OPINION: OutRage! campaigned for more than equal rights, it wanted to transform society

by Peter Tatchell | Peter Tatchell Foundation
Wednesday, 22 July 2020 14:28 GMT

British LGBT+ rights group Outrage! marches in Pride in London in 1993. Photo courtesy of Peter Tatchell

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

LGBT+ activists should fight for emancipation, not equality and assimilation

Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for LGBT+ rights for more than 50 years and is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

It is now 30 years since the formation of the trailblazing, feisty British queer rights direct action group OutRage! Founded in London in 1990, it helped change attitudes, laws and institutions. It also posed a radical critique of existing society. Campaigning for more than mere equal rights, it wanted to transform society.

Equality is now the mantra of the global LGBT+ movement, so the idea that equal rights are not enough is challenging and controversial. 

Perhaps I am being pushy and uppity, but I don’t feel comfortable with the way most of the LGBT+ community has lowered its aspirations to the limited goal of equal rights. Whatever happened to the lofty ideals of queer liberation and sexual freedom? 

We have, too often, moved away from defining our needs on our terms and instead fallen in meekly with the prevailing heterosexual consensus. 

The end result? The dominant LGBT+ agenda is equal rights and law reform, rather than true emancipation and the transformation of society. This political retreat represents a massive loss of imagination, confidence and vision. 

Equality is important but insufficient. It isn't the panacea that many claim. Equal rights for the LGBT+ community 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 – not us.

Equality within their system involves conformity to their rules. This is a formula for submission and incorporation, not emancipation. 

Although getting rid of homophobic discrimination is a laudable aim, it doesn't go far enough. Ending anti-LGBT+ bias will not resolve all the problems we face. Some of our difficulties arise not from homophobia, but from the more general sex-negative nature of contemporary culture, which also harms straight and cis-gender people.  

The drawbacks associated with seeking mere equality are not, of course, limited to our community. 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 self-respect if we sacrifice our identity and culture for the sake of parity? It is acceptance, but at a price not worth paying.

Our equality is a political deal that leads to social assimilation. As a condition of equal treatment, we are expected to conform to the straight system, adopting its norms and aspirations. The end result is LGBT+ co-option and assimilation.  

We get equality but the price we pay is the surrender of our unique, distinctive identity – the 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 LGBT+ law reform is that we will will behave respectably and comply with the heterosexual moral agenda. In return, the “good gays” are rewarded with equal treatment. Meanwhile, all the sex-repressive social structures, laws, institutions and moralities remain intact, and the “bad gays” remain sexual outlaws.

This LGBT+ 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. 

The truth is that most advocates of LGBT+ 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 LGBT+ emulation and those that are not. All that matters is parity.

As OutRage! argued three decades ago, this may be equality, but it is not liberation.

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