A tale of two Peters: liberal v radical in gay politics

A few days ago, Andy of Andy’s Miscellany wrote a post about his developing ideas in relation to politics (both LGBT specific, and in general), and particularly the way the process of coming out has influenced the development of his political ideas, which have shifted from tacitly accepting his parents’ Conservative politics to a position that he now describes as ‘pro-socialist’.  It’s a fascinating post, and to my mind the very best kind of political blogging – personally engaged as well as politically engaged, aware of and open about potential inconsistencies between abstract ideas and lived experience, and steering almost entirely clear (except where it really can’t be avoided) of jargon.  In a world where so much political blogging – political comment in general – revolves around people taking up an entrenched, dogmatic position and then shouting about it as loudly as possible, posts like these are always very welcome, and it was a real pleasure to read such a fantastic example.  It should go without saying, but I thoroughly recommend the post (in fact, I recommend the whole blog), and would strongly encourage you to go and read it.

The purpose of my post here isn’t to disagree with anything Andy says (it feels weird calling someone I’ve never met by their first name…).  In fact, since much of the post is concerned with the relationship between his experiences and his politics – on which subject my perspective as an outsider would be about as relevant and worthwhile as a woolly cardigan in a heatwave – there seems little point in highlighting the occasional minor point where I might place the emphasis a little differently.  Instead, I want to use this post to discuss my own take on some of the issues Andy touches on, and especially the uneasy relationship between the reformist approach of the liberal wing of the LGBT rights movement and more radical political ideas.

Looking back, the time during which the tension between liberal LGBT politics and my wider political goals reached its peak was under Tony Blair’s government.  Blair’s position on LGBT rights brought him very often into conflict with the establishment (especially as represented in the House of Lords) and rightwing politicians.  That was very useful for him, because it was a way of demonstrating an apparent ‘radicalism’, even as he pursued policies in almost every other area that served to entrench the status quo.  LGBT issues were, for the non-LGBT majority, a nice, abstract issue which stirred up a lot of heated debate, and allowed Blair to portray himself as a valiant crusader for fairness – but a kind of fairness that wouldn’t disrupt the comfort of the wealthy, or threaten their material interests.  All of this has become a lot sharper in my mind over the intervening years (this kind of analysis is always easier with hindsight, I think), but I was also aware of it on some level at the time.

The crux of my uneasiness rests in the fact that I was also aware (and am still aware) that the liberal reforms enacted by Blair’s government were (and still are) making life measurably better for lots of LGBT people.  Blair’s reasons for pursuing these reforms may have been cynical and expedient (who on the left was going to run the risk of appearing to argue against LGBT rights?), but their real-world results were still positive.  They were positive not only in terms of specific law changes (though they were important, of course) but also in terms of the way they reinforced and promoted the social change in the perception of LGBT people, which has probably been the more fundamental and important shift.

Broadly speaking, I welcome that shift: how could I be anything other than happy that many LGBT people no longer have to live their lives as outsiders?  But the fact that some LGBT people can live comfortable lives fully reconciled into the mainstream means the old assumption – that LGBT people would automatically be my political allies – no longer holds water.  We live, after all, in an era when an out lesbian has been voted leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, and an out gay man has become David Cameron’s principle speechwriter, and gay apologists for the neo-Conservative agenda have become so commonplace that seemingly every rightwing newspaper has to employ at least one to show how ‘modern’ they are (Andrew Pierce at the Daily Mail, Matthew Parris at The Times, Graeme Archer at The Telegraph – and they’re just the ones that occurred to me off the top of my head).

In these circumstances, even the most naïve and optimistic of leftwing political activists would have to concede it’s no longer possible to operate on the assumption that a fellow LGBT-er will also be a political fellow traveller.  The existence of these Conservative LGBT-ers are a very obvious demonstration of the extent to which homosexuality has been normalised, which has always been among the leading goals of the reformist/ assimilationist wing of the LGBT rights movement.  Nonetheless, the speed with which the process has taken place is quite remarkable – something that I think can be made obvious by concentrating briefly on a tale of two Peters.

Twenty years ago (when I first came out, and first started thinking seriously about political issues), I would have unthinkingly assumed that the LGBT person who would go on to have the greatest impact on wider political culture would have been someone like Peter Tatchell – a rough-and-tumble street campaigner who combined the individualism of identity politics with the collectivist ambitions of traditional leftwing politics.  Instead that accolade goes to another Peter: the quintessentially establishment figure of Peter Mandelson, the backroom power-broker whose influence helped transform Labour from a party of the left into a(nother) party dedicated to defending the interests of the wealthy and the privileged.  If that would have seemed extraordinary to me twenty years ago, it would have seemed even more extraordinary to the first Pride marchers in London forty years ago.

In some ways, of course, all of this is a measure of the success of liberal reform.  It seems to me that the ultimate goal of the liberal reformers was the removal of LGBT status as a special cause of victimisation.  They wanted, I think, LGBT people to be equal before the law, and social hostility to be wound back to the point where an LGBT person would face no extra obstacles that wouldn’t also be faced by a straight, cisgendered person.  Some liberal reformers are already arguing that this has been all but achieved, while others say that legal equality may be close at hand (if closer at hand for some than others), but fully winding back social hostility will take a while yet.  All of them agree, however, that this point, whenever it is achieved, will mark the end of the road for the LGBT rights movement.

The more radical wing of the LGBT rights movement want this too, of course.  That’s why they (I might say we, but I don’t want to give the impression I’m more radical than I am) were content to work alongside the liberal reformers for so long – their (our) goals overlapped.  The difference is that they (we) can also see that, even after legal equality and social acceptance have been achieved, some LGBT people – along with some straight people – will still be getting the mucky end of the stick.  They might not be getting a raw deal because of their LGBT status, but they’ll still be getting a raw deal just the same.  For some of us, the end point of the campaign for LGBT equality isn’t merely the end of special victimisation.  That’s a significant milestone on the road, of course, but the actual end point for us is equality for every single LGBT person, and that’s a point that can only be reached by achieving equality for every person, full stop.

The liberal, reformist wing of the LGBT rights movement talk a good game when it comes to equality, and I’m sure many of them, within the confines of their own definition of the term, are absolutely sincere when they use it.  But equality, if you actually believe in it, is a deeply radical concept.  It doesn’t just commit you to fighting against all the obvious ways a person can be disadvantaged, which have become so familiar to us through the important work of the identity politics movement – discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, disability, social background, and so on.  It commits you, too, to seeking the end of a socio-economic system that gives huge rewards to some people who do very little while providing the bare minimum to others who work harder, and hands opportunities on a plate to some while systematically withholding them from others.

If you believe in equality – or at least if you believe in it the way I do – then it’s not enough that LGBT people who happen to come from the right financial and social background can be a success; it has to be the case that every LGBT person, whoever they are, whatever their background, has the opportunity to be a success.  And that goal, I’m glad to say, can only be achieved in a system where every person, whether or not they are LGBT, has those opportunities.  (I’m glad to say it because I realised a long time ago that I don’t want to achieve equality for LGBT people at the expense of anyone else; I want equality for everyone, and to play my tiny part in helping to achieve that.)

For me, there has been a direct road from concern for LGBT inequality to a concern for injustice in general.  This was my route into wider political concerns, and I think it still informs my position now.  It’s the reason why I’m attracted to the libertarian left (the part of the left that emphasises the importance of individual autonomy), and it’s also the reason why I endorse collectivism only so far as it’s compatible with the voluntary principle.  I think it’s a shame, of course, that more of my erstwhile colleagues in the LGBT rights campaign haven’t followed me on this journey, but it also explains why I can’t entirely dismiss the good that has been achieved by the liberal reformers.  Basically, I think they stopped off too early on the journey, but they still started out travelling in the right direction, and they achieved good things in the process.

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3 Responses to A tale of two Peters: liberal v radical in gay politics

  1. andygodfrey says:

    Thanks very much! I’ve also enjoyed reading this (and am a regular lurker on your blog more generally too, though I don’t often comment). I want to respond properly to this when I’ve collected my thoughts but it may be a while as I have a looming work deadline and then a holiday. However, I would also be interested to hear about where you did disagree, mostly because much of the point is that I *don’t* entirely know what I think about a lot of things right now and would be interested to hear some opinions!

  2. Kapitano says:

    The term ‘equality’ seems to me very slippery and imprecise – which accounts for how so many people who believe in so many different things can all say they believe in it.

    If gay people have access to a legal contract which gives them certain tax advantages, hospital visitation rights and stag parties, then in a strict sense that is an equality – especially if it comes bundled with social pressure to be monogamous, have mortgages and blame immigrants for NHS cuts. It’s also precisely not what we spent decades fighting for.

    Gay rights was never about turning gay people into carbon copies of those who hated them. It was about getting rid of the haters – broadening and improving society instead of narrowing ourselves. That’s why anti-sexism, abortion rights, CND, drug legalisation, healthcare, anti-racism and indeed socialism were all issues that rubbed shoulders (and sometimes butted heads) with gay rights.

    All these issues, especially racism, are worse now than they were in the 1990s. And what have we got to show for it? Graham Norton.

  3. gun street girl says:

    So…I’m just posting here to say how much I loved the title of this post. I lol’d. :)

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