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Equality is not Enough

Reprinted for with permission from renowned activist Peter Tatchell, founder of OutRage!.

PETER TATCHELL argues that campaigning for equality is short-sighted and inadequate. Queer emancipation involves much more than equal rights.

Apart from hard-core homophobes, who could possibly disagree with equality? I can! Perhaps I am being pushy and uppity, but I don’t feel comfortable with the way most of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has dumbed-down its aspirations to the limited goal of equal rights. Whatever happened to the lofty ideals of queer liberation and sexual freedom?

This dramatic shift in the homosexual zeitgeist started in the 1990s and coincided with a move into the political mainstream. Greater acceptance by the straight establishment precipitated greater compromise by the gay elite. They moved away from defining our needs on our terms, and instead began falling in meekly with the prevailing heterosexual consensus.

We have now reached a situation where the dominant gay agenda is equal rights and law reform, rather than queer emancipation and the transformation of society. That political retreat represents a massive loss of imagination, confidence, and vision.

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 formula for submission and 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 queer people. Some of our difficulties arise not from homophobia, but from the more general erotophobic and sex-negative nature of contemporary culture, which also harms heterosexuals. These destructive puritanical attitudes are evident in the witch-hunting of consensual under-age sex, 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 tend to only succeed if they adopt a white middle-class lifestyle and assimilate into the dominant European culture.

As women and ethnic minorities have discovered to their cost, the equal rights agenda is not about respecting difference, but obliterating it. Where’s the dignity in that? How can we have any self-respect if we sacrifice our queer identity and culture for the sake of parity? It is acceptance, but at a price not worth paying.

Moreover, equal rights do not equate with genuine freedom. Despite formal legal equality between the sexes, women’s earnings are still only four-fifths of men’s. Over thirty years after the end of racially discriminatory statutes in the US, the segregation of black and white communities is greater than in the 1950s and the black underclass is just as locked out of economic success as it was prior to the start of the civil rights era.

These are lessons that we queers ignore at our peril. The same fate awaits us if we jump on the equality bandwagon. We will end up with equal rights, but within a fundamentally unjust society where the rules are skewed against sexual choice and self-determination.

Isn’t it obvious? Equality for queers is a political deal that leads to social assimilation. As a condition of equal treatment, we homosexuals are expected to conform to the straight system, adopting its norms and aspirations. The end result is gay co-option and invisibilisation.

We get equality, but the price we pay is the surrender of our unique, distinctive queer identity, lifestyle and values (the important insights and ethics that we have forged in response to exclusion and discrimination by a hostile straight world).

The unwritten social contract at the heart of law reform is that queers 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 moralities 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 the heterosexual consensus, it substitutes naive acquiescence. Discernment is abandoned in favour of compliance. We trade our souls for the ‘gift’ of equal rights.

This is no exaggeration. The truth is that the advocates of gay equality never question the status quo. They are straight minds trapped in queer bodies. Accepting society as it is, these hetero homos want nothing more than their cosy place in the straight sun. Most are all-too-willing to mimic heterosexual norms. No attempt is made to distinguish between those elements of straight culture that are worthy of queer emulation and those that are not.

There is, unfortunately, plenty of evidence of the desire of many lesbian and gay people to mindlessly appropriate every legal right that heterosexuals have, no matter how crass and morally dubious.

All over the world a majority of 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. While homophobic discrimination within the armed services is undoubtedly wrong and worthy of challenge, so too is militarism and imperialism. In the US, the gay rights group, the Campaign for Military Service, preaches a gung-ho, God-fearing patriotism, which exonerates American excesses in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq and Kosovo.

The British armed forces are no better. After the Second World War, they were used to suppress national liberation struggles in 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). Is that what we queers want to do? Abuse and kill? How can we, in the name of equality, demand (without calling for reform) the right of lesbians and gay men to participate in institutions that have perpetuated such gross violations of human rights?

On the age of consent, much of the gay community has similarly taken leave of its ethical senses. After a campaign lasting 33 years, the age of consent in England and Wales was finally equalised at 16 in 2000. 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. Sure, this victimisation by the law applies equally to everyone who is under age, 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 in Britain can face a maximum sentence ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment! To end this absurd, grotesque criminalisation of the under-16s, the age of consent should be reduced to 14 for everyone - gay and straight – and consensual sex involving people under 14 should not be prosecuted providing there is no more than three years difference in the partners ages.

Where are the gay voices of reason and compassion on this issue? Although queers under 16 are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, most homosexual 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 lesbian and 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 sexual human rights of straights, more of them might be inclined to support us in return?

In contrast to this shallow equal rights 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. Our idea is to reframe the queer rights agenda to make it an agenda for universal human rights and sexual liberation.

Sadly, many in the gay movement don’t see things this way. Much of the push for same-sex partnership rights is typical of this myopic attitude. Nearly all the leading campaigners endorse either Dutch-style gay marriages or Danish-style registered partnerships (which are basically civil marriage by another name). But why not aim for a more democratic, egalitarian option? A modern, flexible alternative to traditional heterosexual wedlock?

I have proposed an Unmarried Partners Act (UPA), granting new legal rights to all unwed couples - gay and straight. These rights would include things like recognition as next-of-kin, joint guardianship of children, and inheritance of property in the event of a partner's death.

The unique, pioneering character of this UPA is that it allows partners to choose the rights they want from a menu of rights. This flexibility enables each couple to create a tailor-made partnership agreement suited to their own particular needs.

Likewise, the promotion of specifically and exclusively gay anti-discrimination legislation is a big mistake. Far more preferable would be my suggested comprehensive Equal Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against all people (not just queers!) on all grounds (not just sexual orientation!). These grounds should include race, sex, language, disability, faith or belief, age, transgenderism, medical condition (such as HIV), genetic inheritance and, of course, sexuality.

This more inclusive queer agenda is not only right and just; it also makes good political and strategic sense. Gay rights bills narrow our constituency of support and create sitting targets for homophobes. Broad-based reforms, which include queer rights, mobilise bigger and stronger campaign coalitions and are much more difficult for our opponents to undermine.

Oscar Wilde once wrote: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars". We, too, need to rediscover the vision thing. That means daring to imagine what society could be, rather than accepting society as it is.

Gay equality within the status quo is a flawed version of freedom. It betrays both queers and straights alike. Society - not us - needs to change. This social transformation is the key to meaningful queer liberation. Equality, yes. But on the basis of a new and different kind of society where there are wider, more expansive human rights for people of all sexualities.

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2001. All rights reserved.

An edited version of this article was published under the title Beyond Equality, New Humanist, Spring, 2001.

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