Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1998

Sexuality, Morals and Justice: A Theory of Lesbian and Gay Rights and the Law, by Nicholas Bamforth

reviewed by Antony Grey

This discussion, by a Cambridge academic lawyer, of the philosophical and logical strengths and weaknesses in the various arguments commonly advanced in Britain and North America for and against legal recognition of lesbian and gay rights is a worthwhile exercise. It repays the mental effort required to follow the author’s arguments, and is refreshingly free from academic jargon – although I would have appreciated definitions of some of the terms used (e.g. “perfectionist”) instead of having to work out their intended meaning. I do also think that publishers of closely argued academic books should be prepared to spend the bit of extra money required to place footnotes on the relevant page, so as to save readers the trouble of constantly dodging back and forth.

All lesbian and gay activists, whether “moderate” or “radical”, will benefit from considering Mr Bamforth’s criticisms of their favoured campaigning stances. He regards claims for legal and social equality, or even positive discrimination, based upon assertions of the fixed nature of our sexuality, respect for privacy, or liberationist “queer theory”, as logically flawed and sometimes counterproductive in practice. His own preferred platform is the desirability, in a social democracy, of empowering all citizens with the maximum degree of personal autonomy, of which their sexuality – of whatever orientation – is an essential component.

He is also guardedly sceptical of the potential usefulness of law reform as a major focus of activity, indicating that although legal improvements do produce benefits, these will remain limited without a great deal of ongoing educational and other “outreach” work in the community. While I heartily agree with him about the latter, I am less dismissive of law reform as a central plank in our social integration, being very aware of the crucial role of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act – flawed in detail though it was – in paving the way for the emergence of visible gay identity and politics in the 1970s.

This is an intelligent and stimulating book which presents the various viewpoints discussed accurately and fairly, whatever the author’s criticisms of them. The only error I noticed was the incorrect statement on page 31 that heterosexual buggery remains illegal: in fact, it was decriminalised by Section 143 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

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