The price of equality? A cautionary note.

ERG Chair, Felix Alvarez, OBE.

Opinion article by Felix Alvarez published by the Gibraltar Chronicle on Monday, 12 July 2021.

You went to a gay-friendly place for a drink. There were rainbow flags, there was a fun ambience. You danced. You felt free.

Until it came to paying. Then you realised that what cost you a pretty penny elsewhere, here it was costing a pretty penny plus!

There’s a price that’s too often levied for the enjoyment of ‘equality’, and not always paid with money. It’s called ‘the scene’. Entrepreneurs are looking for niche markets. They’re risking perhaps losing some mainstream custom in favour of gaining others. No pain without gain logically rules! Thankfully, some exceptions to the rule can always be found.

Yet in impersonal cities like London, Manchester, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam, and even in small European hot-spots such as nearby Torremolinos, business people have created havens where clients need give no explanation; where being yourself is welcome. That’s mostly characteristic of the big metropolises; they have the space, the ‘social distancing’ let’s call it. They have the relative anonymity of oases in their desert.

And yet even there a problem, a contradiction, arises.

Because while becoming known as a special focus for anything in service of freedom, it also endorses a statistically unrepresentative concentration, and thus a parody of itself since, in fighting discrimination, we help create spaces packed with singularity, monocultures lacking diversity. For instance, build yourself a racial or ethnic safe haven and the problem of supremacist violence increases. A ‘gay area’ (Chueca in Madrid, the Canal district in Manchester are just two examples) provides a sense of community and well-being, but the price is the corollary: it also presents an easy target for homophobia (as it is, both these areas are known for serious attacks). Furthermore, it distorts property prices, and creates pockets of distance between different sectors of the community. In other words, the consequence is that diversity is structurally ‘tolerated’ but not accepted. In Gibraltar, I remember a precautionary policeman having to be posted near one of the first gay Pride night events some years back, just in case! These things are not unconnected.

And yet the gay liberation movement has always been about freedom. Liberation was and is about fulfilment, about spreading more justice throughout the whole of society. Beating a retreat to a corner of the world does not fulfil that.

For twenty-one years, Equality Rights Group (ERG) has fought for solid, fundamental rights to bring fairness to the LGBT+ community and, crucially, to others, too. Over and again and across the years we have been approached to support entrepreneurial projects to create gay bars, gay this and gay that. We have never seen that as the purpose of equality. Except on one occasion, where we supported an initiative (‘Positive Business’) to encourage retailers on Main Street and elsewhere to display positive support of LGBT+ custom. But that never took off, despite the publicity and the Ministerial backing. As with one mind, business in Gibraltar shied away from a perceived risk to their margins.

Indeed, in a roundabout way, they could have been right. Isolating sectors in a tiny community rather than incorporating them may create problems of all sorts, not least of which is the need to ‘charge’ for equality somehow. And that, as I’ve explained to prospective investors, makes me uncomfortable.

And yet, LGBT+ citizens deserve entertainment and relaxation where the pressures of straight society are removed. The question is: ‘at what price’? Is it ok to pay more than anyone else for the privilege of being allowed to be relatively free? Is it ok to withdraw from larger society and not insist on being a rightful part of it? Is it ok to let society off the hook from the just demand which that implies? As founder and Chair of ERG, I have never agreed to do that; when we brought in Civil Partnership, we insisted on straight people also having access, despite resistance. When we fought for full marriage for same-sex couples, we demanded that it could not be done as a separate ‘gay marriage’ law, but as a small amendment to everyone’s Civil Marriage legislation. Because only that can be called ‘equal’.

Entrepreneurs can’t be blamed for offering a niche service because they calculate profit. It’s the consumer society, after all. ERG is no one to argue against choices freely made. Yet again, the question is: ‘but are they freely made’?

Are they freely made when you have to prefer to go to specific restaurants, specific bars or other places of entertainment or business because of your identity status? Are they freely made when all other social businesses do not openly promote your inclusion? How much progress do we make in social justice when we fail to mix freely and openly (in short, to be visible) in wider society? Is that ‘Pride’? That certainly falls far short of visibility.

The pressure and the focus must not be to create exclusive zones, exclusive services, or exclusive events in order to be ‘free’, but to insist on all of them being free and comfortable for all. Entrepreneurs, politicians and citizens at large should see profit and advantage in inclusion and equality, and not in secession and separation. And we don’t have to follow anyone else’s road map, though it may be simpler.

ERG is not and never has been a social entertainments organisation. As a mere taster model of what is, in actual fact, possible we did organise Gibraltar’s first official Pride event eight years ago, on Saturday 15th June 2013, where the then slogan ‘We are One’ was first ideated, to be subsequently re-adopted for Pride month 2021. Importantly, it was celebrated not only on a gay basis, but on a whole community-inclusive platform, aiming to serve as a model for a small environment such as ours; and not merely a copy/paste of big-city approaches lock, stock and barrel. And it was a wide, participatory success.

Government funded much of that. Government helped with the organisation to a certain extent. If this year’s initiative by the Minister for Equality in arranging a whole Pride month of offerings, additional to the videos and receptions elsewhere which coincided with the naming of an openly gay Mayor for Gibraltar, is anything to go by, it may well be that Government is now moving towards promoting yearly Pride-type events, and perhaps more throughout the year. At a time of what is likely to be increasing fiscal tightness, outsourcing or privatisation could be a temptation since extra expense, while cutting back on socially more pressing matters, may be difficult . In these circumstances, any Administration could sleep-walk into arrangements that will hand over events as events, show for show, without considering what the impact for our small society might be.

As a human and civil rights organisation, we are duty-bound to do just that.

What may work in very large cities elsewhere need not necessarily be good for tiny societies such as ours. Profit motive may not necessarily be the best motivator for the dissemination of social freedoms.

During Pride 2021, in both interviews and press releases, I made a point of expressing my surprise that for over two decades ERG has remained the sole voice of the LGBT+ community. In other places a number of different voices arise and cohabit the space. In part, that’s because ERG was laying down the important foundations for change that no one else wanted to touch at the time. Another element is that we specialise in human and civil rights, and that requires particular skills and focus. What’s more, it’s not easy work. And law after law and policy after policy had to tumble and new ones arise to open up the social environment for others to come along and feel free to be public, and to advocate in the open air at last, instead of in the dark. The Mayor of Gibraltar, Christian Santos, openly admitted during a presentation event held during Pride month at City Hall that without ERG’s work, he would not be in the open place he finds himself in now. Today, he would not watch a Gibraltar Pride march from the side-lines as in 2013, but be an integral part, I am sure. And that is an honest illustration of what has thankfully happened to many people in our community over the past more than two decades.

Let us welcome and encourage, therefore, new initiatives from within our community. Let us be open to different skills that emerge from within the roots of our society. Simply transplanting what has worked for and by others elsewhere to our little parcel could be short-sighted, however temptingly easy. Changes must arise from within ourselves.

Now that we have set the foundations for increased liberty, let’s be wise. It’s the long-view that matters. When Jefferson said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, he said it all; even in and especially with respect to equity.

Decision-makers take heed!