Whatever happened to the lofty ideals of gay liberation and sexual freedom?, asks Peter Tatchell
Equality is important, but it has its limitations. It isn't the panacea that many claim. Equal rights for lesbians and gay men inevitably means parity on straight terms, within a pre-existing framework of values, laws and institutions. These have been devised by and for the heterosexual majority. Equality within their system involves conformity to their rules. This is a recipe for incorporation, not liberation.
Although getting rid of homophobic discrimination is a laudable aim, it doesn't go far enough. Ending anti-gay bias will not resolve all the problems faced by lesbian and gay people. Some of our difficulties arise not from homophobia, but from the more general eroto-phobic and sex-negative nature of contemporary culture (which also harms heterosexuals). These destructive puritanical attitudes are evident in the censorship of sexual imagery, the inadequacy of sex education lessons, and the criminalisation of sex workers and consensual sadomasochistic relationships.
The draw-backs associated with seeking mere equality are not, of course, limited to lesbians and gay men. They also apply to women, who are forced to compete on male terms to get ahead in the workplace; and to black people, who are pressured to adopt white middle-class values and assimilate into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. As these examples illustrate, the equal rights agenda is not about respecting difference, but obliterating it. With regard to the gay community: equality is essentially a policy of social assimilation. As a condition of equal treatment, we homosexuals are expected to conform to the straight system, adopting its mores and aspirations. The end result is gay co-option and invisibilisation.
We get equality, but at a price. The cost to our community is the surrender of our unique, distinctive queer identity. The unwritten social contract at the heart of law reform is that lesbians and gays will behave respectably and comply with the heterosexual moral agenda. No more cruising, orgies or sadomasochism! In return, the "good gays" are rewarded with equal treatment. Meanwhile, all the sex-repressive social structures, institutions and value systems remain intact, and the "bad gays" remain sexual outlaws. This nouveau gay reformism involves the abandonment of any critical perspective on straight culture. In place of a healthy scepticism towards heterosexual morality, it substitutes naive acquiescence.
The advocates of gay equality never question the status quo. Accepting it unthinkingly, they merely want their place in the heterosexual sun. Most are all-too-willing to mimic heterosexual norms. They are straight minds trapped in queer bodies. No attempt is made to distinguish between those elements of hetero culture that are worthy of queer emulation and those that are not.
There is, unfortunately, plenty of evidence of the gay desire to mindlessly appropriate every legal right that heterosexuals have, no matter how crass and morally dubious.
Most gay pressure groups demand the right of homosexuals to serve in the armed forces, but never question the authoritarian nature of the military nor its bloody history of human rights abuses. Homophobic discrimination by the military is wrong, but so too is militarism and colonialism. For much of the last 60 years, Britain's armed forces were used mostly to suppress national liberation struggles in countries such as Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus and Ireland (where hundreds of innocent civilians have been shot by the British Army and by illegal undercover SAS hit-squads).
On the age of consent, much of the gay community has similarly taken leave of its critical and moral faculties. After a 33-year-long battle, the age of consent in England and Wales was recently equalised at 16. Great! But what about young lesbians, gays, bisexuals and straights under 16? Don't they have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them. Their victimisation by the law applies equally to everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation. But is that what we want? Equal injustice?
Most teenagers now have their first sexual experience at 14. The law treats them as criminals. Two consenting 14 year olds can face a maximum sentence ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment! To end this absurd, unjust criminalisation of the under-16s, the age of consent should be reduced to 14 for everyone, gay and straight.
Although young people under 16 are some of the most vulnerable members of the queer community, most gay rights organisations refuse to support any reduction in the age of consent. They seem quite content with young lesbians and gays being threatened with arrest and imprisonment for consenting, victimless relationships.
This is the problem with the equal rights mantra. It helps nice, respectable gays who are prepared to compromise and conform to the status quo. But those who rock the boat and refuse to turn themselves into facsimiles of straight morality remain marginalised and excluded.
The gay community's demand for equality is often also tinged with a whiff of self-obsession and selfishness. Solely concerned with winning rights for homosexuals, it offers nothing to heterosexual people (perhaps if queers supported the interests of straights, more of them might be inclined to support gay interests too?).
In contrast to this shallow reformism, queer emancipation groups like OutRage! have a post-equality agenda. We seek the extension of sexual freedom and human rights in ways that benefit everyone, regardless of sexuality. Many in the lesbian and gay community are jumping on the same-sex marriage bandwagon, endorsing either Dutch-style gay marriages or Danish-style registered partnerships (which are basically civil marriage by another name). OutRage!, in contrast, argues for a more democratic, egalitarian option. We offer a modern, flexible alternative to traditional heterosexual wedlock.
Our proposed Unmarried Partners Act (UPA) would grant new legal rights to all unwed couples, gay and straight. These rights include recognition as next-of-kin, joint guardianship of children, and inheritance of property in the event of a partner's death. Under our UPA, partners would be able to choose the rights they want from a menu of rights; allowing them to create a tailor-made partnership agreement suited to their particular needs.
Likewise, OutRage! is not keen on gay-exclusive anti-discrimination legislation, such as the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, promoted by the main gay rights lobby group, Stonewall. We are campaigning instead for a comprehensive Equal Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against all people (not just homosexuals!). We want to ban bias on the grounds of race, sex, language, disability, faith or belief, age, transgenderality, medical condition (such as HIV), genetic inheritance and, of course, sexuality.
By rejecting equal rights within the status quo and seeking to transform society instead, OutRage! transcends the narrow, introspective mainstream gay rights agenda. We remain true to the radical ideals of the gay liberation pioneers, promoting a much broader and more empowering vision of human rights and sexual liberation that will benefit people of all sexualities.