We CAN beat the bigotry
KEVIN OVENDEN argues we need a fighting response to stop the recent offensive against gays and lesbians
TENS OF thousands of people will march through central London this Saturday demanding equal rights for lesbians and gay men. The annual Gay Pride demonstration takes place as Tories and religious fundamentalists have been whipping up the most aggressive campaign of bigotry against gays for a decade.
Brian Souter, millionaire bus baron and evangelical Christian, and Catholic Cardinal Winning have been leading a campaign in Scotland in defence of the anti-gay Section 28 law for much of this year. They failed to stop the Scottish Parliament voting to scrap Section 28 last week. But their stream of hate has fuelled bigotry.
Tories in the House of Lords, led by Baroness Young, have also tried to block moves to ditch Section 28 in England and Wales. This offensive has laid down a challenge to everyone who wants to see a more equal society.
It has to be met with a fighting response. That means a sharp break from the kind of politics that has dominated campaigns for gay rights over the last few years. It became common sense among most gay pressure groups and activists during the 1990s that militant protests and demonstrations were no longer necessary to win equality.
The gay press was full of articles claiming that gay people had “outgrown the need for a political movement”, and were on the verge of winning complete acceptance. Glossy style magazines suggested that gays ought to worry more about what kind of vodka to drink in one of the increasing number of upmarket gay bars than about political activity. Such ideas in part reflected the more tolerant public attitude towards homosexuality.
Recent research for the TUC found that three in four workers say it is “wrong for employers to sack or treat lesbian or gay workers differently from their straight employees”. According to the annual British Social Attitudes survey 75 percent of people “disapproved of homosexuality” in 1987. That figure fell to 55 percent ten years later and dropped below 50 percent in some surveys last year.
More lesbians and gay men are open about their sexuality at work, to friends and to family. More heterosexual people know someone who is gay. That has helped to undermine prejudice.
HIGH PROFILE celebrities have either “come out” or been exposed as gay without it damaging their career. Stephen Gately from the pop band Boyzone received sacks full of supportive letters from fans when he came out as gay.
Three years ago many lesbians and gay men thought that the New Labour government would sweep away bigoted laws such as Section 28 and the unequal age of consent. The eruption of the campaign to keep Section 28 shows that there is, unfortunately, no reason to believe that society will automatically become more tolerant.
Powerful forces still seek to divert people’s despair at worsening conditions onto scapegoats. Brian Souter imposes low pay and backbreaking shifts on his workers, wrecking their hopes for a decent family life. He then encourages people who are being crushed by the demands of the free market to blame gay people for “undermining society”.
Such scapegoating is built into capitalist society. The free market system does not deliver stability for working people. It depends upon screwing profit from workers. It produces fabulous wealth for a tiny minority, and longer hours, increased stress and a constant battle to make ends meet for the rest of us.
Individual workers, and whole communities, have no control over their futures. The sense of powerlessness workers feel can leave them prey to scapegoating campaigns. Small business-people and the self employed can be even more taken in by such scapegoating.
The catastrohpic crisis of the 1930s showed how bigoted extreme right wing forces could suddenly gain a hearing and hurl society backwards. At the beginning of the 20th century Jewish people had emigrated from Eastern European countries to Germany because it was less anti-Semitic. The majority of Jews in Germany had been settled there for many decades and were integrated into society.
FOLLOWING THE overthrow of the Kaiser at the end of the First World War, there was a significant movement for gay equality. Gay bars and clubs could operate in Berlin in a way that was unimaginable in London at the time.
Middle class gays from Britain and France visited Berlin. British writer Christopher Isherwood’s novels capture this atmosphere in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. So does the film Cabaret. But by the middle of 1933 all those advances had turned to dust. Hitler seized power in January of that year. He destroyed the parties of the left, crushed the trade unions, unleashed state-sponsored terror against Germany’s Jews, and rounded up gays. Hitler had been on the margins of German politics until the Great Depression hit in 1930. The Nazis grew out of the despair of economic collapse.
Of course, Britain today is not gripped by crisis as Germany was in the 1930s. But Souter, Winning and the Tories are still trying to scapegoat gays. Imagine what they would be prepared to unleash during an economic slump. Simply asserting a gay sexual identity through your lifestyle and quietly lobbying the government for reform cannot beat back this right wing campaign, especially when the New Labour government concedes to bigotry.
THE BIGOTS can be beaten. But that requires organising the large number of people, gay and straight, who are revolted by the threat from the right. It means countering the bigots’ lies in every workplace and community, rather than hoping that they will go away or, worse, assuming that everyone who is not gay is likely to agree with them.
Such campaigning in 1988 meant that, although the Tories got Section 28 through parliament, the bigots were largely thrown on the defensive. Sexuality will always be a political issue in a society in which powerful figures use their chequebooks and fake moral arguments to divide and rule. Every advance for gay rights has stemmed from active political movements which have mobilised gays and heterosexuals.
The greater public acceptance of gays that has emerged over the last ten years means there is a bigger potential for such a movement today, provided people fight to build it.
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