The issue of gay rights is a controversial one in the SLP. Here Peter Tatchell speaks to Mark Fischer about the fight for gay liberation
Leading OutRage! activist Peter Tatchell will address SLP congress fringe meeting – Saturday lunch break
I note from reading your material that you support a universal age of consent at 14, but isn’t there a more general problem with any age of consent restrictions? Surely they do nothing to protect young people from exploitative relationships and actually criminalise many for the expression of their sexuality, whatever the orientation?
The sexual rights of young people are part of a broader agenda. We live in a culture that is very adult-orientated and patronising towards young people. I accept that any age of consent is quite arbitrary. It fails to take into account the fact that different people mature at different ages.
That’s why we have proposed a flexible approach. We argue that sex involving young people under 14 should not be prosecuted providing there is consent and no more than three years difference in the partners’ ages.
It’s not a perfect proposal, but it would radically reduce the criminalisation of young people engaged in consenting sex. It would also remove the legal obstacles to earlier and more effective sex education in schools.
In the current reactionary political climate, have you found it difficult to make headway with this argument?
Sure, this is a difficult issue to talk about in the current moral panic around issues of child abuse. People who are hostile to any reduction in the age of consent conflate our campaign with child abuse. Consent and abuse are two totally different things.
In the past, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) and the Howard League for Penal Reform both supported an age of consent at 14, with certain qualifications. Interestingly, neither are keen to talk about that. Last summer, I wrote a letter to the Guardian highlighting some of the problems around a dogmatic, inflexible age of consent. This led to me being denounced as advocating paedophilia. I was deluged with hate mail and death threats and was physically attacked six times in the street.
On homophobia in general, there have been several polls over the last few years that have displayed support for the idea that everyone regardless of sexuality should have equal rights and be protected against discrimination. But when the question is asked about specific issues, such as the age of consent, the level of public support drops dramatically. The recent Panorama poll found that the vast majority of people interviewed wanted an end to the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces, but only a minority wanted an equal age of consent at 16 for gay men.
Public attitudes are confused and contradictory. This suggests crisis and turmoil over issues of sexuality as the old orthodoxies are breaking down. People have very contradictory attitudes over issues of sexual rights and freedom. Having said that, in general people’s attitude towards gays, lesbians and bisexuals is much more tolerant than it was 10 years ago.
The initial hysteria about Aids in the mid-1980s did produce a very sharp increase in public hostility to homosexuals and a corresponding dramatic rise in the arrests of gay men for consenting sexual behaviour. It is only now, a decade later, that this trend in public opinion has been put into reverse.
What do you see as the key question in the fight for gay liberation?
The single most important legal reform would be an equal rights act to guarantee equal treatment and outlaw discrimination against everyone, including sexual minorities. If it was well drafted such an act would create the legal framework to protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals against discrimination in areas like housing and employment. It could also create the impetus for striking down legal discrimination such as the unequal age of consent.
However this only clears the ground in one sense. Rights guaranteed in law are one thing: what actually happens on the ground can be very different. Other gay organisations like Stonewall focus very tightly on law reform. Outrage accepts that legal changes are important, but we believe social values, institutional practices and public attitudes are also crucial. It would be a big mistake to think that law reform will solve all the problems faced by queers.
Outrage has a vision of a revolution in cultural values, opinions, morals, laws and institutions. Much of our agenda has a socially transformative aspect. We are not interested in fitting in with a puritanical status quo that often abuses heterosexuals as much as homosexuals. British society is not just homophobic: it is sex-phobic. We’re trying to formulate new ideas to radically change society in ways that benefit queers and straights.
We see the struggle for queer emancipation as part of a broader project for human liberation.
Doesn’t it follow that this fight is vital for the workers’ movement in the struggle for socialism?
Outrage is politically independent and non-aligned. We will work with anyone who is prepared to fight homophobia. Nevertheless, over the years we have found that our best allies, the people we have worked closest with, have tended to be people on the left.
That’s not surprising to us, because the left is committed to challenging oppression and working for social transformation. That’s our agenda too. This should be an important issue for the workers’ movement. Sex and relationships are two of the most important things in people’s lives. They can be the source of great happiness and fulfilment. But often – sadly – they result in great misery. Millions of people are sexually and emotionally dysfunctional and living in disordered relationships that bring them terrible pain.
If the socialist project is about human emancipation, then surely sexual liberation must be an important part of that.
In that context, New Labour is a big disappointment. Outrage is very critical. Before the election, Labour promised a free vote on the age of consent, the repeal of section 28 and an end to the ban on lesbians and gays in the armed forces. Since the election, section 28 has dropped off the political agenda and we are now told that it will probably be repealed sometime in the next five years.
Labour has been blowing hot and cold on the age of consent issue. The latest position is that we will see legislation in parliament by 1999 at the latest. That means that 16- and 17-year-old gay men and their partners will remain at risk of prosecution until then.
The biggest letdown has been Labour’s reversal of its policy to end the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the military. Labour is now saying it will fight to uphold the ban when the appeal is heard before the European Court of Justice in 1998.
Many lesbian and gay people voted Labour because they believed it was committed to equality. Sadly, its whole policy on lesbian and gay issues is a sorry record of delays, U-turns and half-baked reforms.