Equality is not Enough

Equal rights versus queer emancipation. Recalling the radical ideals of the Gay Liberation Front, more than mere legal equality is demanded-changing society is necessary.


Twenty-four years ago next week, there was a tiny, unreported meeting at the London School of Economics which was to change forever the lives of lesbians and gay men in Britain.

On 13th October 1970, in a basement seminar room at the LSE, nineteen men and women formed the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF). That small gathering was a milestone in the movement for queer freedom.

Disavowing the closeted, apologetic defensiveness of earlier generations of homosexuals, members of London GLF “came out” and proclaimed that “gay is just as good as straight”. Their defiance of the social proscription of homosexuality as a sickness and a sin encouraged a new-found sense of “gay pride” which, for the first time ever, motivated thousands of openly homosexual people to campaign for an end to queer oppression.

It was not until several months later that I arrived in London from Australia. Within five days I was at my first GLF meeting, and within a month I was helping to organise many of its irreverent, bold protests. Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light rally against the ‘permissive society’ was invaded by kissing queer nuns. There were freedom rides and sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve ‘poofs’. Psychiatric conferences addressed by Professor Hans Eysenck were disrupted following his advocacy of electro-shock aversion therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality.

In contrast to the assimilationist strategies of earlier organisations, such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the GLF agenda was never about queers adapting to straight society. While law reform and equal rights were its immediate demands, the real GLF goal was the transformation of social values, laws and institutions. The aim was to end heterosexual privilege and create a gay-positive and sex-affirmative culture.

In the near-quarter of a century since the formation of GLF, much of the lesbian and gay movement has turned its back on this sexual liberation agenda and switched instead to a respectable, pragmatic reformism.

The objectives of the main homosexual lobbying organisation, the Stonewall group, are restricted to legal equality. Achieving equal rights is, of course, an important first step. However, equality also has its limitations. Since the legal system has been devised by and for the straight majority, equal rights for queers inevitably involves equality on heterosexual terms. We conform to their system. Without a fundamental renegotiation of sexual values and laws, equality will always mean that heterosexuals continue to call the shots.

A narrow equal rights agenda also colludes with assimilationism – the idea that lesbians and gay men can best improve their lives by quietly blending in with mainstream straight society. But many of us don’t want to mimic the flawed example of heterosexuality, with its sad suburban stereotypes. Becoming “hetero homos” and embracing the values of straight culture requires us to give up the distinctive and enriching aspects of our own queer identity. That’s capitulation, not liberation.

As GLF argued long ago, the realisation of lesbian and gay freedom does not depend on us adapting to the heterosexual-dominated status quo, but on us radically changing it. The problem is society’s homophobia, not the dissent of queers from straight norms.

Capital Gay, 14 October, 1994