As Tony Blair prepares to leave office, Labour party activist Gavin Hayes argues that gay people should not forget the triumphs of the past ten years, but there is still much to be achieved under Gordon Brown.
The Labour government has made huge progress on gay equality in the last 10 years.
There is much to be proud of with respect to the government’s record on delivering equal rights and social justice to gay people across the country.
Under Margaret Thatcher gay people were actively scapegoated, ghettoised and discriminated against by the state.
Who could forget the introduction of Section 28 and the vicious manner in which gay rights was debated throughout the 1980s.
Thankfully those days are over, but we should never allow people to forget just how awful those days were for the gay community at the time.
I think it is fair to say that if you said to a gay person ten years ago that within a decade the ban would be lifted on gay people serving in the armed forces; that the age of consent for all would be 16; that same sex couples could adopt; that section 28 would be repealed; that there would be civil partnerships and that there would be an Equality Act protecting gay people and other minorities in the provision of goods and services – most people would have thought you were living in cloud cuckoo land.
The Labour government has done more for gay equality than any other government before it.
The positive changes have been consistent and significant and have, in effect, transformed the way the state deals with homosexuality.
They have also had a wider positive impact on the way in which society deals with and treats the gay community.
The Equality Act 2006 is the most recent piece of legislation to eliminate discrimination and further enshrine into law greater equality.
It bans discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief or sexual orientation in the provision of goods; facilities and services; the management of premises; education; and the exercise of public functions.
On legislative changes there are still a number of areas that will need to be finessed in the years to come.
One such area is proper justice for asylum seekers fleeing homophobic persecution.
There are issues too over homophobic musicians who use lyrics to incite gay hatred and there are similar issues within some religious establishments.
On the whole however, across the gay rights movement, there is a broad consensus that for now at least the legislative battle and argument for gay equality has largely been won.
But the struggle for equality and liberation is never over, just because we have equality now, does not guarantee we’ll have equality in the future.
There is a real danger of people falling into complacency – just because we have achieved massive legislative change does not mean we can simply pack up and go home.
And whilst society and culture has changed immensely since the 1980s and even the 1990s, a great deal of discrimination still exists within society at large.
Deep rooted prejudice will not easily be removed or changed through passing more laws, but nevertheless must be tackled head on.
Take sport for example.
Whilst, quite rightly, there have been high-profile media campaigns to kick out racism from football and the likes of David Beckham and Stephen Gerard regularly boast about their ‘gay credentials,’ there have not yet been similar high-profile campaigns to kick homophobia out of sport.
The 2012 London Olympic Games could provide the government with a huge opportunity to send out a positive message and celebrate diversity within sport and wider society.
On the television too, many characters the soaps use as gay ‘role models’ and the story lines that are adopted to deal with gay issues are at best questionable and at worst down right unhelpful.
Gay male characters, for example, are often satirised by being overly camp, obsessed with fashion or promiscuous – all of which reinforces the stereotypical image wider society has of what it is to be gay.
In an everyday social context, all too often discrimination and homophobic abuse is still a regular thing.
All too often the police and other authorities are at best poor at enforcing newly won rights and at worst refuse to do so and instead prefer to sweep discrimination under the carpet.
The challenge for the future therefore is to ensure this kind of discrimination and the deeper rooted prejudices that still exist within some parts of society are tackled and that attitudes are changed forever.
As we have seen in the battle for an end to discrimination towards ethnic minorities and women, such a social shift will take longer than it does to pass legislation, as prejudiced views and
attitudes are passed down from generation to generation.
But the government can and should play a very positive, active and enabling role in helping to change such views and should act as an agent for greater and faster social change.
In changing attitudes the government should work closely with the trade union movement, employers and employees to tackle homophobic attitudes where they exist within the workplace.
More too needs to be done in schools and in the playground, to ensure we tackle discrimination and prejudice at an early age.
Homophobic bullying in schools is still a huge problem, a problem that can have a lasting and damaging effect on a person’s long-term mental health, whether gay or straight, and we need to find more effective ways of dealing with it.
In conclusion, legislative gay equality has largely been achieved.
The government should be recognised for its record and can rightly be proud of the progress that has been made in the last ten years towards greater equality for gay people.
We should all recognise that the action New Labour has taken since 1997 in terms of gay people has contributed to promoting a more socially liberal, civilised and equal society.
But challenges for the future remain.
The government must maintain and enforce the legislative equality that it has already put in place.
It must also ensure more is done to pro-actively change perceptions held within some parts of wider society.
It is the charge of government to act as an agent for greater social change in respect to attitudes towards the gay community.
It should work to ensure this is done at an early age within schools and ensure that homophobic bullying in the playground and classroom is tackled and defeated effectively.
Through enforcing progress already made and by pro-actively promoting a socially liberal, equal and tolerant society, the government in the future can ensure it plays a full role in continuing to promote real and lasting gay equality and liberation across the country.
Gavin Hayes is general secretary of Compass, a membership organisation promoting left-wing debate in Britain.
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