Peter Tatchell: 'It's time we put sexual freedom back on the LGBTQ campaign agenda'

The community is facing relentless pressure to desexualise Pride so as not to offend the straight public and our own LGBTQ conservatives, writes Peter Tatchell.


This article first appeared in Attitude issue 311, Summer 2019

Whatever happened to the ideals of sexual liberation? Compared with the early LGBTQ pioneers in the years after the 1969 Stonewall uprising, much of today’s queer movement steers clear of sex.

It does not challenge erotophobia or affirm the beauty, value and joy of sexual expression, preferring to play safe and sanitised. Cocks, pussies and arses are deemed embarrassing and shameful.

Sex is off the agenda. Nudity is a no, no. Sadomasochism and other fetishes are pushed back into the closet. They are the naughty, unrespectable desires that now dare not speak their name.

Pride marchers are urged to cover up. Flaunting our bodies and exposing our flesh is deemed to be a negative image. Too much allusion to sex. Raunchiness and kinkiness is bad PR. We must now be “family-friendly” and not frighten the horses — or the Daily Mail.

There is relentless pressure to desexualise Pride so as not to offend the public and our own LGBTQ conservatives, with their straight minds trapped in queer bodies.

The early Pride parades did not shy away from sex rights. After all, it was our sexual acts that were criminalised and stigmatised. We were persecuted because of what we did in bed and with whom. We therefore had to defend our right to have sex with a person of the same gender and in any mutually consenting way we wished.

Fifty years later, while claiming to honour the spirit of Stonewall, our lead LGBTQ organisations don’t campaign for sex rights any more. That’s way too controversial. They more often reflect traditional heterosexual aspirations and push the straight agenda of marriage and parenting rights.

Cuddly, safe issues are the new normal. We are in danger of becoming queer facsimiles of traditional morality.

Unlike the Stonewall generation, most of us don’t dare demand sexual liberation: the right to explore and express diverse sexual desires, including the wild, weird and wonderful. We increasingly mimic the Puritanism and sexphobia of mainstream hetero society.

Consensual adult sadomasochism, leather, bondage and rubber are part of the LGBTQ scene and are just as valid as vanilla sex for those who enjoy them. So why do many of us sit in judgment and spurn them as negative and even offensive? Why do some wish they would go away?

 The issue is not whether you or I love fetishes, but whether we respect the right to be different. This includes the right of our kinky friends to be themselves, regardless of our own tastes and whims. This is a million miles from the sexual-freedom agenda of the Gay Liberation Front I was part of in the years after the Stonewall riots.

 We not only proclaimed that gay is good, but also that sexual rights are human rights. We should all be free to enjoy any consenting adult sex we wish, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity — and those rights extend to straight, non-binary and cis gender people, as well as LGBTQ ones.

Our premise was that sex is for pleasure, not just for reproduction. That it is fun, fulfilling and fabulous — and that it should carry no shame or stigma.

What we wanted was a new sexual democracy where human beings could enjoy sexual health and happiness.

We were pro-sex and proud to affirm its many virtues. Who says that nowadays? Today, many people, including in our own movement, seem obsessed with the risks and dangers of sex, to the extent that they neglect its pleasures and benefits.

While it is right to educate people about HIV, warn young people about grooming, exploitation and other down sides, the negatives often get more attention than the positives. The imbalance is all wrong. It projects sex as a threat to our well-being when it can and should be a source of mental, emotional and physical upliftment.

As we celebrate 50 years since the Stonewall uprising, let’s reconnect with, and embrace, that generation’s sexual emancipation agenda.

Say it loud and say it proud: we love sex, sex is good for us and sexual rights are human rights.