We’ve Come a Long Way Baby….But

The queer community has made great gains, but lost much of the idealism and passion of the 1970s gay liberation movement.


Gay Times – July 2004

We’ve come a long way baby. After a campaign that began five decades ago, the explicit homophobia of English criminal law has finally ended. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 abolished the gay-only sex crime of ‘gross indecency’ – the law used to jail Oscar Wilde in 1895. He wasn’t the only victim. It is estimated that more than 50,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted of ‘gross indecency’ during the 118 years it was on the statute books.

Also in 2003, discrimination against queers in the workplace was finally outlawed following a campaign that took 30 years. When gay employee Tony Whitehead was sacked from British Home Stores in 1974 he lacked any legal redress. Today, employers can no longer sack queers at will. At long last, lesbians, gays and bisexuals have the same job protection that was given to black people in 1967.

How did we progress from the bad old days of rampant persecution to what is now a significant degree of social acceptance? What enabled our queer nation to finally start gaining recognition, respect and rights?

The formation of the Gay Liberation Front in London in 1970 was, arguably, the beginning of the modern movement for queer human rights in Britain. Together with thousands of other gays and lesbians, I was part of GLF’s queer uprising.

While there were earlier, courageous campaigners for homosexual law reform, GLF was the spark that ignited a firestorm. It transformed the mind of queer Britain forever – replacing shame with pride, and fear with defiance.

GLF did not plead for reform; it demanded change. Feisty, radical and uncompromising, our goal was the transformation of straight society. GLF set the agenda for all the gains of the last three decades.

Rejecting the often closeted, apologetic pleas for tolerance voiced by many law reformers in the 1950s and 60s, GLF activists were out and proud. We demanded a gay-positive and sex-affirmative society, where everyone could love whoever they wanted, without guilt, stigma or discrimination.

Inspired by GLF’s freedom cry, for the first time in history thousands of queers stopped hiding their sexuality and suffering in silence. No longer prepared to remain passive victims of injustice, we came out and marched with pride for gay liberation.

GLF’s unique style of political campaigning was “protest as performance”. Theatrical, imaginative, camp, daring and witty, it promoted the queer rights message in entertaining ways that caught people’s attention. There were spirited agitprop media stunts and street theatre spectaculars, like the raid on Harley Street in protest at the “psycho Nazis” in the psychiatric profession who said homosexuality was a mental illness. These novel protest methods helped raise public awareness of the institutional homophobia that was wrecking our lives.

GLF put fun into politics. A 12-foot papier-mache cucumber was delivered to the offices of Pan Books in protest at Dr David Reuben’s homophobic book, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, which suggested that all gay men were obsessed with shoving vegetables up their bums. When Mary Whitehouse began her crusade against the “moral pollution” of the “permissive society” (homosexuality, abortion and pornography), GLF disrupted the launch rally at Central Hall Westminster with mice, whistles and kissing nuns.

There were also serious civil disobedience protests, modelled on the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King; including sit-ins in pubs, like the Chepstow in west London, which refused to serve “poofs” and “lezzos”.

Realising straight men oppress both women and gays, GLF allied itself with women’s liberation movement. The 1971 Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall was upstaged by an alternative pageant outside the main entrance, featuring the drag queens Miss Used, Miss Conceived and Miss Treated. In protest at global hunger and Britain’s war in Ireland, there were also guest appearances by Miss Ulster, swathed in bloody bandages, and by a starving, emaciated Miss Bangladesh.

These protests grabbed the headlines and put queer issues on the public agenda; provoking debate and helping change homophobic attitudes.

Most importantly, the sight of queers fighting back against our persecutors dispelled forever the idea that straight society could walk all over us with impunity. This transformation from victim to victor was emotionally uplifting for millions of previously downtrodden and downcast queers. It helped banish our internalised shame; repairing much of mental damage done to us by centuries of homophobia. Through GLF we became the first queer generation to cast off the stigma and self-hate that had burdened homosexuals for over 2,000 years. The result? We became happier, more confident people, determined to assert our rights and unafraid to challenge even the most powerful homophobes.

Given the recent strides made by our community, it is easy to forget how bad things were just over three decades ago. Back then, it was not uncommon for lesbians and gay men to be sacked from their jobs, arrested for kissing in the street, evicted by homophobic landlords, and denied custody of their children by court order.

In the movies, if we featured at all, we were ridiculed as limp-wristed queens and demonised as psychopathic dykes. The only gay people who appeared in the news were mass murderers, spies and child abusers. We were the enemy within.

Queer bashing was rife, but largely ignored by the police and media. Cruising and cottaging were treated as major sex crimes, with constant raids. The police also periodically targeted gay clubs and bars. Owners were charged with “keeping a disorderly house” and patrons were arrested for “licentious dancing”.

At that time, there were no openly gay public figures, no sympathetic gay characters on television, and no gay switchboards or help-lines for those in need.

No wonder there was so much queer self-loathing, depression, alcoholism and suicide. Many gays were ashamed and wished they were straight – or dead. Some went to doctors to get “cured”. Others were sentenced by the courts to undergo “treatment”. Leading psychologists, such as Professor Hans Eysenck, advocated electric-shock aversion therapy to turn gay people straight.

We had a huge battle on our hands. Centuries of homophobia dictated that lesbian and gay people were mad, sad and very, very bad. Undaunted, GLF turned convention on its head, declaring: “Gay Is Good!”. These three words, spray painted all over London, signalled a revolution in queer consciousness.

In those days it was deemed outrageous to suggest there was anything good about being gay. Even liberal-minded heterosexuals mostly supported gay law reform out of sympathy and pity. Many were aghast when GLF proclaimed: “2-4-6-8! Gay is just as good as straight!”. This simple slogan had a huge impact. It psychologically empowered queers everywhere, but it frightened the life out of smug, arrogant heterosexuals who had always assumed they were superior. Unbowed by more than two millennia of heterosexual dictatorship, we dared to question straight supremacism, likening it to racism and misogyny.

While the church and state viewed homosexuality as a social problem, we argued the real problem was society’s homophobia. Instead of gays having to justify their existence, GLF demanded that gay-haters justify their bigotry.

In the 30-plus years since GLF sparked the queer rebellion there have been many advances. The repeal of homophobic legislation has included equalising the age of consent, ending the ban on homosexuals in the military and legalising gay adoption. Gay people are more visible than ever before, with openly gay politicians, police, priests and pop stars. Public attitudes are much more accepting. Positive queer images and characters abound on television. Companies run gay-themed adverts and political parties bid for the queer vote. The police have got tough on homophobic hate crimes (except, very notably, in the case of reggae singers who advocate the killing of ‘batty men’). Gayness is no longer classified as a sickness. It is homophobia that is increasingly viewed as the real perversion.

These important advances have, however, coincided with a massive retreat from the ideals and vision of the lesbian and gay liberation pioneers. Most queers no longer question the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They happily settle for equal rights with heterosexuals and aspire to little more than a gay version of suburban family life.

Many of us are nowadays carbon copies of heterosexuality. We have internalised straight thinking and become ‘hetero homos’ – straight minds trapped in queer bodies. Our queer psyche has been colonised by a heterosexual mentality.

How times have changed. GLF never campaigned for equality. Its demand was gay liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it.

The 1971 GLF Manifesto set out a far-sighted, radical agenda for a non-violent revolution in cultural values and attitudes. It questioned marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy. Making common cause with the women’s, black and worker’s movements, gay liberationists never sought equality within the status quo. We wanted fundamental social change.

Our idealistic vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with compulsory monogamy, the nuclear family, and rigid male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – gay, bi and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate”

Oh dear. Look what’s happened now. Whereas GLF derided the family as “a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children”, the biggest gay campaigns of the last two years have been for partnership and parenting rights. The focus on these safe, cuddly issues suggests that queers are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat. Many of us would, it seems, prefer to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations, rather than question them.

This political retreat signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism. It signals that the lesbian and gay community has finally succumbed – like much of mainstream society – to the depressing Blairite politics of conformism, respectability and moderation.