Organisations supporting LBGT people are currently closing down at a rapid rate. Colin Wilson discusses why this is happening despite the British ruling class claiming to support LGBT people.
The number of LGBT youth groups in the North West has halved since 2010, reports the Guardian recently in an article headlined “Services for LGBT young people will just disappear”. Last Friday the paper reported that a national LGBT domestic violence charity has just seven weeks before it closes for lack of funds. Two weeks ago the LGBT press reported the closure of PACE, an LGBT+ mental health charity, in existence for 31 years.
These are all vital organisations. Young LGBT people are almost twice as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide. Stonewall reported in 2012 that over half of lesbian, gay and bi students are bullied at school. Support from LGBT services, where people know they will be accepted, is vital.
PACE was founded, and survived, under the homophobic Thatcher government – but came to an end under a Cameron government which claims it supports equality. What’s going on? Are things better or worse than they were in the 1980s?
Certainly much has changed. Thatcher’s government didn’t just keep the homophobic and transphobic laws they inherited – such as a discriminatory age of consent for gay men and a refusal to let trans people have ID or marry as the correct gender. They added a new one, Clause 28 – legislation which prevented local councils from “promoting homosexuality” and stopped teachers arguing for “the acceptability of homosexuality.” And they did this at a time when AIDS infection, which particularly affected gay men, was increasingly rapidly with no effective treatment available. Several years before, the right-wing tabloid The News of the World had polled its readers about “AIDS carriers”, and declared that 56% believed they should be sterilised and given “treatment to curb their sexual appetite”: 51% favoured the total criminalisation of homosexuality.
Cameron’s rhetoric is quite different from this deliberate whipping up of hatred. He invites LGBT people to Downing Street receptions, gives interviews to the LGBT press and initiated marriage equality legislation. Last month a parliamentary report made proposals to reduce transphobic discrimination, particularly in health care: much of it was welcomed by campaigners including Action for Trans Health. Is this just PR from the Tories, concealing bigoted attitudes unchanged for decades? I’m sure there are thousands of homophobic and transphobic Tories around. But the truth is that something has changed. It’s not just the Tories claiming that there is no conflict between LGBT people and capitalist society. The banks and multinationals who sponsor Pride, and whose employees march in corporate colours, say the same thing. When Stonewall make MI5 their employer of the year, they make a similar claim. The British ruling class in chorus announces its support for LGBT people.
What does this support consist of? A key part of it is that we are equal before the law with straight people, and have protected from overt discrimination. It’s an important change for the better that LGBT people can’t be sacked or refused services, for example – just as the banning of signs reading “Room to let: no blacks, no Irish”, commonplace in the 1960s, was a significant advance. But black people having formal equality before the law hasn’t meant the end of racism – in terms of employment, housing, or education, say – because much of that racism is institutional, not about hateful attacks on individuals, though those continue too.
Likewise, what we’re seeing with LGBT people is formal equality coexisting with continued oppression. Formal equality fits well with neoliberalism – our money is the same as anyone else’s. It allows the Tories to retreat from unpopular homophobic and transphobic politics without undermining the dominance of capitalism. And changing the law – as with equal marriage – doesn’t cost much.
But neoliberal equality is a very different thing from liberation. For most of us on the receiving end of homophobia and transphobia, they are only part of our problems under Cameron. Our experience of them is inseparable from a host of issues involving questions such as class, gender, race, disability and mental health. For most people, LGBT oppression isn’t a single issue which can be tackled alone. If our oppression causes mental health problems, we depend on well-funded NHS services. The same is true if we need hormones or surgery to transition. If we’re seeking asylum so we’re not deported to a place where our life is in danger, we need the authorities to take that risk seriously. If we want to live in a place where we can get support from other LGBT people living nearby, we need access to affordable housing. The government is delivering on none of these.
Which brings us back to the closure of PACE. As their spokesperson says, ““The financial climate is very difficult for small charities, especially those delivering services at a local level with continuing cuts to local authority budgets.” Over the next four years Osborne plans a staggering £4 billion of cuts to local councils, which fund many services for excluded groups including LGBT people, ethnic minority people and women. As the Guardian points out, even closing “every children’s centre, library, museum and park” would not balance local council budgets in the face of such an onslaught.
Many things have changed since the 1980s, and in some ways our lives as LGBT people have improved. The Tories of today are not the Tories of thirty years ago. But, despite inviting us to Downing Street receptions and giving us equal marriage, capitalism is no more able to bring an end to LGBT oppression than it was in the bad of days of Clause 28.