By Maria Exall
The Government's proposed Bill on Civil Partnerships for same sex couples will be a further improvement in rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
On 1 December 2003 equal rights at work were brought in through the adoption of a European Directive against discrimination in employment. Up until that time it was legal to sack someone for being gay!
With this, the end of Section 28, and the Tories talking about the pink vote, we are certainly in a new phase in the fight for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality.
However not everything in the garden is rosy. There are major flaws in both the Employment Regulations and in the Civil Partnership Bill. In the light of these legal changes, ideological divisions among lesbians, gay men and bisexual people are becoming clearer.
On the Employment Regulations, Stonewall is adopting a "partnership" approach, while the trade unions are kicking up. Seven unions, co-ordinated by the TUC, have taken the Government to court about the exemption on pensions, which affects many public sector workers, and on the exemption for religious organisations, which potentially affects many teachers, care workers, etc. Judgement on the union challenge is due in a few weeks time.
Stonewall has organised a major conference with Government ministers and business organisations to promote the current flawed regulations. They are also positioning themselves as the pink employment advisors. No doubt the fact that there will soon be a new Equality Commission, with quango jobs going, is helping concentrate Stonewalls minds.
On Civil Partnerships there are two main areas of contention.
Firstly, lesbians, gay men and bisexual people have different views on partnership rights, but there is only one view being promoted.
Secondly, why should partnership rights not apply to all couples (including heterosexual ones) who do not want to get married?
Indeed why should the lesbian and gay couples who want it, be denied access to marriage? Why not just have equal rights for all?
The "respectable" propaganda about how lesbians and gays have all been in stable relationships since the Stone Age, and we are all really cuddly and not a threat to anyone, may be useful in winning some over to the need for partnership rights but it almost defines away the prejudice that we know exists.
When young people are homophobically bullied to get them to conform, when we are scapegoated for the "collapse" of family values, it is clear we are a threat to some!
Many lesbian, gay and bisexual activists see partnership and gay marriage as assimilating us to heterosexist norms. We should not have to prove we are "decent" to get our rights! To separate the "decent" queers from the "indecent queers" is a recipe for divide and rule.
The real dividing line among lesbians, gay men and bisexual people is not this. It is a class question.
Partnership rights are a progressive gain for people in relationships, both practically and through a public recognition of their status, but they should surely be available to all couples. The Government has singled out lesbian and gay partnerships for civil rights whilst ignoring the much bigger question of how to reform the law around all relationships.
This could prove to be politically difficult. It may well be exploited by the populist right, where the Government is (erroneously) seen as privileging queer relationships over straight ones. As more rights are introduced for lesbian, gay and bisexual people we will have to make the point about the class divisions in the communities.
We will need to point out the difference between the head of the Gay Business Association and the lesbian employee who has been hounded out of her job. We will have to talk about couples who can afford the privacy that comes with wealth and the difference between them and the gay council tenant who lives in fear of being beaten up on his way back home.