How historic revolutionaries build resistance today
1960s gay liberationists
Earlier this month I went to see the exhibition Revolutions, Records and Rebels: Five years that shook the world at the Melbourne Museum. It focuses on the late 1960s, a period described as a moment when youth culture drove optimistic idealism, motivating people to come together and question the establishment across every area of society. The exhibition includes the Stonewall riots, which inspired the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in New York. From the east coast of the U.S. new demands and a vision for complete emancipation soon rippled across large parts of the world, including here in Australia.
These were heady times. In the U.S. the civil rights movement was making waves. Anti-imperialist sentiment was sweeping the globe as colonies fought for their independence. Anti-war sentiment was seething—especially amongst young people—who not only opposed the war in Vietnam, they sympathised with the Communist aspirations of the Vietcong. Workers were striking. In 1968 Paris was in revolt. Early environmentalists, such as Rachel Carson, laid the foundations for eco-socialism. Women were asserting their independence and demanding equality. Is it any wonder that what we now refer to as the LGBTIQA+ community got swept up in the mood of revolt?
The story of the riots, precipitated by a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn, has become iconic, right down to the parking meter ripped from its foundation and used as a battering ram. The grungy New York bar catered to a camp clientele—amongst them young working class queers from Harlem. Many, including butch lesbians and trans women, rebelled against the gender binary. A significant number of the patrons were people of colour—especially Puerto Ricans, African Americans and Latinas/os. The bar was an oasis where people could relax and be themselves, even though it was run by the mafia, the drinks were watered down and overpriced, and the threat of police harassment was ever present. While there is debate amongst historians and participants about why this police raid on 28 June 1969 sparked a militant reaction, it was a product of the times. The cops raided, patrons rebelled and, as we now know, some of those in the lead were trans women of colour, including Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson.
Stonewall is well known, but this was not the first time LGBTIQ people fought back. Three years earlier, the transgender patrons at Compton’s Cafeteria, a restaurant in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, resisted police harassment and rioted on the streets. Also less known is some of the history of homosexuals organising before Stonewall. The exhibition I enjoyed at the museum includes material produced by pioneering organisations, such as the Daughter of Bilitis (DOB) and the Mattachine Society—both cautiously appealing for acceptance. One famous pre-Stonewall protest took place outside the White House. Part of the strategy was to be just like everyone else: the men wore neat suits and ties, and the lesbians wore smart dresses with stockings and heels. The goals of this 1965 rally were to the repeal of anti-gay laws, declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and equal treatment for gay federal employees.
Those who formed and joined Mattachine and DOB were brave trailblazers, and it would be wrong to pit the pre-Stonewall movement against the flowering of resistance that followed. Many of those who paved the way, doing what was possible in the shadow of McCarthyism, were the same people on the front lines of gay liberation a few years later. Gay communist and unionist, Harry Hay, founded the Mattachine society in Los Angeles in 1950. He went on to become an important leader in gay liberation, inspiring the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men who resisted masculine gender roles.
The events that occurred 50 years ago did not create a movement from nowhere. Instead, Stonewall changed the character of the movement. Post Stonewall gay lib junked assimilationist aspirations. Emboldened by the politics of the era, the movement evolved to become out, proud and flagrantly different. Gay lib had a different analysis and adopted different tactics. There was an explosion of political ideas in the late sixties and through the seventies, and this led to a movement that embraced the anti-establishment politics of the time with its vision of freedom, equality and talk of revolution. Gay lib made a special contribution with its celebration of sexuality alongside the questioning of gender roles, monogamy and the institution of the family. To get an appreciation of the times, I highly recommend the collection Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca (2009).
1970s socialist feminists
I got involved in the struggle a decade after Stonewall and benefited from early programmatic works by Marxist feminists in the movement, including members of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party. While some queers were happy to come out, embrace the lifestyle of the early seventies, to party and dream of liberation, the more serious in all the movements, including gay lib, wanted to nut out how a better world could be achieved. For gay lib, the key to this was getting to the roots of homosexual oppression. Why were gay men, lesbians and everyone who challenged compulsory heterosexuality or didn’t conform to the strict gender binary reviled? Why was there a price for coming out of the closet? What was the source of homophobia and transphobia?
Key to socialist feminism is the understanding that society has not always been patriarchal, and women have not always been oppressed. The earliest societies, prior to the rise of private property, were matriarchal and communal. As a society developed the capacity to produce beyond its immediate survival needs (a surplus), social divisions emerged, and the technology was in men’s hands. All this led to what Fredrick Engels called the world historical defeat of women. Instead of being respected equals in the public sphere, women became enslaved in the private world of the male-headed family.
The twin part of this theory is that the pre-private property societies were not only matriarchal: sexuality was free and there was not a rigid gender binary. A great deal of meticulous research has unearthed important examples, which prove transgender people existed in these societies. Evidence of this can be found amongst First Nations people everywhere, including Asia, the Pacific, Native American tribes such as the Navajo and the people of the Tiwi Islands.
The Radical Women Manifesto provides a pithy encapsulation of how matriarchy was overthrown by patriarchy:
To Marx and Engels, styles in family and sexual relations are varied, historical and transitory rather than biological, cultural or psychological absolutes. The form of the family is determined ultimately by economics and by property relationships. The family changes accordingly throughout history as social systems replace each other (Radical Women, 2001, p. 22).
The key reason LGBTIQA+ people are oppressed today is that queer lives are a direct threat to compulsory heterosexuality and the sanctity of the patriarchal monogamous nuclear family, which is a key institution of capitalism. While sexism, homophobia and transphobia are policed in different ways, they all have the same source—the rise of private property. Achieving lasting liberation for LGBTIQA+ people means permanently eradicating the source of oppression—the capitalist system, built upon the pillars of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Gay lib in the late 60s and 70s was a product of the times, and large swathes of the movement embraced anti-capitalist ideas. There was widespread belief that a new world was possible. But by the late 70s, this was subsiding.
1980s queer capitalists
The primary reason was that the economy started to nosedive, and the ruling class wanted to put a lid on rising revolutionary expectations. By the 80s, the world economy was mired in recession and plagued by double-digit inflation and deficit spending. A combination of tactics—both carrot and stick—was used. The stick was state infiltration, harassment and spying. This was particularly the case in the U.S. but there’s also evidence of state snooping and manipulation in Australia. Let us not forget the role played by U.S. imperialism in the ousting of the Whitlam government elected in 1972: The militancy of the mass movements in the 1960s and early 1970s had forced the ruling class to deliver significant reforms. Whitlam’s ousting in 1975 was the beginning of the take-back.
By way of inducements, capitalism did deliver some reforms, which created space for queer capitalists to set up shop. Plus, small funding grants were offered to movement groups, which started a process of NGOisation—the taming of movements through financial dependency. For example, in the early 80s, gay liberationists in Melbourne received some funding to assist with the publishing of OutRage magazine. Set up to cater for the diverse queer community, the publication eventually abandoned radical journalism for pink dollar politics, and its audience became affluent gay men. Although all oppressed people were in motion in the 1960s and 70s and movements influenced each other, most remained single-issue. The Red Letter Press pamphlet, A Workers Guide to 20th Century, described the problem this way:
… while the direct blows delivered by the system were staggering, the movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s suffered other fatal weaknesses: internal divisions caused by racism, sexism and homophobia; the lack of politically healthy, mass-based socialist parties capable of providing a revolutionary program and leadership; and isolation from the labour movement, where all parts of the working class are brought together and can effectively express their power (Cornish, 2000, p. 1).
1990s+ queer visibility & marriage equality movements
Despite the changed character of the movement birthed by Stonewall, the LGBTIQA+ community always retained a radical edge, because the importance of coming out and being open about sexuality and gender identity did not go away. The community influenced every corner of society as gay men, lesbians, transgender people and queers of every stripe insisted on being visible and demanded respect. This strategy was crucial, because almost everyone had a friend, family member or workmate who was LGBT. People enjoy music performed by queers, watch TV shows and movies with LGBT characters. Michael Kirby, an openly gay man, had a distinguished career as a High Court judge. The ALP leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, is a lesbian of colour. And, with the Women’s World Cup in the international spotlight, and Australia going a little soccer mad, Matildas captain and open lesbian Sam Kerr, is the hero of the day.
The immediate post-Stonewall generation, with its in-ya-face rejection of the monogamy and critique of marriage and the family, would not have recognised the aspirations of the marriage equality movement. On the surface, demanding to be part of an oppressive, patriarchal institution hardly seemed daring. But those, like Radical Women, who dug deeper concluded that elements of this fight had radical potential. Reforms such as no-fault divorce and women entering the workforce en masse were already starting to weaken marriage. Based on inheritance and extracting women’s free labour, the institution’s vice-like grip is slowly loosening. Winning same-sex marriage equality would build on this trend. Radical Women played a leading role in this decade-long fight, co-organising and speaking at the earliest rallies to protest the Howard government’s same-sex marriage ban. We intervened with our Marxist feminist analysis, calling out the sexist and oppressive role of the family while explaining how winning marriage rights for queers would help transform this institution into its opposite.
Winning marriage equality was a huge fight and an important victory, but it came at a price. On the positive side, many who are not themselves LGBTIQA+ joined the fight. But unfortunately, over time the fight for marriage equality lost its edginess when it became single-issue. Shorn of any kind of radical analysis, many drawn into the fight now think the battle has been won; they’ve folded up their rainbow flags and headed home. Despite recent welcome global gains, such as winning marriage equality in Taiwan and the decriminalisation of sex between same-sex couples in Botswana, the liberation demanded by the post-Stonewall movement is as far as ever from being won, including in Australia.
Contemporary intersectionality & the resurgent Right
Focusing movement energy on the single demand for marriage equality for so many years rendered many issues crucial to LGBTIQA+ people invisible. Those in the community who are young, Indigenous, refugees, homeless, with disability, immigrant, poor, people of colour, incarcerated, living in remote or regional Australia or with a mental illness have been left behind. Queer issues intersect with every other struggle—homophobia and transphobia exacerbate the struggle. A high portion of LGBTIQ youth are homeless (Hillier et al., 2010). In the post marriage equality landscape, the transgender community in Australia—especially transgender youth—have increasingly become targets. This is reflected in the demonisation of the Safe Schools Coalition.
Homophobic and transphobic violence is on the rise globally. In Brazil, violence against the LGBTIQ community has reached staggering proportions. Marielle Franco, a Black bisexual socialist feminist politician from the favelas, was killed in what is widely seen to be a political murder. The country is an extremely dangerous place to be trans. In the 12 months prior to Bolsonaro taking office, 167 trans people were murdered in Brazil (McCoy, 2019). In the U.S. LGBTIQ people are more likely to be the targets of hate crimes than any other community—now more targeted than African Americans, Muslims and Jews (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016).
U.S. research, produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has found that as queers make gains, the homophobes and transphobes are becoming more violent in their opposition (https://www.splcenter.org/). The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in the U.S. collects data about LGBT murders. They found that in the four-year period from 2012 to 2015, the clear majority of those murdered were Black or Hispanic transgender women—the same group that played such a pivotal role at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2018). A separate report by the Human Rights Campaign found that in 2018, 26 transgender people were murdered in the U.S. the majority Black trans women (Human Rights Campaign, 2019). This year, five Black trans women have been murdered, including two recent killings in Dallas. Transgender women of colour are facing an epidemic of violence as racism, sexism and transphobia intersect. Here in Australia, it was this intersection that led to the death in custody of Aboriginal sistagirl, Veronica Baxter, who was denied access to her hormone treatment in the New South Wales prison system.
Trans women of colour played such a critical role at Stonewall, but clearly life today is damn tough for this segment of the LGBTIQ community. In fact, as late capitalism unravels, life is pretty damn tough for all LGBTIQ folks who are not rich, white, male, able-bodied and cisgendered. And let’s face it, that it pretty much all of us! Things might be OK for gay airline executive Alan Joyce, who heads Qantas. But for the young LGBTIQ call centre workers in the Australian Services Union, who lost their jobs when Qantas moved them offshore to cut wages, things are not so good. Life might be grand for Jason Grenfell Gardner, a gay CEO who works in global pharmaceuticals. But it is far from terrific for poor people living in parts of the world without any form of drug subsidies, who contract HIV because they cannot afford the $2,000 a month charged by price-gouging, big pharma for the life-saving drug PrEP. Or then there is the success story of Trevor Burgess, the first openly gay CEO of a bank on the New York Stock Exchange. I am sure things don’t look nearly as upbeat for the transgender woman eking out a living as a sex worker who, despite having an accounting qualification, has been unemployed for years, having been turned down for job after job.
It is true that the movement has made some fantastic gains over the last 50 years through the efforts of tenacious organising by millions of queers globally, but the benefits of these gains are far from evenly distributed. And even when we do win gains, it is necessary to fight to hang onto them. It only takes a cursory glance at the post-marriage equality landscape in Australia to make the point. The postal survey was imposed on the community by the right wing, on its terms, with the goal of defeating demands for marriage equality. Winning the popular vote so strongly was a victory for LGBTIQ people. This was ultimately the result of half a century of organising. But having won this reform, the fight now will be to keep it. The right wing is not going away. Their latest tactic is organising to entrench so-called religious freedom. This demand is little more than a call to green-light the right to discriminate.
Making common cause
As the global economic crisis worsens, we are living in an ever-more polarised world with the far right gaining increasing influence in many countries. Fascists and neo-Nazis are seeking to build movements, supported by their parliamentary enablers. To do this, they need scapegoats to distract people from the real source of their misery. The LGBTIQ community is right up there, joined by a range of other targets—foreigners, the unpatriotic, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, single mothers, people on welfare, the unemployed, First Nations, refugees, urban elites, greenies, political correctness, halal food, fake news, socialists and anarchists. The targets may vary, but the end goal of fascism is to remove all democratic rights, crush the trade unions and the ability of the working class to resist.
While 21st century fascists may present in slightly different ways, we have really seen this all before, and we must learn the lessons from history. Long before Stonewall and Harry Hay founding Mattachine, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld formed the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897 in Germany—the first homosexual rights organisation anywhere in the world (Dickinson, 2014). Hirschfeld and his colleagues organised for three decades, making important inroads. This era saw the rise of a vibrant and visible gay and lesbian community in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. This was all swept away when Hitler and his Nazis came to power and homosexuals, alongside of Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, Slavic people, non-Europeans, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic clergy, Soviet citizens and Spanish Civil War refugees were all systematically murdered.
In the current polarised environment, we must be ready to defend every gain won by the LGBTIQ movement over the last 50 years. We can certainly see how reforms can be rolled back by looking at the current precarious state of abortion rights, which are being steadily eroded in the U.S. The most crucial steps for the LGBTIQ community now are to make common cause with everyone the far right seeks to target. We urgently need to unify with a common goal to stand together against the bigots and fascist bully boys to stop them now. We need a broad and democratic united front to mobilise in massive numbers, ready for collective self-defence every time they seek to organise. We need to drown out their toxic message and stop them from growing and cohering a mass movement. We can’t afford to be disunited or to dismiss the threat. And we certainly can’t rely on the capitalist state to do the job for us. Right here in Melbourne, Radical Women has direct experience with being part of protests where police frustrate anti-fascists while openly assisting neo-Nazis to parade through the city wearing swastika insignia. Just this month, neo-Nazis crashed the Pride March in Detroit. The film footage of police facilitating the Nazis’ provocative march through the Pride parade should be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks the police are somehow on our side.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson and all who rebelled for three nights on the streets of New York in June 1969 knew that the police are not our saviour. The LGBTIQ community of Auckland, which recognised that Maori and Pacifika members of the community would not feel safe or welcome at Pride while uniformed police were marching, understand this. The LGBTIQ community in Moscow, which faces police repression and laws that make it illegal to hold a Pride March will sure as hell appreciate this. The team from Melbourne’s much-loved Hares & Hyenas bookshop working to physically and mentally recover from a mistaken police raid earlier this year will surely understand this, too!
Reflecting for the future
The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is an important time for the LGBTIQ community and all who support queer liberation to stop, pause, reflect and strategise about what next. One person who has done this is Edmund White, who was part of the Stonewall Riots. He wrote earlier this month in The Guardian, as a middle-class white 29-year-old who’d been in therapy for years trying to go straight, ‘I was initially disturbed by seeing all these black and brown people resisting the police, of all things’ (White, 2019). He remembers, when someone shouted, ‘Gay is good’ in imitation of ‘Black is beautiful’; ‘we all laughed; at that moment, we went from seeing ourselves as a mental illness to thinking we were a minority’ (White, 2019). This really encapsulates the essence of Stonewall—it changed consciousness and raised expectations. White remembers, ‘I felt exhilarated by the expression of the indignation I’d repressed for so long. I was joining in, despite my years of submission’ (White, 2019). And join in he did! He describes the times, no one wanted to imitate straight life; the community were against ‘assimilation’. He still lives in New York and the title of his piece, White men were the first to benefit from gay liberation but it can’t end there, gets to the nub of the question. He concludes,
The first group to benefit from the freedom won 50 years ago were white men; now the struggle continues among young lesbians, people of color, the trans population—and all those living under dangerously rightwing, hostile religious regimes. In a sense this return to gender fluid people and gay and lesbian people of color is a recapitulation of the original Stonewall warriors, those drag queens and tough kids from Harlem. They have given new life to a movement that in big-city America at least has become dull, uninspired and materialistic (White, 2019, p. 1).
We’re seeing the same trend that White noted from his New York vantage point happening here in Australia. The movement is being re-energised and it is the most oppressed injecting the new leadership and vision. It really is time for Rainbow Warriors to unite. It is time to unite, to take stock of the challenges and to build serious organisation from the diffuse community and broad radical milieu. We’re living in tough times with immense potential and real risks. Serious Rainbow Warriors should seek to forge united front resistance to take on the right, build their own leadership and look to join organisations with a proven track record and political program, such as Radical Women.
Cornish, M. (2000). ‘A Worker’s Guide to the 20th Century’. Freedom Socialist Party, 2000(1). Retrieved from https://www.redletterpress.org/redreaders.html#guide
Dickinson, E. (2014). ‘Homosexual Rights’. In E. Dickinson (Ed.), Sex, Freedom and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914 (pp. 152-176). London: Cambridge University Press.
Hillier, L., Jones, T., Monagle, M., Overton, N., Gahan, L., Blackman, J., & Mitchell, A. (2010). Writing Themselves In 3: The Third National Study on the Sexual Health and Wellbeing of Same-sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People. Retrieved from Melbourne: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ssay/assets/downloads/wti3_web_sml.pdf
Human Rights Campaign. (2019). ‘Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2019’. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019
McCoy, T. (2019). ‘Anyone could be a threat’: In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, LGBT people take personal defense into their own hands. The Washington Post,. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/anyone-could-be-a-threat-in-bolsonaros-brazil-lgbt-people-are-taking-personal-defense-into-their-own-hands/2019/07/21/5aaa7578-a716-11e9-a3a6-ab670962db05_story.html?noredirect=on
Mecca, T. A. (2009). Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. (2018). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and HIV-Affected Hate and Intimate Partner Violence in 2017. Retrieved from http://avp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/NCAVP-HV-IPV-2017-report.pdf.
Park, H., & Mykhyalyshyn, I. (2016). ‘LGBT People Are More Likely to Be Targets of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group’. New York Times,. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/16/us/hate-crimes-against-lgbt.html
Radical Women. (2001). Radical Women Manifesto. Santa Monica: Red Letter Press.
White, E. (2019). ‘White men were first to benefit from gay liberation—but it can’t end there’, The Guardian,. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/commentisfree/2019/jun/19/white-men-were-first-to-benefit-from-gay-liberation-but-it-cant-end-there
Alison Thorne is a founding member of the Melbourne chapter of Radical Women which hosted this talk at a discussion on 29 June 2019 in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Thorne is a veteran LGBTIQ liberationist and a union delegate. She represents the Freedom Socialist Party in PUSH: Organising and educating for a united front against fascism. Check out Radical Women on www.radicalwomen.org or Facebook Radical.Women.Australia, or contact Radical Women at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Bent Street 3