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Gay Politics in the United States

(Winter 1999)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 6, Winter 1999.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MATTHEW SHEPARD wasn’t the first gay man murdered because of his sexuality. And hard as it may seem to believe, other gay-bashing murders have been more brutal and depraved than 21-year-old Wyoming college student’s death by torture and immolation. But what set Shepard’s October 1998 murder apart from other gay bashings was the immediate and spontaneous outpouring of outrage and solidarity across the country. At the University of Wyoming, where Shepard studied, the football team voted to wear helmet decals symbolizing non-violence to protest Shepard’s murder. The gay student group of which Shepard was a member reported that it couldn’t keep up with the demand for “STRAIGHT BUT NOT NARROW” buttons during Gay Awareness Week. Shepard’s death even prompted a top columnist for the Casper, Wyoming Star Tribune to come out as gay in a column.

Shepard’s murder affected the vast majority of Americans. An estimated 68 percent of Americans agreed that an attack like the one that took Shepard’s life could happen in their town, according to a Time/CNN poll taken following Shepard’s death. The same poll showed majorities opposing discrimination against gay teachers and supporting the right of open gays and lesbians to serve in the military. In addition, 64 percent said that homosexual relationships were acceptable for others or for themselves – a big increase from only 41 percent who said the same in 1978. Central labor councils in New York and Iowa passed resolutions condemning the attack on Shepard and opposing discrimination against gays and lesbians. [1]

Vigils and demonstrations protesting gay bashing took place in cities across the country. In Washington, D.C., more than 5,000 people turned out to protest on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. In New York, 7,000 people – about 10 times the number organizers expected to show up – attended a political funeral for Shepard. When the funeral took to the streets to march, New York police attacked the crowd, arresting 112 demonstrators. It was no accident that the New York political funeral for Mathew Shepard turned into a fight with police. The funeral followed two recent New York demonstrations that also which also took on the police – a June demonstration of construction workers protesting the city’s use of non-union labor and the October “Million Youth March.” Thus, protests and demonstrations following Shepard’s murder did not only signal a revival of struggle around gay rights, but also reflected a new political mood – the beginnings of a wider political movement in opposition to the status quo.

All of this delivered a stern rebuke to the Christian Right and its congressional water carriers, like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott outraged many – both gay and straight – when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania in a June 1998 television interview. The widespread solidarity with gays following Shepard’s death reflected a disgust at the right wing moralizing that dominated mainstream politics for most of 1998. The election results left GOP conservatives in a shambles, costing their former standard-bearer, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, his job.

Yet at the same time that the right wing was imploding and more Americans were indicating their support for gay rights, the existing organizations which dominate gay politics were sounding a retreat. The Human Rights Campaign, the leading national gay rights lobby and traditional supporter of Democrats, endorsed for re-election Sen. Alphonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), one of the sleaziest and most conservative members of Congress. As it turned out, HRC bet on the wrong horse. D’Amato lost to Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the November 1998 midterm election. HRC’s “bipartisan” experiment marked a step backward for gay rights, but it wasn’t alone in its kowtowing to the Right. It followed on the heels of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Discrimination Committee’s (GLAAD) acceptance of $100,000 grant from the Coors Foundation, a long-time supporter of right wing and anti-gay causes. “There’s been a breakdown in gay leadership,” New York gay activist Bill Dobbs told the Village Voice. “Never have such significant enemies been recast in pro-gay terms.” [2]

Meanwhile, the gay activist organizations which defined the “militant” wing of the gay rights movement in the 1980s and early 1990s – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP), Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers – were nowhere to be found in the upsurge of struggle following Shepard’s death. Many of these “queer” activists – hailed as the vanguard of a new activist movement in the early 1990s – are today demoralized and defeated.

Gays and lesbians: “virtually normal?”

Matthew Shepard’s lynching must have come as a shock to the growing chorus of gay intellectuals who argue that gay oppression is a thing of the past. The most well-known advocate of this position, Andrew Sullivan, the gay former editor of The New Republic, argued that gay people are “prosperous, independent and on the verge of real integration” [3] in society.

There’s a grain of truth in Sullivan’s claims. Gay entertainers like Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres, and Melissa Etheridge suffered no decline in popularity after they came out of the closet. Leaders of gay organizations receive invitations to the White House. Raising money to fight AIDS, considered “controversial” only a decade ago, is now so mainstream that major corporations like Pacific Bell and Levi-Strauss are heading up corporate contributors for a “National AIDS Memorial Grove” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Annual “Pride” events held in major cities in June – once political protest marches that commemorated the 1969 Stonewall Riot – have become marketing bonanzas for gay businesses and major national corporations.

But the likes of Sullivan use evidence of increasing acceptance of gays to serve what might be called a “post-gay” agenda. Like the ex-feminists who insist that women have to stop seeing themselves as victims, “post-gay” writers consider fighting for gay rights passé. [4] A co-thinker of Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, puts it this way:

The standard political model sees homosexuals as an oppressed minority who must fight for their liberation through political action. But that model’s usefulness is drawing to a close. It is ceasing to serve the interests of ordinary gay people, who ought to be disengaging from it, even drop it. [5]

Instead, Sullivan and his ilk argue that gay activists should tailor their politics so that they are acceptable to mainstream conservatives. For Sullivan, gays shouldn’t demand legalizing gay marriage and lifting the ban on gays in the military because these policies are fundamental civil rights, but because they appeal to conservative support for the family and the military. In his Virtually Normal (the title says it all), Sullivan draws an analogy between this strategy for gays and conservative co-optation of once radical movements: “Lincoln saw the necessity for conservatism to embrace equal citizenship for blacks and whites if the republic was to be saved ... And Margaret Thatcher, by her very existence, showed the conservative potential of a society that had largely absorbed equal opportunity for women.” [6] Sullivan doesn’t make this statement for rhetorical affect only. He has often advertised his support and admiration for Thatcher, the right-wing former British prime minister, and for former President Ronald Reagan.

Gay reformists: “Spammed” by Clinton

If Andrew Sullivan feels that gays are on the verge of “making it,” the majority of gays and lesbians know better. In 39 states, it is legal to fire a gay worker from his or her job. Twenty states maintain “sodomy” laws, which prosecute people (both gay and straight) who have oral or anal sex. Since 1993, when the Clinton administration adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards gays in the military, discharges of gay service members have increased by 70 percent since the Bush administration’s last year. Physical attacks on people because of their sexual orientation constitute 11.4 percent of all hate crimes in the U.S., according to the FBI. Many cities around the country report double-digit increases in gay bashing in the last few years.

There is plenty to fight for. The problem is that the mainstream gay lobbying organizations are moving towards politics little different from Sullivan’s. Perhaps this is understandable for the HRC, which has never claimed to be anything but a Washington political action committee (PAC) representing a predominantly middle-class and wealthy constituency since its founding in 1980. Today, HRC is one of the top fifty PACs in Washington, and its annual black-tie dinner has become a standard stop on the Washington political circuit. [7] The HRC’s 1998 endorsement of D’Amato was only the logical outcome of its Washington insider strategy. Convinced that Republicans would form the congressional majority for the foreseeable future, the HRC tried to reach out to “allies” among them. Never mind that D’Amato received a 75 percent rating from the Christian Coalition. Since D’Amato voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and criticized Lott’s gay bashing, that was good enough for the HRC.

But if HRC was willing to settle for so little with D’Amato, it’s only because it has become used to accepting – and defending – empty promises from the Clinton administration. The HRC and the other major gay lobbying organization, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), regularly describe the Clinton administration as the most “gay friendly” ever. “History will always connect Clinton with the gay and lesbian movement,” NGLTF’s former executive director Torrie Osborne told The Advocate. “He has stood up for us when others would not. No matter what happens, we can’t forget what he has done for us.”[8] But exactly what the administration has done to “stand up” for gay rights is anybody’s guess. Clinton may not answer to the Christian Right, and he may have appointed a few openly gay advisers, but on most of the main issues on which the HRC and NGLTF have lobbied, the Clinton administration was on the other side. Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” surrender to the Pentagon bigots came after administration officials floated the idea of segregating gays and straights. Clinton spokesperson Mike McCurry denounced the GOP-inspired Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars states from legalizing same-sex marriages, as “gay-bashing” legislation. But Clinton signed it anyway. Then he had the gall to tout his support for DOMA in ads run on Christian radio stations during his 1996 re-election campaign. Half the politicians HRC endorsed voted for DOMA.[9] Yet, only one year later, HRC made Clinton its honored guest at its annual dinner. When a handful of activists attending the dinner tried to protest Clinton’s anti-gay record, the well-heeled crowd shouted them down.

These compromises are inherent in a strategy that views its objective as reforming the status quo. Urvashi Vaid, currently the director of the NGLTF’s Policy Institute, makes many on-target criticisms of the gay political organizations of which she is and was a part. But she is still committed to winning piecemeal reforms within the existing system:

As a progressive ... I believe that the way we make ... social change is that we have to imagine a socially responsible capitalism. Okay, I’ll put it out there. I don’t believe we are going to overthrow capitalism. People will disagree with me.

But I really believe that we can make capitalism more responsive, accountable, environmentally sound. We can make it fairer, non-discriminatory. We can take the benefits of this economic system and spread them out, so they can benefit more people rather than the five owners of everything. We can work to make the places where people work humane environments that meet the needs of working people ... We can do that by spreading the prosperity to raise up the standard of living of all the people without overthrowing capitalism. We can do that by working to make it socially responsible. This is a pragmatic formulation. [10]

Unfortunately, this “pragmatism” concedes that winning gay and lesbian liberation is impossible. The best that can be hoped for, it seems, is to avoid losing too much while winning whatever reforms the system deems it can afford. At best, the system will grant gays a “niche” in society. But a system that depends for its existence on hierarchy and oppression will never allow gay people complete freedom or equality.

In 1992, as leader of the NGLTF, Vaid called Clinton’s election a “vindication for gay people who have been working in traditional politics for over 25 years.” In reality, Clinton’s administration should prove the opposite. On any number of issues, Clinton has betrayed his gay and lesbian supporters. But the so-called “leadership” of the gay community apologizes for him. A letter to the editor of The Advocate hit the nail on the head: “It is amazing what a few dollar bills and a few hollow words can get you in Washington. In the long run, I prefer the truth, even if those words tell me I don’t have a place at the table. Then I can take action and decide what to do. All Clinton has done is to feed us some Spam, and HRC wants to dress it up and call it roasted pork with plum sauce. No thanks – I’d rather dine alone.”[11] Yet each apology for Clinton merely shows politicians – Republican and Democratic – that they can win the support of HRC and NGLTF without having to earn it. Clinton actions that might have provoked angry demonstrations if George Bush had taken them were merely excused as the price to pay for a “seat at the table.” Clinton’s administration has done more to demobilize a movement for gay and lesbian rights than anything a Republican president could have done.

Identity politics in crisis

One might think that the rightward drift among the leading gay rights organizations would provide an opening for gay militants to build an activist movement. But the late 1990s find most of the organizations which once defined gay “militancy” to be spent forces. What’s more, even if organizations like Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers still existed, their politics present a barrier to the building of a broad-based movement for gay and lesbian liberation. To understand why, it’s necessary to review the history of the modern gay liberation movement, which began with an explosion of activism following the 1969 Stonewall Riot. [12]

This period spawned the short-lived Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an activist group that saw itself as part of the New Left political movements of the day. Yet, despite its commitment to activism, the GLF was split between contending perspectives on the ends and means of the gay liberation movement. One group of activists, concluding that they were more interested in reforming the system than in smashing it, split in 1971 to form the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), the precursor of today’s NGLTF. The remaining GLF radicals divided themselves between “organized leninist [sic] party supporters, and the diffused forces of the alternative society,” one activist wrote. “This division between what might be termed ‘actionists’ and ‘life-stylers’ is clearly evident in the history and theory of the GLF, and its Manifesto.”

“Lifestyle politics” held that the gay movement should aim to construct a separate gay culture to challenge an “uptight” and conformist heterosexual society. As the British GLF wrote in 1971: “We must be ‘rotten queers’ to the straight world and for them we must use camp, drag, etc. in the most ‘offensive’ manner possible. And we must be ‘freaks’ to the gay ghetto world.” [13] Unfortunately, these sorts of politics seemed radical because the main currents on the left – from Maoist supporters of the Peoples’ Republic of China to “Third Worldist” supporters of Castro’s Cuba – held backward positions on gay liberation. Maoists denounced homosexuality as a “petty bourgeois deviation,” and Castroists embarrassedly tried to explain away Castro’s imprisonment of gays. In embracing Stalinism, much of the 1960s revolutionary left abandoned the principled fight against all oppression, which Marxists from Marx to Lenin to Trotsky embraced.

But as the activist movement declined in the 1970s, the lifestyle politics of “personal autonomy” and separatism increased. Rather than fighting the sexism of many gay men in the movement, lesbians set up their own “autonomous” organizations. Among gay men, lifestyle divisions between “machos” and drag queens emerged. Divisions between Black, white, Latino and Asian gays; between “male-identified” lesbians and lesbian separatists (who rejected all contact with men); between homosexuals and bisexuals, multiplied. Divisions in the movement over personal lifestyle choices became transformed into hardened points of political principle.

The 1970s lifestyle “radicalism” revived in the activist campaigns responding to the 1980s AIDS crisis. ACTUP, founded in New York in 1987, experienced rapid growth in cities around the country. Initially focused on advocacy for people with AIDS, it widened its appeal to include demands for national health care, for lower prices for AIDS drugs and for free needle distribution. Queer Nation, born from struggles against gay bashing in New York in 1989, also grew rapidly. Queer Nation activists asserted the need for “visibility” for gays and the development of a separate “queer” identity. Both organizations combated discrimination against gays and people with AIDS. But within a few years, they had collapsed. The Queer Nation chapter in San Francisco folded up in 1992 because its members couldn’t agree on proposed internal guidelines prohibiting racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic comments in meetings.

The explanation for the rapid rise and fall of the gay “militant” groups lay in the bankrupt assumptions of “identity politics” which guided their approach. The mere idea of describing their politics with the anti-gay epithet “queer” should raise doubts among people who seriously want to end gay oppression. Some activists argued that “reappropriating” the term took away its power to degrade and humiliate gay men and lesbians. “We have disempowered [our enemies] by using this term.”[14] Yet it would be hard to believe that women who wanted to fight oppression would embrace the term “bitch,” anymore than Blacks would embrace the slur “nigger.” No matter what legions of “queer theorists” in the academy write, the majority of ordinary people – both gay and straight – will see “queer” as a term of abuse. “Queer” signifies something strange or “beyond the pale.” Activists who insist on calling themselves “queer” are accepting – and reveling in – society’s ghettoization of gays and lesbians.

Another core assumption of identity politics asserts that only those who suffer a particular oppression – who share an “identity” – have the right to struggle against it. Queer Nation’s founding manifesto, I Hate Straights, told heterosexuals – even ones sympathetic to gay rights – to “shut up and listen.” In other words, this seemingly radical stance actually marked the rejection of solidarity from the heterosexual majority in society. If only those who suffer a particular oppression can struggle against it, what about those who suffer multiple oppressions – who have multiple “identities?” Should a Black lesbian identify with her oppression as a Black person, her oppression as a woman, or her oppression as a lesbian? As Black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith drew out the implications: “[I]f queers of color followed [Queer Nation’s] political lead we would soon be issuing a statement entitled, I Hate Whitey, including white queers of European origin.” [15] This sort of politics leads to greater fragmentation and disunity, rather than to greater unity and mobilizing potential.

Identity politics’ emphasis on “visibility” led groups like Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers to focus on media stunts like “Kiss-Ins.” At demonstrations, “queer” contingents often chanted vulgar slogans (“Suck my dick! Lick my clit! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”), which served more to repel onlookers than to win them to support gay liberation. These adolescent “in your face” tactics, which aimed more to attract attention than to attack oppression, are not radical at all. They are the tactics of a convinced minority that is happy to remain a convinced minority. A movement whose politics do not afford it opportunities to grow can quickly fall back on itself. Internal discord and further isolation from the “outside world” can result – as the example of the San Francisco Queer Nation chapter demonstrated.

Finally, the extreme moralism in identity politics circles acts as a barrier to widespread support. More than insisting that all gay people should be out of the closet (i.e. open about their sexuality), “queer” activists insist that those gays who remain in the closet “benefit” from gay oppression by “passing” in straight society. Gay writer Michelangelo Signorile, the first major journalist to make a crusade of “outing” closeted gay celebrities, explained:

There is no “right” to the closet. Remember that all those in the closet, blinded by their own trauma, hurt themselves and all other queers. The invisibility they perpetuate harms us more than any of their good deeds might benefit us.[16]

The “closet” is an aspect of gay oppression in a homophobic society. But Signorile turns reality on its head. Instead of fighting to change a society that forces so many gay people into the closet, he wants to change society by forcing people out of the closet.

All gay people should feel the confidence to be out, proud and fighting. But “coming out” of the closet should be the decision of each gay person. It should be an expression of self-confidence and the willingness to fight. No one should be forced out of the closet against his or her will – no matter how rich or famous they are. For the majority of gay people, who are working-class, it is difficult to impossible to live their lives out of the closet. They could be fired from their jobs, lose custody of their children, or lose their health insurance. They might be trapped in straight marriages on which they depend for financial security. These are concerns that “out” gay millionaires like entertainment mogul David Geffen don’t have to worry about. A politics that fails to recognize this reality – and what is more, blames the victims for collaborating with their oppression – only shows that it has nothing to say to the vast majority of gay people.

Even if organizations like Queer Nation don’t exist today, their rotten politics live on. At New York’s 1998 Halloween parade in the Greenwich Village gay ghetto, a contingent of gay activists insisted on marching behind a banner inscribed “Queer Rights Now.” Members of the contingent carried signs reading, “Are you a basher or a bigot?” addressed to parade onlookers. Apparently these activists hadn’t noticed that millions around the country expressed outrage at Matthew Shepard’s murder only weeks before. Instead, they celebrated their isolation in the ghetto and defined everyone on the outside as “the enemy.”

Why class is key

None of the main tendencies in gay politics today – from “post-gay” conservatism to “queer” pseudo-radicalism – address themselves to the concerns or aspirations of the majority of gay and lesbian people. This is so for one simple reason. All of them reflect the interests of the gay middle class, rather than the interests of the working-class majority.

“Post-gay” theorists are only the most open about this. They downplay gay oppression because they speak for a tiny minority of gay businesspeople whose wealth insulates them from feeling the sharpest edge of the right’s attack. Despite the Republican Party’s pandering to the Christian Right bigots, fully one third of self-identified gays and lesbians voted Republican in the 1998 midterm election, according to exit polls. Even if these people don’t like GOP gay bashing, they support conservative politics on a whole range of issues – from welfare to Social Security – that fits with their class interests. “Post-gay” politics speaks to this constituency.

Likewise, gay reformist organizations answer to their network of wealthy donors and the Washington elite more than ordinary gays and lesbians. Urvashi Vaid agrees. “[Gay organizations] are far less passionate about raising the minimum wage, welfare reform, AFDC programs, free school lunches, immigration, poverty, and other issues that affect gay and lesbian families and individuals – but do not affect the middle-class people who are most involved in the movement” [17], she wrote in Virtual Equality.

Despite the seeming radicalism of “in your face” identity politics, it also appeals to a narrow section of the gay middle class. As discussed earlier, “queer” activists’ stress on “visibility” is tailored only to those gays and lesbians who have the financial security to be out of the closet. Most working-class gays and lesbians aren’t out of the closet. Most working-class gays don’t live in the fashionable gay neighborhoods of major cities. Nor are they attracted to the lifestyle politics of “queer” radicals.

Gay celebrities or “out” gays who live in Chicago’s “Boys Town” or San Francisco’s Castro district may be the most “visible” gay people. But they are not representative of the gay and lesbian majority. Marketing consultants eager to capture gay middle-class dollars promote an image of a gay community than its straight counterpart. One such survey estimated median income for gay households at more than $55,000 annually, compared to the U.S. average of $36,500. Right-wingers latched onto these figures to claim that gay anti-discrimination demands amounted to a clamor for “special rights” among an already privileged group. More serious studies of the gay and lesbian population have placed gay incomes at parity with or below the national average. [18] Whatever the true income figures for gay people are, it’s clear that the vast majority of gay people are solidly working-class.

Every specially oppressed group is divided by class. [19] An upper crust of each specially oppressed group includes people who are completely integrated into the economic and political system. They have interests in fighting to uphold that system. Therefore, the interests of someone like Colin Powell, the African-American former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certainly differ from the ordinary Black enlisted person. It’s likewise with the gay middle class and upper class. J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI – and one of the most vicious defenders of the system and persecutors of gays in history – was gay himself. Hoover is only the most extreme example of a gay man who was a class enemy to all working people, both gay and straight. Even in cases less extreme than Hoover’s, the general point about the class divide in the “gay community” holds, as Peter Morgan explains:

Class interests divide the oppressed – and working class gays have more to gain from fighting alongside other working class people than they do from uniting with ruling class sections of the gay community who have a different agenda. Most of the time the divisions inside the working class seem all too powerful – between gays and straights, blacks and whites, men and women. Yet whenever workers struggle, this division breaks down. [20]

Where identity politics asserts “difference” between groups, class politics unites workers across lines of race, gender and sexual orientation. Class politics also makes clear who the real allies of gay people are. Straight people who stand up for their gay co-workers show greater support for gay liberation than pink economy business owners who pay poverty wages to their gay employees.

What kind of movement?

The excellent Out at Work, a 1996 film by Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson, depicts how a gay United Auto Workers shop steward Ron Woods at Chrysler Corp. battled the company and homophobia among his co-workers. By waging the class struggle while campaigning for gay rights, Ron Woods won the inclusion in Chrysler’s national contract of language opposing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. One of the film’s most moving moments depicts Woods receiving a unanimous endorsement of the anti-discrimination clause and a standing ovation from hundreds of members at the Chrysler Corp. bargaining convention. Any blow against discrimination is a gain for all workers – gay or straight.

In 1997, the AFL-CIO admitted Pride at Work, an organization of gay and lesbian workers, an affiliated organization to the labor federation. Union contracts have won domestic partnership rights, a gain for both gay and straight couples. Despite the common (but wrong) stereotype of trade unions as bastions of sexist and homophobic white males, “conservative” trade unions have done more to advance gay and lesbian rights than “enlightened” employers.

Recent polling data show that Woods’ support from his co-workers was not an isolated incident. A Human Rights Campaign November 1998 election exit poll showed strong majorities of voters favoring measures to ban workplace discrimination against gays and supporting equal rights of gay couples to health care, employment and retirement benefits. Significantly, 54 percent of voters perceived gay anti-discrimination demands as “equal rights,” compared to 32 percent who described them as “special rights.” This marked a shift from only 1995, when only 41 percent identified non-discrimination demands as “equal rights,” and 38 percent defined them as “special rights.”[21]

As these data and the reaction to Matthew Shepard’s death showed, support for gay and lesbian civil rights is much deeper in the U.S. population than it was even a few years ago. The politics of the Religious Right are clearly out of step with the majority of Americans. Few gay activists would have predicted that football players at the University of Wyoming would have publicly shown their solidarity with a gay man? The possibility for building on this pro-gay sentiment is immense. Support for gay rights may come more easily. But it does not come automatically. In the 1998 election, referenda barring gay marriage passed overwhelmingly in Hawaii and Alaska. Gay liberation must be fought for – on the political and the ideological fronts.

Second, a movement has to fight for the demands that truly mark advances for gay and lesbian rights. Ending discrimination against gays in employment, health benefits, immigration law, the military, and marriage laws are basic civil rights for gay people. On the other hand, demands for “hate crimes” legislation, a major focus for gay lobbying organizations, doesn’t cut in the same way. For one thing, hate crimes laws are usually so vague that they cover both “anti-homosexual” and “anti-heterosexual” violence. What’s more, they increase the power of the police, despite the fact that police are among the most vicious gay bashers around. [22] More fundamentally, hate crimes laws do nothing to change the climate of hatred against gays that gives rise to gay bashing attacks. But support for hate crimes legislation gives politicians like Clinton a pro-gay cover while they oppose other measures which make a difference in gay peoples’ lives.

Nevertheless, genuine gains for gay people will fall short if they avoid tackling the roots of oppression. Sullivan claims that if same-sex marriage were legalized “ninety percent of the political work needed to achieve gay and lesbian equality would have been achieved” [23] because gays and lesbians would gain access to health benefits, insurance, and pensions. But whether married people gain those rights depends on what class they belong to. It makes a difference whether you or your spouse is a corporate executive or a low-paid worker with no health benefits. Yet again, what appears to be a purely “civil rights” issue for gay people runs up against class inequality in society. A purely “civil rights” agenda won’t alter the conditions of the majority of gays and lesbians unless it’s connected to a broader fight that takes on the class nature of the system.

A new gay and lesbian movement?

Past upsurges in the gay liberation movement have reflected their times. The gay liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s took place just as the New Left political movements peaked. The movement, seeing itself initially as a part of the broad left which demonstrated for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, retreated. As the left declined, the gay liberation movement became depoliticized. Opposition to gay rights from the dominant currents on the 1970s socialist left – Stalinism and Maoism – also drove a wedge between gay liberation activists and political radicals. Thus, when gay activism reemerged in response to the 1980s AIDS crisis, anti-political identity politics dominated it. The conservative climate of the 1980s heightened activists’ sense of isolation from large numbers of people, feeding “in your face” politics.

The activism following Matthew Shepard’s murder comes when public support for gay rights stands at all-time highs and when increased numbers of people – from workers at UPS to death penalty abolitionists – are willing to fight. People who want to win gay and lesbian liberation can’t be content to preach to the choir in the gay ghetto. They must break out of the ghetto and take the fight directly to the Trent Lotts and the Gary Bauers. We need a movement for gay liberation, not a movement restricted to gays and lesbians. It should involve anyone who wants to fight for gay and lesbian liberation – no matter what their sexual orientation is. Building that kind of movement is more possible today than it ever has been.

The fight for gay and lesbian liberation cannot be separated from the fight for a new society. Gay liberation is not simply an “issue” for gay people. It’s an issue for all workers. All workers have an interest in joining together in solidarity – in overcoming the divisions based on gender, race and sexual orientation.

* * *


1. Opinion data are reported in Richard Lacayo, A New Gay Struggle, Time, October 26, 1998, pp. 33–38.

2. Quoted in Alisa Solomon, Good for the Gays? Village Voice online edition, October 21–27, 1998.

3, Sullivan, The Politics of Homosexuality: A New Case for a New Beginning, The New Republic, May 10, 1993, p. 36. [Behind a paywall]

4. See Sharon Smith’s What Ever Happened to Feminism? in ISR 5 (Fall 1998) for a critique of “post-feminism.”

5. Rauch quoted in Peter Morgan, Class Divisions in the Gay Community, International Socialism Journal 78 (Spring 1998), p. 77.

6. Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 131–132.

7. David Rayside, On the Fringe (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 287.

8. Osborne quoted in Chris Bull, Feeling his pain, The Advocate, October 13, 1998, p. 28.

9. Rayside, p. 297.

10. Vaid internview interview the David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, reprinted in South End Collective, eds., Talking About A Revolution. Boston: South End Press, 1998, pp. 108–109.

11. Letter from Fred Asher, Washington, D.C., The Advocate, November 24, 1998, pp. 5–6.

12. Three days of riots responding to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, in June 1969, sparked an upsurge of gay organizing and activism. For this reason, the 1969 Stonewall Riots are considered the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement.

13. For more discussion on the origins of the gay liberation movement and the GLF, see Sharon Smith, Mistaken Identity – Or Can Identity Politics Liberate The Oppressed? in International Socialism Journal 62 (Spring 1994), pp. 12–16 and Barry Adam, The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement, revised edition (New York: Twain, 1995). The quote is from Smith, p. 13.

14. Smith, p. 18.

15. Quoted in Smith, p. 19.

16. Michelangelo Signorile, Queer in America (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 364.

17. Urvashi Vaid, Virtual Equality (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), p. 271.

18. Peter Morgan, Class divisions in the gay community, International Socialism Journal 78 (Spring 1998), pp. 83–85.

19. By “specially oppressed,” I mean people who are discriminated against because of some characteristic other than their class (such as their race, gender or sexual orientation). In Marxist theory, the working class is considered the oppressed class because it suffers discrimination that members of the ruling class don’t face. For instance, workers are more likely to work in unsafe work environments, to attend worse schools, or to live near toxic waste dumps than are the wealthy.

20. Morgan, p. 90.

21. Human Rights Campaign, You’ve Got the Power. Vote, November 17, 1998. On HRC web site at [No longer available online]

22. Reviewing the latest hate crimes statistics, the National Center for Anti-Violence Projects noted that “One of the largest and most troubling increases [in hate crimes] was in the offenses where the offender was a police officer or other law enforcement official. NCAVP documented a 76% increase in 1997 in the number of offenders who were identified as law enforcement officers.” See NCAVP 1997 Annual Report online at [No longer available online]

23. Sullivan, Virtually Normal, p. 185.

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