Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
The movement for gay liberation started at a bar in New York when lesbians and gays fought back against police harassment. Kevin Ovenden traces the developments since, and argues that 'identity politics' are not enough to fight sexual oppression
|The GLF styled itself a revolutionary movement|
In June 1969 a routine police raid on the popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn on New York's Christopher Street, touched off three nights of riots and demonstrations. The modern gay liberation movement was born. In the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riot the Gay Liberation Front was formed and exported to Britain in the autumn of 1970.
Now, 25 years on, the oppression of lesbians and gay men is still very much a part of everyday life. The failure of parliament to equalise the age of consent at 16 is one instance. The continued backlash over Aids and increased gay bashing is another. The concerted effort by the Tory government and the 'moral right' to destroy the social gains of the 1960s and go back to the basics of a repressive Victorian morality has had its effect on lesbians and gays. But despite a growing anger at these attacks the lesbian and gay movement has failed to draw wider forces into the struggle. Once characterised by the slogan, 'come together', it is now more fragmented than ever.
The GLF styled itself a revolutionary movement, albeit in a highly confused way. The name itself echoed the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and the GLF declared its solidarity with all movements of the oppressed and exploited. In some quarters this solidarity was reciprocated. Huey Newton of the Black Panthers wrote from his prison cell in 1970 to express his support for the new gay movement. However, the vision of revolutionary change was very vague. In many ways it flowed out of the least political aspect of the 1960s revolt, the 'counter-culture', which emphasised 'dropping out' and establishing an alternative lifestyle.
These ideas went hand in hand with a commitment to build a movement to confront anti-gay bigotry. In Britain the GLF organised sit-ins in bars which refused to serve gays, various marches and protests and contingents on demonstrations like the TUC's march against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill.
The excitement of the new movement temporarily made up for the lack of any clear idea of how to overcome lesbian and gay oppression or indeed where that oppression came from in the first place. But as the initial enthusiasm waned and the movement had to confront real questions, the confusion took its toll. Many activists began to see homophobia not as a product of the nuclear family under capitalism but as an inherent attitude in all straights.
Consequently for them the fight for gay liberation was a fight against all straights irrespective of class. 'Radical drag' and 'radical queenery' were designed to shock the 'straight world' rather than win sections of workers to fight for gay rights. It also provoked a split in the movement. Further splits took place as lesbians effectively left the GLF to focus on the women's movement. The shapeless nature of GLF did not lead to greater democracy but to the emergence of articulate middle class leaders not accountable to any democratic structure. The GLF fell apart in 1972.
In two years it had succeeded in making lesbian and gay liberation a central political issue and had encouraged thousands of, mainly middle class, people to come out openly as gay. It popularised the use of the word 'gay' as a badge of pride in opposition to oppressive terms like 'queer'. It was also an advance on the highly respectable and conservative lobbying organisations like the Committee for Homosexual Equality, which had led the field in the 1950s and 1960s. However, its lasting impact was in the explosion of the gay scene.
The two main campaigning organisations for gay rights today are Stonewall and OutRage! Stonewall is essentially an old style lobbying organisation which focuses on winning the support of celebrities and MPs to win legal reforms. In order to keep the more conservative elements on board, it has distanced itself from militant protest. Stonewall's leaders condemned lesbians and gay men who rioted following parliament's vote against equalising the age of consent.
OutRage! bases its campaigns on direct action, adopting some of the tactics of the GLF: kiss-ins, pickets and demonstrations. In its four year existence it has called some protests which have drawn in significant numbers of people. However, it has not succeeded in building anything like a national movement or in organising the considerable number of lesbians and gay men who want to fight back.
The confused theories of the early movement have been sharpened into a set of ideas--identity politics. The idea that simply asserting your identity is the way to overcome oppression leads away from collective struggle. For those who can afford it, it is possible to assert your identity on the gay scene. Clubbing, shopping and fashion become seen as liberating activities but they are inaccessible to the majority of lesbians and gay men. Furthermore identity politics centres on enlarging the pink economy, making money for gay businessmen, rather than challenging homophobia in the rest of society. The glorification of a particular lifestyle is directly counterposed to winning the widest possible support for the struggle for gay rights.
Frequently the identity which is seen as liberating in fact reflects the pressure of homophobia in society. The idea of a particular gay sensibility often boils down to accepting the reactionary idea that gay men are more caring and artistic and lesbians aggressive and ambitious.
The use of the word 'queer' by many activists is symptomatic of the isolation of the movement. People can choose to call themselves queer within the confines of the ghetto but 'queer politics' is less than attractive to the majority of lesbians and gay men who have no choice about being labelled queer as a term of abuse.
The focus on identity politics leads groups like Outrage! to see protests simply as stunts which can provide publicity. Only small numbers are needed for such stunts and this reinforces the move away from mass struggle. The result is moralism with a handful of activists seeing themselves as acting on everyone else's behalf and blaming the mass of gays and straights for not becoming involved.
Another consequence is to see the struggle for gay liberation as entirely separate from other struggles. This weakens the fight for gay liberation itself. When workers are thrown into struggle they become more receptive to the need to fight for gay rights and against all the divisions which the ruling class creates. A breakthrough on one front weakens the bosses and opens the way for advances on all sides.
It is necessary to place the fight for gay liberation within the overall political picture. Failure to do this has led to serious mistakes. The campaign against homophobic black rappers Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks failed to take into account the tremendous racist backlash against rap music. Calls for banning them added to the howls from the right wing. Instead of winning young blacks to see that black people and gays face a common enemy, it wrote them off as irredeemable bigots.
The last few years have seen explosions of anger against particular attacks such as Clause 28 in 1988, and the recent demonstrations against police harassment in Manchester. But the ideas that dominate the gay scene have held these outbursts back. Separatist arguments have been directed against involving straight workers and against the need for socialist organisation. The need for a politics which breaks out of the ghetto and unites those fighting back, rather than emphasising their differences, has never been clearer.
In the last few months a number of gay magazines have come on the market in Britain. The magazine industry has discovered a new consumer group to target. Three new-style gay magazines--Diva, Attitude and Phase--are different from publications such as Gay Times. These are glossy lifestyle magazines which target lesbians as a new consumer group.
Diva describes itself as a 'lesbian lifestyle magazine'. Its adverts and articles are a showpiece for the pink economy and club scene flourishing in many 'gay villages' in Britain's cities. This month's Phase features articles on fashion, various gay celebrities and reviews of new clubs and restaurants.
These types of gay glossy magazines are already an established market in the US. Out magazine advertises with most major companies from Benetton to Sony. Benetton is now running an advert in Britain featuring two men who look like a couple. Michael Wolf, editor of Out, sums up the attitude: 'Politics aside, it is a smart business decision to advertise with us'.
The new magazines are trying to sell themselves on a wave of media hype about 'lesbian chic'. This is the idea that it is now trendy to be gay. At its most absurd, this is summed up by William Cash of society magazine Harpers and Queen. He says:
'It takes only the most cursory glance at any moderately smart Hollywood party these days to see that the look, at least, of 1990s lesbian chic is very much in vogue... You can forget the cliché of lesbians as fat and ugly types a la Greenham Common... Today's new brand is more interested in looking and feeling sexy than in radical sexual politics.'
Behind this is the right wing claim that gays have now got equal rights and have nothing to complain about. Being a lesbian is even portrayed as a positive career advantage! This goes hand in hand with all the myths about women being liberated from sexism to such an extent that it is now men who are oppressed by sexual harassment. Just as this argument is an insult to women, it is an insult to gays. There is nothing chic about the high incidence of gay suicide, gay bashing or police raids gay clubs. If being gay is so fashionable how come you can't kiss and hold hands in public and it is illegal for gay teenagers to have sex?
Sadly, the myth that gay liberation is won is not just invented by the bigots and companies trying to sell more magazines, it is endorsed by many of the gay contributors themselves. The Phase editorial board describes itself as a bunch of non-political lesbians and gay men celebrating lifestyles.
The collapse of feminism has weakened the idea that being a lesbian is a political statement against 'a male dominated society'. Now a different kind of lifestyle politics is in play. Just as the gay movement in the mid-1970s collapsed into a commercial scene for gay men, the same is happening with 'lesbian politics' today. Lesbian feminism is collapsing. Being a lesbian is no longer about political statements, but about being a consumer. It is a sign of the times that there are now 'lesbian lifestyle' magazines.
The emphasis on fashion and trivia in these new magazines expresses the idea that gays do not like demonstrations and fighting talk. Even Gay Times has launched 'a new look magazine' to compete with the glossies.
This is like many trade unions who have spent a fortune on brochures, credit cards and holiday schemes in the mistaken belief that talking about strikes puts workers off joining the union. Both ideas are being proved wrong by the reality. What the gay movement needs is not more lifestyle politics but the politics of good old fashioned struggle.