Gay Pride's happy ending

When 250,000 people can celebrate their homosexuality they no longer need to do so, says Peter Tatchell
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When the first Gay Pride March took place in July 1972, only 700 people - myself included - dared to come out and join the parade. On Saturday, 250,000 attended the Pride celebrations on Clapham Common. What a difference 25 years makes: the visibility and confidence of the gay community has grown enormously. Homophobic attitudes are well and truly on the wane, especially among young people.

But these successes, and expected future gains in the realm of legal rights, look set to create a curious paradox: gay emancipation will undermine gay identity and make gay pride redundant. I'm glad. Defeating homophobia and securing gay acceptance is bound to make differentiating between sexual orientations much less important. Once one form of sexuality is not deemed superior to the other, the need to police the difference disappears. The labels' "heterosexual" and "homosexual" lose their significance, with no one caring who's gay and who's straight.

The importance of gay identity will decline because when queers cease to be victimised, same-sex desire will not require defending. All that will remain is gay identification to facilitate sex and socialising with people of the same orientation. The political and psychological importance of gay identity will be zero.

We can glimpse the beginnings of this post-gay era in the rise of mixed clubs, where queers and straights party together and the boundaries of sexual orientation are decidedly blurred. Homophobic barriers are tumbling elsewhere too: in the Boy Scouts, the House of Commons, the Metropolitan Police and, sooner or later, in the armed forces and the Church of England.

Considerable prejudice nevertheless remain, as evidenced by the ban on gays in the military, the denial of same-sex partnership rights, and the unequal age of consent. Because we are treated as second class citizens, we have to assert our right to be gay and show pride in our sexuality. But we also need the foresight to recognise that gay identity is an historically transient, culturally specific phenomenon, which has arisen in response to the needs of persecuted queer minorities in homophobic societies. It never existed, for example, in earlier eras in the many cultures where same-sex behaviour was regarded as normal and acceptable.

Once intolerance and inequality are overturned, as they eventually will be, the necessity to assert and affirm gayness will inevitably decline. The dissolution of gay identity in these circumstances would, oddly enough, be a measure of the success of the gay rights movement.

This prospect creates a new challenge for the gay community, but few seem ready to meet it. The idea of erasing the antithesis between queer and straight is very threatening to many homosexuals. They have become rather too attached to their gay identity. It defines everything about them. More than a mere sexual orientation, being gay nowadays offers a complete, alternative lifestyle. To those cut adrift from heterosexuality, gay identity gives cosy reassurance, defining their sense of personhood, place and purpose - even their taste in bottled lager and designer underwear!

These queers cling tenaciously to their sense of gayness, with all its connotations of invariable sexual difference, certainty and exclusivity. Anything that clouds the distinctions between straight and gay is deemed suspect and dangerous, which explains the frequent irrational gay hostility to bisexuality and bisexuals. Yet the maintenance of this gay-straight schism, by marking out homosexuals as distinct and devalued human beings, helps to sustain our second class status. It is not in the interest of lesbians and gays to perpetuate these sexual divisions. Our liberation depends on breaking down the barriers between sexualities.

There is, however, a catch. Because queerness is currently disparaged, gay people first have to assert the right to be different in order eventually to create a pluralistic culture where sexual difference ceases to matter. Normalising and legitimising the "otherness" of homosexuality is the precondition for abolishing homophobia. Only when sexual difference is fully accepted and valued will it cease to be important and consequently slide into oblivion.

When we reach this state of affairs, where gayness doesn't require defending, being gay will once again become a mere state of desire, not of consciousness. Surprise, surprise. Gay liberation ends the need for gay identity. Hurrah!