Talk by Angela Mason, Director of Stonewall
I do not know whether a relatively small band of Conservative peers will overturn the clear majority that will undoubtedly vote for repeal in the House of Commons but, whatever the outcome of the debates, the purpose of Section 28 – to exclude lesbians and gay men from public life – and discourse has been remarkably unsuccessful. It is sometimes hard to believe that more and more people will come tumbling out of the closet, but out they still come. There are thriving lesbian and gay communities in all our major cities, transforming the parts that urban regeneration simply couldn’t reach. Many institutions, the police, the trade unions, and increasingly the corporate sector recognise the discrimination that we have faced and the ethics of our case for rights and recognition.
An important part of this process of reconciliation has been the ability of the movement for gay rights, which was ushered into being by Section 28, to articulate our case within the dominant value systems that are emerging in our society and the structural and political changes that are taking place. I would pick out three features of this process as being particularly important. Firstly and most clearly the development of human rights as a core value in our society; secondly the commercialisation of everyday life – not just the pink pound phenomenon, but the ability of the market to use gay culture, just as the market has used black culture. I heard one gay man recently complaining, sadly, that “they are pinching our signifiers”. And thirdly the deconstruction of old elites and the creation of a new political settlement in the old United Kingdom.
I want to return to these themes, but firstly I think that it is important to say a little about equality. It is worth remembering that equality is one of the most important values in our society precisely because we are all different and in any modern industrial society these differences will continue to multiply. As Marx said “All that is solid melts into air.” If we were all the same, had the same accents, the same amount of money in our bank accounts, to take just two characteristics that identify every individual, equality wouldn’t matter.
In one sense the journey of the lesbian and gay movement is just a paradigm of British social history which has been all about classes and groups who were different, coming out, then coming in. It may seem a long stretch to make the connection between say catholic emancipation, working class suffrage and the Stonewall riots, aptly described as ‘the hairpin drop heard all around the world’, but the process of inclusion is no different.
In each case it has also created tensions within the new social group – a tension between sameness and difference, between assimilation and transformation. These tensions shaped the Labour Party and the trade union movement before the war, they traumatised the womanise suffrage movement with Christobel Pankhurst proclaiming for god and empire and Sylvia for peace and internationlism. As Bernard Shaw wryly remarked “millions of women fought for the vote and immediately started taking dictation.”
Will the fate of the lesbian and gay movement be any different? As we step onto the political stage is it time to throw away the high heels and Doc Martens . Should we just all settle down and get on with worrying about the mortgage and the kids like everyone else.
These are timely questions, but the difference between the lesbian and gay rights and other historical movements of emancipation is simply that there is little for us to buy into. It is rather like coming to a wedding and finding that nobody can agree on the order of service, or indeed who is to marry whom.
I mention family and marriage because they seem to me to be at the heart of the inclusivity debate. But before venturing into these areas I would make the point that this is a radical debate on all sides. It is not the case that family and marriage are god given social or human verities. The shape and significance of marriage and the family have changed enormously over time.
In England these was no formal legal marriage until the eighteenth century when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was passed in 1753. Before that who could get married and how was determined by church law. Marriage for the church was principally the exchange of contracts between spouses. The parties not the priest were the ministers of the sacrament of the marriage. The church recognised two forms of valid marriage: the exchange of consents to marry followed by intercourse and the promise to marry in the future followed by intercourse. A flexible doctrine which allowed the church to recognise a variety of informal unions thus relieving the participants from sin and preserving doctrinal purity in the face of customs and practices at variance with Church law.
In Scotland things never went so far and common law marriage or marriage by habit and repute remained legally valid after the passing of the Act. The Scottish Parliament now has devolved powers to deal with family law. They can recognise lesbian and gay partnerships if they wish to do so. Think about it – Greta Green will have a whole new meaning.
What I believe is happening today is a new attempt to redefine marriage which is being driven by the radical right. Perhaps in response to increasing secularism fundamentalists seek to capture a pivotal social institution, the family as the province of the Christian tradition. I mention Christianity, but this process may be observed in many other faiths. In this argument marriage is the basis of the family and only Christianity can preserve and police marriage. The continued existence of marriage, it is argued, depends upon its doctrinal purity, its ability to privilege the married state above all others. It is to let some people in and keep others out.
Let me say at once that I have no problem with the view that marriage is a religious sacrament. Believers are absolutely entitled to hold that view and have much to teach us all. However, in a modern democratic society, marriage and the family simply cannot be the province of the religious right.
The family is fundamentally important to us all. It cannot be the preserve of any one ideological tradition. Moreover I believe families are strongest when they are most inclusive, an institution where we all have a place.
I have used the term family and marriage interchangeably. As the locking together of family and marriage is a phenomenon of which I complain, let me try to separate them apart. In doing so I think a very useful reference point is the recent judgment of the Law Lords in Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association. The case as you will remember concerned Mr Fitzpatrick’s application to retain the tenancy of the accommodation in which he lived for twenty years with his partner. The Law Lords were required to interpret the Rent Act, which gives rights of succession to spouses, men and women living together as husband and wife, and members of the tenant’s family.
As a matter of construction they held that same-sex partners were not spouses, nor the equivalent of unmarried partners. They did however decide that Mr Fitzpatrick could be considered as a member of his partner’s family. In coming to that judgement Lord Slynn said:
The hallmarks of the (family) relationship were essentially that there should be a degree of mutual interdependence, sharing of lives, caring and love, commitment and support. In respect of legal relationships these are presumed, though evidently are always present, as the family law courts and the criminal courts know only too well. In de fact relationships these are capable, if proved, of creating membership of the tenant’s family.
I think that this definition of ‘the family’ is enormously helpful. It says three important things. Firstly that families can exist even if they have no legal status; secondly that they are created by the actions and behaviour of the parties; and thirdly that we can find criteria which will help us distinguish a familial relationship from other forms of relationship. In short, the Law Lords made a stand for substance, not just form. An interesting modern apercu in the age old Aristotlean debate.
Mr Fitzpatrick’s case was about the legal rights of partners – something I believe in and campaign for. I do not think that it will be very long before many of those rights in pensions, inheritance, taxation and welfare are recognised, but in their remarks about the nature of the family, the Law Lords take us beyond the formality of rights into an even more important discourse about family values.
Similar points could be made about lesbian and gay parenting. It seems to me that it would be far more useful to debate and discuss what makes good parents instead of having a displaced debate about marriage and the family.
The issue is the same in each case. How can we all – straight or gay – live in ways which encourage mutual responsibility towards partners and friends.
There are those in the church who also recognise these issues. Speaking in the age of consent debate the Bishop of Bath and Wells spoke about the need in the lesbian and gay community for a ‘recognisable ethic of personal relationships.’ That need is particularly pressing as we overcome historic discrimination and create a fairer world where young lesbians and gay men can grow up without prejudice and hatred.
Is it enough to say we have won your rights, now get on with your lives? I believe that there is a legitimate libertarian tradition which would say just that. Leave people to get on with their own lives and they will find their own ethics, the ways of living which will suit them.
Sadly, perhaps, I come from a more interventionist tradition, and I don’t think that that is enough. We’ve finally come out onto the world stage and we should, at least stay around and make a few contributions to the discussion.
I have already criticised the marriage fundamentalists who want to construct marriage as an exclusive social institution. By concentrating on the formalities of marriage they foreclose discussion on the importance of values and social structures which will encourage all people to assume responsibility for each other – to love and to cherish in good times and bad. But the concentration on sexual marriage as the only adult relationship of any value also occludes consideration of those other bonds which can not only be enduring sources of support, compassion and warmth, but are also an important part of the social glue which binds us together.
There are the beginnings of an interesting and important discussion coming from the gay community on the value of friendship. Ours is perhaps the first society that lives in a world where sexual segregation has largely disappeared, but this is really a new phenomenon. Historically men have lived and worked in sexually segregated societies. Social interchange and relations between the sexes were certainly not equal. They were normally organised in structures of subordination and domination and even violence. Equality, friendship, comradeship were qualities that were more in evidence within same-sex groups.
There is also much interesting historical research, which suggests that within those same-sex communities homosexual sex was relatively common, but did not necessarily imply a ‘gay identity’. Male intimacy, even of a sexual nature, was not always something to be feared, nor always something associated exclusively with homosexual men.
In his latest book, Love Undetectable, Andrew Sullivan, writing in a self-conscious conservative tradition, has explored the theme of friendship. Reflecting back to the beginning of the AIDS pandemic he says
I don’t think that I’m alone in thinking that the deepest legacy of the plague years is friendship. The duties demanded in the plague, it turned out, were the duties of friends: the kindness of near strangers, the support that asks the quietest of acknowledgement, the fear that only beshared with someone stronger than a lover. Denied a recognised family, often estranged from their natural one, gay men learned in the few decades of their free existence that friendship was the nourishment that would enable them to survive and flourish.
Perhaps the most overlooked benefit of a culture which can relax its strictures against homosexual love and life is that it would finally liberate heterosexual life to experience a more fluid and satisfying and intimate range of non sexual relationships without the fear of stigma or moral panic.
The work we have done on homophobic bullying also clearly illustrates this point. Homophobic bullying and abuse is rife within our schools but it is not solely directed against young people who may identify as lesbian or gay; it used to police any behaviour which steps outside strict gender stereotypes or any expressions of intimacy between young people of the same sex. It is damaging for everybody, but especially boys who are denied any social vocabulary that values sensitivity, caring and compassion.
Paradoxically then, my argument is that lesbians and gay men who have been the most sexually stigmatised group within society, who are derided as promiscuous and immoral, may have a contribution to make to a new ethic of personal relationships that is not exclusively based on sexual gratification or demeaning sexual stereotypes.
Such a change would certainly challenge the fixation on the sexual within the market place, which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. Living in a country that brought Queer as Folk into the world, that might seem a little far fetched. But I believe that the explicit sexual scenes were not what kept millions of viewers – gay and straight – glued to the screens. Explicit sex turned people off; what people liked was a pacy, amusing drama about friendship, growing up, trying to find a place in the world, that was exciting and interesting because nothing was given.
The most powerful trends within commercial culture are not towards the sexually explicit, but toward a new representation of social reality hooked into the high dramas of life and motivated by much deeper social concerns about the environment, world poverty, racial and ethnic conflict.
I agree that this is an optimistic reading of popular culture, but what is certainly true is that the visibility of lesbians and gay men is increasingly blurring the cultural boundaries between gay and straight. Young people go to the same clubs, wear the same clothes – are bored by all battles and have other issues to fight.
The history of emancipation movements credit, not surprisingly, usually goes to great leaders, great moments of historical transition. The long road, red with martyrdoms, as Oscar Wilde called it. But the true history is often rather different. In Britain movements of sexual emancipation have usually come to the fore in epochs of wider social and political change. The suffragette movement was part of a gale of social protest that shattered Liberal England at the end of the nineteenth century. The sexual reforms of the 1960s on abortion, divorce and homosexuality were part of a political shift in the which brought flower power and a new Labour government.
Britain under New Labour certainly doesn’t feel revolutionary. We are not entering the new millennium, as we entered the twentieth, amid waving banners – indeed the trees are barely rustling. Nonetheless I do believe that we are living through a political revolution which we only miss because it is happening from within. The Human Rights Act, the new constitutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and now, thank god, Northern Ireland will have a profound effect on our national identity, our national culture and ultimately and inevitably our concepts of sexual identity.
It is no coincidence that 1885, the year male homosexuality was criminalised, was also a time when imperialism and national decline was on everyone’s mind. The issue of Home Rule for Ireland and the threat of a break up of the United Kingdom were looming. Khartoum had fallen and General Gordon the great imperial hero was dead.
Both in England and Prussia imperial decline was connected in the popular mind with sexual impurity and pollution. The criminalisation of homosexuality was the part and parcel of the collective will to win backs Empire and strengthen the nation.
The very big changes, which are making it possible for lesbian and gay men to win civil and political rights, are part of that long journey from imperialism to self-government, from authoritarian rule to democratic self-government. My hope is that the people who will inhabit this new political landscape will truly be gentler souls, less enmeshed in old sexual conflicts and stereotypes, less willing to blame and punish and more willing to assume personal responsibility for the world in which we all live.
© Angela Mason