Champions of Equality: Trade Unions and LGBT rights in Britain by Peter Purton, Lawrence and Wishart, 2017. Reviewed by Terry Conway.
Peter Purton’s book is a real service to labour movement and lesbian, gay bisexual and trans (LGBT) activists in Britain – and, I think, internationally, writes Terry Conway. He chronicles the work done by hundreds of people – most of them nameless – to win British trade unions to support – in deed as well as word –LGBT rights, mainly in a workplace context but more broadly as well.
In terms of legal equality and formal protection we have achieved a great deal from the situation where a person’s sexuality or gender identity (or assumptions about either characteristic) was enough to dismiss them from a job – or prevent their employment in the first place.
But alongside those visible, headline changes, other transformations were taking place which made the others more likely and more sustainable. The LGBT movement itself was growing – and its relationship with the labour movement deepening and strengthening – as part of a broader development in which unions to some extent grappled with the notion that we are not just workers when directly hired by the bosses, but in all aspects of our lives.
That’s the story Peter tells here, often in the words of those who organised alongside him. It’ success both beyond the wildest dreams – and much more limited in its horizons (and in overcoming some of its bitterest divisions)– than most of us dreamt when we started on the roads that led us here decades later.
And these achievements are marked in a context where trade union membership is falling – and getting older and where many LGBT people don’t see the labour movement as a natural partner in fighting to defend their rights – either as LGBT people or even as workers. The ‘mainstreaming’ of LGBT issues has a contradictory impact politically.
The book poses questions – how come, for example, it was David Cameron’s Tory government that finally introduced same sex marriage. It sketches some potential answers; there is often a time lag between what is campaigned for and when it is delivered especially in terms of changes in the law for example, in a quiet and non-dogmatic way.
Peter was the first person employed by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) as LGBT/disability officer in 1998. But Champions of Equality doesn’t only tell the story of the fight for LGBT rights during the 18 years he held that post. Peter was already a major protagonist in the story he tells here, at this particularly point in terms of the role he played inside the Labour Party, long before he got the job – one very good reason for his initial appointment.
But despite his role in this tale that had been going on for over fifteen years by the time he was appointed by the TUC, it’s a collective narrative he weaves, based to a significant extent on interviews with many others who played their part in the tapestry.
But this is not at all to suggest that what Peter is doing is mere reporting. The book constructs a strong political framework in which the narrative unfolds – not only in the sense that it does an excellent job of advocating for its subjects. Purton makes s strong case for trade unionism generally as a central means of fighting against inequality and for social justice. He situates the fight to get unions to take up LGBT issues within the context of liberation politics more generally: the lessons of feminism, of black self organisation and (to a lesser extent) of disability politics all play a part here.
It was very moving for me – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one – when Peter paid tribute to those ‘without whom the book wouldn’t have been written’ at his book launch. I have been at launches for other friend’s books before – and been thanked for my input – but here we were the subject, the actors as well as the audience….And then of course these things become occasions for meeting up with people you haven’t seen for decades as well as toasting those who would have loved to have been there.
And if I needed evidence of the quality of the documentary work that Peter was doing, it jumped off the pages when I read the book. People I had half forgotten, meetings in a different context than I thought – and most extraordinarily an entire project to which I was central – the organisation of a conference on Aids – a trade union issue –which had ceased for some unknown reason to appear in my mental autobiography.
In general, Champions of Equality doesn’t even suggest, let alone argue, that there is a single blueprint for success. It points out that different unions have their own structures and traditions and those wanting to change practice and extend causes need to start from that basis. Learning from what others did successfully can be useful, but if you try to superimpose things too rigidly that can breed resentment.
When it deals with the different traditions in the LGBT movement – divided in general between very radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the more respectable, lobby-type Campaign for Homosexual Equality, Champions of Equality is quick to point out that both approaches had strengths and weaknesses. There is no model.
If there is one question on which Peter Purton is rightly not ambiguous, it’s the question of the need of the movement to organise both around sexual orientation and gender identity. He points out the continuity of views between those who opposed trans inclusion in the 1970s and those doing it almost half a century later – a certain type of radical feminist politics. The narrative way the book deals with history to some extent can be seen as downplaying the intensity of earlier divides. The argument here is simple; the majority of trans activists wanted to organise alongside LGB people to fight for rights and justice – so it was necessary to build an inclusive movement.
Purton does not audibly ask the questions that are troubling many of us today. Are the voices opposing trans inclusion more numerous today when we hear that there is to be a mass resignation from the Labour Party over Labour’s statement – and long-standing position – that all women shortlists are accessible to all women? How can some people people with a history of progressive positions see human rights as a finite cake – if you are given more, I automatically loose out. This is not how dignity works – it’s not the basis on which social movements and the struggles of the oppressed have tried to learn from each other while respecting our specific rhythms traditions and needs. I am so reminded of my favourite badge of the 1970s – we don’t just want more cake, we want the whole bloody bakery!
But to fully analyse those questions, never mind try to answer them adequately, would take another article – never mind another book. In the meantime, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
The millions of people who celebrate Pride (the demonstrations or the film!) across the globe at a far cry from the tiny gatherings of my youth. There is much to celebrate, much to defend. And this book makes and invaluable contribution to tracing the history of how we got here.
Tuesday 20 March, 7.30pm
Community Centre, 62 Marchmont Street, WC1N 1AB
Peter Purton will be speaking about his book, along with Jane Connor of Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners.
Book your free tickets here.
Meeting organised by London Socialist Resistance.