1997 September

Equal Rights Act – Protection for everyone

Peter Tatchell argues for the strengthening and expansion of the sex and race discrimination laws, through the legislation of a comprehensive Equal Rights Act, to ensure equality for everyone.

There are at least a dozen different aspects of antigay discrimination which require law reform to ensure homosexual equality. These include:

  • the equalisation of the age of consent;
  • recognition for same-sex partnerships;
  • parenting rights;
  • protection against job discrimination;
  • the repeal of homophobic laws, such as
    – Section 28;
    – the ban on gays in the armed forces;
  • the repeal of discriminatory statutes that penalise homosexual (though not equivalent heterosexual) behaviour
    – buggery;
    – soliciting;
    – procuring;
    – gross indecency;

It is unrealistic to expect the government to include all these reforms in its busy parliamentary schedule. The gay community is therefore going to have to think about priorities.

Of the many possible legislative reforms, there is one that would do more than any other to tackle homophobic bias: the OutRage! proposal for a comprehensive Equal Rights Act. Ensuring equal treatment for everyone, it would outlaw all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. It could also be expanded to prohibit harassment and incitement to hatred.

The special significance of this Equal Rights Act is that it would establish a broad legal framework through which all the different aspects of antigay discrimination could progressively be challenged and overturned.

Once the principle of “equal rights for all” is established in law, it would be difficult to sustain any form of legal discrimination against lesbians and gay men, (or against anyone else). The unequal age of consent and other forms of institutionalised homophobia would have to be scrapped. For this reason, antidiscrimination legislation should be the number one priority.

The desirability of an Equal Rights Act is demonstrated by the experience of Denmark, France, Norway, and Sweden. In these countries, similar legislation already exists. It has been shown to be effective in remedying discrimination and in offering victimised lesbians and gays a form of practical redress.

“Our antidiscrimination law gives homosexual people a high level of protection”, says the Danish lesbian and gay rights organisation, LBL. “It doesn’t mean that all prejudice is eliminated; but it does lessen overt discrimination and make unfair treatment easier to stamp out when it arises.”

In Britain, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to some form of antidiscrimination legislation; although it is now uncertain whether Labour’s plans still include protection against homophobic bias.

There are sound arguments in favour of a strong and inclusive Equal Rights Act, guaranteeing equality for all citizens and outlawing harassment, incitement to hatred, and discrimination on the specific grounds of sex, race, class, religion, political opinion, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and HIV status.

Pressing for homosexual equality within the context of comprehensive equal rights legislation encourages mutually empowering alliances between everyone suffering exclusion and discrimination, including women, black people, lesbians, gay men, the disabled, and those with HIV. By working together around a common agenda for equality, we increase the probability of getting such laws onto the statute books. The broad-based approach also minimises the likelihood of a homophobic backlash and avoids the marginalisation of lesbian and gay rights as a fringe issue.

Moreover, since the Equal Rights Act guarantees equality for everyone, it’s difficult for opponents to dismiss it as a minority concern or to caricature it as pleading for special rights.

How would this equality legislation work? As the deficiencies of the existing race and sex discrimination laws have shown, there is little value in equality policies unless there are also effective mechanisms to implement them. That requires the creation of a powerful government Department for Equal Rights, headed by a Minister of Cabinet rank: with executive authority to monitor, promote, and enforce equality of opportunity for all.

Within this Department, there could be separate secretariats to deal with different aspects of discrimination. These could include a Lesbian and Gay Rights Secretariat to look after the specific interests of homosexual men and women, an Ethnic Rights Secretariat to promote the concerns of Black and Asian people, and so on.

To ensure that everyone can exercise their right to nondiscrimination, one of the Department’s functions must be the provision of free legal advice and representation to those seeking to challenge victimisation. The legislation must also give them the power to take out injunctions to halt discrimination and to sue for damages and compensation.

This would greatly strengthen the possibility of lesbians and gay men winning proper redress when contesting discrimination in areas such as employment, insurance, housing, and company fringe benefits for employees’ spouses, (like coverage by pension and health-care plans, which are usually denied to the partners of gay employees). In addition, a Department for Equal Rights should have proactive powers to scrutinise the practices of all government departments and, where necessary, to issue legally-binding recommendations to remedy homophobic discrimination in areas such as senior appointments to the civil and foreign services, and the government funding (or non-funding) of lesbian and gay projects like counselling services and HIV prevention programmes.

As part of a long-term programme to eradicate inequality, the Department’s remit should extend to the setting of statutory Equality Targets and Equality Codes of Practice. These could include the requirement for all major public and private institutions to compile annual Equality Audits and undertake Equality Impact Assessments before new policies are finalised. This would, for instance, legally oblige social services departments and children’s homes to devise policies to cater for the specific needs of gay teenagers; and would enforce the monitoring of public housing allocations to guarantee equal access for homosexual applicants.

As these examples indicate, an Equal Rights Act could enable many diverse forms of discrimination to be exposed and overturned. While it cannot guarantee that no lesbian or gay person will ever again suffer discrimination, it would prevent the worst excesses. We homosexuals would have an effective legal mechanism for asserting our right to equal treatment. For that reason, an Equal Rights Act ought to be a priority for the gay community, and for everyone else opposed to inequality.

Response from the Pride Trust

Dear OutRage!,

As promised The Pride Trust has read and considered your open letter.

Despite the emotive phrases “dumbing down” and “de-gaying Pride”, to which we take particular offence, we believe your general comments to be constructive.

With performers it is nigh impossible to insist that they make a political statement prior to their set. We can suggest, advise and prompt but they have other things on their minds. In some cases the fact of their appearance at the event is in their own minds sufficient proof of their support for the event and what it stands for. As to what they say to the media after or before they perform — again we have little control, but they are given the full story on the event and its history. If they choose to ignore us, we don’t generally have them back, (except the Minogues who seem to recur spontaneously).

A theme for the event is a very good way of capturing attention, undoubtedly. OutRage! has been involved in, some might say responsible for, the themes of 1994 (Freedom and Equality Now) and 1995 (Lesbian Visibility), both of which grew out of discussions I myself had with members of OutRage!. I believe we part on the question of the focus of these themes. It remains The Pride Trust’s policy to create themes which are broad and which can encourage individual groups and sectors of the gay community to highlight the issues raised in the theme as they affect their constituency. I am sure you feel that this is an adequate response; however, I would equally say that a theme of the kind you indicate also has its limitations, tending more towards a single-issue form of political statement, whereas Pride is a broad church with many issues contending for attention. It remains a balancing act and one which I do not profess to say we have resolved. I recall in 1994 that this was also OutRage!’s feeling and that the Freedom and Equality Now Theme was itself subdivided to encourage this single-issue element as well. I also recall that, following the 1994 March, OutRage! was so exhausted that you declined to do the same again in 1995, the Lesbian Avengers taking the lead that year. If however you feel strong enough to assist us in finding a theme or focus which satisfies all approaches and carry it through, I and Rachel Beadle, the Chair, would be pleased to meet your representatives and bash some ideas around.

I recall that placards were made available for both 1994 and 1995 — I believe also that there was some feeling that they weren’t as effective as we had all hoped, so we haven’t repeated them since. This too would be a good discussion point, should you wish to meet.

A banner on the stage is an excellent idea –and in fact there was one– but it was a little small! This is a simple problem we can rectify in 1998.

Finally, sponsorship. Again I am bound to repeat a point which I know you do not agree with: that sponsorship is necessary to subsidise the free entry to the festival — even with a day collection of £ 238,000 it still has to be there, otherwise all the Pride-goers would be paying £ 10 or £ 15 a head! No doubt your point refers to United Airlines. I fully accept that they do not apply equal employment rights across the board: but they are not alone as a multinational concern in having to settle these issues. It is Pride’s policy to scrutinise the business activities of its sponsors with some care. The United Airlines sponsorship was brokered at a time when they had had little cause to reflect on their policy in this area, and it is an issue which has arisen during the course of the year, and we are in the process of considering their continued sponsorship of the event in the light of this. Indeed, internationally there are a number of Pride Events which have been caught out in just the same way with sponsors and business partners who have been slow to connect their sponsorship support of a gay event with the treatment of their own staff and their business interests. — I am particularly thinking of Coors in the US which has divided the Pride Organisers into pro and anti.

As a sobering aside, our and your dislike of a paying event seems not to be reflected by those people who participated in the South Bank University Survey carried out at the event this year. 30% agreed strongly that it should be a paying event; 20% agreed slightly; and 19% didn’t care either way. Only 15% strongly disagreed. We were also surprised to find that only 19% of the sample consider Pride to be political! These are all initial results and the statisticians at SBU are currently carrying out further work with the respondants to ascertain whether the results are, in their words, “robust” or not. There is a great deal of food for thought in these figures, as I am sure you will agree.

I look forward to hearing from you and to meeting you if you feel it will be constructive.

On behalf of The Pride Trust Directors

OutRage! has responded to the Pride Trust, thanking them for their position statement, and accepting the offer of a meeting.

Unmarried Partners Act – New Rights for the Unwed

Peter Tatchell says gay marriage and registered partnerships offer false hope. An Unmarried Partners Act, giving automatic legal rights to all unwed couples, –gay and straight– would be far more beneficial.

Much recent debate about the legal recognition of same-sex relationships has been dominated by Dutch proposals to permit gay civil marriage, and by the courtroom battle to overturn the ban on homosexual weddings in Hawaii.

Previously, the focus was on registered partnership laws, as enacted by Denmark, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Granting lesbian and gay couples nearly all the rights enjoyed by married heterosexuals, registered partnerships are a form of marriage in all but name and ritual.

OutRage! opposes the ban on gay marriage because it is a form of homophobic discrimination. We support the right of same-sex couples to get married if they wish. But we don’t see marriage as some wonderful ideal, as straights claim. We certainly do not believe that queers should copy a fundamentally flawed heterosexual institution.

The new movement for gay marriage is curiously out of step with history. The number of straights getting married in the UK is the lowest in 70 years. Almost half of all weddings end in divorce. Marriage isn’t working. Even many heterosexuals realise the drawbacks. The most serious campaigners for marriage are now conservative gays and religious fundamentalists.

While same-sex love and commitment is laudable, wanting to be part of a dubious straight institution is not. Marriage was devised to ensure the sexual control of women by men, and to regulate the conception and rearing of children. Tailor-made for heteros, it’s irrelevant to gay people. Gayness frees us from the rules and rites of heterosexuality. Having enjoyed the greater lifestyle choices and sexual freedom that go with being gay, we’d be crazy to don the straitjacket of wedlock.

Registered partnerships are no better. They’re basically a gay version of heterosexual marriage, and benefit only a tiny minority of lesbian and gay people. Fewer than one in ten Danish same-sex couples have registered their partnership since the law was changed in 1989. Over 90% of Denmark’s gay lovers reject the idea of mimicking straight nuptials, and are therefore denied the rights that go with registration.

Legalising registered partnerships in Britain would probably result in a similar low take-up rate. While the majority of homosexual couples want legal rights, most do not want to go through an official state ceremony that burdens them with bureaucratic obligations. A system of registered partnerships would continue to leave the bulk of gay relationships without legal rights. This is the Achilles heel of registered partnership laws: they help few and do nothing for many.

Far more useful to most lesbian and gay couples would be a totally new legal framework in the form of an Unmarried Partners Act which would give automatic legal rights to all unwed lovers, gay and straight. These rights could include:

  • acknowledgement as next-of-kin in emergencies like accident or arrest;
  • joint guardianship of any children;
  • life-insurance payouts and inheritance of property on the death of a partner;
  • and entitlement to company benefits that extend to employees’ spouses, such as pensions and health-care cover.

It is these practical rights –not marriage– that most lesbian and gay partners want. Making such rights available as a matter of course, without having to endure a state-approved ceremony to get them, would help vastly more same-sex lovers than would gay marriage or registered partnerships.

One great virtue of an Unmarried Partners Act is its flexibility. The rights are automatic: but they have to be claimed. This ‘opt-in’ system allows partners to ‘pic-n-mix’. They can claim all, some, or none of the rights, depending on their needs. In contrast, couples in gay marriages and registered partnerships get lumbered with a full set of rights (and duties), whether they want them or not.

Under an Unmarried Partners Act, couples in a relationship of at least 12 months’ standing would be entitled to claim partnership rights: the one-year qualifying period being advisable to prevent short-term, opportunistic lovers from claiming their partner’s property. Proof of eligibility would be a simple Letter of Partnership, signed by the couple and a person of professional standing, (such as a doctor or lawyer), confirming that they had been partners for a year or more. This Letter of Partnership could be revoked at any time by either partner by signing a Letter of Annulment witnessed by a professional.

In the event of one partner becoming mentally incapacitated or dying without having signed a Letter of Partnership, the other partner could still make a claim. However, to prevent people claiming to be partners when they are not, the relationship would have to be confirmed by two professionals and be supported by documentary evidence.

There may be some people who, for whatever reason, do not want their lover to claim partnership rights, such as inheritance. They would be able to ‘opt out’ of any (or all) of the rights, by specifying this in a will or affidavit which would have legal force.

This Unmarried Partners Act is a modern, democratic form of partnership recognition: simple, egalitarian, and flexible. Ensuring legal rights for all unwed couples, gay and straight, such legislation may not be as ‘respectable’ as gay marriage or registered partnerships: but it would be infinitely more beneficial.

Queer Remembrance Day – Invitation

OutRage! invite you to join us in commemorating


on Sunday, 2-November-1997, London
(the Sunday before official Remembrance Sunday).

QUEER REMEMBRANCE DAY is organised by OutRage! in conjunction with other lesbian and gay groups, including Rank Outsiders.

2:00 p.m., at the Cenotaph, Whitehall, SW1
Ceremony of Remembrance to commemorate the lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who died fighting Nazism and who perished in the concentration camps.

Please bring pink wreaths or bouquets to lay at the Cenotaph, with any message of remembrance attached.

We want to cover the Cenotaph with pink flowers, as a public statement of lesbian and gay visibility and commemoration.

Keynote speakers at the Cenotaph ceremony include a gay World War 2 veteran and a lesbian refugee from Nazi Germany.

3:30 p.m., in the Freedom Bar, 60-66, Wardour Street, W1.
British premiere of the gay holocaust survivors’ film, We Were Marked with a Big ‘A’. Never before shown in Britain, this extraordinarily moving film features personal testimonies from gay men who were deported to concentration camps by the Nazis.

Friedrich-Paul von Groszheim was arrested during a police raid on private homes in Lübeck in 1937, as were 230 other gay men that same night. He was given the “alternative” of castration in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Kurt von Ruffin was interned in Lichtenburg concentration camp, and Paul Gerhard Vogel was incarcerated in Emsland. The “Big ‘A'” of the film’s title stood for ‘Arschficker’, (arse-fucker): the symbol the first gay prisoners were forced to wear, before the subsequent introduction of the pink triangle.

Gay holocaust survivors were never compensated for their suffering. Their former SS guards, however, receive full pensions.

Free admission. All welcome.

QUEER REMEMBRANCE DAY will help raise public awareness about the contribution of lesbian and gay service personnel to the defeat of Nazism, and about the “hidden queer holocaust” that has been written out of the history books by revisionist historians.

It is vital for the success of QUEER REMEMBRANCE DAY that we get a large attendance at the Cenotaph. Please publicise this commemoration among your friends. If you belong to a gay group, organise a delegation to attend with flowers.

We are delighted to acknowledge the support of

the Freedom Bar, 60-66, Wardour Street, W1
Tel. 020-

who are sponsoring the showing of the film We Were Marked with a Big ‘A’;
and of the florists David Armstrong Designs, 152, Gray’s Inn Road, WC1X 8AX,
Tel. 020-; Fax 020- who are sponsoring a floral tribute.