Sunday, September 20, 2009

Labour's best legacy

Whatever you make of Labour's twelve years in office, at least it managed to rid Britain of legislative homophobia.

If you were around in 1996-97 the sense of deja-vu is palpable. Swap round the words Labour and Tory and oogle at the easy ride David Cameron is being given: from clearing away cereal boxes in front of BBC cameras to hugging huskies, there are plenty of clues that P45 forms for the current ministers are ready for collection.

But while many are dreading a shift of the pendulum on a number of issues such as public spending, social policy or the EU, one change that took place during New Labour's tenure is here to stay: Britain's approach towards sexuality.

Some may argue that the dark days of anti-gay tabloid crusades would have ended anyway. For all the crap that the current celebrity obsession entails, it also brought about widespread acceptance of sexual minorities. Think Will Young, Mat Lucas, Alan Carr, Brian Dowling - all the way to Pete Burns and Big Brother's Nadia, there are now countless household names who don't share the same sexual tastes as the majority and no-one but far-right members or Islamist leaders seems to mind.

And yet, it's difficult to think that Labour's involvement didn't play a positive part here.

Just go back fifteen or twenty years when, egged on (as per usual) by the tabloid press, the Tories implemented the most homophobic legislation in Western Europe. Worse than the policies (like Section 28 and the persisting Age of Consent discrimination) was the rhetoric.

It may feel like a million years ago, but it was only 1985 when Conservative conference speakers were allowed to openly say "if you want a queer for a neighbour vote Labour" and 1987 when Margaret Thatcher explicitly attacked "the right to be gay". And that was the political party young David Cameron felt compelled to join.

Labour came into power in 1997 while the Sun was still shouting that Britain was being run by a "gay mafia". And yet, in a rare concession that they'd got it wrong, the red top announced it was changing tack.

The tide had turned. In spite of bitter media hostility, first the devolved Scottish government and then Westminster repealed Section 28. Then, in 2000, the government used the Parliament Act 1911 to overrun the House of Lords's obstructionism and equalise the Age of Consent at 16. In December 2005 the new Civil Partnership Act was implemented, allowing same-sex unions to be legally recognised and to be granted equitable treatment for financial matters and next-of-kin assistance. Finally, the last few years have seen a series of steps aimed at tackling homophobic bullying at school.

Barring some unexpected turn, those changes appear now firmly entrenched within British society and no-one but the most hardcore of Tories could dream of publicly campaigning in favour of sexual discrimination. If anything, most politicians are aware that endorsing something like Section 28 or the unfortunate "gay plague" rhetoric today would probably herald electoral suicide.

So, nine months from now, when Britain wakes up with the first Tory Prime Minister since John Major and you find yourself cursing Labour for all its crap and wasted chances (see this and this for a reminder), just think that twelve years didn't go exactly in vain and that sexual equality will go down in history as one of Labour's proudest moments.

11 comments:

DomFisher said...

Isn't homophobic violence worse than it ever was? Just asking.

Patrick Gray said...

Good article.
In my opinion homophobic violence is up, but it's not worse than ever. However, at least the legislative frame is much better than it was, which is good and is a sign that stamping out on homophobia has just begun.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

We still have far to go on creating a more tolerant society to the human rights of LGBT people.

claude said...

Well, it's true. Unprecedented mainstream acceptance is coinciding with an increase in brutal homophobic attacks often carried out by self-repressed shitheads.

But what I'm trying to say is that we shouldn't underestimate the importance of having got rid of nasty, ignorant, medieval legislation.

To have all mainstream parties accepting sexual equality is possibly Labour's biggest achievement. If you look at how they've lost the battle of ideas and how they have retreated on pretty much everything else, this is at least one area where the Tories conceded ground.

That said, it does my head in that the word "gay" is so stupidly used by loads of glaze-eyed twats out there as some sort of insult.

But, again, have you seen the new campaign aimed at tackling it? As recent as 1999 the Tories would have said that is tantamount to "promoting homosexuality". Now no more.

Things are being done about it, and that's good news.

PhilH said...

The use of the word "gay" as an insult is usually directed at objects rather than people, and it usually means "lame" without any intention of being homophobic.

That said, it *is* insensitive because it *is* the same word as is used to mean homosexual. As a teacher I do try to challenge it the classroom but I have to recognise that it's not meant to be nasty.

Much in the same way as I recognise the difference between using a swear word and swearing *at* someone.

claude said...

PhilH,
The use of the word "gay" as an insult is usually directed at objects rather than people, and it usually means "lame" without any intention of being homophobic.

I'm not sure I agree with this. I must have heard it, read it or witnessed it a million times directed *at* people (i.e. "John is so gay!!!").

I do accept that the intention is not homophobic, that it's often meant jokingly and not nastily.

But it's the lazy casuality of its use that irks me, the normalisation of the word 'gay' as a playground insult. Very insensitive (as you say), especially given how lethal -literally in some cases- homophobia still is.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

On this theme, I do challenge it when I am working with young people, even though this confuses them as they do not connect it (all the time) with homosexuality but the roots of the insult are in taking the term gay and making it a pejorative.

PhilH said...

Claude, maybe it's partly a generational thing. You're right, when I was at school it was more often than not directed at people (and more often than now intended as homophobic), and those people possibly still use it that way.

What I see it in school these days, however, far more I'll hear the kids say, "Oh, why do I have to do these questions, sir, it's so gay."

I'm probably missing most occasions of it being used in a more harmful way, however, out of earshot. And there are definitely kids bullied because they're suspected of being gay (or similar - eg boys who look a bit like a girl, and vice versa).

It's still quite common, but things are definitely changing for the better, and in the last year or two there's been a bigger push to help teachers tackle it better.

Anonymous said...

If kids were going around describing anything they didn't like as "Jewish", would that be okay because they didn't mean to be antisemitic?

Well then.

PhilH said...

No, of course it wouldn't.

I don't see what you're trying to prove as I've already clearly stated that it's not acceptable to call things 'gay' either.

But there is a difference between saying some*thing* is 'a bit gay' and calling some*one* 'a bit gay'.

Which is quite important actually, for understanding exactly how and why homophobic insults are used. And it's also very interesting. Hence, my mentioning it.

Helen Highwater said...

I hadn't seen those posters but they're rather good, and note how they haven't lumped for an effeminate bloke or a butch girl - they've avoided stereotyping, which is refreshing.