Fighting for a new world, not assimilation into the old one

Author: 
Katherine McMahon

“No Revolution without us! An army of lovers cannot lose! All power to the people!” (Statement from the Male Homosexual Workshop at the Black Panthers' Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention)

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) is forty years old this year. For a group that lasted only three years in Britain, it is remembered with an impressive amount of respect and admiration. It happened almost twenty years before I was born, and it is still inspiring and important to LGBT and Queer activists today, who still deal with many of the same issues around assimilation, liberation and revolution within LGBTQ activism.

The first GLF was formed after the Stonewall Riots, which happened in late June, 1969, in New York. It is curious that a single event in a single city is cited so often as the beginning of the movement for gay liberation both in the US and the UK, and one must not forget the incredibly important work done before Stonewall by groups such as the Mattachine Society in the US and the Committee for Homosexual Equality in the UK. Male homosexuality was in fact made legal in the UK two years before Stonewall happened, and the Mattachine Society made a valuable start in creating an environment in which lesbians and gay men could begin to fight for their rights. However, the key word in understanding Stonewall's importance is liberation: previously, the homophile movements (as they were often known, in an attempt to take the focus off sex) had argued that gay people were just like straight people; that they were good citizens, ordinary people, and deserved to be treated as such. Stonewall was so important because it insistently – and in fact, violently – refused these assumptions. It was lead by those who did not look like, or did not want to be, “good citizens”, or “just like straight people”. After Stonewall, it seemed more possible to fight for liberation, not assimilation – to fight for freedom on our own terms.

The bare bones of the story of the Stonewall Riots are that the Stonewall Inn – a gay bar popular with the kind of gays who did not seem “respectable” - queens, homeless people, sex workers – was raided by the police. At that time, anyone found to be wearing less that three items of 'gender appropriate' clothing was liable to be arrested, and the police began to bundle people into their vans. There are various speculations about why a relatively common occurrence, as raids were, turned into a riot, but something snapped, and people began fighting back against the police. Three nights of rioting followed. Those who had been involved in various other movements – particularly the feminist and anti-Vietnam war movements – who were sick of hiding their sexuality in their other political activities and sick of hiding their other political affiliations if they were involved in any gay activism, began to organise. The Mattachine Society showed their colours by putting up posters on the boarded up front of the Stonewall Inn exhorting their fellow homosexuals to stop being disruptive; alongside these posters were calls for meetings to begin to fight more concretely for liberation.

Thus the GLF was born. It was explicitly and determinedly about fighting for liberation, for linking up the struggles of different oppressed groups, and refusing to be assimilated into oppressive, capitalist, patriarchal and racist society. It was allied with the Black Panthers – and the GLF's solidarity and refusal to accept the homophobia rife in the movement led to Huey Newton's eventual statement of support for gay liberation. They were also allied, in various ways, with the feminist movement, and various local working-class struggles, along with the New Left and anti-war movement.

The London GLF began after two London activists visited the US, attended some GLF meetings, and decided to call one in London. The meetings began at London School of Economics and grew spectacularly, moving home several times to accommodate everyone and proliferating into numerous working groups. It did a whole variety of actions, showing a particular fondness for impressive theatrical direct action, as well as more traditional forms of protest. One particularly memorable protest saw them link up with a variety of other left groups to protest the “Festival of Light”, a Christian effort to turn back perceived moral degeneration. The GLF infiltrated the Festival of Light office, forged tickets to the opening gala, and snuck in about 150 people with a whole variety of exciting tricks up their sleeves. A group dressed as nuns releasing mice into the hall; one person (who the stewards took a long time to notice) dressed as a bishop telling people “don't worry sister, keep on sinning”; a same-sex kiss-in on the balcony; a banner drop proclaiming “Cliff Richard for Queen!” (Cliff Richard being one of the festival's patrons); copious heckling. These actions were brilliant for their sustained disruption, their humour and their inventiveness, but they would not have meant nearly as much had the activists not spent the aftermath talking to people outside, holding impromptu discussions with people who were attending.

The GLF often worked with other groups – marching against the Tory government's Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, joining feminist groups in protests against the Miss World competition. They were usually relegated to the back of marches, but march they did. People came from all sorts of different activist backgrounds, which had the huge advantage of meaning that the actions that came out of it were eclectic and incredibly creative, but had the disadvantage of meaning that, after a while, cracks began to appear. Rifts over gender issues and the role of lifestyle politics meant that the GLF as a cohesive organisation pulled itself apart after only three years. In that three years, however, it laid the groundwork for liberationist LGBTQ activism that still has a legacy today; many of its working groups turned into other groups that did valuable work as well. Its legacy was seen in the Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners groups during the miners' strike – which was reciprocated three years later by miners' support for the campaign against Section 28. Today, the various events which protest the commercialisation and depoliticisation of Pride are the continuation of the start that the GLF made.

It is striking that, 40 years later, the GLF's demands are still relevant. While it is undeniable that huge gains have been made, LGBTQ activists who see the links between capitalism, sexism and heterosexism still face a struggle. Pride marches are expensive, commercial and sponsored by big business, and have lost organisational connection with communities; the big issues of the day revolve around assimilationist demands like gay marriage. When the largest and most conservative LGB (they explicitly leave out the T and Q) organisation takes the name of Stonewall and holds training sessions on why employing gay people is good for business, it is increasingly important to remember that Stonewall was a riot, and that it lead to a radical movement of people who refused to try to assimilate, and who desired to create a new world in alliance with all other oppressed groups.

● For the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, which discusses these issues and others, see here.

● Reclaim the Scene is a free and political alternative to the commercial, pay-to-enter Manchester Pride (weekend of 28 August). The basic demands are: an accessible, friendly and welcoming 'scene'; Pride to be free (are we too poor to be gay?); LGBTQ rights to top the Pride and the scene's agenda. We will be forming a political bloc on the parade, and there will be a free post-parade picnic with political speakers, music, kids' entertainment, LGBTQ films, art, and stalls at UMIST Campus on Sackville Street in Manchester, from 2-9pm on 28 August. All welcome!
More information at www.reclaimthescene.com