The New Conservatives

Every year toward the end of June, gay pride time, we are treated to another round of reminiscences about the good old radical days of gay liberation, laced with resentment about how we've now betrayed some founding principles. Reading these essays is like walking into a home full of bean-bag chairs and shag carpeting. It's memorable in its way, but you don't want to live there.

In this 40th year after the riot at the Stonewall Inn, the most prominent of these nostalgists is long-time activist Peter Tatchell in Britain, who wites in The Guardian about his experiences in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF):

Our vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone - queer and straight. Our message was "innovate, don't assimilate".

GLF never called for equality. The demand was liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. . . .

In the 40 years since Stonewall and GLF, there has been a massive retreat from that radical vision. Most LGBT ­people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo. On the age of consent, the LGBT movement accepted equality at 16, ignoring the criminalisation of younger gay and straight people. Don't the under-16s have sexual human rights too? Equality has not helped them. All they got was equal injustice.

Whereas GLF saw marriage and the family as a patriarchal prison for women, gay people and children, today the LGBT movement uncritically champions same-sex marriage and families. It has embraced traditional hetero­sexual aspirations lock stock and barrel. How ironic. While straight couples are deserting marriage, same-sexers are rushing to embrace it: witness the current legal fight in California for the right to marry. Are queers the new conservatives, the 21st-century suburbanites?

There's hardly ever been a more succinct statement of the way the gay civil rights movement has changed -- I would say matured -- over the past 40 years. Stripped of the pejoratives, Tatchell's essay accurately describes the main differences. Witness the struggle to serve in the military, to join the Boy Scouts, and most of all, to marry. This is a way of saying, Yes, many of us do accept the fundamental values, laws, and institutions of our society. Equality of rights and obligations within those institutions is ennobling, not mindless. We doubt that all innovation is good. We're not trying to abolish "gender" or monogamy. There is an appropriate age threshold for sexual consent. We think "assimilation" is just a patronizing way to describe living our lives without conforming to your romantic notions of queerness. Sexual freedom? Anybody with an apartment key has that.

And yes, we want marriage. Marriage is not a "patriarchal prison" for our partners and children. It is freedom from a queer prison of perpetual grievance and mythologized otherness. It is getting off the tiger's back of adolescence and accepting responsibilities for families and communities.

Tatchell and his generation of radical liberationists deserve our eternal gratitude for their courage and their success. Tatchell himself has been fearless in his pursuit of, whether he would say so or not, equality for gays and lesbians. The liberationists who gave us Stonewall hastened us down a path (already begun long before them) that has brought us to the edge of unprecedented respect and acceptance.

But they do not deserve our uncritical acceptance of their values or goals. We are their children but we've grown up and moved out of the house. They do not own the movement, they do not censor its messages or license its membership, and they are not gatekeepers of its future.

11 Comments for “The New Conservatives”

  1. posted by Bobby on

    “On the age of consent, the LGBT movement accepted equality at 16, ignoring the criminalisation of younger gay and straight people.”

    Peter Tachel is disgusting, what the hell is wrong with him? How young is young enough for him? 15? 13? 12? 10?

    I guess according to him kids know better than anyone else and whatever they want to do they should do.

  2. posted by God of Biscuits on

    Peter Tatchell is an idiot.

    Yes, “idiot”. Not old-timer. Not hippie. Not out of touch.


    Gays being included in the system CHANGES the system fundamentally.

    That’s how systems work. Any system. EVERY system.

    Peter Tatchell, I presume, would be the first person to say that one’s past victories are no excuse for present stupidities and if AND ONLY IF he’s willing to apply that to himself does he save himself from being a complete idiot about this so-called liberationism.

  3. posted by hazemyth on

    Really? Must we reproduce the tired of trope of right-left animosity and divide ourselves into two equally patronizing camps?

  4. posted by Guglielmo Pescatore on

    Gay equality, for which Peter Tatchell along with others has been campaigning for many years, has now more or less arrived ? in Britain, at any rate ? but he can?t just sit back and enjoy it. Poor, restless Peter! He has to search feverishly for a new cause, even if it?s a crazy one. He calls irresistibly to mind the following passage from Oscar Wilde?s ?The Picture of Dorian Gray?:

    ?You remind me of a story ? about a certain philanthropist who spent twenty years of his life in trying to get some grievance redressed, or some unjust law altered ? I forget exactly what it was. Finally he succeeded, and nothing could exceed his disappointment. He had absolutely nothing to do, almost died of ennui, and became a confirmed misanthrope.?

  5. posted by ron on

    We’d be doomed if we counted on the 2009 gays to fight the fight required of the 1969 gays. The modest freedoms won in 1969-1970 stand in high contrast to what little progress has been made since then. A reminder: in most states, it’s still perfectly legal to fire someone because they are gay. It only became illegal in Illinois 3 years ago.

    I know we are a deeply wounded population, but we are terminally narcissistic – “if it ain’t happening to me, it ain’t happening”. A reminder – Act Up was manned mostly by gay men with HIV/AIDS and their hags. Most others recoiled in fear. And I know that cuz I was there.

    Peruse the profiles Read them and weep. Or worse yet, read the following article:


  6. posted by Bobby on

    “Really? Must we reproduce the tired of trope of right-left animosity and divide ourselves into two equally patronizing camps?”

    —We are already divided in to fem lesbians, bulldykes, twinks, bears, muscle-daddies, leather daddies, drag queens, trolls, straight-acting, alternative and a bunch of other categories.

    Besides, I do not appreciate the namblaesque ideas of Peter Tatchel. 18 should be the age of consent for sex, if the british want a lower age, fine, 16 isn’t so bad, but don’t tell me that it was to be lower than 16.

  7. posted by Audrey the Liberal on

    PJ O’Rourke-“I am a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I?m so conservative that I approve of San Francisco City Hall marriages, adoption by same-sex couples, and New Hampshire?s recently ordained Episcopal bishop. Gays want to get married, have children, and go to church. Next they?ll be advocating school vouchers, boycotting HBO, and voting Republican.”

  8. posted by Dale Carpenter on

    Nice quote from O’Rourke. I had not seen it. Thanks.

  9. posted by Stefano A on

    While I may disagree with Tatchell regarding his attitudes toward “assimilation. I have to take issue with some of the above comments re: “age of consent”, in so much as I think most of them are misdirected. That is to say…

    Re: Tatchell and “age of consent”. I don’t think he’s advocating for adult-child relationships. Instead, the beef is that the age of consent should be equalized between straights and gays. That is, if the age of conset is 16 for male-female concensual sex, then that should be the age for same-sex consencual relationships. Not 16, for instance, for straights and 18 for gays. Or as is the case in some cases, for example, 16 for straights and lesbians, 18 for male-male relationships.

  10. posted by Stefano A on

    Post Addendum:

    If, he’s advocating for no age of consent for anyone, then, yes, I’d have issues with that along with others. (Although I think it need be conceded that with regard to the various ages of consent around the world, the “set” age seems to be somewhat arbitrary.)

    His contention that sex in and of itself should not be criminalized is fine in so far as he goes, but I don’t think he fully considers the ramifications of total abolishment of consent laws.

  11. posted by Guglielmo Pescatore on

    In Britain, at any rate, the age of consent (16) IS the same for both gays and straights and has been for some years now.

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