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 Âpeople 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 heteroÂsexual 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.