Thoughts on rights for gays, slaves and women . .


I had the pleasure on Friday night, 23 March, of joining about sixty others at The Tower Hotel in Derry to hear Peter Tatchell speak on the theme of Beyond Straight and Queer. In an engagingly rambling talk, Tatchell, a respected human rights crusader of long standing, predicted a future society in which all citizens recognise within themselves both same-sex and opposite-sex desires, and labels such as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ will be abandoned because “no one will care who loves whom.”

That strikes me as a wonderful scenario, and Tatchell offered a few examples from both the distant and recent past that, he suggested, indicated its inevitability, or at least a certain momentum. But on closer inspection of the examples to which Tatchell referred, the future may not appear that rosy after all.

Tatchell reminded us that early primitive societies accepted homosexuality. The instructive question is: why did that acceptance disappear? Those societies were most often polygamous, polyandrous, and matriarchal. They were unaffected by classes, the state, family, private property, the market or any attributes of class society. This all changed when new technologies (the plough, and the use of metal) enabled the creation of an agricultural surplus - wealth - for the first time in human history.

These new technologies were managed by men, who also sought to control the inheritance of the wealth they were creating. This wealth was eventually concentrated into the hands of a privileged caste of priests and officials which gradually separated itself from the rest of society. Patriarchal class society was born, and with it the need to strictly enforce, for the sake of inheritance and social control, the heterosexual single family, rather than the clan, as the basic economic unit. Polyandry, matriarchy, and homosexuality were seen as threats to the new order, and were proscribed. Our Old Testament is, arguably, a celebration of the ascendency of this new patriarchal order and its attendant ideology, an ideology under which most of the world labours to this day.

Similar arguments can be made for the abolition of slavery and more rights for women, both mentioned by Mr Tatchell.

In relation to slavery, abolition offered three advantages to 19th capitalism - wage labour had proved far more efficient and productive than slave labour; the addition of freed slaves to the labour pool created increased competition for jobs which drove down wages; and wage-earning industrial workers, as opposed to slaves, became a much-needed expanding market for manufactured goods.

Tatchell pointed to the success of the advocacy for women’s rights and against misogynous sexism of the 60’s and 70’s. But this was a pyrrhic victory if there ever was one. A liberating examination of sex roles and prejudices was hijacked and transformed primarily into increased female access to the workplace. This was allowed because at a stroke it greatly increased the reserve labour pool, increased competition for jobs, and drove down wages.

The point is: it’s not the well-intentioned ideology that creates progressive social change: it’s the economic needs of society and the result of the struggle over control and resources.

In general, members of elite society really don’t care one way or the other about straight or queer. Elites have long tolerated homosexuality among themselves, even as they proscribed homosexual behaviour legislatively and ideologically, as a means of social division and control, and in defense of the two-parent heterosexual “family” as the economic unit.

We are living in a time of reaction. Behind the facade of the ‘fiscal crisis’, gains in human rights and social services achieved over the last one hundred years are now under well-funded, coordinated, and very determined and world-wide attack. Among the targets are equal rights for gays, reproductive rights, the teaching of evolution in schools, social services, wages, state-owned natural resources, etc.

Any perceived momentum from past victories will not determine how this conflict will be resolved. We have no laurels to rest on, and only equally determined and coordinated efforts will preserve what rights have been won, and which will be won henceforth.

So, what to do? While I disagree with some of Mr. Tatchell’s more idealistic thinking, I thank him for his appearance in Derry and his analysis. I am personally very impressed by the work of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which has been and continues to be diligent and effective in its work. A donation to that foundation at would be an excellent use of resources in support of our common and continued struggle for human rights for all humans.


James Gaffney

Caiseal na gCorr

Gort an Choirce

Co. Donegal