THE BLOG

Are We Sleepwalking Back Into the Political Closet?

22/01/2016 13:57 GMT | Updated 21/01/2017 10:12 GMT

So be honest, how many resolutions have you given up on so far? If you're anything like me most of them were packed away with the Christmas decorations ready to be dusted off again in twelve months' time. But there's one that I'm determined not to let slip. After years of talk and no action, I'm going to join one of the UK's LGBT organisations working on equality. It might seem an odd time to focus on this. Even just a few years ago the gay community had to fight for marriage equality. Isn't it a bit late now? That's exactly what worries me. Comfortable, carefree, where do we go from here? On the not too distant horizon lies complacency.

It's completely understandable of course. From Polari to wedding pulpit in just forty years. That's remarkable. Full equality in the UK - in principle at least - is now almost a reality (I'm looking at your Northern Ireland) . For most of us, up and down the country what is there to worry about? And it's almost too easy to forget what it was like before we had equal rights. So much of it seems ridiculous. Like smoking in restaurants we look back and think "How strange!". It can make you feel quite satisfied, almost smug when you think about it. "We're past that now. We could never go back!"

Of course there's still everyday verbal and physical abuse to tackle. Last year it happened to me on the street just outside my home. Ask any gay person, even in London, and they'll likely have a similar story. But apart from these everyday battles, all the big political fights have been won. When polls show a majority of even would-be UKIP voters support same-sex unions, you'd be forgiven for hanging up your banner and tearing up the gay agenda we're all supposed to keep in our pockets. That's precisely why so many UK-based LGBT activists are now focusing on other countries. Why else would Stonewall insist in its PR that "there is still a lot more for Stonewall to do"?

This is the irony of the situation we now find ourselves. As equality spreads, do we risk sleepwalking back in the political closet, to a time before the gay rights movement. If there's no need to be public any more shouldn't we just stay private? The problem is that this isn't just complacent, it's dangerously so. It's always tempting to declare "job done!", but it's not possible with equality. Progress and politics aren't always happy bedfellows.

Take a look at our cousins over the pond. We may all celebrate the Kim Davis issue now but we shouldn't let that blind us to the support she received from leading presidential candidates; this is a woman who defied the law to actively discriminate against gay people. At the same time as she was being applauded for abusing her job, lawmakers across the country were trying to legalise employment discrimination against gay people trying to carry out their jobs properly. A report by the Human Rights Campaign released last week suggested that efforts to pass anti-gay legislation in the USA are on the rise. Over half of the states in the USA are expected to see such bills in 2016. .

Where the US goes, the UK usually follows. Although UKIP is imploding, we shouldn't write off right wing populism too soon. Prejudice and illiberalism, like weeds, can have deep roots. All they need is the right environment to flourish. Let's not forget how many MPs voted against gay marriage. There will always be those who seek to row back on what's been achieved. And new fronts of discrimination can open up, just like Section 28 showed in 1988. There's no finish line because equality is not an end-point.

This is why equality campaigns are still so important. They are our eyes and ears. They can track rises in homophobic crimes, identify the emergence of dangerous levels of inflammatory rhetoric and spot discriminatory laws or practices that individually we would miss. And they can then mobilise to act, quickly and effectively. All the while they work to tackle the seeds of prejudice and hate in young people. They are constantly building and rebuilding our defences, because they understand that progress must always be renewed.

All of this can seem quite remote when you're on the bus to your job or out in town having dinner with your partner. But the work that these sorts of campaigns do is much closer than you think, because defending the progress we've made allows us to do all these things on a daily basis. So for those who've never been involved in the struggles that led us to where we are today, it's never too late. It might not always be obvious, but to repeat what Stonewall keeps saying - because ultimately they are right - there's still work to do.