Gay Pride is Now Respectable, and the Worse for it

The gay community has retreated from radical idealism to cautious conformism.


Today’s Gay Pride Parade & Mardi Gras Festival marks the 30th anniversary of the first Gay Pride celebration in Britain. I helped organise that first celebration in 1972, when 700 lesbians and gays marched from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park.

There were no calls for equality; our demand was liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. Our radical, idealistic vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with compulsory monogamy, gender roles and the nuclear family. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – gay and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate”

We had a beautiful dream, but it’s fading fast. In the 30 years since the first Gay Pride march, there has been a massive retreat from the ideals and vision of the early gay liberation pioneers. Most gay people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo.

It was not always like this. The first Gay Priders saw the family as “a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children”. Three decades later, the theme of this year’s celebration is “We are family: partnership and parenting rights – now!” The focus on safe, cuddly issues like gay marriage and adoption indicates how gay people are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat and 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 gay movement has finally succumbed to the Blairite politics of conformism, respectability and moderation.

The leading gay rights group, Stonewall, is the gay wing of New Labour. It never condemns the Blair government, despite its shameful record of blocking gay equality 13 times – on issues such as pensions, hate crimes and protection against discrimination. In return, the government gives Stonewall exclusive, privileged access to the corridors of power. All other gay groups are excluded.

The gay Blairites now dominate the gay 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. Now it is safe to be out, these arriviste activists are jumping on the bandwagon and hijacking the gay movement for their own middle-of-the-road agenda. The radical generation – the ones who created the conditions in which the Blairites were able to come out – are dismissed as extremists and marginalised.

The first Gay Pride march was organised by volunteer, grassroots activists. Today, more and more gay organisations are run by career campaigners. These sharp-suited middle class professionals have infused the gay 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, the timidity of sex education lessons, 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 Blairite project for gay 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?

Proof of the triumph of Blairism within the gay movement is the way equality has become the unquestioned political objective. But it isn’t the panacea that many claim. Equal rights for lesbians and gay men means parity on straight terms, within a pre-existing framework of institutions and laws. Since these have been devised by and for the heterosexual majority, equality within their system involves conformity to their rules. This is a formula for gay submission and incorporation, not liberation.

As the first Gay Priders argued, accepting mere equality involves the abandonment of any critical perspective on straight culture. In place of a healthy scepticism, it substitutes naive acquiescence. Discernment is surrendered in favour of compliance.

When campaigning for the right of gays to serve in the armed forces, the Blairistas never questioned the authoritarian nature of the military, nor its bloody history of human rights abuses. There was no attempt to make ending the gay ban part of a much-needed, broader democratisation of the armed services.

On the age of consent, they settled for equality at 16, ignoring the criminalisation of under-age gays and straights. Don’t the under-16s have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them. All they got was equal injustice.

In the push to win legal rights for same-sex couples, the gay Blairites back Danish-style registered partnerships. What a tragic lack of imagination. Why can’t we campaign for a more democratic, egalitarian alternative, where people can nominate as their next-of-kin and beneficiary any ‘significant other’, such as a lover, cousin or life-long best friend?

Oscar Wilde once wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Thirty years after the first Gay Pride march, the gay community needs to rediscover the vision thing. That means daring to imagine what society could be, rather than accepting society as it is.

Aslightly edited version of this article was published in The Independent, 6 July 2002

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2002. All rights reserved.