People Before Profit

from the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999

A good place to start is with what we need. It’s better than starting with what politicians are prepared to give, or what employers say they can afford.

Coming out as lesbian, gay or bisexual can be tough. There is an alarmingly high rate of teenage suicide attempts related to isolation, fear, confusion and bullying about sexuality. Many young people live in an unsupportive or even hostile environment, fearing rejection by family and friends, lacking support and acceptance. People who come out later in life may find it just as difficult to find acceptance or to make changes in their lives. And the problems of homophobia don’t go away once you shut the closet door behind you.

So for starters, we need: financial independence; decent housing; opportunities for education; support services; good healthcare; and rights at work.

We need financial independence to make it possible to escape a hostile environment and find safety and freedom. To leave home, maybe change job, perhaps move to an area where we can meet others like us. But that’s hard if you are skint. Youth unemployment is high, the minimum wage is pitifully low (and even lower for young workers), and the New Deal is based on compulsion into crap schemes rather than opportunities for real jobs and training. 16- and 17-year-olds can not even get benefits. We need a minimum wage of at least half male median earnings; and real jobs, created through rebuilding the welfare state and cutting working hours.

We need decent housing, somewhere to live with some degree of comfort, liberty and security. But public housing is well on its way to being abolished; Fair Rents have been scrapped; Housing Benefit restricted. The private rental sector is typified by high rents, poor conditions and little security of tenure. Thousands sleep rough whilst properties stand empty and builders sign on the dole. We need an urgent programme of house-building and renovation; and safe, affordable housing for everyone as a right.

We need opportunities for education. Education tackles ignorance and therefore prejudice, and college is (generally) a relatively tolerant and supportive environment. The chance to learn is a chance to develop knowledge, skills, confidence and independence. But it’s got a hefty price tag on it: tuition fees, burdensome loans and financial hardship. For many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, this means either not going to college, or being forced to rely on family support or paid employment. Either way, the closet beckons. We need free tuition and a living grant for all students, an end to the creeping privatisation of schools, and an immediate injection of funding.

We need support services. Switchboards and youth groups, for example, are invaluable in providing advice and solidarity, countering isolation and fear. But cuts in local government funding have led to cuts in grants to these services. Section 28 has brought about self-censorship by those local authorities which were not already refusing to support these services through straightforward bigotry. Scrap Section 28 and reverse all the cuts!

Like everyone else, we need decent healthcare that meets our needs: free, state-of-the-art services, without rationing, without ‘internal markets’, and without drug companies sucking money out of the NHS. But successive governments have allowed anti-sex moralism to prevent effective action against AIDS. Healthcare makes assumptions of heterosexuality that can be uncomfortable at best, medically dangerous at worst. The National Health Service is crumbling from years of Tory attack, left unrepaired by New Labour.

We need rights at work. A 1993 Stonewall survey reported that 16% of lesbians and gay men had experienced discrimination at work and 48% had been harassed. A 1995 Social and Community and Planning study found that 4% had lost their jobs and 8% had been refused promotion due to their sexuality. Employers can legally discriminate against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. Courts have upheld bosses’ power to refuse pensions and work-related ‘perks’ to same-sex partners (they are not ‘perks’, they are rights!). There should be a law against it.

To fight effectively for all this, we need free trade unions. But our unions are shackled by a series of repressive laws brought in by the Tories and maintained by New Labour.

So what does all this prove, other than that we can be quite demanding when we get stroppy?

First of all, we need a government prepared to do what is necessary, to tax the rich to fund public services; to govern in the interests of working-class people, rather than doing the bidding of big business. We need a workers’ government.

Secondly, the ideology behind many attacks on the welfare state – that it creates a ‘dependency culture’ – is nonsense. For lesbian, gay and bisexual people, as well as for others, attacks on the welfare state create dependency on families, on employers, on closets. State welfare provision actually facilities independence.

Thirdly, there are significant class differences in lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s experience. Wealth can buy you a greater degree of freedom to express your sexuality and to cope with the difficulties of coming out and of discrimination. Escaping a homophobic environment is much more difficult for a young, unemployed person than for a successful business entrepreneur. The ‘pink pound’ can only buy freedom for people who have some pink pounds to spend, and therefore can not offer a strategy for liberation for all gay people.

Fourthly, as well as campaigning on our own, specific demands, we can find a common cause with others fighting to defend the welfare state. We should unite with benefit claimants, students, health campaigners, public sector workers, and campaigning groups such as the Welfare State Network.

Finally, returning to where we started, this is about what we need, not what they say they can afford. When Lisa Grant took her employer, South West Trains, to court for refusing to provide concessionary travel to her girlfriend, bosses’ group the Confederation of British Industry let the cat out of the bag. They said that employers could not afford to provide equal rights for non-heterosexual workers. (Incidentally, SWT’s parent company, Stagecoach, has a director, Ann Gloag, whose personal fortune exceeds £700 million!).

Karl Marx called it the ‘political economy of the working class’: it is the idea that human needs are more important than private greed. Lesbian, gay and bisexual activists need to make ourselves part of a movement that asserts the priority of our needs for equality, dignity and freedom against the inhuman priorities of profit.

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