Socialist Worker

The Red in the Rainbow: still fighting for LGBT rights

Hannah Dee’s new book on sexual liberation reveals a hidden history, writes Colin Wilson

Issue No. 2208

LGBT activists protesting outside Tory HQ during the 2010 election campaign (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

LGBT activists protesting outside Tory HQ during the 2010 election campaign (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

The Red in the Rainbow, Hannah Dee’s new book on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) struggle, comes at an important time.

The election of a Tory government is a moment for all LGBT activists to take stock. The last 20 years have seen us arrive at something like formal legal equality – with similar advances in social attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.

A recent poll found that 90 percent of British people were in favour of LGBT legal rights.

Yet LGBT oppression continues and abuse and assaults are commonplace. Sometimes there is worse – as we saw when bigoted teenagers beat Ian Baynham to death in Trafalgar Square last year.

Homophobic abuse is rife in many schools, and bigotry is all too common in the media, as Jan Moir’s disgusting article in the Daily Mail newspaper after the death of Stephen Gately showed.

The Tories’ track record means that nobody can be complacent about the future. David Cameron voted in 2003 to keep Section 28 – Margaret Thatcher’s law that forbade positive discussion of gay relationships in schools.

He has forged an EU alliance between the Tories and a rabidly homophobic Polish party.

Theresa May – now the minister responsible for equalities – also has a lousy track record. She voted against an equal age of consent in 1998, and in 2000 she voted against the repeal of Section 28.

In 2008 she voted against lesbian fertility rights, supporting a bill which argued that children need a male role model.

Cameron recognises that Tory bigotry is unpopular. During the election he distanced himself from shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, who said that B&B owners should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples.


But examples of Tory homophobia kept cropping up – it’s clear that many of the MPs and activists from Thatcher’s day are still around, as are their ideas.

Cameron’s fragile pro-gay stance – a reception at Number Ten is planned for Pride – may also come under pressure as huge Tory spending cuts bite.

There is the risk that the cuts will create a bitter, witch-hunting atmosphere with increased attacks on minorities like Muslims, refugees and LGBT people.

Hannah Dee’s book gives us just the materials we need to start assessing how far we have come, and what political strategies can protect what we have won and take us further.

The Red in the Rainbow offers a completely different perspective to what has become the common sense of mainstream LGBT politics. It’s about how we achieve a liberated sexuality and personal life, not just for LGBT people, but for everybody.

This is a book which straight people will, I hope, not just read but find relevant to their own lives.

One of the main ways Hannah discusses these topics is to unearth what has become a hidden history – the history of how changing marriage, sex and personal life has been part of socialism from the start.

She describes how, in the early nineteenth century, the very first socialists dreamed about a world where people would only remain married as long as they loved each other.

At the end of the nineteenth century, visionary and campaigner Edward Carpenter believed that socialism would mean changes in aspects of our lives from food and clothing to sexuality. He lived openly with his working-class lover near Sheffield, and won huge admiration from the left of his time.

At the same period in Germany, members of the socialist SPD were standing up in parliament to attack homophobic laws.

This tradition came to a head at the end of the First World War. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, working-class people took power. The new government swept away anti-gay laws and social attitudes changed profoundly.

Two women had married covertly, one disguised as a man – the courts ruled their marriage was valid.

Gender roles were challenged. Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, poured scorn on men who didn’t do their share of the housework.

Workers in Germany drew inspiration from Russia. They mounted a series of revolts in 1918–23. These ended the First World War, got rid of the German Emperor and brought in a republic, though they failed in the end to break through to workers seizing power.

But they hugely strengthened the German LGBT movement of the time. Leading LGBT activist Magnus Hirschfeld established a research and campaigning institute which he called “the child of the revolution”.

Workers’ struggles also called old, accepted ideas into question and 1920s Berlin became the gay capital of Europe.

The proud socialist tradition of fighting for sexual freedom has continued more recently. The modern gay movement began in 1969 after the Stonewall riots in New York.

Thousands of LGBT people – including trans people and poor blacks and Latinos – fought the police for three days after cops raided a gay bar. The movement which followed embraced revolutionary politics, linking up with the Black Panthers and supporting the struggle against the Vietnam War.

In Britain, those involved in the 1970s gay movement joined in the trade union struggles of the time. The Labour left of the early 1980s, particularly under Ken Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council, took a firm position for gay rights, despite viciously homophobic attacks from the Tory press.

Perhaps most inspiring of all were the links made between LGBT activists and trade unionists during the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85.

The group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners collected for strikers round gay clubs and pubs and made links with south Welsh miners.

At first some miners were dubious or even hostile.


But as the strike went on they faced media slurs and police harassment of the same kind that LGBT people experienced. Discussions with gay activists helped miners to see the world in a different way.

As one miner told a 1,500-strong gay fundraiser for the miners in London in 1984:

“You have worn our badge ‘Coal Not Dole’, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you.

“It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament. And we will never be the same.”

The miners’ union, the NUM, became part of a wave of pressure that led the Labour Party to support legal equality for LGBT people. This was one root of the legal changes in the last 20 years.

Of course, not all struggles are victorious.

Hannah also examines the dark period of the mid-20th century. The isolation and defeat of the Russian revolution saw gay sex recriminalised in the 1930s under Joseph Stalin’s government, with LGBT people sent to prison camps. After the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gays were imprisoned and killed.

The 1980s also proved a grim decade. Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan were determined to turn back the clock on the gains of the 1960s, with the Tories introducing Section 28. The appearance of AIDS saw thousands die before the US or British governments reacted.

Hannah says that, “LGBT oppression persists precisely because despite the gains we have made, it is rooted in the wider organisation of capitalist society.”

Through this comprehensive historical account, Hannah develops a political analysis of how we fight most effectively for sexual liberation.

Starting from the work of Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels, she demonstrates that LGBT oppression is rooted in class society through the institution of the family.

“In a system driven by exploitation and competition those in power must subject every aspect of our lives – even our personal relationships – to the priorities of profit-making,” writes Hannah.

Our rulers support the family because it provides care for the young, old and sick at low cost.

It also has an ideological function. It encourages workers to think of themselves not as part of collective groups like unions or the working class, but as members of small, vulnerable groups competing for scarce resources.

Hannah explains that, “the family plays a vital role in regulating such relationships and is a key mechanism for reproducing both the class that rules and a workforce on the cheap.”


The fact that LGBT oppression is rooted in class society explains why advances for workers and LGBT people have so often gone together. It is also crucial in assessing what politics can take LGBT struggles forward.

Since the 1970s the common sense of LGBT activism has been “identity politics” – the idea that LGBT people form a community which should be the main player in fighting for sexual freedom. But, as Hannah documents, that “community” is as divided by class as the rest of capitalist society.

Hannah writes, “The persistence of oppression in all walks of life shows that despite our achievements in changing the law, there is no guarantee against discrimination.”

The fact that gay oppression is rooted in capitalism means that we can only win liberation by a general struggle for an equal, socialist society. LGBT people cannot win a separate freedom within capitalism.

We need to link up with other struggles – those of workers and other oppressed groups – to fight most effectively.

The socialist tradition of fighting for sexual freedom – the “red in the rainbow” – is an inspiring record of how that can be done.

This excellent book brings that history, and those political ideas, to a new generation of activists.

Hannah Dee and Colin Wilson will both be speaking on LGBT liberation at Marxism 2010 Festival 1-5 July.
Go to »

The Red in the Rainbow by Hannah Dee
Out now priced £7.99
Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. »

London Pride March
Saturday 3 July 2010
Starts 1pm
Baker Street tube Celebrate 40 years of the Gay Liberation Front

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Tue 29 Jun 2010, 18:49 BST
Issue No. 2208
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