What Ever Happened to Gay Lib?

PrideIn the recent film ‘Pride’ there is a scene in which Gethin of Gay’s the Word bookshop tries to encourage his partner Jonathan to participate in LGSM’s (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) initial attempts to raise money for the striking miners. Jonathan – some ten years or so older than the young campaigners – shows indifference towards joining the group of ‘kids’ rattling buckets on the streets. Disappointed at his lack of interest Gethin asks: ‘What happened to Gay Lib, Jonathan?’ Jonathan’s reply is telling:

‘I don’t know. What did happen to it?’

Recently, in an interview with the Guardian David Hockney lamented that gay men were becoming ordinary, increasingly boring, in effect, the new vanguard for social and moral conservatism. Goodbye Bohemia, Hockney lamented. Cristo Foufas in the Telegraph scolded Hockney for his negativity which he claimed ignored the significant gains in equality that had made LGBT+ people more accepted within society with more and more rights and privileges being afforded to them; no longer were queer men and women occupying the social hinterlands. For Foufas being ‘boring’ means that we are getting somewhere.

Where, I believe, Foufas is correct, is in his assertion that Hockney was lamenting the demise of something deeper. While Foufas describes this in terms of gay men (the articles’ chief focus) having taken advantage of the rights and privileges which Hockney’s generation were denied, I think that Hockney is partly highlighting a potential loss of individuality, agency and self-awareness – but this really should be debated more widely and with more conviction. Other queer bloggers agree with Hockney’s overall discomfort with ordinariness but suggest that Hockney has not looked hard enough to see thriving ‘bohemias’ where individuality and independent self expression are thriving.

So, where do we situate this debate? Well, it may well come down to the, sometimes competing, narratives of liberation and equality. While no one can rationally argue against equality – it is a basic human right – what would the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s make of recent debates about equal marriage? The objectives of groups such as the Gay Liberation Front were firmly focused upon liberation: liberation from heterosexism, patriarchy and misogyny, amongst other indicators of heteronormative society, which limited and trapped men and women from self-realisation and emotional and sexual liberty. GLF campaigners saw the conventional family as a patriarchal prison that enslaved women, gays and children.

Peter Tatchell, although strongly supporting marriage equality, has in the past questioned the centrality of ‘gay marriage’ in human rights debates:

“How ironic. At the very moment that heterosexual couples are deserting marriage in droves, lesbian and gay couples are rushing to embrace it […] Far from weakening or undermining marriage, as homophobes claim, many same-sex couples seem hell-bent on shoring up an institution that is, for many heterosexuals, failing, discredited and irrelevant. While the push for same-sex marriage is an issue of equality, which I support, it also signifies the rising conservatism of the LGBT community and a loss of radical vision. It reeks of assimilationism and conformism with the straight status quo.”

Nicola Barker too has questioned the motivations among legislators for pursuing with some vigour marriage reform:

“What gets lost in the celebrations about ‘equal marriage’ is that marriage is not about equality; it’s about perpetuating privilege. Few feminists would have been surprised by David Cameron’s assertion that to support gay marriage is conservative. Same-sex marriage fits comfortably within the conservative ideology of the self-sufficient family and contributes to the politics of state austerity.”

In an interview with a former member of the liberation movement I conducted about 7 years ago it is apparent that he was ambivalent about the potential for marriage equality:

“I’m really not sure about this [the potential for marriage equality]. Part of me sees this as reflecting the significant changes – and struggles – we’ve seen over the past 40-odd years, and we should fight for that, celebrate that, and part of me feels guilty for feeling that way, as if I am betraying my past radical self”.

There has been considerable discussion about the influence, legacy and future of liberation as a social and political movement. Within a Scottish context there is an argument to be made that liberation was never a central objective in the push for homosexual law reform and activism throughout the 1970s.

GLFIn terms of Scotland, the country’s chief homosexual rights organisation was the Scottish Minorities Group, formed in the late 1960s, with its aims focused on decriminalisation and bringing gay men and women into the public eye and integrating them into civil society. At this time the SMG was an assimilist organisation: it sought to demonstrate that gay and lesbian Scots were just like everyone else, and thus deserved equal recognition and treatment. The group sought immediately to engage in narratives with institutions it thought played a significant role in shaping public attitudes: the Scottish churches, the nation’s legal bodies, and the Scottish medical community.

The SMG avoided confrontation during its early years choosing instead to engage in informed and congenial dialogue. It developed an intimate relationship with representatives of both of Scotland’s main churches, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, developed close associations with prominent psychiatrists, and legal figures, while engaging in a frosty relationship with the short-lived Scottish gay liberation movement. Members of the group discussed whether homosexuality was a medical issue; whether the absence of a father within a family increased the likelihood of a homosexual child; and viewed men who engaged in ‘public sex’ as displaying mental health problems. In effect the SMG were seeking to fit in as much as to challenge.

While some might find this approach slightly discomforting, members of the SMG have told me that this was a carefully thought out plan: they had developed a keen understanding of power structures within Scotland and viewed a more confrontational approach as likely to lead to resistance and to deny the opportunity to engage in debate and discussion. Scotland lacked the ‘queer bohemias’ of London and other European cities, so in effect, the SMG was the starting point for queer agency. While the group was sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the GLF, it was felt that Scottish society was simply not ready for sexual revolution. The SMG was eager to examine the oppression of gay men and women but they shied away from examining the roots of this oppression. The group was viewed by some as a very white, male and middle-class organisation whose focus was chiefly upon gay men, yet they were instrumental in bringing the law of Scotland in line with the law of England and Wales when it came to homosexual offences, and promoting the rights of queer Scots. The SMG also played a role in the Church of Scotland’s softening stance towards homosexuality during the early 1970s, and put significant pressure on the police forces in Scotland to reduce their alleged victimisation of sexual minorities (as late as 1980 Grampian Police were issuing handbooks to staff which described homosexuality and homosexuals as ‘evil’, ‘revolting’ and ‘moral degenerates’). The SMG undertook a measured letter-writing campaign and applied pressure to Scottish institutions to engage in open dialogue about sexual minorities, human rights, and the law. This, in itself, was a major achievement.

SHRG/SMGAs the organisation gained momentum it changed its name to the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group (and later, Outright Scotland) and this reflected a growing confidence and assuredness of its aims. It began to challenge inconsistencies in the law and the manner by which LGBT people were objectified and demonised. It offered legal support to men arrested for cottaging, held ‘open days’ to present a confident public image, organised discos, opened helpline services, and worked tirelessly to improve the lot of Scotland’s LGBT population. The SMG brought us ‘SMG News’ which later became ‘Gay Scotland’. The group may not have been a gay liberation organisation; it could have been but chose a different path, one it felt had more chance of bringing success. So, within a Scottish context the question ‘What happened to Gay Lib?’ is much more problematic, it never really caught the wind and sailed. While Scotland has a long and proud tradition of radical politics this never truly permeated the early LGBT rights movement. Perhaps this says more about Scotland than it does about liberation.

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