Pride, Protest and Litigation – American gifts to LGBT Britain

9 July 2019 by

London has just experienced its largest ever celebration of Pride – arranged for the weekend after the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots so as to allow thousands of British people to fly out to New York to participate in the official commemoration. This is a striking example of the influence of a particularly American method of effecting social change adopted with much success in the UK – albeit there has not been much by way of rioting here.

It is probably a myth that the Stonewall riots were fuelled by mourners drinking to relieve their grief after Judy Garland’s death in London and funeral in New York City – but possibly the closest the UK came to watching similar scenes was 25 years later and was connected to the death of the artist and Outrage supporter, Derek Jarman. Peter Tatchell arranged a candlelit vigil outside the Houses of Parliament on 21st February 1994 to mark the death of the great film maker. The other purpose of this gathering was to enable a demonstration to take place right outside the Palace of Westminster just as the Commons were voting on establishing an equal age of consent. When Parliament voted for a compromise of 18 years of age, the 5,000 or so demonstrators invaded the grounds of the Palace and Police and Commons staff struggled to close the great doors of Parliament to keep them out.

Riots and their cultural significance were not just an Atlantic Coast phenomenon. San Francisco, after all gave us Harvey Milk, the White Night riots (arising from the lenient sentence given to his killer) and Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag (1978) – which seemed ubiquitous at every commercial outlet in London during the month leading up to Pride.

Straddling both coasts was Vito Russo whose most important work, the Celluloid Closet asked fundamental questions about the profile of LGBT people and themes in film and whose legacy can be seen in the 1995 documentary (with notable appearances by Michelangelo Signorile and Jay Blotcher). Culture Wars have arguably been more of a blood sport in the United States but the negative portrayal of LGBT people by the media in NY and elsewhere was challenged there by organisations like Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In the UK, it felt as if the negative coverage of AIDS and controversies like that concerning the presence of the books Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin in London schools was unremitting – particularly in the 1980s. It is arguable that the quasi-public remit of the BBC and Channel 4 and of subsidized theatre in the UK may have created at least some diversity in coverage and meant that Culture Wars have subsided somewhat on this side of the Atlantic but that was only after the toxic legacy of section 28 was confronted. It is also arguable that the resistance to this that laid the foundations for all successful campaigning that was to come.

Stonewall (the lobby group – rather than the bar or riot)

The most obvious gift from the US is the very name of the UK’s biggest and best-organised LGBT lobby group, Stonewall – (2019 marks 30 years since being founded by Lisa Power and others). It is interesting that this enormously successful organisation is approximately the same age as Empire State Pride Agenda in New York. The work of both was complemented by direct action groups – the largest of which was Outrage in London started at about the same time as Queer Nation in New York.

Direct Action had already had a high profile in the US because of the essential work by Act Up in highlighting the failure of the Reagan administration to recognise the AIDS crisis. If extreme tactics were not as essential in the UK it is possibly because of the existence of the NHS and the fact that some people in power in the UK, like Lord Fowler, responded humanely to a public health emergency. Nevertheless there was a lot of sharing of expertise between activists groups in the US and the UK – notably concerning fundraising through the work of Hal Goldberg and others.

A key tenet of the Pride agenda was the importance of LGBT visibility and the importance of coming out to the extent that the UK has adopted National Coming Out Day from the US. “Outing” people (involuntarily) as lesbian or gay had historically been the prerogative of the tabloid press in Britain. Individuals like Chris Smith MP made a huge impact by inverting the social shaming that newspapers had sought to invoke. Some LGBT activists in the US and UK deployed the tactic of “outing” to attack hypocrisy amongst those with power. Its principal proponent, Michelangelo Signorile was lauded on visiting the UK – he may well feel vindicated by the subsequent exposure of individuals like Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

These tactics had their detractors on both sides of the Atlantic and it is only fitting that the most significant of these, Andrew Sullivan, was born in the UK but worked in the US. He was most famous for advocating the opening-up of marriage to same-sex couples as one of the ultimate goals of LGBT liberation. It is striking that when the UK enacted Civil Partnerships it was to Vermont that the Labour government turned to for their model.

In the United States marriage equality was finally achieved through the action of the Courts. In the UK it was achieved through that un-American concept, a coalition government. This points to significant differences between the US and the UK paths to equality. Nevertheless, Stonewall under Angela Mason pursued arguably the most successful litigation strategy ever seen in the UK – inspired, in part, by US campaigners like Evan Wolfson (a tradition continued by American Organisations like FLI who have a presence in the UK).  This was very reliant on the European Convention of Human Rights and helped to bring about an equal age of consent and the removal of the ban on LGBT people in the Services. Latterly, Liberty achieved equal pension rights by relying on EU law.

Jonathan Cooper has rightly pointed to the signal importance of the Treaty of Amsterdam for the UK as marking a point in which the EU made a decisive turn towards being a Human Rights and Equality space – not just one based on free trade. This led to Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation enshrining protection for the LGBT community in the workplace across Europe.

In the event, the UK has gone further, introducing equality legislation covering goods and services also – aided by the crucial intervention of LGBT Labour Party members. LGBT networks in all the Parliamentary Parties in Britain have easily outshone their US equivalents, the Log Cabin Republicans and Alice B Toklas Democratic Club and it is striking that the UK may have the most out LGBT Parliamentarians in the world. 

This is not to say that there is not a profound sense of unease about the future – as was evidenced by the emotional speech by one of the most prominent LGBT MPs, Angela Eagle on 25th June 2019 about the recent Birmingham Schools controversy. There are also tensions between LGBT rights and protections and freedom of speech as seen recently in The Queen (on the application of Ngole) v the University of Sheffield and fears about the safety of LGBT people from attack. With the prospect of common framework of EU protections about to be removed and renewed arguments about the repeal of the Human Rights Act LGBT activists may once more have to draw from the deep well of US cultural influence and renew their faith in Pride, protest and litigation.

Martin Downs is a barrister at One Crown Office Row.

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