A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The march of progress

With the centenary of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 2006, the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights decided to publish an account of the part played by labour in the transformation of legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Although there is a large range of literature dealing with most other aspects of modern LGBT life and culture, Sodom, Gomorrah and the New Jerusalem: Labour and Lesbian and Gay Rights from Edward Carpenter to Today is the first publication to explore the connection between the labour movement and the campaign for LGBT rights. This was a serious gap, because the labour movement has played the single most important role in winning equality law. Lobby groups like Stonewall - even though they have been unrepresentative of the community which they claim to speak for - have been key players. But the hard work to make possible the reforms won since the election of Labour in 1997 was all done in the 20 years prior to that date and it was done through the trade unions and from inside the Labour Party. Tony Blair didn't suddenly wake up to realise the discrimination faced by an oppressed section of society and, indeed, as many activists are all too aware, he had to be reminded of it continually, up to and including the attempts to gain exemptions for Catholic adoption agencies from the sexual orientation goods and services regulations this January. The book is about that history, events which I am proud to have been a part of.

The connection with the labour movement is not accidental. Hence the link with Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), a socialist who lived openly with his male partner and who promoted a vision of socialism that included liberation both for women and for people of different sexual orientations. For many years, the socially conservative leaders of trade unions and the new-born Labour Party would not touch the question or even think about it, even though Carpenter was widely appreciated for his writings on every other subject. But, although there was wider public debate on homosexuality across Europe and although, during the 1920s and 1930s, some homosexual and transgender men and women were able to inhabit a subculture in some European cities, there was no sign that legal discrimination was going to be challenged by governments or that leaders of the labour movement would champion such a step. Fascism and war quickly ended the glimmerings of greater openness, while post-war austerity and the cold war were scarcely more congenial climates for so drastic a step as reforming laws on sex. In Britain, the first steps came when liberal-minded MPs proposed an investigation of the law following a spate of arrests of high-profile men for homosexual "offences." The resulting Wolfenden commission recommended partial decriminalisation in 1957. But it was not until 1964 under Harold Wilson's Labour government that anything was done about it.

That had a lot to do with the creation of the first campaigning organisation on the issue in Britain, the Homosexual Law Reform Society, in 1960. Pressed by Labour and Liberal MPs and aware that the current law encouraged blackmailers, Wilson gave practical support to legislate the Sexual Offences Act 1967, enacting the Wolfenden recommendations. Two years later, the birth of the Gay Liberation Front in New York following the riot provoked by a police raid on the Stonewall bar quickly created a radical international movement for liberation; the first Gay Pride march in London was held in 1972. Between then and now, the British labour movement has been transformed into a dynamic champion of the cause of equality. Other have written on how gender and race issues came to be seen as integral to the concerns of the trade unions and these struggles led the way for others, among whom were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers demanding recognition. That recognition was won because, initially, unions saw the unfair treatment dealt out to their members, such as NUPE member Susan Shell, who was sacked for being a lesbian in 1981. Unions saw the need to defend all their members and realised that LGBT members had no legal protection. In 1984, NUPE became the first major union to affiliate to the then Labour Campaign for Gay Rights. In 1984-5, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners groups, which were set up to back the famous NUM strike, also had a big impact within the trade union movement.

Basic union principles of equality and solidarity were at stake and, although there was resistance from some, the majority of unions had soon adopted an inclusive policy. Alongside, LGBT members organised themselves in an increasing number of unions and demanded recognition. The 1985 TUC Congress carried the first lesbian and gay rights motion, although the creation of a dedicated TUC structure had to wait until 1998, when it was set up following significant pressure from unions. That 1985 TUC Congress motion was carried just a few weeks before Labour conference debated the subject for the first time and the first of, so far, six conference victories on LGB equality - the T was not included - was secured. Union votes were crucial. Since then the support, which was restricted to the left and progressive forces for many years, has reached all corners of the party. The consequence is clear for all to see. Equalisation of criminal law, repeal of section 28, civil partnerships, employment and now goods and services protection. All of this has been won under Labour - sometimes, only because of a sharp reminder, such as the unions going to the High Court to challenge the exclusion of pensions from the employment regulations. They were instead covered in the Civil Partnership Act. All of this has been won because of the increasingly strong voice of the unions. We still have to win full equality for transgender people. Then, we face an even harder struggle - to defeat underlying prejudices, bullying and exclusion. For this, though, the labour movement will be engaged from the start.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may also be interested in the progress in Europe where the British civil partnership is now almost recognised universally in other European coutries as the equivalent of their own same sex civil union/marriage - see website http://www.uklgig.org.uk/phpBB/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=2213&sid=532dfbef99085a6064f2d72ea2cf8ae7&start=15