiatives have created a large, supportive, visible, self-confident and influential lesbian and gay community for the first time in human history.
Few of these positive changes have been due to straight politicians or law reform. We queers have done it for ourselves. If the last 25 years have taught us anything it is that gay people cannot depend on mainstream political parties. They have failed to deliver equality. With some honourable exceptions, most MPs do not accept that lesbians and gay men are entitled to human rights. Parliament made this clear in February when it voted to perpetuate a discriminatory age of consent for gay men.
Faced with the intolerance of so many MPs, increasing numbers of lesbians and gay men despair of getting any justice through the political system. Democracy has turned out to be a licence to discriminate.
While we do not intend to give up the fight for law reform, many of us now feel that the key to queer advancement is self-help and community empowerment. That way we are less at the mercy of heterosexual-dominated institutions and more in control of our own destiny. With self-reliance, we can create our own homo-affirming community and safe queer space where we don’t have to justify ourselves or plead with heterosexuals for acceptance. We can give each other the support that straight society denies us.
Developing the lesbian and gay community as a focus of counter-culture and counter-power helps undermine the grip that homophobia has on our lives. A well organised, powerful queer community is more difficult for straights to ignore. From a position of strength, we can better challenge hetero supremacism and bargain more effectively for meaningful law reform.
Published as “Staying out in the cold is the best way to keep warm”- Observer, 19 June 1994
* Peter Tatchell is a member of the lesbian and gay human rights group OutRage!