Gay, proud - and silent?

Labour's victory and better hopes on HIV have left activists at odds over the future of campaigning

Every year, 100,000 lesbians and gay men bring London to a halt as they march through town as the prelude to a day of festivities known as Pride. And every year the crowd parades down Piccadilly and around Trafalgar Square, singing, dancing, blowing whistles and waving rainbow- patterned flags, but as they weave on to Whitehall and past Downing Street, the atmosphere has always become charged with angry cries of "Kick the Tories out".

Not any longer. For next Saturday's Pride 97, the mood has changed, utterly. Almost overnight, the Blairite vision of a society where everyone should be accorded the same rights, and responsibilities, has pacified the homosexual community. Also, the Labour victory has come at a time when new treatments are checking the advances of HIV, and this has further helped make a radical agenda in gay politics seem redundant.

Organisations such as OutRage, the Lesbian Avengers and Act-Up, which fought for civil liberties and healthcare provision for people with HIV, while insisting they had no intention of ever assimilating into mainstream culture, have vanished from the headlines. The days of lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords, candlelight vigils for the dying, and threats to "out" celebrities, are history. MPs such as Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw take being homosexual in their stride, and gay issues are being aired sympathetically in the right-wing press.

David Allison, a spokesman for OutRage, says: "Yes, we have been quiet but it's not that we are running out of issues, we are just running out of energy. Every year people leave us because it takes a lot out of you being a member. But early this year we suffered a real hiatus - people were leaving but no one new was joining. There have been a few new people in recent weeks and hopefully, after Pride is out of the way, we will be able to get going again."

Over at Stonewall, the leading liberal campaigner for homosexual equality, the mood is one of excitement and anticipation. Its spokeswoman, Anya Palmer, acknowledges that Blair's vision of rights with responsibilities is very influential: "Since the Government is very clear that they will help us win our demands, we don't want to have a separate agenda. There will be no special pleading."

Ms Palmer is confident that the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will deliver a vote on the age of consent. She doesn't mind that Labour will make this a free vote, even for ministers. (David Blunkett became a bete noire for homosexuals when he voted for 21 the last time this issue was before Parliament in 1994.) "We need the public debate, and we need to make this a cross-party affair. It's better for us to win hearts and minds than for people to think it was forced through."

Yet Ms Palmer is confident that when a vote does come they will "romp home", cutting the age of consent from 18 to 16. (OutRage, incidentally, says it wants 14, and sees no reason why a special Bill cannot be introduced now, a proposal that causes outrage among many gays too.)

The assimilationist list of demands, all of which look likely to be be addressed in some form by the Government, also includes: the repeal of Section 28 (introduced by Margaret Thatcher to the Local Government Act to prevent authorities spending money on anything that could be seen as "promoting" homosexuality); anti-discrimination legislation which could be covered by a new Human Rights Commission; parenting rights; and equal recognition for same-sex partners (in everything from pensions to immigration law).

Ms Palmer appreciates that, if these demands are met, gay campaigns could be replaced by gay complacency. "I was in Denmark recently and they have everything, except the right to marry, so you'd expect there to be a really vibrant culture but there isn't. There's still homophobia, but no one does anything about it. Here, we may not have all those rights, but the gay culture is incredible."

Homosexuals are now facing the same dilemmas that the feminist movement has already experienced: when the establishment starts to respond to concerns with legislation, separatism begins to look unnecessary; yet, by assimilating, many of the things that made you powerful will be lost.

Not before time, says James Collard, who edits Attitude, a style magazine aimed at gay readers who don't want to live in a ghetto, as well as those who enjoy a camp sensibility and gay culture. He says: "Gay political goals should be part of the broader debate. I really don't want to walk down a street with a bunch of faggots and dykes waving a rainbow flag. I want to parade with everyone, and it is exciting to watch the formation of a sophisticated constituency of gay and straight people who are in to leading mixed lives."

The mainstreaming of gay culture has helped boost attendance figures at the Pride Festival - this year taking place on Clapham Common. Of the 300,000 people expected to attend, the organisers predict that thousands will be "strays" - straight people who enjoy the gay world. Mainstreaming has also been responsible for the deluge of gay and lesbian stories in the press, from Ellen coming out to lesbian parents (Anya Palmer says she could retire if she had pounds 1 for every tabloid journalist who has phoned her in search of a lesbian mother).

While not denying their past achievements, Mr Collard does not worry about the disempowerment of the radical wing of the movement in recent months. "Activism can feel good for the people involved, but it's a sad truth that a schmoozy Stonewall member or a scriptwriter on EastEnders can have more impact than someone with a placard." For Mr Collard the main battles are about to be won, and many, such as the right of homosexuals to serve openly in the military and the Church, are not worth the fight. "There's something old-fashioned about an activism that worries about the Army and the Church: they are defunct symbols of power that we really don't need to worry about."

But downsizing activism isn't accepted by all. Jacquie Lawrence, Channel 4's deputy commissioning editor for film and video, is responsible for 12 hours of programmes, starting on Pride night, under the title Queer Street. This is non-assimilationist television which "speaks to a minority and not about it".

Ms Lawrence is fed up with the assumptions of gay liberalism: "It's suffocating. People forget that not every lesbian and gay wants to get married, have a baby and live in Brookside." She dismisses the word "gay" as "culturally vacuous". She says: "I'm pleased to be presenting TV where queer politics can fight back. True, it's not as blatant any more, but that doesn't mean it has to lose its edge. There really are other voices that have to be heard."

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