SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 110 - June 2007

Gay equality: still a long way to go

July 2007 sees the fortieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales. Limited though this was, not least in imposing an unequal age of consent, it is rightly seen as an early landmark in winning legal rights for lesbian, gay men, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people. GREG RANDALL looks at the progress made and the limits of reform.

THE HEADLINE ON the Pink Paper of 3 May this year was Equality at Last! marking the coming into law of regulations banning discrimination against LGBT people in the provision of goods and services. Some are seeing these regulations as the last step in the journey started in 1967. The lobbying group Stonewall has run adverts using the slogan "Discrimination at work: it’s so over". The message from the ‘gay establishment’ is that our place in society is secured, and there is nothing left to fight for, at least not in Britain.

Tony Blair has claimed the improvement in the position of LGBT people as his legacy, somewhat implausibly stating that he did a "little sort of skip around" when he saw footage of the first civil partnership ceremonies on television.

Yet in the same week as publication of the headline quoted above, the boss of BP, Lord Browne, resigned after committing perjury during his attempt to stop the right-wing newspaper, Mail on Sunday, publishing details of his private life. The muck-raking, taken up by others in the media, revealed the depths of homophobia and the willingness of right-wing tabloids to whip up and exploit prejudice.

Socialists have little sympathy for a boss with vast wealth and power losing his place atop one of the biggest transnational companies. Browne, after all, was head of BP in 2005 when an explosion at one of its Texas oil refineries killed 15 workers and injured 500 more. A proposal by engineers to upgrade safety equipment had been turned down because of cost cutting, profit maximising measures. We do, however, oppose homophobia everywhere, and the Browne affair exposed double standards in the ruling class.

In the workplace

MOST OF THE post-Browne comment on life for LGBT workers focussed on the City of London, with its big companies and financial institutions, and within those, on the best paid layers. Despite this, comments made in an article in The Guardian (5 May), some anonymously, will ring true for many workers: "You’re supposed to accept casual homophobic comments, but people wouldn’t accept casual racism", said ‘Ben’. One interviewee referred to companies "putting out marketing fluff on diversity". Even the well-known gay businessman Ivan Massow commented that if he could be born again, "for business purposes", he would want to be straight.

What exists at the top of capitalism is reflected all the way down. The light was shone on the reality of working life, not just in the BP boardroom, but also for legions of LGBT people in everyday workplaces. LGBT people are faced with the choice of coming out at work and risking discrimination and harassment, or staying in the closet and telling lies about their private life, the latter not a happy position to be in.

Research carried out in 2004 by the University of Cardiff "found that one in four LGB people in Wales had been dismissed or forced to leave their jobs at some point" because of their sexuality. A TUC study in 1999 showed that, of union members who participated, "44% reported that they had suffered discrimination because of their sexuality".

Equal in law

LEGAL REFORMS IN 2003 aimed to end discrimination at work, but an ACAS study showed that between January 2004 and September 2006, 407 cases were brought to tribunals primarily due to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. As with race and sex discrimination these cases represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many suffer in silence at work, fearing losing their job, or leave to seek more congenial employment elsewhere.

Socialists welcome legal reforms to protect workers’ rights, and other reforms such as civil partnerships – although these fall short of the equal right to marry and are not open to heterosexual couples (see Socialism Today No.84, June 2004). Taken together there has been a major step forward. At the same time, we must point out that legal change has lagged behind social change.

Blair’s claims to be a champion of gay rights ring hollow. New Labour is seen as having implemented reforms only gradually and slowly. Pride marches in the late 1990s and early 2000s saw groups of demonstrators gathering outside the gates to Downing Street to chant "shame" at Blair.

It was not lost that reforms had to wait for the second and third terms of the Blair administration, and only came after judges started to make ‘pro-gay’ decisions. For example, the European Court of Human Rights declared that the British ban on LGB people in the military was a human rights infringement, and the domestic courts granted the right to succeed to a council tenancy to a same-sex partner. Sometimes judges can take on the role of the ruling class’s ‘advance guard’, making decisions that politicians are afraid to take for electoral reasons. Both rulings led to changes in government policy soon afterwards, but those changes had been called for by LGBT campaigners many years beforehand.

When the regulations banning discrimination in the provision of goods and services were due to be implemented in England and Wales this year, Catholic archbishops objected, saying that if Catholic adoption agencies had to place children with gay couples it would infringe religious freedoms. Blair and the minister responsible, Ruth Kelly, both practising Christians, delayed implementation and were said to be considering watering down the regulations. This was only averted by semi-public threats of resignation by ministers who were no doubt worried as to the pressure they would come under.

A religious exemption was granted for the earlier regulations against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in employment, allowing "difference of treatment where the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion". This caused anger in the LGBT community as religious organisations are involved in much of the voluntary sector, and increasingly also the public sector. Blair could only deserve credit as a champion of gay rights if he had been wholehearted about them.

Even welcome legal changes do not end problems within society. Legislation against race and sex discrimination has been on the statute book since the 1960s, but racism and sexism have not been abolished. There is still a need to fight against homophobia.

Rise & fall of militancy

IT WAS BY campaigning that the LGBT community gained confidence as a social force. This led to the legal changes of recent years, not the allegedly generous nature of New Labour. ‘Homosexual law reform’ campaigns existed in the post-war period, but it was the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, when drag queens fought back against police raids on their bars, that provided an impetus to the LGBT movement. Like their American brothers and sisters, LGBT people in Britain were influenced by radicalisation in society. The gay rights movement was fighting alongside the civil rights movement against racism and the movement of youth across the world following the tumultuous events in France in May 1968.

In the early 1970s the community started organising Gay Pride marches. In Britain, these trace their roots to a protest on Highbury Fields, London, against the arrest of a leading member of the Young Liberals for ‘soliciting’ (ie looking for a sexual partner outside of a private place, a criminal offence for gay men until the 2000s). Convictions for the specifically gay offence of ‘gross indecency’ actually rose after the partial decriminalisation of 1967, so there was much ground to be covered by these early campaigns. In the radical climate, the Gay Liberation Front was prominent, and publications such as Gay Left and Gay Marxist emerged. LGBT community organisations, including non-commercial lesbian and gay centres, were established across Britain, especially in the major cities.

A truly mass gay movement developed as a result of the Tories’ infamous Section 28, which effectively banned discussion of LGBT issues in schools and colleges funded by local authorities. This was used by the Thatcher government as a divide and rule tactic. The Local Government Act 1988, which included Section 28, was an attack on local services in general and left-wing Labour local authorities in particular. As a cover, the Tories accused ‘loony left’ councils of funding ‘homosexual propaganda’.

Ten thousand protested in London and 15,000 in Manchester. As so many times before and since, an attack spurred an oppressed minority into political action. In particular, Section 28 brought lesbians and gay men together in defence of their rights as never before. Only a vigorous campaign led to the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, some six years into the New Labour government.

Today’s gay rights organisations, such as Stonewall and OutRage! emerged at this time. The general confidence of the community led to increased expectations and a mushrooming of the gay commercial scene of clubs and bars began. This was no small thing as it gave LGBT people spaces where they could meet, socialise and form relationships with relative safety. Organisations and campaigns responding to the HIV/Aids crisis were set up to meet the lack of services and safer-sex messages aimed at gay men, those most at risk from the pandemic in Britain.

Unfortunately the movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s was diverted by the idea that the ‘pink pound’ was the way forward for the community. This reflected the depoliticising of the LGBT scene against the background of a lessening of class struggle in general. Individual ‘lifestyle choice’ was emphasised, particularly by wealthy and middle-class sections. It was claimed that LGBT people, because they are less likely to have children, have a higher spending power and that this could be used in gay or gay-friendly businesses.

This approach excludes the majority of working-class LGBT people, who are on limited (sometimes very limited) incomes. There is no point having housing developments aimed at lesbians and gay men, as advertised every week in the gay press, if you cannot afford to move from an estate where you are being harassed. Because of the lower pay of women generally, the ‘pink pound’ is particularly illusory for lesbians and bisexual women.

The situation at work for even wealthy LGBT people shows the limits of reforms under capitalism. Liberation is not something that can be bought. It has to be won by action. The inequalities that still exist can only be eradicated by LGBT people organising. Equality is not here ‘at last’. LGBT history is far from over yet.

Violence & harassment

ONE ISSUE THAT especially affects LGBT people is that of personal safety. There can be few who do not know someone who has been the victim of homophobic assault. This runs all the way up to murder. In November 2004, David Morley – a survivor of the nail bomb attack in 1999 on the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London, by fascist David Copeland – was beaten by a gang of youths shouting homophobic abuse and later died of his horrific injuries.

A Stonewall survey of 1996 indicated that 34% of the sampled gay men and 24% of lesbians had been beaten up by ‘queer-bashers’, 32% had experienced harassment, such as threats, graffiti, vandalism or blackmail, and 73% had been subjected to homophobic taunts or abuse. No wonder that the same survey showed that "88% said they always or sometimes avoided expressing affection towards their partner in public in order to minimise the possibility of violence and harassment, 65% always or sometimes avoided telling people they were gay, 59% always or sometimes avoided dressing or acting in ways that might be construed by others as gay".

Although David Morley’s killers were convicted, evidence indicates that the police do not take anti-gay violence with the same seriousness as other crimes. The Metropolitan Police’s own LGBT Advisory Group concludes that the force suffers from "institutional homophobia". (The Guardian, 15 May)

Many hate crimes are never reported or identified as such. Together with other discrimination, the resulting worry and distress that arises from having to hide one’s sexuality is a cause of significant psychological harm to LGBT people, including a fear of ever ‘coming out’. It can and does lead to drink and drug problems.

The confidence of Stonewall that discrimination is ‘so over’ is therefore misplaced. Threats to LGBT rights are still a feature of the political scene. The moralistic agenda of some politicians from all the main parties could easily lead to attacks, possibly under the cloak of emphasising ‘family values’. The far-right BNP has a clearly homophobic agenda.

Another force that openly attacks the LGBT community at present is the religious rightwing. Although smaller than the American religious right, religious conservatives are keen to extend their influence, as was shown by a noisy campaign against civil partnerships and the anti-discrimination regulations.

While the religious right is unlikely to dominate the circles of power in the UK, it has an influence within society above its numbers. This may be particularly so in the Tory party, where anecdotal evidence exists that evangelical churches have sought to enter and dominate local Conservative Associations. The Alpha Course, a growing movement within the Church of England, preaches that homosexuality is always wrong. This movement has been given some support by the state, for example being allowed to hold classes inside prisons.

All the main parties support the involvement of ‘faith-based’ organisations in providing public services. Given the comments of some ‘mainstream’ religious leaders, such as Catholic archbishops and a homophobic outburst in 2006 by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the then leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, services could end up in the hands of not just the ‘institutionally’, but the openly homophobic.

The diversity industry

STONEWALL’S CURRENT LOBBYING suggests that it increasingly sees itself as a watchdog, part of the ‘diversity industry’. Much of its work is well placed, for example its research studies, but it is tied into the capitalist system. Rather than having democratic structures, positions on its leading bodies are given to gay businessmen who donate funds.

Businesses, including many financial institutions and local authorities, are granted the status of ‘diversity champions’, a benchmark awarded only to those applying and paying a fee. What will Stonewall say if in an economic recession or due to public spending cuts these bodies make both LGBT and straight workers redundant?

Similarly, the annual Pride march and festival is dominated by big business. It is sponsored by Ford among others. Ford is keen to get LGBT people to buy its cars, but in the US its political action committee gave funds to many of the senators who voted for Bush’s proposals to ban gay marriage. This domination by commercial interests repulses many LGBT people. Many do not go on the Pride march, seeing it as no longer ‘their’ event. Indeed, it is now rebranded as a parade.

Mass action is key

OUTRAGE! THE GROUP in which Peter Tatchell plays a leading role, aims to be a radical alternative to the establishment politics of Stonewall. It comments on LGBT issues worldwide, organising frequent lobbies and protests, for instance, against the execution of homosexuals in Iran or the neo-Nazi and state attacks on Pride marches in Moscow. Such activity is important and the Socialist Party has supported and participated in many of these protests.

However, we believe it is also necessary to put forward the perspective of building a mass movement, which requires the linking of specific LGBT issues with wider social movements, such as trade union action and anti-cuts campaigns, so they are not taken in isolation. For example, cutbacks to public services will affect LGBT youth groups, and NHS cuts are leading to the closure of health initiatives and services aimed at LGBT people.

Most trade unions have LGBT groups and conferences. These could play a key role in taking LGBT activism into the wider community and defending rights, especially in the workplace. Many of the ‘diversity at work’ initiatives are orientated towards the interests of employers. Stonewall argues for equal rights by telling bosses that they can get more from employees who are free to be open about their sexuality at work. In the final analysis, the only ‘more’ that matters to big business is more profit. The unions can battle for LGBT rights from the point of view of workers, which an approach based on business efficacy can never do.

Defending the rights of LGBT people in countries where there is repression, up to and including the execution of those in same-sex relationships, looms large in the consciousness of LGBT people. This fight should be taken up by the labour movement internationally.

If a new workers’ party came into being the whole political scene in Britain would be shifted to the left. Such a party could provide a voice for those who are nauseated by the commercialism of the gay scene and want to campaign for LGBT rights. It could link up with other oppressed minorities within society.

Capitalism depends on the traditional family to pass on wealth down the generations within the ruling class and to produce future generations of workers, socialising them in the ‘proper’ way to behave. A socialist society could provide comprehensive social services and build networks based on solidarity, thus ending reliance on the unpaid labour of carers within the family, such as children caring for their elderly parents. The social pressures against coming out could be ended.

The needs of capitalism give rise to the moral posturing of its representatives and defenders. By ending the role of big business and its hireling politicians, the scapegoating of sections of society to cover for attacks on living conditions would be ended. Ultimately, the only guarantee against the bigots and moralists, and the only way of securing LGBT rights, is socialism.


The Sexual Offences Act became law on 27 July 1967

It started as a private member’s bill introduced on 5 July 1966 by Leo Abse, an MP in the Labour government elected in March of that year. A free vote – not bound by party line – saw 244 for (183 Labour, 50 Tories, 11 Liberals), 100 against (33 Labour, 67 Tories).

The Act followed the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957), that homosexual conduct between consenting adults in private should cease to be a criminal offence.

Although a big step forward, as with much legislation on homosexuality, it included clauses on prostitution and sexual abuse of minors, reinforcing the perceived link between homosexuality and criminality.

The Earl of Arran in the final passing of the bill in the House of Lords said: "I must ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open, to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation and certainly not for celebration… Homosexuals must remember, while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good".

In 1885 ‘gross indecency’ of any kind between men, in private or public, had been made a criminal offence. Before that, Henry VIII introduced a statute specifically against anal intercourse between men in 1533. This had been repealed by Mary I but re-enacted by Elizabeth I. It carried the death penalty until 1861. Before 1533 homosexuality was dealt with by ecclesiastical courts.


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