The attack hadn’t taken place in some dark back street but in front of surveillance cameras in the centre of a city that many young people have regarded as the safest place in which to come out.
It wasn’t an isolated attack – there have been four such murders in London in the last year. In Liverpool, where a survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people found 59 percent had experienced a hate crime, over 2,000 people gathered in response to the gay-bashing of James Parkes, who was attacked by dozens of people as he left a gay club in October and suffered multiple skull fractures. Figures from a number of major cities also show a rise in reported attacks on LGBT people this year: 20 percent in London, 32 percent in Glasgow, 40 percent in Liverpool and 63 percent in Greater Manchester.
Police have claimed this reflects a greater willingness of people to report incidents. Given their history of persecution of gay people this would suggest a transformation of the police. But Stonewall’s 2008 Gay British Hate Crime Survey showed that three in four victims of homophobic hate crimes do not report them to the police. A third said this was because they “did not think the police would or could do anything about it”. The survey also shows that only half of reported incidents led to any action and a mere 1 percent resulted in conviction.
Given the crisis of legitimacy that has engulfed the police, at least since the G20 protests, it is unlikely that those affected by hate crime have developed a sudden confidence in the police.
The increase in homophobic attacks is real. But this does not mean we are witnessing a generalised backlash against LGBT people. When Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote an article linking Boyzone singer Stephen Gately’s death to his homosexuality, over 22,000 people complained to the Press Complaints Commission.
This response says something about how far we have come since the 1960s, when sex between men was a crime, or even the mid-1980s, when Aids was regularly (and sometimes gleefully) treated in the mainstream press as retribution for being gay and 60 percent of people thought gay teachers should be sacked.
Such things would be unthinkable today. LGBT people are a much more visible and confident part of society and there is a far greater acceptance of and commitment to LGBT rights. A 2007 poll by YouGov, for example, found up to 90 percent of people backed laws barring discrimination against lesbians and gays, and 73 percent thought such discrimination called for corrective action.
The recent equality legislation is one of the most potent symbols of the positive shift in favour of LGBT rights. This has made an important difference – removing some of the most bigoted anti-gay laws and introducing basic human rights previously denied to us.
But there remains a huge gap between formal equality and our lived experience. Just as the Equal Pay Act has not delivered equal pay for women and the laws against racial discrimination have not stopped racism, so civil partnerships have not ended LGBT oppression, which remains knitted into the fabric of modern-day capitalism.
In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999, the term “institutional racism” was coined to explain systematic racism in the police force. The pitiful 1 percent conviction rate for reported homophobic attacks suggests a similar institutional homophobia in the justice system. In the trial following Michael Causer’s death, for example, only one in four people present during the murder was convicted and the judge ruled the attack was not homophobic – despite witnesses giving evidence to the contrary. This pattern of institutional discrimination against LGBT people is repeated across society.
Homophobic bullying in schools is a poignant illustration of this. It is in part the legacy of Section 28 – the Tory law which for years prevented any discussion of homosexuality in schools unless it was in connection with death and disease. Despite the chants of “Tony Blair we won’t wait, scrap Section 28” on election night, Labour waited until its second term to repeal this law.
But its failure to provide serious resources, training or a curriculum in support of equal rights for LGBT people makes it look as if Section 28 still exists. Most schools will quite rightly take the simple step of putting positive images of different ethnic groups on their walls. But you would be hard-pressed to find any positive images of LGBT people. Only a quarter of schools across Britain openly condemn homophobic bullying, even though where they do LGBT students are 60 percent less likely to be bullied.
So the problem of homophobia among the young reflects an institutional failure in our schools producing a situation in which many of the attacks against LGBT people are being perpetrated by teenagers.
The Labour government’s ambivalence towards dealing with homophobia in schools reflects its approach to gay rights full stop. It may have introduced important equality legislation, but has often done so only when pushed, resorting a number of times to free votes – as if gay rights are a matter of taste and not principle.
Underlying Labour’s tightrope-walking on LGBT rights is its continued reliance on the idea of the traditional family as a central institution in society. This has been the counterpart of its neoliberal policies, which have heaped huge burdens on working class families. These policies have generated a host of social problems which it prefers to blame on the failings of individuals and families. Hence Gordon Brown eulogises hard-working families while taking punitive measures against those who fail to make the grade, be they single mothers or parents of truanting children.
This approach involves a continual gesturing towards family values and conventions where LGBT people are seen as outsiders. Labour finally invited some lesbians and gays to join the family with the introduction of civil partnerships, but it abandoned longstanding Labour party member and MP Ron Davies when he was caught on Clapham Common, presumably looking for gay sex, investigating him for “bringing the party into disrepute”. In this way the government has sought to preserve the family while bowing to pressure for change on LGBT rights.
This failure to fully support equality is particularly dangerous in the current economic crisis when many people are desperately looking for explanations of why their jobs, homes and future are under threat.
All three parties have united to bail out the bankers while lining up to make savage cuts to public spending. This is contributing to a political polarisation in which there has been some important resistance, but also a rise in the scapegoating of minorities like asylum seekers, Muslims and gays.
The electoral success and growth of the Nazi British National Party (BNP) is an alarming product of that situation – the ground for Nick Griffin is being made fertile by the wider context.
Brown called for “British jobs for British workers” only to find it quoted on BNP election leaflets. Similarly, when we have a government which continually resorts to conservative stereotypes and family values, and the Tories locate the cause of “broken Britain” in the broken family, Griffin’s comments about finding two men kissing “creepy” can have a wider resonance. All this boosts the confidence of a reactionary minority to lash out – which is why the BBC were so wrong to defend their decision to give him a platform in the guise of free speech.
The response to this reactionary minority has so far been big and angry. This is potentially very significant since the history of struggle for sexual liberation shows that we have made the most gains when we have taken to the streets and united with wider struggles.
Unfortunately a very different set of ideas has dominated LGBT politics in recent years. On the one hand there has been a very narrow focus on changing the law and winning formal equality, which as we have seen is no guarantee against discrimination.
On the other hand we have seen the rapacious commercialisation of the scene and our sexual identity. The growth of the pink economy is a reflection of greater openness – we now represent a sizeable market – and the spaces we have won need to be defended. But commercialisation has a distorting effect, promoting a narrow set of conventions about LGBT identity which is obsessed with image and the scene, in search of sexual gratification and geared towards getting us to spend money.
The common sense underlying LGBT politics has remained different versions of identity politics which unhinge our oppression and liberation from wider questions of class. In the book The Way We Are Now, a survey of gay and lesbian lives in the 21st century, journalists, writers and various professionals line up to tell us we’ve arrived – or, in the words of Matthew Parris, “to stop thinking of ourselves as special”. This might make sense if you are a wealthy gay MP like Chris Bryant, who justified house flipping after homophobic graffiti was sprayed on his wall, but life looks different on the other side of the class divide.
The incorporation and commercialisation of LGBT politics are best illustrated in what has happened to the annual Pride event, where once-militant demonstrations have become parades heavily reliant on corporate sponsorship and aggressively apolitical. In May the BNP got two MPs elected to the European Parliament, but the organisers of this year’s million-strong Pride, held only weeks later, wasted the opportunity for a huge political response to this breakthrough, choosing instead the vacuous theme “Come out and play”.
There has long been a mood for an alternative approach to LGBT liberation. This is reflected in the emergence of small groups like Pride is a Protest in Manchester and the interest in queer theory among many students in the colleges which, whatever its limitations, shows a desire for a set of ideas that is about challenging the gender norms and stereotypes which underlie LGBT oppression. The response to the recent attacks has begun to give that mood a focus.
For many people there is an immediate question about how to make our streets safe, which can lead to calls for extra policing and more CCTV. But the most effective way of making our streets safe is by taking to them collectively, uniting with and winning over other sections of the community to take a stand.
This is why the vigils and demonstration in Liverpool were so important. These have so far been initiated by individuals and mobilised largely via Facebook and the club scene. It is vital that we make sure the big organisations, such as trade unions and students’ unions that have fought for LGBT rights, get behind them and maximise the turnout.
We also need to fight to shape those mobilisations we already have, reclaiming our Pride marches for the political objectives for which they were originally formed.
In taking on the politics of divide and rule, the BNP must be a major target. They stand in the tradition of Hitler and the concentration camps which killed hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gays alongside 6 million Jews and socialists and trade unionists. We must be an integral part of building a broad, vibrant anti-fascist movement.
But we also need to be part of wider struggles to defend jobs, services and resources in the community, because these offer a different solution, an alternative to blaming each other. In the summer, when construction workers walked out against the victimisation of trade union activists, people organised collections at Sheffield Pride and took them down to the picket line. In Doncaster, Unison supported Pride in the town, after the right wing English Democrat mayor tried to cut funding.
This kind of solidarity work between LGBT and working class struggle runs through the history of our fight for sexual liberation like the red in the rainbow. In the 1980s, for example, widespread support in the trade union movement – from the miners who led Pride in 1985 to the teachers who marched against Section 28 – was crucial to stopping the Tories’ attempt to roll back LGBT rights.
The links between the attacks on LGBT people and a deep economic crisis make that kind of unity between LGBT and working class struggle essential.
As we build we should also recall the spirit of the 1969 Stonewall rioters. They rose up in response to victimisation and harassment, sparking a gay liberation movement which won a historic shift forward in LGBT rights. Today, as we fight in defence of our rights, we need once again to look at how we can go forward, towards a future free from persecution and oppression.
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