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With Labour in retreat on lesbian and gay rights Mark Harrison spells out the limitations of OutRage and the politics of “direct action”.

Back in 1985 it seemed that the long struggle by lesbian and gay rights’ campaigners to get the labour movement to take up their cause was beginning to pay off. At Pride a record 15,000 marched, with delegations from the NUM and the miners’ strike women’s support groups returning the solidarity of “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”.

Both the TUC congress and the Labour Party conference passed resolutions pledging support for lesbian and gay rights for the first time ever. The Labour controlled Greater London Council (GLC) funded the newly established London Lesbian and Gay Centre, as well as undertaking a range of other pro-lesbian and gay measures in local government and education.

These gains proved to be short-lived. In the run up to the 1987 general election Labour made plain its intention to ditch its commitments in the face of the press and Tory campaign against “loony left” councils. The TUC failed to act on its resolutions. Pride has become less and less a focus for mobilising labour movement active support for lesbian and gay rights.

Today, in the run up to another general election, Labour has diluted its promises yet again. Labour says it will outlaw discrimination. But it will not legislate the equalisation of the age of consent. It will merely allow a “free vote” in Parliament on the issue. At the recent Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (LCLGR) annual general meeting, the star turn was to have been Robin Cook, Labour’s front bench health spokesman. He reneged on his promise and refused to attend.

The context of these retreats by the official labour movement is an increasingly homophobic atmosphere in Britain, sponsored by the Tories.

After stirring up a new wave of homophobia in the aftermath of the discovery of AIDS—which the tabloids disgracefully labelled the “gay plague”—the Tories went onto the offensive after their re-election in 1987. As part of a determined campaign to reassert the universal validity of the traditional, monogamous, heterosexual family the Tories launched a series of legal attacks on lesbians and gay men.

Section 28 of the Local Government Bill prohibited councils and educational authorities from “promoting homosexuality”. Clause 25 of the Criminal Justice Bill will introduce longer and more punitive sentences for homosexual “sexual offences” (namely various forms of sexual activity between consenting people—“crimes” in which there is no victim). Lesbians, and to a lesser extent gay men, are to have their right to be parents severely and legally restricted with Paragraph 16 of the Children’s Act.

And against this background of legal attacks both the police and the “queerbashers” have stepped up their harassment of, and, in many cases, vicious physical attacks on lesbians and gay men. As a result of Operation Spanner fifteen gay men were prosecuted for consenting sado-masochistic sex and eight were sent down for a total of 25 years. The toll of gay men beaten to death on the streets is rising.

These attacks have been fought by thousands of lesbian and gay activists. Section 28 led to some of the biggest pro-lesbian and gay rights demos that Britain had ever seen. Trade Unionists Against Section 28 (TUAS) enjoyed some success, at the beginning of the campaign, in building on the advances that had been made in the labour movement. However, the Tories’ victory in pushing through Section 28 took its toll on the activists.

The mobilisations against Clause 25 were smaller and, more importantly, it proved difficult to sustain local campaigns or build trade union support. The general mood of retreat within the labour movement made itself felt on the issue of lesbian and gay rights. In a situation where the new realist right wing leaders of both the unions and the Labour Party were falling over each other to prove to the bosses how “responsible” the labour movement had become, active support for lesbian and gay rights became harder to win.

Inevitably the combination of Tory attacks on lesbians and gay men and the retreat away from the active defence of lesbian and gay rights by the official labour movement led to debates amongst activists on how to combat the moral reaction. Many have turned their backs on any sort of class perspective and, modelling their activities on campaigns in the USA, developed separatist campaigns based on the “direct action” of a handful of activists.

Dramatic publicity stunts, “outing” famous personalities and “zapping” homophobic institutions or events have become the hallmark of campaigns like Act-Up (which centred its work around the issue of AIDS) and OutRage.

These loosely structured, direct action oriented campaigns were responding to a real problem. Insofar as we can talk about a lesbian and gay movement (fragments more accurately describes the situation) the right wing, in groups such as Stonewall, were pursuing a respectable lobbying strategy which involved shying away from a confrontation with manifestations of homophobia and bigotry.

Stonewall’s answer to physical attacks was closer collaboration with the police instead of organised self-defence. Its response to legal attacks was to have a quiet word in the ear of “progressive Tories”. But the left, in particular LCLGR, had virtually ceased campaigning and was carrying out its own version of a lobbying strategy directed towards the right wing leaders of the Labour Party.

Frustration at these strategies spurred the activists who launched OutRage to adopt their high profile, action-oriented strategy. The problem is that these activists also spurn a working class orientation in favour of separatism and elevate their particular form of direct action—civil disobedience and non-violent direct action—into an all embracing strategy.

The separatist perspective of OutRage was expressed by one of its founders, Simon Watney, when he described the outcome of the political debates that shaped the organisation. The biggest struggle, he said, was “to keep the group strictly concerned with lesbian and gay issues and not to conform to anyone else’s agenda”. This raises immediate problems.

Lesbians and gays face a range of issues that also confront straights. Openings for unity in action around such issues—which can range from local council cuts through to media censorship—can strengthen the ability of a campaigning organisation to raise the question of support for lesbian and gay rights amongst ever wider groups of workers. That was the positive lesson of “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”.

To combat Clause 25 it is vital that we mobilise the organised working class. Within the framework of OutRage’s exclusionist approach to other “agendas” that will prove impossible. As Jon Johnson and Peter Kent-Baguley correctly noted in the socialist lesbian and gay magazine Rouge:

“Thus it is that OutRage’s adventurous ad hocery based on a predilection for cliché rather than analysis, leads them to publish stickers which exhort us to ‘stop the straight war against queers’, thus falsely elevating identity above ideology and antagonising working class heterosexuals, the very people we need in our struggle for equality.”

To see the problem of homophobia in straight versus lesbian and gay terms means conceding defeat in advance. It means turning your back on large numbers of the only class in society, the working class, that has a material interest in destroying the basis of lesbian and gay oppression, capitalist class society, and the family structure integral to its continued functioning.

People are not homophobic due to natural causes. Their ideas and prejudices are shaped by the needs of the society they live in. And challenging those ideas means operating with an agenda that goes well beyond “strictly lesbian and gay issues”. OutRage’s failure to recognise this will lead to its failure to survive or achieve tangible gains for lesbians and gay men.

Worse, by making the question of sexual identity decisive OutRage necessarily limits its base of activists. It will hold no appeal for those who are prepared to fight tooth and nail for an end to sexual oppression, regardless of their “identity”. It will alienate thousands of working class lesbians and gay men who, for countless reasons, are unable to openly assert their sexual identity. It will obstruct them from participating in action to end their own oppression. Separatism is a dangerous, elitist and self-defeating strategy.

What makes OutRage attractive at present, compared to the purely lobbying organisations, is that it is prepared to do something. This can be effective within limits. Because class society tries to force invisibility on lesbians and gay men actions, like Kiss-Ins, like the demonstration against the Isle of Man’s promotion stall at Expoship ’91, can play a useful role in making the existence of lesbians and gays, and the struggle for equality and liberation, visible.

But those like Peter Tatchell who argue that such actions are the best way to fight for equality and liberation are wrong. Tatchell denounced the demonstrations of the left as “belligerent posturing” and argued for “peaceful, dignified, ‘non-masculine’ protest” instead. He unwittingly summed up the uselessness of this type of action as a strategy when he wrote:

“Nothing would better capture the headlines and provoke public debate about the rights of homosexuals than the repeated arrest and jailing of dozens of lesbian and gay rights’ campaigners (all the more so if they included people like Tom Robinson, Miriam Margoyles and Jimmy Somerville).”

The idea that dozens of people, preferably celebrities, getting arrested will force the capitalist state into submission is ridiculous. We are talking about a state that can and does deploy the utmost force to preserve the laws it needs to run capitalism. It will easily be able to withstand the jailings of a few dozen activists, even if some of them happen to be singers or actors.

In other words, the direct action Tatchell is talking about is, at best, an auxiliary tactic, not a strategy to be counterposed to mass action. And if action has to be belligerent then so be it. We should remember that Pride commemorates the justifiably belligerent response of New York’s gay community to police harassment. In response to the police attack on the Stonewall bar in 1969 the gay community fought the police on the streets. By being belligerent they created a milestone in the struggle for lesbian and gay rights.

In the face of the Tories’ attacks, and the labour movement’s retreat, we should not be misled into abandoning our class analysis of lesbian and gay oppression or the centrality of a working class response to that oppression. We can begin to rebuild the fightback in two ways.

On the one hand we need to develop and extend the lesbian and gay caucuses that exist in the trade unions (NALGO, the London Underground, the CPSA etc). On the other we need to develop initiatives, such as the Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition’s call for a Clause 25 contingent on Pride, and for the establishment of a national campaign at a conference in July, into the focus for winning working class support for the struggle for equality and liberation.

This does not mean become lobbyists. Nor does it mean simply keeping socialist ideas alive in the pages of Rouge. It means setting as a key goal the mobilisation of the working class in the practical fight against all aspects of the current legal offensive. That way we can build a movement that can start to go beyond defensive struggles, towards an offensive against the mother and father of every manifestation of homophobia and bigotry—capitalism itself.