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5 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Gay rights and “cultural relativism”

A response to Peter Tatchell

By Petra Davis

“[A] big error by some multiculturalists has been to bow to demands for cultural sensitivity by tacitly accepting that some peoples and communities can be exempt from the norms of universal human rights,” argues the veteran lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) campaigner Peter Tatchell in the Independent today.

Tatchell’s piece is an excerpt from his talk “Multiculturalism: the Subversion of Human Rights?”, given as part of the Glasgay! festival. Citing the conspicuous lack of protections for LGBT people in equality legislation, Tatchell made the case that multiculturalism is leading to the rights of some minorities being prized over those of others. He also alleged complicity from those whose wariness of accusations of racism and Islamophobia could readily be exploited by the religious right, and argues that human rights activists have a moral duty to intervene in one another’s cultures to establish universal human rights.

Tatchell’s central contention — that multiculturalism should not equal cultural relativism — is shared by the activist and campaigner Linda Bellos. “Cultural relativism is destructive,” she agrees. “It sets up a hierarchy of oppression, a kind of competition in which one minority group seeks to claim that it is more oppressed than another. In actual fact, most people have a set of identities that are multiple — so, for example, there are many black people who are also lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and I’m one of those people. For us, setting up a hierarchy of oppression means there’s always conflict.”

Bellos does take some issue with Tatchell’s interventionism, however. “He shouldn’t be working on our behalf — he should be working with us,” she argues. “I continue to take issue with the lack of respect he seems to have for the work already being done.”

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Bellos may have a point. During his talk, Tatchell discussed the importance of his engagement with organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, but mentioned none of the UK’s black and Muslim LGBT organisations. No mention was made of Black Pride, of UK Black Out, or the Black Gay Men’s Advisory Group, with which Tatchell has previously worked very successfully on the Stop Murder Music! campaign and the Reggae Compassionate Act.

The tensions Tatchell explores in his talk are manifest, but there is still room for dialogue. This will naturally involve sometimes painful criticisms of others; but perhaps the work is best done in co-operation with, not on behalf of, LGBT people from different communities.