Lesbian and gay politics in the nineties
s the countdown to the general election begins, there is a rising tide of expectation among lesbians and gay men in Britain. This time we can surely expect a
new government to sweep away discrimination and ﬁnally give lesbians and gay
men the same rights and recognition enjoyed by other citizens in our society. But nothing,
of course, is that simple. Here I want to offer an assessment of where the lesbian and gay
movement stands now, the nature of our political project, the forces that will help us win
change, and the obstacles and barriers that are still to be overcome.
The turning point for the lesbian and gay movement today was undoubtedly the
passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which made it unlawful for a local
authority or local education authority intentionally to promote homosexuality or teach in
schools the acceptability of homosexuality as a ʻpretend family relationshipʼ. The clause
was an attempt by the Conservative government to use the ʻgay cardʼ against ʻloony
leftʼ councils, and it played with considerable success. Within the Labour Party, ʻgaysʼ
were blamed for losing the pensionersʼ vote. Whether this was true or not, the passing
of Clause 28 marked a new beginning for lesbian and gay politics in Britain, involving a
new strategy for change and a new relationship with all the three main political parties.
The enormous anger that Clause 28 generated remobilized the lesbian and gay
community, bringing many into politics for the ﬁrst time. Having resisted the ﬁrst
terrible backlash against AIDS, we began to feel a growing conﬁdence that something
could be done. Perhaps unconsciously borrowing from the concept of niche marketing,
at the same time we developed ways of organizing that recognized political differences
within our community. Stonewall and Outrage were set up almost contemporaneously:
Stonewall to create a cross-party political lobby for lesbian and gay rights, and Outrage
to keep these issues on the front pages through peaceful direct action. Although at times
both groups have wrongly sought hegemony, intense discussion about tactics has always
belied an underlying unity on the ﬁght for equality. Indeed, legal discrimination in this
country is so universal and extreme that it is impossible for any lesbian or gay group not
to demand equality. Of course, there are differences about priorities, and it is quite clear
that over issues like marriage or gays in the military there are conﬂicting philosophies.
But whilst we are unequal, the egalitarian agenda is the most powerful force unifying a
community that contains so many differences in social class, race and gender.
Moreover, in the context of lesbian and gay politics the demand for equality, for human
rights, also sends a powerful message about sexual identity. The despised status of homosexuality has meant literally living outside society, an existence in the demimonde, the ʻtwilight
zonesʼ. The partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 did not fundamentally challenge that status. It was precisely the difference between homosexuals and other men that
was used to justify reform. Leo Abse, one of the architects of the Sexual Offences Act, said
that ʻIt was only by insisting that compassion was needed by a totally separate group, quite
Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)
unlike the absolutely normal males of the Commons, that I could allay the anxiety and
resistance that otherwise would be provoked.ʼ The compromise settlement was, in a sense,
the ʻprivatizationʼ of homosexuality. The offence of gross indecency remained, but homosexual acts were declared lawful between consenting adults ʻin privateʼ, when both parties
were over twenty-one. Privately homosexuality could be tolerated, but not its existence
within the public arena.
A growing recognition
The modern lesbian and gay movement dates from the Stonewall riot of 1969, and the Gay
Liberation Movement to which it gave rise has precisely been about a refusal to accept
ʻprivacyʼ as a tolerable settlement, and the demand for public status and recognition. In this
sense, ʻqueerʼ theory and politics are as much a part of that aspiration as campaigns for an
equal age of consent. The right to be recognized for who we are, not tolerated or pitied in
practice, unites the queer activists and the lobbyists campaigning for civil rights. They might
understand different things about their sexuality, yet they both demand the right to be out
and recognized. Breaking down the closet doors, demanding public status, necessarily also
involves an appeal to universalistic human values, equality under the law, the right to free
But translating these aspirations into the discourse of British party politics was not
easy. The absence of a written constitution also made it difﬁcult to challenge discrimination through the courts. Prior to 1988 much of the original force of gay liberation
politics had been lost. Lesbians largely worked in the womenʼs movement; despite many
successes, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was not able to operate successfully
at a national political level. Much was going on. Gay News – a national lesbian and gay
weekly – was established; national counselling and self-help groups like Icebreakers and
Friend were set up. There were the beginnings of gay organization within the political
parties, but national politics remained relatively uninﬂuenced.
A breakthrough seemed to come when the London Labour Party recaptured the
Greater London Council, and under the leadership of Ken Livingstone embarked on
radical programmes which gave sexual politics and lesbians and gay men a central
position. Equal opportunity units seemed to provide opportunities for funding and, more
importantly, to change political practice to acknowledge the needs of lesbians and gay
men. Lesbian and gay activists ﬂocked to join local government and the Labour Party.
However, the change was shortlived. The unthinkable happened. The GLC was closed
down by the Thatcher government, and the political backlash which led to the passing of
Section 28 left municipal socialism and the Labour Party in defensive retreat. Lesbians
and gay men had certainly achieved a new visibility. However, the débâcle of Section
28 showed how dangerous it can be for a cause to be hitched exclusively to one political
party – and, indeed, one political tendency. Lesbians and gay men were not going to be
able to piggy-back change by capturing sections of the Labour Party. It became clear
both that we were going to have to rely on our own organization and strength and that,
by whatever means, we had to win a broader basis of support and understanding throughout society.
So how has this strategy fared? I think few would deny its success. Public awareness
of lesbian and gay issues has never been greater. Support for what I have called the
public status of lesbians and gay men is growing. A Guardian/ICM poll in 1996 found
that over 70 per cent of respondents thought that ʻa declared homosexual living in a
stable relationship with a partnerʼ should be a allowed a job in teaching, the Church, the
police, and as an MP. The number of people who admit to personally knowing lesbians
and gay men has also increased dramatically. ʻComing outʼ does work. Numerous
surveys also show major generational changes. Speaking in the House of Lords in the
age-of-consent debate, Lord Russell, with a distinctive historical ﬂourish, said that his
students found the idea of discriminating against lesbians and gay men as inconceivable
as a proposal to burn heretics.
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Within the corporate sector
there is growing recognition
of lesbians and gay men as
employees and as consumers. Numerous public bodies,
including the Bar Council and
the Law Society, have professional codes of practice which
deal with sexual orientation.
Many trade unions have lesbian
and gay groups, and during
the age-of-consent campaign
trade-union support was strong
The ʻpink poundʼ is certainly
a media reality and the argument now is whether events like
ʻPrideʼ, which attracts a quarter of a million people, have too much corporate sponsorship. Certainly in retail, fashion, computing and the drinks industry, the gay market
is seen as increasingly important. Alongside this there has been an explosion of gay
culture and media. There is a thriving gay press and a seemingly insatiable media appetite for gay stories in the straight press. If there was to be an award for the programme
that has done most to break down discrimination, it would surely be EastEnders.
Pioneered by the Lesbian and Gay Switchboards, specialist service agencies dealing
with housing, legal advice, violence, mental health, young people and the elderly are
developing and statutory funding is slowly becoming available.
The turning point
Politically, too, we have made the most enormous advances since the dark days of
Section 28. The turning point was the age-of-consent debate in 1994. In 1990 the
Guardian had carried out a survey for the ʻOut this Weekʼ series on Channel 4, and
found that only 11 per cent of MPs would support an equal age of consent for gay men
of sixteen. However, in the event 280 MPs voted for sixteen, including 37 Conservative
MPs and all but one Liberal Democrat. Among Labour MPs, 36 voted against sixteen
or abstained. The amendment for equality, which was supported by Edwina Currie, Neil
Kinnock and Robert Maclennan, was lost by only 27 votes.
For the ﬁrst time, MPs were inundated with letters from gay men and lesbians, who
clearly recognized that this was a debate about the status of homosexuality in Britain
today. This was partly made possible through Stonewallʼs database of 30,000 supporters
and the growing infrastructure of lesbian and gay, HIV and AIDS groups throughout
the country. Stonewall also produced an inﬂuential pamphlet, The Case for Change,
which was distributed freely by the gay press. The pamphlet contained detailed lobbying tips; for the ﬁrst time the lesbian and gay community not only found a voice
in Parliament, but quickly became one of the most conscious and politically aware in
the country. Heaven, one of the largest nightclubs in London, produced leaﬂets asking,
ʻDoes your MP know you exist?ʼ Weekly meetings of all the major lesbian and gay
organizations, including Outrage, were held to co-ordinate and advance the campaign.
Lesbians and gay men, who probably thought St Stephenʼs Gate was a local gay bar,
thronged to the House of Commons to attend packed meetings and mass lobbies. It
became acceptable, and even fashionable, to support equality.
Why then did we lose? We didnʼt win enough of the traditionalists in the Labour
Party, despite the support of the leadership and the trade unions. Most Conservative
MPs took their lead from John Major, who supported eighteen as an acceptable compromise. At a deeper level, the concept of rights for lesbians and gay men had still
Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)
not taken a deep enough hold in public thinking to allow us to make the jump from
what Edwina Currie called the ʻdark shadowsʼ to equality. We were still a moral issue,
not a human-rights issue. In this we suffered not just from the lingering vestiges of
prejudice that certainly exist, but also from a political culture which is stony ground
for human rights. There has been no major civil-rights movement on mainland Britain
since the war. The modern Womenʼs Liberation Movement obviously touched on these
issues, but was primarily informed by a struggle over gender and power. Both the Race
Relations and the Sex Discrimination Acts were informed by an attempt to overcome
disadvantage, rather than an appeal to basic rights. We lack any clear constitutional
protection of human rights, as the numerous appearances of the British government at
the European Court of Human Rights testify.
The edge of change
The question for us now is whether it will be any different under a Labour government.
There is no doubt of the sea change in attitudes within the Labour Party since the late
1980s. Support for gay rights is no longer the preserve of a section of the Left. This
yearʼs Party Conference even voted unanimously to lift the ban on lesbians and gay
men serving in the armed forces. Within the Shadow Cabinet there is strong personal
support for equality. Tony Blairʼs speech in the age-of-consent debate was a powerful
plea for inclusion of lesbians and gay men within the framework of society. Yet the best
we can hope for in the manifesto is probably a one-word reference to sexuality. The
weight of legislation to which the Labour Party is committed will make it very difﬁcult
to get lesbian and gay issues onto the parliamentary agenda.
More fundamentally, many fear that the leadershipʼs espousal of ʻfamily valuesʼ and
law and order – the traditional clothes of the Right – will create a climate hostile to
lesbian and gay rights. It is certainly a dangerous game. But the evidence, I believe,
is that Blair is trying to create an inclusive, rather than exclusive, moral agenda. In
a recent speech on the subject he was at pains to say that a return to family values
did not mean a return to Victorian hypocrisy and homophobia. The Labour Party is
perfectly conscious of the strength of the gay movement and will be reluctant to stand
against us. But it is also aware that, whilst there is broad support for equality, issues
such as lesbian and gay partnerships and parenting are still at the margins. It is very
aware of the disastrous effect of Clintonʼs fumbled attempt to lift the ban on lesbians
and gays in the military, although it may take consolation from the failure of the moral
Right to win electoral support for Dole and the Republican Party.
There are also other options. Stonewall is supporting applications to the European
Court of Human Rights on the age of consent and the ban in the armed forces. The
International Governmental Conference is considering a new equality provision in
the Treaty which would cover race, sexual orientation and disability discrimination.
European law is likely to provide good political cover for gay rights legislation.
We are poised on the edge of change. Everything is possible, but nothing is certain.
If a Labour government quickly runs into trouble, if the Conservatives adopt a rightwing moral (as well as political) agenda, the window of opportunity that now exists
will close. Alternatively, we could in the next ﬁve years see lesbian and gay rights
ﬁnally enshrined in law, and the lesbian and gay movement moving into its own third
Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)