The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 44 (Summer 1993).
Proletarian Revolution warned last year that Bill Clinton would betray the gay rights struggle, no matter what he promised or how cravenly the gay and lesbian leadership was willing to support him. These predictions derived from our understanding that the bourgeois program Clinton and the Democrats stand for requires escalating attacks on working and oppressed people. And we were right: both Clinton and the middle-class gay leadership have acted true to form.
Take the April 25 gay and lesbian rights march in Washington. Originally planned as a protest against Republican anti-gay attacks, it became instead a warm, fuzzy blanket tocover for the Democrats, a gentle reminder to Clinton to keep his promise to lift the military ban on gays. The gay and lesbian leadership not only pushed the military issue over all others, suppressing many vital questions. It used the “let us serve our country” line to push the lie that gays can make it safely into the mainstream of U.S. capitalist society.
Pulling off the pro-Clinton bash wasn’t easy. The month before, Clinton had openly considered the possibility of segregating gays in the military. As Donna Minkowitz reported, prominent gay leaders cautioned the White House that “the march would be an anti-Clinton protest unless the president showed more support for lifting the military ban.” (Village Voice, April 27.)
But Clinton’s support for gay rights has gone down, not up. He not only refused to appear at the rally—he high-tailed it out of town, sending a clear message: keep your distance. The leadership had to work overtime that day to drown out the real Clinton with excuses about his “dilemma.” Clinton’s statement to the march was read by California Democratic representative Nancy Pelosi, who added:
Everyone would like the President to be at the event, but that’s one day, and the measure of his approval should be whether in the long run he honors his commitment.
Of course, the long run will never come for the middle-class Clinton advocates.
At the rally, the pro-Clinton spirit dominated the festivities, allowing the suppression of radical demands and the truth. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, championed NOW’s pro-lesbian position in 1971, the very time when lesbians were being purged from the organization in New York and elsewhere. A national NAACP leader spoke as if that organization had always been the biggest advocates of gay rights, too polite to discuss the fact that major NAACP chapters were vehemently opposed to endorsing the demonstration.
One of the more outrageous cover-ups was the introduction of New York’s spineless Mayor Dinkins as “the mayor who recently marched with the gay and lesbian contingentin the St. Patrick’s Day parade.” This was the very parade that had excluded gays and lesbians, thanks in good measure to Dinkins’ sellout; moreover, Dinkins did not participate in the gay and lesbian counter-march. (The mayor subsequently showed his true principles by marching in the Salute to Israel parade, although it likewise had banned a gay and lesbian synagogue from participating as such.)
Only one platform speaker, from ACT UP, was allowed to oppose the military ban and the prerogative of U.S. imperialism to rule the world. Her solution, “ban the military,” is a utopian impossibility under capitalism. But it came as a refreshing change of pace from the super-patriotic pabulum spewed over the crowd throughout the event.
The emphasis on the military ban has distracted attention from Clinton’s sellouts on other gay issues. He broke his pledge to lift the prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants. And his campaign promise of innovative support for AIDS funding and research is tied to supporting this ban in the bill now in Congress. He has also stalled appointing a special AIDS “czar."
As Minkowitz noted, the eminently respectable Campaign for Military Service received hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledges within days of its founding. In contrast:
The effort to repel the Colorado-style anti-gay ballot measures introduced in 10 more states has attracted scant support from the movement’s major donors. The right has made a major push to get its operatives on school boards, neighborhood councils and Republican state committees. But the gay movement’s new financial backers have yet to notice.
Under its bourgeois and middle-class leaders, the gay movement rejects mass struggle against the rising tide of gaybaiting and violence in favor of seeking respectability in capitalist circles. Even the radical pacifist ACT UP now acts as a pressure group on Clinton (whom it worked hard to elect), not as an anti-capitalist or even anti-Democratic Party force.
The mild pressure sure hasn’t worked. On the day of the Washington rally, Clinton spoke to the press in Boston, expressing sympathy less for gays or anyone else than for his own political plight:
A lot of people think that I did a terrible political thing, and I know I paid a terrible political price for saying that I thought the time had come to end the categorical ban on gays and lesbians serving out military service, and that they should not be subject to further discrimination in Governmental employment.
He went on to diminish the rights of gays in the military while allegedly defending them:
This is not about embracing anybody’s life style. This is a question of whether if somebody is willing to live by the strict code of military conduct, if somebody is willing to die for their country, should they have the right to do it? I think they should.
It is bad enough that the only gay “right” Clinton recognizes is the right to die for imperialism. But the already compromised promises of April were forgotten once hisJuly 15 deadline for lifting the military ban neared. Now Clinton demands that gays and lesbians serve a country that won’t speak their name: he accepts a variant of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” formula prohibiting gays and lesbians from expressing their sexual identity.
Suppression of gay and lesbian identity is a reactionary act against an oppressed group, denying their right to exist. Yet the impetus for Clinton’s latest capitulation came fromBarney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman. The bourgeoisie always finds respectable spokesmen for oppressed groups willing to sell out to defend capitalism.
While never rooted in the working class, the gay liberation movement, born in the 1960’s on the shoulders of the Black and women’s liberation movements, nevertheless represented a radical vision of sexual and human liberation. It was the Stonewall Rebellion, the riots after the Harvey Milk verdict in San Francisco and other street fights and mass struggles that won whatever gains the movement can claim.
Today’s gay and lesbian power brokers—like Clinton’s pal David Mixner and Torie Osborn of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—have nothing in common with the ranks of gays and lesbians inspired by these mass actions. They are in league with gay rights millionaires like Hollywood mogul David Geffen of the Campaign for MilitaryService, who counts among his best friends Felix Rohatyn, the architect of austerity programs in New York City.
There are small radical groups who oppose the Democrats but see themselves as the left wing of the current leadership. The mainstream leaders work overtime, along with the media, to pretend that they just don’t exist. One such group is the National Women’s Rights Organizing Committee (NWROC), led by the pseudo-Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers League.
NWROC’s line in the April demonstration was to pose demands on the bourgeois and middle-class leaders to break with Clinton and form a radical movement. In context, such demands could only heighten illusions that such a thing was possible for the current leadership. Instead, revolutionaries need to state something very simple and true: the gay leadership’s class position and pro-capitalist politics make such a break impossible. (See PR 42 for a critique of NWROC’s similar approach to the bourgeois women’s groups.)
The task of revolutionaries is to convince militant gays and lesbians to break with what poses as “gay politics,” which is purely pro-capitalist. Only a revolutionary proletarian party can genuinely stand for gay liberation. But the development of revolutionary consciousness is not a task of gays and lesbians alone as an isolated sector of the vanguard, as NWROC would have it. Given social reality in the U.S., if the layer of revolutionary workers, including gay and lesbian communists, does not bring home to the working-class movement as a whole the sinister nature of the attacks on gays, we are all doomed.
The present strategy of the far right foreshadows the future strategy of capitalism as a whole. The path has been clearly chosen, and attacking gays and lesbians comes in the forefront. They form one of the weakest sectors of society, highly vulnerable to scapegoating. That is because gays and lesbians in the working class are generally not able to come out and organize collectively, for fear of losing their jobs and family support. (This is turn makes it even easier for middleclass gays to pretend that they represent all gays.)
Right wingers have seen that they could use the Catholic church to organize Latina and other oppressed women against gays. More and more petty-bourgeois and working-class women, because of the bleak futures they see for themselves and their children, seek refuge in religion and anti-gay scapegoating. They are looking for an all-around answer to the terrors of life in decaying capitalist society. They do not respond to lectures about tolerance and fairness from better-off pro-bourgeois gay and feminist activists who, while genuinely denied democratic rights in this society, have no idea of what working-class life is like.
Anti-gay attacks have thus been able to ride on a rightwing populism of class instincts gone astray; the right also campaigns against bilingual education, against fundamental rights for women, for cracking down on immigrants and for cutting back social programs like Medicare. The “progressive” leaders are blind to the problem. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example, held a three-hour “Fight the Right” meeting during the D.C. weekend in which they refused to discuss at all the growth of anti-gay organizing among people of color.
The battle over the “Rainbow Curriculum” in New York (see our previous issue) extended to the spring election of local school boards, which was widely posed as a referendum on gays, sex and religion. Gay “progressives,” generally well off and white, appealed for votes on the grounds that they represent no challenge to the family, religion or society.
However, “family values” do not contribute to the liberation of gays pr anyone else. The theme has been adopted by all sections of the ruling class because it is a perfect manipulative weapon against a working class not yet conscious of what “family” under capitalism really means. “Family” is in fact an anti-working class ideology: it stands for the subordination of women in the home and their devaluation at work. It is a basic institution for dividing the working class. Like racism, it keeps the working class fighting within itself rather than against oppression and exploitation.
As popular dissatisfaction with the social crisis mounts, what better way to prop up family ideology than a deepening of the attacks on gays and lesbians? Let’s go back to the good old days, the line runs, when the country was prosperous, families were stable and we could hope for a safer world for our children. The problem is seen as alien, elite, decadent gays and lesbians—threats to us and especially our children because of perversions that deviate from stable family life. In fact, however, more than half the kids in public school come from single-parent homes, and the majority of kids with gay or lesbian parents in New York are Black or Latino. (And it’s those who frown on sex, homosexual or heterosexual, who have been perverted.)
The reality is that capitalism destroys family life. Women are drawn into the work force, away from household duties. Public education and rapidly changing culture put children, especially teenagers, more in sync with their peers than with parents who appear to be living in the past. Today specifically, the economic crisis drives families apart. Poverty is the highest single predictor for divorce; unemployment is the highest single indicator that a young male will not marry a pregnant girlfriend.
But despite capitalism’s tendency to break up the family, the system needs to buttress this institution to maintain the sexual division of labor that benefits it in so many ways. (See PR 34, Women and the Family: The Ties That Bind.) The family must again be made to seem the “natural” way of things. From this follows the notion that gays and lesbians are unnatural since they don’t reproduce; but these days many sex/love relationships are not centered around children, so the myth of gay unnaturalness has to be reinforced. Hence the attacks on gays and lesbians as child molesters and the like. There would be no organic basis for such crap were it not for the need to strengthen the family to maintain the oppression of women.
The rightward turn of some oppressed white, Black, and especially Latina women makes it obvious that the right is gaining by default. The growth of reaction stems not from clever organizing but from the decay of capitalist society that drives masses to desperation. What is lacking is a revolutionary pole to counter both right-wing populism and the mainstream churches and parties who aid the right.
The answer is a revolutionary party made up of the best leaders of the whole working class. We need a party that will combat church and state, not through lecturing about “tolerance” and “diversity” as the progressives do but by exposing bourgeois family ideology as a tool of oppression.
Anti-gay notions, a particularly virulent form of backward consciousness, will not be overcome in the whole working class overnight. But if a revolutionary leadership doesn’t prepare itself now and begin to gather the necessary forces, the working class will be unable to win its fight against the system altogether.