“I see now basically people who’ve fought for the right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange speedo and take molly.”—Rose McGowan
“Waiting our turn isn’t working. Asking nicely isn’t working. What will work is what worked that fateful night at Stonewall.”—Jaclyn Friedman
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1969 that many view as the beginnings of the more visible side of the gay liberation movement. Queer liberation began much earlier, but those protests and movements have been overshadowed by Stonewall for a variety of reasons.
Pride marches now are largely used by corporations and politicians attempting to prove their acceptance of queers. Or even worse, they are used by cis, straight people as an excuse to party. The collection of entities that have attached themselves to Pride over the years can be comical. One wonders why JP Morgan Chase has a float in a pride parade. Even the NYPD, the organisation whose violence against queers the Stonewall riots were protesting, participates in the parade. It seems ‘pride’ has become an empty signifier, and we are led to ask what exactly we are celebrating every June.
Pride, and everything it means for a population that lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis and second-class citizenship status for decades, has been co-opted by a sort of neoliberal performance of acceptance. So, what is the legacy of Stonewall? The actual bar has become a centre of identification for many queers. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, New Yorkers flocked to Stonewall to lay flowers and light candles. A bitter irony was that the bar was surrounded by NYPD officers holding the same type of assault weapon used in the shooting. Even though the bar is seen as quite the dull tourist destination by New York queers, it certainly has its role as signifying liberation. But there is another way in which it functions as well. In many ways, Stonewall and pride parades have become a means for queers to become acceptable to normative society.
NYU Professor Lisa Duggan makes this argument when she says that queer visibility politics, in the hands of “some proponents of a narrow version of gay rights,” has become a way to build “homonormativity that mirrors dominant norms—white, middle-class and family-oriented.” These three descriptors could not be more accurate in describing contemporary pride celebrations. However, there is push back to this, and this weekend New York found out that there is an audience for such an argument.
Several organisations have been protesting the decades-long neoliberal trends in pride celebrations. Reclaim Pride is one of them. Its organisers, many of whom were involved in ACT UP, the powerful AIDS activist organisation, state their purpose: “Our organisation is working towards our vision of a NYC PRIDE that reflects our community’s heritage of activism as opposed to the Pride March’s current state of commercial saturation and excessive police presence.” The organisation sees the current state of queer politics as against the very thing it emerged to promote: liberation.
Liberation is a complicated concept, though. Is it great that corporations and the NYPD are supportive of LGBTQ rights? Of course! It is better than refusing us service and cracking our heads. The problem enters when queers are seen as only a market to be targeted or as a population used by organisations for virtue signalling, which is just another way to bring in a larger customer base.
In the 80s and early 90s, queer politics took its neoliberal turn when it dawned on people that gay rights were profitable and that queers represented an untapped market (Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out being the apotheosis of this). Much of the criticism of acceptability politics focused on the ways that this kind of politics simply shoved queers into moulds that made them more acceptable to normative society. ‘We are just like you and want the same things you want,’ was the political strategy used by this kind of politics. The movements that are pushing back against homonormativity throughout public queer life, emphasise that all queers do not want what straight people want.
Our needs—both medical and social—look quite different than normative, heterosexual people’s. Queer liberation lost its radical potential when identity was thrown into the market to be traded like any other commodity, a move only neoliberals could have dreamed up. Lahore-based trans activist, Mehlab Jameel wonders, “What happened that a potentially radical movement ended up in assimilationist notions of Pride Parades and marriage equality?”. Jameel sees the passage of marriage equality in the U.S. as the death knell for queer activism’s radical potential and calls for decolonisation of “the movement for queer liberation and transnational solidarity, and that begins when queer people collectively stand against all forms of structural violence in the society.”
Reclaim Pride is attempting to sort of stand against this structural inequality that has been absorbed by the main pride parade in NYC. The parade followed the same route it followed in 1970 and it proved the same point that was raised before, that queer liberation is not about acceptance only. It is about freedom from discrimination and violence, and freedom to live and love outside of any normative definition of what those words mean.
For several months now, parents have been protesting outside a primary school in Birmingham. Their objection? The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)-approved classes on equality, with a specific focus on a new curriculum that informs students about LGBTQ+ issues and history.
Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham, developed the No Outsiders programme, which is currently being piloted at his school, in accordance with the 2010 Equality Act. Moffat has previously been awarded an MBE for his work in equality education.
Under the scheme, children of all ages, from reception to year six, would be taught five lessons per year, each one covering a different aspect of the 2010 Equality Act. After extensive protests from parents, who worried about the content of the classes, they have been paused—but not stopped permanently. This is a developing story, with more schools in Birmingham and some in Manchester now halting classes after similar protests, but I want to get to the core of the issue, and why this is setting a dangerous precedent.
The protests were mostly on religious grounds; the vast majority of the community and the pupils at the school are Muslim, and parents were objecting to the classes due to their faith. But after the protests gained media attention, Orthodox Jewish and conservative Christian parents also added their support.
The issue was first raised by Fatima Shah, who temporarily pulled her daughter out of the school. Speaking to the Birmingham Mail Shah said that, “It’s inappropriate, totally wrong. Children are being told it’s OK to be gay, yet 98% of children at this school are Muslim. It’s a Muslim community. He [Andrew Moffat] said all parents are on board with it, but the reality is, no parents are on board with it.”
Parents have claimed that primary school children are too young to be learning about these issues, despite Ofsted’s ruling that the lessons are entirely age-appropriate. More to the point, there are children at primary schools with same-sex parents, are they too young to be exposed to same-sex relationships too?
Olympian medalist Callum Skinner, whose father is gay, wrote a message in support of the programme on Twitter, saying that, “Mr Moffat sounds like he’s doing a great job. When I was at school, I was someone who had one set of same-sex parents. It sounds to me as if this programme is as much about protecting kids from intolerance as well as same sex couples. It should be commended, not shunned.”
These classes are not teaching children about the ins-and-outs of homosexuality; nor are they in outright contradiction to the religious teachings of many of the communities. “People are worried about the way the government are proposing to change sex relationship education in the UK and people are mixing that up with No Outsiders,” explained Mr Moffat to the BBC. “No Outsiders isn’t about sex education. It’s about community cohesion, British values, it’s about people getting along and co-existing.”
What’s disappointing—and could set a really dangerous precedent—is that the lessons currently being protested is derived directly from the Equality Act, which protects people from discrimination based on identity. The “protected characteristics” are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
These new classes were introduced for the same reason that, say, children at a Christian primary school in rural England are taught about Islam and Hinduism. These set out to expose children to the diversity of thought, identity, and expression that exists throughout the United Kingdom. Children do not discriminate: they are taught to do so. Massive leaps toward greater equality take place when children are taught to be accepting and open to others. The classes are called No Outsiders: do those protesting really want to encourage the idea that there are—that there should be—outsiders?
LGBTQ+ people exist in all walks of life. When exposed to prejudice at a young age, children are taught that they’re different and that they don’t belong. They become isolated and repressed. These lessons would teach them that they belong, will be accepted and deserve to be loved. To object to these lessons is to object to these principles.
This story cannot be divorced from the legacy of Section 28, the Thatcher-era legislation that forbade schools from teaching about homosexuality in any way. The legislation stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. In her 1987 Party Conference Speech, Mrs Thatcher remarked that, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay… All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.” Section 28 was repealed in 2003 under Tony Blair’s Labour government.
I’m left wondering why we aren’t asking the children what they think? They are being taught acceptance and diversity in an age-appropriate way. Are they genuinely left confused? Or just more open to the variety of the world? Discrimination can be taught—but so can tolerance.