As the name already suggests, the LGBT (or “LGBTQ”, or “LGBTQI”) political community is incredibly diverse and complex. Class, race, gender, disability, age, nationality and immigration status intersect with “LGBT” to create multiple and sometimes conflicting interests and experiences. Additionally, there are huge differences in experience between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: it is a community united not by one thing – sexuality – but by marginal relationships to dominant institutions of heterosexism and to mainstream gender relations. LGBT activists contest the structural privileging and normalisation of “opposite” sex relationships. Additionally, they challenge the idea that there are only two genders: the dominant “straight” versions of masculinity and femininity.
Unfortunately, issues of identity-based inequality are often ignored or downplayed by mainstream Leftists. Dominant, institutionalised LGBT organisations would have us believe that the most important issue for LGBT people in the UK at the moment is equal marriage. But, as Louise from Queer Resistance points out, “lots of us are fighting for accommodation, medical care, there are so many more important things in the world. Equal marriage campaigns take attention away from the more important stuff.” The Coalition for Equal Marriage’s all-white campaign video, depicting a gay returning British soldier proposing to his partner, is an excellent example of how the “rights” of minority groups can be instrumentalised by, and assimilated into, mainstream narratives. Granting gay marriage is a relatively easy and inexpensive facade of progressivism, but it obscures the role of governments in creating structural economic inequalities that disproportionately affect LGBT people. Gay marriage has already been instituted by neoliberal governments in Canada and Latin America, with arguably little impact on the everyday lives of the majority of LGBT people.
And as with race or gender, there can be misconceptions not only that “they” are already “equal”, or that they “have it pretty good”. The term “the pink pound” explicitly refers to the idea that gay couples (supposedly with no children, and two incomes) are financially better off than their straight counterparts. The commercial gay press in London participates in propagating this myth. And of course LGBT people who are visible in the media are predominantly white, ‘middle class’, and not disabled.
But most LGBT people do not belong to this privileged group. In fact, they are disproportionately impacted by public sector cuts, as are women, non-white people, and disabled people. The unprecedented attack on disabled peoples’ rights by this government has been documented; and LGBT people are more likely to be disabled than the general population due to the impact of HIV/AIDS and homophobia and transphobia on mental and physical health. The same vulnerability exists in the socioeconomic realm as well. As queer organisers point out, when jobs and affordable housing are scarce, people who differ from the norm are likely to find it harder to secure work and affordable housing. “If they’re already struggling, employers are more likely to avoid the butch dyke, trans person, gay man”, says Elaine from Queer Resistance. Ronan adds that austerity politics now means that “things affecting minorities are not priorities. But this is the wrong way of looking at it – who is ultimately benefiting? People in minority groups lose the most.”
Liam from Queer Resistance points out that NHS cuts will have a particular impact on trans people who require access to treatment, including hormones and surgery – an issue echoed by many queer organisers. “People are not aware of it, and the general public is not always supportive [of trans people’s access to care] in the first place. I have to explain how important surgery is to people, how important it was for me.” There is already anecdotal evidence of treatment being denied, and of suspended referrals from general practicioners to specialist gender identity clinics. Cuts have also impacted HIV treatment and prevention, services for LGBT youth, anti-homophobia work in schools, and domestic violence support. To highlight some of these cuts, queer organisers opened a sexual health clinic outside of the HSBC in Covent Garden on 28 May 2011 as part of UK Uncut actions.
The actual impact of neoliberal policy is impossible to gauge, as information on sexuality and transgender status is usually not collected by the government, employers, or even most trade unions. “The percentage of LGBT people who are unemployed is practically invisible,” says Anton Johnson of Left Front Art Collective. Homophobia and transphobia mean that some people don’t want to disclose their sexual orientation or transgender status to anyone. At the same time, institutions use a lack of information on LGBT people as an excuse for inaction. Information collection that includes sexuality is something many LGBT activists have been demanding for a long time.
Working in coalition and mixed movements brings both opportunities and challenges for LGBT people who organise against the cuts. “Privileged groups shouldn’t speak for the oppressed, there is an appropriation there. We need to speak for ourselves, but there is room for allies,” says Elaine from Queer Resistance. But Liam sees new coalitions as unavoidable: “We have to be in solidarity with other groups if we want our voices to be heard”. But left-wing movements have much to learn if they are to be inclusive of queer people. “There can be issues around recognising gender diverse identities. A heterosexual viewpoint is often assumed.” Richard Farnos of Queers United Against the Cuts agrees: “We attended the Lambeth Save Our Services People’s Assembly last year and there was no recognition that LGBT people were disproportionately affected by the cuts. Sadly, despite pointing this out to them more than once, they have not amended their declaration yet. Ironically, Lambeth has one of the largest LGBT communities in the country.”
What can Occupy do to be more inclusive and representative? Ronan from Queer Resistance and Occupy says that “we could do a lot better. We need to recognise not only what unites us but what makes us different from one another, our privileges and our oppressions. One of our big challenges is to figure that out.”
Queer Resistance, Queers United Against the Cuts and Left Front Art Collective are currently building support within LGBT communities toward the TUC’s 20th October mass demonstration.
By Ashlee Christoffersen