Liberation, not toleration

Submitted by Anon on 10 December, 2005 - 12:59

This month Civil Partnership legislation came into force. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people can now register their partnership. Good, argues Maria Exall, but socialists need to fight for much more.

In Solidarity 3/84 David Broder bemoans the introduction of benefit restrictions on lesbian gay and bisexual (LGB) people in the wake of the Civil Partnership legislation. He has half a point (as I explain below). However he is wrong to attack the Civil Partnership legislation as a whole. The right for LGB people to register partnerships, is a reformist gain.

Couples in lesbian and gay relationships will now have entitlements to tenancies in social housing, as well as financial protection in home ownership. No longer will some be made homeless upon the death of their partner. Next-of-kin rights will allow same sex partners rights at times of illness.

Civil Partnerships will mean the same rights of residency as heterosexual married couple enjoy. Same sex couples currently have to wait out a two year period, in order to “prove” their relationship is real. Other rights that married couples enjoy, for example access to a partner’s public sector pension, are now available to LGB people. The list of improved rights goes on, and most of these apply to working class LGB people.

It is true that LGB people who have a registered partnership will be automatically subject to benefit rules that are punitive and unfair. These rules are however the same as those that have applied to heterosexual couples for decades. Having the Civil Partnership makes the equality of misery inevitable, but it could have happened at any time, irrespective of whether or the legislation had come in. And opting out of Civil Partnership will not help LGB. Those who do not register are in the same position as unmarried heterosexual people — they will be chased down by the authorities to find out if they are living together as partners.

Should the tax and benefit system treat people as individuals, and confer no rights on people as couples? It is a debatable point and one worth consideration by socialists. However where there is a material gain because of “couple rights” — and often this can be one that women can gain most from — the individual approach is not always in the interests of working class people. So it is with the Civil Partnership legislation

The Civil Partnership legislation is basically a progressive gain and we should not use it as evidence of lack of equality because, in my view, that would obscure the main class issues for LGB people, which have nothing to do with whether or not to support Civil Partnerships.

The main class issues are about what happens to LGB people at work, and in their communities.

Because bourgeois society has extended rights to LGB people at work, parts of the business establishment are trying to accommodate the cause of LGB equality. They are being ably assisted in this by lobbying organisations such as Stonewall, whose project to get companies sign up as “Diversity Champions” are supposed to promote employment good practice.

All sounds harmless, if a bit nauseating doesn’t it? Actually it is positively harmful. Stonewall make decisions about how to encourage “good practise” from the top down. They do not link up with what is happening to in the workforce or take on the concerns of LGB workers. And they have a bad track record of doing joint work with trade unions.

Bosses are much happier to deal with Stonewall than trade unionists over workplace equality. Trade unions may raise shaper and more pertinent criticisms about discrimination at work. And LGB workers can call their union reps to account if they do not deliver.

Legislative change has belatedly created a pink section of the “equalities industry”. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money has been given to Stonewall to run a “review” of the implementation of the Government’s anti-discrimination-at-work legislation. They have cut out the political involvement of the trade unions on these issues.

The quango approach to equality will only get worse as more reforms are brought in, including the establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which will for the first time have enforcing powers on matters of homophobic discrimination.

The response of socialists in the workers’ movement to this situation is not to be negative about the broadening of liberal democratic right; but rather to build up a working class movement capable of showing up the pretensions of liberal reformers and organising for change based on the real needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers.

The further development of a democratic LGBT organisations in trade unions and across trade unions are an important part of that struggle. Such groups can force the official movement to take on LGBT concerns and root out homophobia from the workers movement. As socialists we should be part of shaping the developing movement of LGBT workers so that equalities issues do not become subsumed into the “partnership bandwagon”. Equality at work issues are not, as the likes of Stonewall would have it, ones where we can have a happy relationship with “good” employers.

Just as women are now told, you are equal, there is no need for feminism, LGBT people are being told, we are equal and should now focus our aspirations on our own private lives. But we should be critical of lifestyle politics in LGBT communities.

The prime movers in the big events that happen around Pride in London are members of the Gay Business Association. They want to tell us what to buy, where to go, how to really be queer, because they make money out of it. Now, of course, they are cashing in offering the latest lifestyle accessory, the pink wedding!

The connection between how LGBT people want to express ourselves and our sexuality and what is offered in LGBT “culture” is very tenuous. Yet the need for identification and expression of gay pride and lesbian strength can be a good thing. It’s about trying to be ourselves in a homophobic and discriminatory world.

Our criticism of lifestyle politics and reformism should be class-based. Do Outrage and similar organisations measure up to that principle? Unfortunately no.

To campaign uncompromisingly, as Outrage does, is a healthy antidote to the assimilationist approach of the wealthy LGBT establishment — the “pinkocracy” who think because they are okay, well off and comfortable, there is nothing to fight for. However the political position of organisations such as Outrage are often just the “radical” mirror image of reformism and are not based on political analysis that tries to represent the interests and views of ordinary LGBT people. So ultimately the “more radical than though” approach can become elitist.

For instance, Outrage campaigned against the Governments Civil Partnership legislation in a “Coalition for Marriage Equality”. The main focus of this Coalition was that because the Civil Partnership was not marriage with a big M it was not equality. This was despite all the same rights in civil marriage being available. The only difference was the lack of access to religious marriage under the Civil Partnership legislation.

The issue is a valid one. Clearly the Government did not want to back progressive religious couples forcing churches to have to have ceremonies. It was however a strange thing for a radical self proclaimed non-assimilationist organisation to have as their sticking point!

On issues such as benefits, discrimination at work, homophobic bullying in schools and many others, we should be looking to unite LGBT and straight workers to campaign against the prejudice that is used to divide us.

The adoption of civil partnership legislation is a challenge to the heterosexist presumptions of civil marriage. But there is a danger that to assimilate this change, while leaving much homophobia untouched, we could see the development of a good gays/bad gays mentality.

Good LGBT people are people who are in lifelong commitments — they are an almost sexless threat to the rest of society.

Bad ones are those who will not present their lives in the tidy boxes that people can understand. It is for many people much easier to understand that two people of the same sex can be in domestic harmony than to contemplate that sexuality can come in many different forms of personal arrangements, and even that a person’s sexuality can change over time.

As socialists we should not only campaign for equal rights but recognise the aspiration to liberation. This liberation is not just for LGBT people but also for the whole of society.

Heterosexism and homophobia also help bolster gender stereotypes and sexism for example. In many younger people the fear of being called queer not only stops them being open about any feelings they may have for others of the same sex, but also encourages them to exaggerate”male” and “female” forms of behaviour in order to prove that they are “real” men and “real” women.

We need to root out homophobia and the heterosexism that runs deep in society.

• If you are interested in socialist campaigning on LGBT issues contact:

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