Formal Equality and Beyond

Submitted by Janine on 30 December, 2003 - 8:12

By Janine Booth, from the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999. British laws against homophobia have strengthened in the five years since this was written, but the main argument still stands.
In Britain today, there is a set of laws which treats same-sex desire as less than acceptable and those who feel it as less than equal.

Young men may not legally have sex with each other until two years after they may have sex with women. When they attain the legal age of consent, then in order to keep their activities legal, they must be in private and involve only two people.

Displays of same-sex affection in public can land you in court, in prison, undergoing compulsory psychiatric supervision, and on a sex offenders register alongside child abusers.

Local councils are not allowed to 'intentionally promote homosexuality', and same-sex lifestyles are labelled by law as 'pretended family relationships'.

A worker sacked or otherwise treated unfairly because of her or his sexuality can not take a discrimination case to an Employment Tribunal. A same-sex partner does not have the legal right to inherit a tenancy, or even to visit her or his partner in hospital or prison.

Immigration law does not allow a foreigner to live in this country with a British same-sex partner, and the threat of homophobic persecution does not constitute grounds for asylum. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people do not have the right to be judged on our merits as parents when it comes to custody cases, applications to adopt or foster children, or access to donor insemination.

Even laws which do not specifically apply to homosexuality - such as those on obscenity, indecency or solicitation - have been used more rigorously and repressively against lesbian, gay and bisexual people than against heterosexuals.

Internationally, of over 200 countries in the world, only six give legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. As of March 1998, being gay was illegal in 74 countries. In some (such as Saudi Arabia), homosexual acts are punishable by death.

This legal inequality directly persecutes lesbians, gay men and bisexual people, and also legitimises popular prejudice. The fight for full legal equality is a top priority for campaigners against homophobia.

After nearly two decades of hostility and hatred from the Tories, it may be tempting to accept the idea that change will be slow, that either the Government or the European Court must be given time to dismantle the machinery of judicial homophobia. Don't accept it - we are entitled to full legal equality, nothing less, and no excuse for delays!

We should not settle for crumbs from New Labour - an equal age of consent maybe, repeal of Section 28 perhaps - but instead should demand comprehensive legislation to remove all inequality and criminalisation of same-sex sexuality and to institute legal protection from homophobia.

The legal status and social acceptability of lesbian and gay sexuality has not always moved slowly but surely forward. After a period of legality under the Bolsheviks in Russia, male homosexuality was made illegal by Stalin in 1934. Hitler extended Germany's anti-sodomy law to criminalise all sexual contact between men.

Even in Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s, we were pushed onto the defensive by new legal attacks (Section 28, Clause 25, Paragraph 16) and by a new wave of homophobia whipped up around the issue of AIDS.

So we can not afford a complacent assumption that what we have won is ours forever. In a less than fully democratic society, the rights of a section of people are not guaranteed. And in a class-divided society, a ruling class in crisis likes to have scapegoats to blame for the unpleasant consequences of its own system.

Is this scaremongering? Are we really in danger of losing all the advances we have won and returning to the worst days of repression? It is hard to conceive of this happening without a dramatic swing towards reactionary, bigoted ideas - and without a huge movement fighting to defend our rights. But we would do well to remember that formal rights are fragile.

Even so, will formal equality bring actual equality? In 2000, Britain will have had an Equal Pay Act for 30 years, yet women's average earnings are less than three-quarters of men's. We will have had a Sex Discrimination Act for 25 years, but sex discrimination is still a fact of everyday life. Britain has a Race Relations Act but admits to institutionalised racism.

Even with full legal equality, we would not enjoy the freedom that most activists are thinking of when we talk about 'liberation'. When the post-Stonewall riot campaigners coined the phrase 'gay liberation', they meant more than the abolition of legal inequalities. The London Gay Liberation Front manifesto argued that "gay liberation does not just mean reforms.

It means a revolutionary change in our whole society". GLF urged gay activists to "use our righteous anger to uproot the present oppressive system with its decaying and constrictive ideology, and ... start to form a new order, and a liberated life-style".

'Liberation' suggests a fundamental and radical change in the way people relate to each other emotionally and sexually. We are not simply campaigning for rights for a distinct group of people with same-sex desires: sexual liberation is for everyone!

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are at the sharp end of sexual repression, but vast numbers of others suffer its consequences too - single parents and others raising children outside married heterosexual partnership, people trapped in relationships they no longer want to be part of, heterosexual women who are called slags if they enjoy sex and frigid if they don't, victims of sexual brutality and abuse, ... Sexual repression restricts, confuses, confines, screws up, distorts, stunts the potential of, in some way affects virtually everyone.

In a practical sense, this places our fight for liberation in a much wider context. It links our campaigns for legal reform to other campaigns: against censorship and moralism; for decent sex education, adequate contraception and abortion rights.

It is surely possible that we can win formal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people without overthrowing capitalism - although we will have to fight hard for every little piece of equality legislation. But thoroughgoing social equality between all people is by definition incompatible with capitalism, because any class society is by definition based on the exploitation of one class by another. Even with legal equality, class society contains many of the roots of prejudice.

Over a century ago, Friedrich Engels explained why votes for women would be a significant step forward, but would not deliver full liberation. "A programme for full equality", he wrote, "must be a programme for the abolition of classes."

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