Ideas of Gay Liberation

19720901-06This article is written from a GLF point of view, by someone who has been involved in the movement since the start. Although the ideas expressed here have been discussed in a small group, they are printed here as an individual contribution.

The gay liberation movement has risen as a response to complex social changes and is one of a variety of protest movements that have arisen since the early 1960’s – eg the Black Movement, the students movements, the youth movements, the womens movements. Although these movements have separate social and economic causes, what unites them is a cultural protest against the standards of modern society. The gay movement, it could be said, is chiefly a cultural revolt against the standards of male-orientated culture. The economic content of gay oppression is small: gay people are rarely openly discriminated against in jobs and housing: the problem is rather one of internalising a cultural attempt to ignore or place homosexuality as a sickness or sin. Gay Liberation is an attempt to go beyond the liberal ability to tolerate homosexuality, while still regarding it as a rather sad misplacement of energy, and to assert the value of homosexuality as the self-expression of a large number of people.

It goes beyond, therefore, the quietish Campaign for Homosexual Equality whatever its merits, on the whole timidly asking favours of society, and on the contrary asserts that homosexuals must control their own lives. But the way in which the gay movement expresses this new confidence differs, not only from country to country, but even within the movement itself – three distinct approaches can be distinguished even within the London movement – we shall call these:

Gay Activism, Gay Radical Feminism and Gay Radicalism.

Gay Activism: This is the attempt to achieve for gays a full measure of equality with straights, legal equality, equal access to jobs and housing, social recognition within the standards of straight bourgeois society, leading to movements for gay marriages, gay churches, better gay ghettoes. In other words it accepts society as it is, and accepts gay roles as they are. It just wants full equality. It is really no different in ends from something like CHE. Gay activists are not apologetic about their homosexuality, so they can be more militant and defiant. But they refuse to think politically, or to make contact with other radical groups and express solidarity. Gay activism is generally for men, often hostile to women. It wants rights for gay people as they are; it does not challenge butch or femme stereotypes, or examine new ways of relating. In America this tendency has produced a separate organisation, but the tendency is reflected in things like the church group, the Jewish group, working within existing societies and beliefs. It can have valuable results, it can help change the law, it can slow down police harassment. But it cannot get into the heart of our oppression as people – in the family, in capitalism, in nationalism. What’s the use of having equality with straights if we are still imprisoned by class, racial and sex divisions?

Gay Radical Feminism: Many of the most fruitful ideas in the gay movement have come from its recognition of a close relationship to the women’s movement. In the recognition of a common enemy, the sexism of a male-chauvinist culture, reproducing through the family imprisoning gender roles, gay men and women can unite with straight women in attacking oppressive standards.

Some of the women have produced out of this attitude an ideology of radical feminism. In its extreme form this sees women as a separate class upon whose oppression all the forms of a sexist society have been moulded. As a result the women’s movement is seen as primary, and its logic is to reject all contact with male culture whatsoever. It is the equivalent tendency in the gay movement which has become the loudest section in GLF.

There seem to be three basic tenets to this ideology:

  1. That for gay people the struggle against sexism is primary.
  2. Therefore the gay struggle is autonomous in the sense that its enemies are all those who uphold male chauvinist structures, whatever else, then gut radical politics. Strategic links should therefore be based solely on enmity to sexism – eg with women.
  3. The method of challenge to these institutions must therefore be modes of behaviour which challenge gender roles and subvert the family, the chief enemy of gay people. In this case it is closely related to ideas of the counterculture, particularly the idea that the best way of getting rid of institutions is to ignore them, to drop out of them, and to develop ways of life of one’s own. By decaying within the whole weight of sexist culture, and capitalism which is supposed to be based on it, will crumble. Gays and women are then, in the extreme flights of fancy of some, going to lead the revolution. They seem to regard themselves as the new ‘vanguard’ and often act with its accompanying arrogance.

This tendency has however made us think afresh our definitions of sexism; it has made us more closely aware of the links between the women’s movement and Gay Lib (though most gay sisters did not need to learn this lesson from men). And it has been useful in making many of us think again about the links between capitalism and sexism.

But is it a worthwhile ideology for real radicals?

Can freaking out, tripping and political drag really subvert society? It might liberate many individuals from their personal hangups: it might release personal energies hitherto repressed. But its chief result has been to turn many gay people inwards, to make them politically passive. Can a long individual ego trip contribute much to the downfall of sexism and capitalism?

It ignores the really oppressive pervasive effects of bourgeois society. All the evidence suggests that groups of people who drop out of society with no idea of where they are going or what they are doing are either destroyed or absorbed. Moreover, ‘dropping out’ can never be more than a minority activity, the problems of capitalist society is that people are imprisoned in their roles; it is usually the privileged few who ‘drop out’.

A mass movement can never be built on this basis.

GLF can never begin to reach more than a minority of gay people if it’s based just on obscure personal needs instead of trying to reach down into what’s common and relevant in gay experience. Gay people do not form a class, they are not distinct like blacks, they are not confined to one social strata.

We can’t say: “We will liberate if only you do as we say.’ That’s not gay liberation.

Gay Radicals: It is the inadequacy of these two approaches which have brought a group of us together to work out a better approach to gay liberation. Our approach is based on these ideas:

1 That only gay people can achieve their own liberation: Waiting for the revolution, when all will be right on the day, as some revolutionaries seem to think, is not on. We must organise as gay people, with gay anger and gay pride, and fight for our rights now.

But 2 That true liberation cannot be achieved in a capitalist society. Gay civil rights can be; so can some of the things demanded by radical feminists. But ‘liberation‘ cannot be. Male domination pre-dates capitalism, but it has been so fully integrated into capitalism that the fight against one must involve a fight against the other. Gay people cannot fight alone against capitalism, let alone lead it. Those of us who want radical change must fight alongside other radical groups. And that means recognising that the largest constituent group in a fight against capitalism is likely to be the working class. We have to confront and fight their male chauvinism, itself the product of the dominant culture. That means two things:

First: Gay people have to build up their own confidence and solidarity by working together for specifically gay purposes. Only when we are strong in ourselves can w show our solidarity with others. This means we must not put down other gay groups, however much we may disagree with them on tactics. In particular gay liberationists must not reject all that ‘radical feminists’ stand for. On the other hand, they must not put down other sisters and brothers who honestly believe their analysis and methods to be wrong. All of us in GLF who reject the oppressive power relationships of heterosexual bourgeois society must support those which are based on new communal values. This cannot be done by one group or another forcing its views on to the rest in a so-called liberation front.

Second: It means fighting as gay people and gay groups in the common struggle for radical change, getting involved in other causes, coming out wherever we’re active.

It means also recognising GLF for what it is – a movement rather than an organisation, with as many different ideas as there are groups. GLF in other words, should not at this stage attempt to have a single ideology or strategy. All of us in the Gay Movement should, on the contrary, respect each other’s attempts to work out our beliefs or actions in our own way.

This suggests GLF ought to go in for a cellular structure with mass meetings for major actions and for social purposes. Some of us believe that the best way to do this is to organise, within GLF, a specifically socialist group, or groups, where we can work out, in theory and practice, the links.

But we gay radicals should not try to force an ideology on the movement, but provide a rallying point for those who think like us. Only in this way can we get together any valid strategy and really contribute to the revolution.