There has been a sea change in public attitudes towards sexuality in the decades since sex between men was decriminalised in Britain in 1967. Recent legal reforms – including the right to civil partnerships – reflect this, and are themselves a reaction to struggles for equality that have been led by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
This increasing openness about sexuality, coupled with liberal legislation, have led many gay activists to conclude that we have now achieved equality and the battles of the past can be put behind us.
It is certainly true that there has been an attempt to bring gays into the family fold and “normalise” homosexual relationships.
For the ruling class, this is part of an effort to reassert the family as the dominant social unit in society.
Where once they imprisoned people for the crime of being gay, today they seem to support gay rights, and have even used their desire to “liberate” women and gays as a justification for their “war on terror”.
But in reality concern for gays abroad is a smokescreen that cannot quite cover up the inequality on our own doorstep. Institutionalised homophobia in Britain is as deep rooted as ever and a look at the way in which politicians treat their own gives an insight into their hypocrisy.
Former Welsh secretary Ron Davies MP stood down in 2001 after the “scandal” surrounding an incident on London’s Clapham Common, a notorious gay cruising ground.
Tony Blair’s then press secretary, Alastair Campbell, instructed him to describe it as “a moment of madness” and Davies went as far as to seek treatment for a personality disorder.
Gordon McMaster MP killed himself after a whispering campaign about his sexuality and HIV status among political colleagues in Scotland.
Beneath the legal reforms lies the reality of oppression that gay people continue to face. The majority of working class gay people have to face institutionalised homophobia and the fear of coming out or being outed. For them, the legal reforms make little if any impact on their lives.
According to the group Stonewall, the pressure of homophobia in schools means that one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have tried to kill themselves. For young transgender people it is one in three.
Schools in particular are still living with the legacy of Section 28 – part of the Tory government’s legislation in 1988 that attempted to stop teachers discussing homosexuality unless doing so as part of a lesson on Aids.
It took New Labour ten years to repeal this law and they have done little else to eradicate homophobia in schools since.
Recent reports have found high levels of homophobic bullying, yet only a quarter of schools in Britain have an active programme to counter it. But, according to Stonewall, where they do LGBT pupils are 60 percent less likely to be bullied.
It is clear that the fight against oppression has a long way to go before it can declare victory, even if we narrow the fight to full legal equality alone. But for Marxists the struggle is about more than legal reforms or striving merely for the rights that heterosexual people already have – after all, the heterosexual family can be a frightening place.
Every week two women are murdered by their partner or ex-partner, while 54 percent of all rapes reported by women are said to be perpetrated by a partner.
Women’s oppression, the alienation of children from their parents and the pain of physical and psychological violence are all part of “family life”.
Surely genuine liberation for LGBT people means more than just a right to share in this?
A different vision of sexual liberation has been put forward by socialists since the 19th century.
We argue that capitalist society is the root cause of inequality and oppression, and that a system based on competition, profit and greed – one that therefore requires inequality and division – can never deliver real liberation.
We want a radical alternative to the family unit as constituted under capitalism.
Socialists argue that real freedom from oppression can only come about through the complete transformation of society.
This idea was central to the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), formed in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots in New York during 1969.
It rallied “against conformity to arbitrary standards, for an open society in which each of us may choose his own way of life.”
The GLF saw a need to fight alongside other forces – like those in the women’s and black power movements – in order to bring the kind of radical change that was necessary.
In this, there is a lesson for all those who remain committed to the fight for liberation.