Take pride in how far we’ve come on gay rights
Published by The i paper (8th July, 2019)
The streets were filled with revellers, buildings bedecked in rainbow flags and even Downing Street given a floral makeover with an arch declaring ‘Love is Love’ as London celebrated Pride on Saturday. In Soho there was standing room only as revellers, many dressed in extravagant style, paraded down a pink carpet to pulsating beats. More than one million people joined these exuberant events in the capital, an expression of inclusivity and tolerance that took place half a century after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York gave birth to the gay pride movement.
This annual event began in London three years later as a protest movement. ‘There was no dressing up, there was no drag,’ said Don Pepper, who was among a few hundred people attending London’s first Pride. ‘There was abuse from cars whereas now people cheer you on, but then they’d tell you to disappear.’ What a contrast with today when even a Conservative defence secretary joined the parade, while a flypast by the Red Arrows and a fuss about corporate pink-washing underlined how these celebrations have melded into the mainstream.
At a time when divisions have erupted, discourse coarsened and populism surged, it is worth reflecting on this event. It took place soon after a vile Russian president proclaimed the defeat of liberalism, pointedly linking it with gay and trans politics. Yet the triumphant march of equality on this front shows how fast our society has changed for the better. No doubt this struggle felt sluggish for many brave activists fighting bigotry, while homophobic hate crimes, toxicity of the transgender debate and the likely arrival of a prime minister who mocked ‘tank-topped bumboys’ proves progress has a long way to go. Yet this is a war being won at remarkable speed.
When I was born, homosexuality was seen as a sickness and gay men faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. Even after the law was changed in 1967, the oppression and sneers continued so that friends of mine never dared to come out at work. Comedians on prime-time television perpetuated cruel stereotypes, clubs were raided by police and tabloid newspapers talked of a gay plague when the Aids epidemic arrived. Tory ministers banned ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as ‘a pretend family relationship’ while even the Liberals fuelled sordid smears to secure victory in a contentious by-election in London.
Yet note how Peter Tatchell, victim of those smears in Bermondsey when standing for Labour, has become a national treasure admired for his stance on human rights – one more sign of the changing social climate. As he told the BBC, this is almost a different nation to two decades ago. ‘We are now one of the best countries in the world for gay equality,’ he said. Britain has 45 openly gay MPs, thought to be the highest proportion of such parliamentarians on the planet. How ridiculous all that right-wing frothing over legalising same-sex marriage six years ago looks now – and how ironic some of the key figures ripping apart the Tories over Brexit led protests that letting people in love get hitched threatened their party’s future.
Look beyond Britain’s borders and gay liberation is becoming a global good news story. The beatings, imprisonment, killing and torture of people for their sexuality continues in far too many places. But it is easy to be deceived by the latest horrific outrage such as earlier this year when bigoted rulers of tiny Brunei introduced new laws that make anal sex punishable by death. Far more significant, however, was Taiwan’s decision the following month to become the first Asian nation to sanction same-sex marriage. And last year’s decision of India’s supreme court to decriminalise homosexuality was arguably the most impactful advance yet given the huge size of its population.
There are still 70 countries that criminalise consensual homosexual activity – half of them in Commonwealth nations such as India, another sign of the corrosive legacy of British imperialism that leaves one billion people living lives in the shadows. Theresa May, to her immense credit, admitted this last year when urging reform at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting – which led to absurd attacks in Africa that she was failing to respect local traditions. Yet even on this continent, with religious extremism on the rise and politicians from Nigeria to Tanzania inflaming hate, Angola became the fourth former Portuguese colony to decriminalise gay sex this year while South Africa backed same-sex unions seven years before Britain.
Bear in mind not one nation permitted weddings between people of the same sex before the start of this century when Holland paved the way. The Dutch have since been followed by more than two dozen countries, Ecuador becoming the latest when it became the fifth state in Latin America backing such reform in June. In the United States, surveys show more than two-to-one support for same-sex marriage although a decade ago it was opposed by a majority of respondents, underscoring again the extraordinary rapidity of changed attitudes. Sadly, there is a sense of deja-vu as a savage cultural debate switches focus onto transgender rights.
At a moment in history when democracies are building walls instead of bridges, it is easy to forget that beneath all the crass rhetoric and crude politics we are living in a period of substantial social progress symbolised by those fluttering rainbow flags. The partying and spirit of unity seen on the streets of London and so many other places are the best possible riposte to Vladimir Putin’s claim that liberalism is on the wane. We should all take pride that despite the setbacks and stuttering, the world still seems to be moving in the right direction.