We're here, we're queer - our human rights are clear

May 4, 2007

Identity politics were key in the fight for gay equality, but what's needed now is a broader focus on the notion of a basic right to sexual expression, believes Matt Cook

In 1971, the Gay Liberation Front zapped the Christian Festival of Light at London's Westminster Hall. White mice scurried across the floor, cross-dressing nuns performed the cancan, and an unfurled banner proclaimed "Cliff (Richard) for Queen".

Theatricality has been one of the hallmarks of lesbian, gay and queer activism ever since, with abseiling lesbians, drag sit-ins in strait-laced gay bars and kiss-ins around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. Such protest has come as a heartening rebuff to Lord Arran, who famously asked "homosexual men" to "comport themselves quietly and with dignity" by way of thanks for the limited concessions accorded in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Gay Liberation Front, the Scottish Minorities Group, the Elmwood Association (in Northern Ireland), OutRage!, Act-Up, Stonewall and others have been tenacious in Britain in the years since, highlighting continuing inequality, discrimination, homophobia and inaction in the face of HIV and Aids. The differences between many of these groups and organisations have been well rehearsed - and sometimes oversimplified.

Stonewall is often seen as conservative in its lobbying and detailed policy work. OutRage!, meanwhile, is supposed to be the true radical, especially in its theatricality and refusal to "fraternise with the enemy".

A similar distinction was drawn between the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s. One issue of Lunch , the campaign's magazine, contrasted its own serious and suited style with that of the wearisome "frenetic faggots frolicking through the streets". The comment recalls the disdain of George Ives (founder in the 1890s of the Order of the Chaeronea, Britain's first support and pressure group for homosexual men) for "the silly inverts" dancing in the streets of Paris on Bastille Day in 1912. For Ives, these men, like the "frenetic faggots", were neither representative nor helpful.

Despite the different tactics and frequent and angry disagreements, there was and is often as much to connect as to divide these groups and campaigning individuals. Stonewall does not oppose direct action but rather sees lobbying as a necessary additional tactic. They have also worked directly with OutRage! on a number of campaigns. OutRage!'s Peter Tatchell and one-time Stonewall chief executive Angela Mason were personally linked by their earlier activism in the Gay Liberation Front, and Mason kept the latter's manifesto pinned to the wall of her Stonewall office. Anthony Grey, who worked so tirelessly with the Homosexual Law Reform Society (a forerunner to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality) in the run-up to 1967, also attended early Gay Liberation Front meetings.

Most fundamentally, though, the work of all these groups - from the Order of the Chaeronea to OutRage! - has been framed and driven by identity politics in which rights and equality are sought for a particular marginalised group.

Ives deployed late 19th-century sexological notions of an inborn inverted "type" to point out the uselessness of the criminal law. Later the debates and campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s were underpinned by the apparently clear distinction between the homosexual and the heterosexual - a binary understanding of sexuality that had, by this time, gained a more comprehensive cultural foothold.

Although some gay liberation fronters and many queer activists have tried to champion more fluid notions of desire since then, their campaigns usually default to a simpler politics of identity - one that is more readily understood and deployed. "Queer" thus often becomes a synonym for gay men, albeit one that now denotes more anger and a more activist political edge (as indeed "gay" once did).

This tradition of protest works well with our current conceptions of sexual identity and also fits into our broader political and radical cultures. It has wrought tremendous change. Aside from recent reform of immigration, partnership and adoption law, the shift in attitude and culture of the Metropolitan Police in the second half of the 1990s (to take one example) can surely be traced in large part to the joint work of OutRage! and Stonewall.

It is nevertheless important to observe what and who this politics of identity neglects. Matt Houlbrook's award-winning Queer London (2005) indicates ways of understanding sex and desire in the past that don't easily fit with our categories now. In interwar London, guardsmen renters preserved their "normality" while having sex with both men and women.

Working-class queens in Piccadilly, meanwhile, saw their identities in terms of gender rather than sexuality. And yet our tendency has been to pick out - anachronistically - "gay" or "homosexual" men from the past and so uncover a lineage and determined gay presence across time.

This has helped to support our current politics, but it has also meant that we have often been blind to other possibilities and expressions of difference. Ives's understanding was not embraced by all (or even most) men who had sex with other men in the 50-odd years from 1890 in which he was working for reform. He was speaking to a middle-class audience and was trying to validate a particular form of homosexual behaviour and identity.

When he refused to allow Lord Alfred Douglas to bring a third man to join them for sex in 1893 on the basis that "it wouldn't do in the Albany" (the bachelor chambers in Piccadilly where he lived), he was aligning himself with a form of "respectable" homosexuality that he thought might have some chance of gaining legitimacy.

This was also the tenor of the campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. Peter Wildeblood, giving evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, derided the effeminate men partaking in a promiscuous urban subculture. The Sexual Offences Act, which at length followed the committee's report, legalised sex specifically between two men and only in private. No wonder men such as Joe Orton saw the new law as an irrelevance: it did nothing to legitimise his sexual lifestyle and related closely to class-bound notions of domesticity and coupledom.

Groups since - most obviously the Gay Liberation Front, OutRage! and Act Up - have been more forthright in their rejection of proscribed norms. Their public campaigns have nevertheless tended to focus more narrowly on the rights of lesbians and gay men, as I have suggested.

John Howard, the new professor of American studies at King's College London, made a powerful argument in his recent inaugural address for an alternative approach: we should not so much be seeking equal rights for a marginalised group as the right of sexual expression - as one of the basic human rights - for all. Radicalism would not then centre on the fight for lesbian and gay people to be treated like everyone else. Instead, it would stem from a baseline assumption that we all have the right to sexual expression and that the role of the legislature is to protect and indeed support and forward that right.

Aside from shifting the ground from which we demand change and removing the supposed need to be thankful for concessions granted, this approach also adjusts our gaze. As Howard showed, we see rather queerer goings-on when behaviours and subcultures are not tailored to fit simplistic understandings of identity or censored in campaigns for equal rights and "a place at the (respectable middle-class) table".

As for history, taking up a different kind of politics of sex and desire in turn opens our eyes to a more complex sexual past. It casts new light on that gay lineage, brings different individuals, acts and understandings into focus; and, crucially, opens up a space for transgendered, transvestite, bisexual - in short, queerer - histories that are not subsumed into a history of homosexuality.

Matt Cook is senior lecturer in history at Birkbeck, University of London, and editor of A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex between Men since the Middle Ages (Greenwood World Publishing, £18.95).

PARALLEL LIVES

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue.

This month: exam time

THE FATHER

The irony is that I wasn't supposed to be there at all. It was originally Peter who was down to run the Saturday morning exam, but he came up with an unoriginal but unarguable reason why he had to swap. He had managed to put himself in hospital. Rules governing the processing of sensitive personal information forbid me from saying what the problem was, but suffice it to say that your eyes would start to water if I told you.

I have one of those clever alarm clocks that knows when it is the weekend, so it rings an hour and a half later on a Saturday. That is to say, half an hour before the start of the exam I was supposed to be invigilating. The realisation that I was five miles from where I ought to be was sobering, and my sobriety was reinforced when my mobile rang. Jane had arrived at the exam room and was wondering, in her words, where the bloody hell I had got to.

I prefer not to dwell too much on the journey, but having sacrificed breakfast on the altar of desperation I arrived just as the last stragglers were stumbling in, clutching their lucky teddy bears, packets of mints and fluffy pencil cases. I usually try to manage an air of dusty disapproval and a measured countenance on these occasions, but wheezing into the room dripping sweat and trailing my shirt-tails probably stuffed that.

Certainly, the look on Jane's face indicated that I have been relegated to the level of pond life in her complex approval-rating system - and that I will pay for this lapse for some considerable time.

The event went off fairly well. We didn't need to call security to have anyone ejected, just six people needed to be forcibly parted from their mobiles, no one got a boiled sweet stuck in their throat due to overzealous sucking, and the girl in the periodic table T-shirt was persuaded to conceal it.

Just when we thought we had got away with it, and I was quietly obsessing about lunch, we had an outbreak of projectile vomiting at the back of the room. It was clear from the evidence on the floor, desks and their neighbours that all five had eaten the same meal, a point confirmed between bouts by one of the ashen-faced performers. It seems they had been revising together, and one of them had cobbled together something called "leftover surprise". I can only assume it wasn't the surprise they were expecting.

THE SON

When I came to university, one of the things that most occupied my time was cooking. Preparing food at least three times a day was eating up a lot of my time.

So I set to work to try and avoid it, in the best tradition of students everywhere. This leaves leisurely hours for reading, staying in bed, drinking, writing poetry and all the other procrastination that is important as exams near.

First, I began to make use of the subsidised canteen. This takes care of the main meal, and supplies enough fruit and veg to prevent scurvy. This allows me to focus energies elsewhere and cook only light meals at other times. Next: breakfast. I found by dint of much experimentation that doughnuts have enough sugar to wake you up in the morning and enough grease to make sure you don't want to eat for several hours. Jam doughnuts are also a source of fruit, in the same way double cream on top of apple pie is a source of calcium. While heart disease is a risk, starvation is more likely for the average student.

For dinner, simplicity is achieved by forswearing use of the oven. This offers the option of a range of microwave meals and leads to much creativity. While microwavable pizza may be a great invention, I personally have a fondness for home-nuked food, such as chilli topped with cheese and nachos. When in doubt, I use this analysis: beer = calories, calories = food, so beer = food.

Washing-up can be avoided by appropriating cutlery from the canteen, but other methods can also be used. Plates can be reused by eating the same meal the next day, and anything that brushes off eliminates the need to wash up. Coffee mugs can be used dozens of times, the boiling water preventing anything particularly lethal from growing in them.

How long washing-up can be left varies from flat to flat, and the student code allows your flatmates to force you to gargle with napalm if they think you've crossed the line. Average time is three weeks or until the night before a hygiene inspection.

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