Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Why create a scene?

The Lesbian and Gay Pride march was bigger than ever this year. Kevin Ovenden and Jane Lewis talked to Nicola Field and Colin Wilson, who have written new publications on lesbian, gays and socialism, about lifestyles and liberation
Sign of the times

KO: How would you describe the situation that gays are in now, 26 years after Stonewall? We have seen the growth of the gay scene and more people coming out. At the same time there's a real question about how much gays have achieved, with the defeat over the age of consent, and the attack on gays in the military.

CW: There has been progress in terms of visibility. For example, there are now lesbian characters in soap operas, and there are more books available--it is much more acceptable to be gay. Gay Times did a list of 200 famous gays in Britain which would have been inconceivable 25 years ago. That is real progress which can help young people come to terms with their sexuality. But at the same time a lot of the things that the gay movement has started to fight are still there--the attitude of the police, the law being unequal, attitudes in schools where there is often no proper sex education, levels of violence against lesbians and gay men. So in all kinds of ways the oppression is still there as much as it ever was.

NF: Gays experience the same kind of day to day feeling of intimidation that many women do. We may have had a woman prime minister and women top managers, yet you are regularly hassled on the street for being a woman. With gay people it's not just the appalling thing that you cannot show any kind of affection--such as just holding hands with your partner--but you cannot even behave as if you are with somebody, like a couple. You are seen as strange and different. Outside of somewhere like Soho the street is still really intimidating.

JL: The changes have been very superficial. There has been a lot of media hype but we should not exaggerate these changes. There is a kind of post-gay movement which says we are here, we have achieved liberation, and some sections of the movement are buying this. This may satisfy some middle class sections of the gay movement but for the majority of working class gays not much has changed. Suicide rates among gay teenagers are enormous, for example.

NF: You can still be legally sacked for being gay and people do lose custody of their children because they are gay.

KO: It seems to me there are other changes in wider society that we should look at. For example, the public sector union Unison sponsored Gay Pride last year and many unions have good policies over lesbian and gay rights and groups. But sometimes it is a policy that hasn't been acted on. I am thinking particularly of the Clause 28 campaign. In the teachers' union NUT there were a number of campaigns to support teachers who were victimised. What do people think in terms of the wider attitudes towards gays? Do you believe there is greater tolerance towards gays in the working class?

Nicola Field

NF: Ever since I started looking at surveys of attitudes towards gays they have more or less said the same thing: around 60 percent of people have no problem with gays. This seems to be a fairly static figure. Stonewall recently did a survey on coming out at work which found that most people do not have a problem with gay people at work. People who are out on the one hand face more homophobia, but on the other hand they are stronger and are more able to deal with it.

But the leaders of the gay movement who believe that a stake in commercial gay enterprises is a positive step in the right direction have taken the word liberation to mean something else from what we always intended it to mean. No matter what your sexuality is, you can have relationships with who you choose, and providing it is consensual it has nothing to do with the state.

When I did my book I spoke to an employer in one of the gay bars who claimed that, although the gay men who worked in the bar didn't get paid more than elsewhere, they were in fact liberated. They get their liberation by working there, ie they can be out at work. This is a pathetic interpretation of liberation. All it means is you know what kind of jeans to buy, what clubs to go to, what holiday destinations to aspire to. I see it as our opportunity to say what liberation does mean in a socialist society, the kind of society that we want to build.

Colin Wilson

CW: There is a myth in the gay movement that the working class is completely homophobic. This goes completely against my experience. I have never had any problem with the people I work with at Manchester City Council. This has to do with the fact that the sections I work in have always been unionised--there has been a good tradition of organisation. So the attitude tends to be that we are all in the union together, rather than who can we blame or whose fault is it? To some extent there is just lip service from some trade union officials, but the fact that the policies are there is very important. It is difficult for them to refuse if I want to take my union banner on a gay demo.

It is like the situation in fighting racism--you have a minority of workers who are committed anti-racists, or who are committed to gay rights. And most working class people who are faced with black people or gay people are supportive even if they do have a few funny ideas in their heads. Only a small minority of people are real bigots. The biggest thing that has changed in the last 20 years is that more workers have come out, so more working class people know lesbians and gays, and they know we are not child molesters. Therefore it is much harder to have bigoted ideas if you work with someone who is gay.

JL: There has been a shift to the left regarding gay liberation that also reflects the shift to the left generally in society. At the same time, the gay movement is turning its back on that shift, and often missing out on it altogether, because at the heart of the movement is the belief that working class people are homophobic.

KO: If you go back 20 years, people were talking about the fight for gay rights, gay bars and so on but also had a concept--albeit confused--of liberation. Nevertheless it was bound up with some sort of revolutionary change in society. One of the arguments that came up then and still does today is that people who talk about class are really relegating the question of gay liberation. It seems to me now that it is only the socialists who are talking about liberation in the wider sense. What do people think about that?

CW: The whole idea of gay liberation is tied up with revolution. The first organisation established after Stonewall was the Gay Liberation Front, whose name echoed the National Liberation Front, which was fighting American involvement in Vietnam. The GLF sent a message of support to the Black Panthers and received a letter in return from Panther leader Huey Newton which criticised much of the homophobia that existed inside the Panthers. So there was some conception that they were part of an overall movement for change in society. This has now gone completely.

There was a debate in Gay Times a couple of months ago around the issue of assimilation which comes down to begging for assimilation on any terms at all. But the opposite of this is that we cut ourselves off from as much as possible of society, and create some sort of ghetto for ourselves. There is no sense that you can fight to change society. There is huge potential for change because you can see that people's ideas have shifted in favour of gay people, but the politics that dominate the gay movement just turn their back on that completely.

NF: A lot of people have called OutRage! the GLF of the 1990s. Yet although on some points it has been on the left of the gay movement--for example, rejecting a lot of the manoeuvring in parliament and the corridors of power--now the movement has shifted so far to the right that to be on the left of it is not to be very left at all. OutRage! is hoping, against all logic, that Labour will be able to deliver on all kinds of gay equality when it is perfectly clear that Bill Clinton in the US did not deliver. OutRage!'s politics are a kind of revisionism. They have completely wiped out some of the interesting things about the GLF which had a tangible tie in with class politics.

The politics of the gay movement has gone downhill, representing a retreat into 'our' own movement, ie only gays can fight gay oppression, only blacks can fight racism, only women can fight women's oppression. But it is not true that all gay people have the same interests. It has meant that people who were black, gay or women have been pulled in all sorts of directions--and the potential for all the oppressed groups coming together has become more difficult. Socialism now is the only thing that offers liberation to all the oppressed.

JL: There has been an about turn in the gay movement--a complete contrast to the 1970s. Groups like Stonewall take their name from a gay riot, yet their movement is simply a gay lobbying campaign. Even the most left wing of the movement such as OutRage!, and individuals such as Peter Tatchell, talk about a gay 'counter-culture' as the way forward for gay liberation. This accepts a lot of the right wing ideas about gay sexual stereotyping--for example, aggressive dykes, effeminate gay men who are more caring. Even the acceptance that there is a gay gene leads the most left wing of the gay movement down a very dangerous road.

KO: Peter Tatchell has talked about the gay counter-culture, separating ourselves off in order to exert some kind of pressure on society or at least being able to defend ourselves. He has also talked about how to achieve total sexual liberation for humanity--he does have some kind of vision--but the gap between the means and the end leads him to see that coming about through legislation and parliament, or the European Court of Human Rights. This radicalism expresses the anger against gay oppression but at the same time the strategy on offer leads directly to the reformism of Stonewall.

People have talked about the shift to the right in the gay movement, but what experience have socialists had of taking the arguments about gay liberation into the working class movement and winning people to those arguments?

NF: Stonewall was born out of the Section 28 Campaign. This campaign wiped out that lesbian against gay man culture--people came together and it mobilised thousands of people both gay and straight. It was a real mass campaign. But Stonewall attempted to take it out of the streets and into the lawyer's office, and towards lobbying of parliament. A teacher was sacked in Bradford and Stonewall had nothing to offer to win his case. The local NUT threatened to come out on strike and he was reinstated in a matter of hours of the strike decision. It showed to me the potential when you get people organising in the workplace for gay rights and equality.

Identity parade

CW: Most people involved in the gay movement at the moment don't know much about the history of that movement. If you look at the German gay movement at the turn of the century it was supported by the biggest Socialist organisation the SPD (Labour Party) and later on supported by the Communists. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to massive gains for lesbians and gays--the laws against homosexuality that existed under the Tsar were swept away. The Bolsheviks said it doesn't matter about people's sexuality. And in the 1920s in this country when lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall was persecuted over her novel The Well of Loneliness, the South Wales miners supported her. So there is a tradition of workers supporting lesbians and gays.

When the police raided a private party in Bradford a couple of years ago local members of the SWP were able to get signatures on a petition from local trade unionists. Similarly in Manchester earlier this year a gay bookshop was firebombed. We went round local pubs and got 350 people to sign a letter to a local paper condemning the attack, and this was also supported by a whole number of trade unionists. The conclusion of the politics of the gay movement is that it's gays who are 'good guys' and straights who are the 'bad guys' and so it isn't possible to win straight people to fight homophobia. But with class politics it is in the interests of all workers to fight against oppression and therefore to unite against the bosses.

KO: There has been a growth in identity politics and what we call 'lifestylism'. Now it is said that there is much more in being gay than just fancying the same sex, you also have to partake in a certain lifestyle, certain clothes that you wear, music that you listen to. How accessible do you think this is and what do you think of the politics that surround it? How great do you think the influence of this lifestyle politics is, and what opportunities are there for socialists to get their ideas across?

CW: You have gay stereotypes in the press which, if they did the same thing with black people, everyone would say this is outrageous. Part of the reason for this is that the leadership of the gay movement accepts these ideas. It is implied that you're not a proper gay man if you are not done up in the latest fashion. Some people believe this but others resist it, even if they go out on the scene.

NF: Peter Tatchell has recently been wearing a T-shirt that says, 'I can see queerly now'. It's a state of consciousness that you have to achieve--what you have to do to be gay in the 1990s--being a purchasable commodity. In the gay movement identity politics is seen as the radical wing but I think it is the part of the movement most connected to the market. If you aspire to a gay identity it automatically leads to a gay style. You can now buy 'queer' T-shirts, Pride tumblers, rainbow rings. Identity politics, rather than being the left of the movement, is rather the new realist bit of the gay movement--the marketable bit. Gay identity is something that you buy nowadays. OutRage! is seen as the specialist in gay identity politics but some of the things that it does are really baffling. 'Queer theory' does not break down prejudices and ignorance and does not build on the support from straight people. Working class people are potentially the strongest allies that we have. Recently OutRage! suggested a 'cry in' and a 'scream in' at Eros--it is getting more and more bizarre.

KO: With there being more gay people out, especially at work, and with the shift in the working class movement and the trade unions, it does seem to be good grounds to talk about fighting back and taking gay liberation forward. There are a considerable number of young gay men and lesbians who are angry. How should we take up the arguments of identity politics?

NF: People are quite sick of identity politics in a way. There is a real awareness now that they have not worked and are divisive. People are sick to death of a hierarchy of oppressions. There seems to be a kickback against the politics of guilt. Alongside that, groups such as the ANL have been responsible for fighting the Nazis and what they stand for when it comes to gays. It makes it easier to win the argument--that all of us who are threatened by the Nazis can unite--this includes gays, blacks, and trade unionists. Also if you ask people what they think about Blair they realise he's going to do very little when in power, although they believe he's the best we've got. Stonewall are prepared to do anything that Blair says, yet he's not going to deliver. Because he's not trusted, there is potential for socialists to put forward an argument for fundemental change in society.

Over the Rainbow--Money, Class and Homophobia by Nicola Field, is published by Pluto 8 and Socialists and Gay Liberation by Colin Wilson 1.50 published by Bookmarks (0181-802-6145)

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