- Lesbian and gay freedom involves more than mere equality. We should reject a simplistic law reform agenda, and adopt a queer politic that celebrates sexual difference, opposes both assimilationism and separatism, seeks social transformation, and affirms that everyone is potentially queer. -
Queer politics involves much more than the sterile debate over the use of the word queer. It represents a fundamental rethinking of the theories of lesbian and gay emancipation. This rethinking of principles has rarely been seriously discussed within our community. When it has, queer politics has often been grossly misrepresented.
Naturally, there are many different interpretations of queer theory. The ones that have grabbed the most attention, however, have tended to be the most intellectually vacuous versions imported uncritically from the United States.
Queer politics as it is understood and practised by direct action groups in this country, such as OutRage!, has been almost entirely excluded from coverage in the pink press. A curious omission.
So what is the version of queer politics that OutRage! adheres to? What principles guide its thought and action?
While there is a healthy degree of dispute even within OutRage!, a broad consensus exists around five key ideas, which can be summarised as follows:
Firstly, queer politics positively celebrates sexual difference. It rejects the idea that the campaign for our human rights should be based on the argument that homosexuals are 'just the same' as heterosexuals, or that we are 'just as good' as straights. Of course we are, but that's not the point. The mere fact of our existence as human beings should be quite enough to entitle us to human rights, without any need for justification or pleading.
In any case, the denial of difference is profoundly dishonest. There are differences between straights and queers. We are not all the same. While some lesbians and gay men do mindlessly ape heterosexual values, many do not. The sexual behaviour, relationships, aesthetics, and lifestyles of these queer dissidents are quite dissimilar to those of the average heterosexual. That's not something we should deny, let alone be ashamed of.
In many ways, our transcending of heterosexual mores is a positive and immensely liberating experience. Compared with most straights, queers tend to be more sexually adventurous with a wider repertoire of sexual behaviour, less bound by the strictures of traditional morality, and more experimental in terms of relationships. We don't need a marriage certificate to validate our partnerships, and we've adapted much better to safer sex. In all these senses, the fact that homosexuals are different from heterosexuals is a real virtue that we should all be proud to shout about.
Queer politics also takes the view that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. The acceptance of sexual pluralism and diversity is just as much a sign of a mature democracy as is the acceptance of racial difference. Conversely, the denial of the right to be different, especially when it involves institutionalised discrimination against a person on account of who they love, is profoundly authoritarian.
Lesbian and gay people help make a more heterogeneous and interesting society. That's a good thing. There is nothing great about social homogeneity. It's boring and results in social stultification and sclerosis. In contrast, the existence of difference, including sexual difference, is a force for social innovation and renewal. It enlivens and enriches our whole culture.
Secondly, queer politics challenges the heterocentric view that exclusive heterosexuality is somehow natural and eternal, and that lesbian and gay sexuality is inevitably destined to remain a minority sexual orientation. It sees sexuality as being primarily a social construction, rather than a biological given.
Who we are attracted to largely derives from a combination of social experience and ideology. In other words, everyone is born with the potential to be queer. Exclusive heterosexuality is mainly the result of a socially-encouraged repression of same-sex desire. In a society where there were no pressures or privileges associated with being straight, a lot more people would be queer or bisexual. Lesbian and gay attraction would cease to be a minority sexual orientation and become something that almost everyone would experience.
As Kinsey discovered, even in our intensely homophobic culture, few people are 100 per cent hetero or homo. Most are a mixture of both. Even if we never or rarely have sex with both genders, there are elements of same-sex and opposite-sex attraction in nearly all of us. In an enlightened society which genuinely did not give a damn about who people fucked and loved, a majority of us would express both these attractions.
Of course, there may be biological factors, such as genes and hormones, which also influence sexual orientation. However, the available psychological and anthropological evidence suggests that these biological influences are not as significant as social factors.
Anthropologists have found that in some tribal societies all young men go through a period of homosexuality as part of their rites of passage into manhood. Once completed, most of these men revert to being wholly heterosexual. If sexuality was biologically predetermined, they would never be able to switch from heterosexuality to homosexuality, and then back again, with such apparent ease. This suggests that the decisive factors influencing sexual orientation are social expectations and cultural values.
If this is true, and everyone is potentially queer, then the struggle for lesbian and gay liberation is in everyone's interest. It is about the right of everyone to experience the joys of queer desire without guilt or discrimination.
Thirdly, queer politics is against separatism, both between heterosexuals and homosexuals, and between lesbians and gay men. While asserting the importance of queer self-organisation, self-reliance and self-help, it spurns the idea that there are fundamental, irreconcilable and eternal conflicts between straights and queers, or between dykes and fags.
Queer politics is a movement of hope and optimism: a conviction that homophobia and sexism will eventually cease to be significant in human culture. Separatism, in contrast, is pessimistic and defeatist. It has a despairing view that we must totally separate and have as little to do with each other as possible because straights will always be homophobic and gay men will always be misogynistic.
Such fatalism has begun to be disproven in recent years, with the substantial shift in public opinion in favour of greater acceptance and equality for lesbian and gay people, and with the growing reintegration of the lesbian and gay communities in a common struggle for emancipation.
If everyone is potentially queer, and queer freedom is in everyone's interest, then it is obvious that we should all be fighting for queer liberation side by side, regardless of sexuality or gender.
Although heterosexuals are the main perpetrators of homophobia, there are also pro-gay straights and anti-gay queers (the self-hating, Tory-voting, closeted homosexuals). The former deserve more respect than the latter. They do far more to help our struggle for freedom that the gutless quislings in our own midst, which is why homophobia is not just a simple matter of hetero versus homo.
Straights are, of course, the prime beneficiaries of anti-gay prejudice; receiving moral, legal and financial advantages from it (their sexuality is socially approved and promoted, their partnerships are legally recognised and protected, and their love is not criminalised and censored).
However, some heterosexuals also pay a price for the bigotry they inflict on us.
The fear of being labelled queer encourages many heterosexual men to adopt a false, exaggerated machismo. They are deliberately loud, aggressive and tough as a way of asserting their heterosexuality and distancing themselves from any taint of queerness. This distorts their personality, crushing all sensitivity and tenderness; leaving many straight men emotionally frigid and profoundly unhappy.
Sometimes, the frantic quest to prove their straightness and masculinity results in a macho posturing which spills over into wanton violence: football hooliganism, rape, mugging, wife-beating, racist murder, vandalism, and queer-bashing. All of society, including heterosexuals, thus pays a terrible price for encouraging straight men to fear being thought of as queer.
Homophobia also damages heterosexuals because it means they are denied the pleasure of relationships with half of humanity. Emotionally and sexually cut off from people of the same sex, their potential range of experience is narrowed by 50 per cent. It is not rational to exclude the possibility of loving someone because they happen to be of the same gender. Yet millions of hets do it; depriving themselves of some wonderful sexual and emotional opportunities.
Homophobia sometimes rebounds on its perpetrators with particular savagery. Heterosexuals who are mistaken for homosexuals can suffer real brutalisation and discrimination, as these two instances illustrate:
A straight man walking across Clapham Common in London was kicked to death by a gang of queer-bashers who thought he was gay. Two heterosexual shop assistants in Glasgow were sacked by their boss who falsely assumed they were lesbians.
If homophobia pains straights as well as queers, then separatism doesn't make sense. We all share a common interest in fighting together to defeat it.
Besides, the separatism of the queer ghetto is pure escapism. Instead of confronting and overcoming prejudice, separatists ran away from it. They retreat into their own cosy queer world. And nothing changes.
Fourthly, queer politics is against assimilationism. The integrationist strategy of lobbyists for homosexual equality assumes that lesbian and gay freedom is about queers adapting to, and being accepted by, straight society. In other words, it means homosexuals conforming to heterosexual laws and values. That's not liberation. It's capitulation!
Sure, it is conformity on an equal basis rather than an unequal one. That's one step better than inequality. But it is conformity none the less. We comply with their system.
The end result is equality on heterosexual terms; equal rights within a framework dominated and determined by straights. Assimilation is just a new and more subtle method whereby heterosexuals continue to call the shots. It obliterates any distinctive queer identity and culture; creating homosexual versions of heterosexual lifestyle and morality.
Integration means us giving up the unique and enriching aspects of our own lesbian and gay community. It requires our surrender to heterosexual norms. We have to become hetero homos and uncritically adopt the dominant straight values. Absorbed and invisibilised, we become mere heterosexual facsimiles.
What assimilationism ultimately implies is that the lesbian and gay experience embodies nothing worthwhile, innovative or liberating. It suggests that queers have nothing positive to contribute to society; nothing that straights can learn or benefit from. Bullshit!
Queer politics asserts that our emancipation is not contingent on us adapting to the heterosexual status quo, but on us radically changing it. Social homophobia is the problem, not queer dissent from it.
This radical vision also sees lesbian and gay people as being valuable in their own right. Our worth should be measured on our own terms, as opposed to the criterion laid down by straights. We have lots of insights that can contribute to the enrichment of heterosexuals and the betterment of society.
Compared with most straight people, for example, lesbians and gay men are more willing to transgress the boundaries of traditional masculinity and femininity. As a result, gay men tend to be less macho and more in touch with their emotions. This gives them a sensitivity and creativity which has enabled them to make a disproportionate contribution to the arts and the caring professions. Lesbians are usually less reliant on men, and more independent and assertive, than their hetero sisters. Hence their pioneering contribution to women's advancement in previously all-male occupations.
Fifthly, from the rejection of integrationism it follows that queer politics has an agenda beyond law reform and legal equality. Its aim is the transformation of society to ensure sexual liberation for everyone.
This post-equality agenda involves a fundamental renegotiation of sexual values and laws. It seeks an end to heterosexual hegemony and to all erotic guilt and repression.
The assimilation of queers is not just bad for lesbians and gay men. It is also indirectly against the interests of straights. Mere equalisation of the law perpetuates the sex-negative status quo, which hurts them as well as us. Everyone would benefit from a more sexually enlightened culture.
The absurd laws against prostitution and pornography illustrate this point. Securing legal equality for queer sex workers would be a limited advance. Homosexual prostitutes, and their clients, would simply face equal criminalisation and harassment as their heterosexual counterparts. What is needed is the complete repeal of the laws against prostitution, and their replacement by legislation that recognises the right of people to control their own bodies and to use them in any way they wish, providing it is with consent and no one is harmed.
A similar principle should apply to pornography. There is nothing shameful or obscene about the human body, including pricks and pussies. Sex is not dirty, but something to be shared and enjoyed. So why shouldn't we be able to view explicit sexual acts, both hetero and homo? After all, using porn to wank with is a safe form of sex which can help reduce the spread of HIV. For people who are not able-bodied, young and handsome, and for those who find it difficult to meet sexual partners because they live in remote communities, porn is often one of their few means of sexual fulfilment. Why should it be disparaged and criminalised?
It is not good enough to only seek an end to the way gay porn is more strictly censored than straight porn. Lots of explicit images of sexual acts between men and women are also banned. Equality with heterosexuals under the anti-porn laws would thus mean only a slight liberalisation while leaving the bulk of draconian censorship intact. What is required is a revision of the laws against pornography in their entireity.
These five key ideas of queer politics represent a re-awakening of the radical utopian vision that fired the lesbian and gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. This vision was lost when civil rights and law reform came to dominate lesbian and gay campaigning in the conservative decade that followed.
Now, in the 90s, radicalism is re-emerging in the updated and modernised form of queer politics. This new agenda confidently embraces the goals of both civil rights and sexual liberation. While supporting law reform, it also has a vision which goes beyond it. Queer politics is an idea whose time has come.
Peter Tatchell - Gay & Human Rights Campaigns
Thanks to Peter Tatchell.