In 1969 the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) seemed to come out of the blue. It was a movement born from a riot after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York.
But it was also a movement born with little knowledge of any of its predecessors in the struggle for sexual liberation.
The GLF was wholly of its time – it worked with the movement against the Vietnam War, the black movement and the women’s movement, while worldwide it was part of a huge wave of the oppressed and exploited rising up against the system.
The gay movement adapted the ideas of the time, especially those of autonomy, dislike of structures and a strong belief in spontaneity.
It was a time of great optimism about changing the system and making a new world. As the slogans had it – “It’s just a kiss away”, “Sodom today Gomorrah the world”.
But the GLF came with no lessons from the earlier movements and no knowledge of the history of socialist ideas of sexual liberation.
It had a dislike and mistrust of theory in general – and of the old left parties, with their sexual conservatism, in particular. But it did want change – radical revolutionary change, sexual, social and political.
The GLF had many conflicting ideas of how to achieve this new world. Some advocated forming communes and living a non-oppressive way outside of the family, or challenging gender roles through radical drag and attacking straight society by shocking stunts.
Others concentrated on marching and engaging with the then rising workers’ movement and campaigning inside the trade unions.
But one thing the GLF’s many offshoots shared was the belief that society must be revolutionised and changed – “It is not me who is sick, but a society who calls me sick.”
That was over 35 years ago. As Tony Cliff pointed out, the gay movement was the last of the great movements of the oppressed to appear, but the first to implode.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement of today is very different from the revolutionary if confused movement of the 1970s. Out goes revolution – in comes Ikea and civil partnerships.
Stonewall is the biggest and most prominent gay organisation in Britain today. It is sponsoring a “workplace conference” to be held on 16 March that focuses on themes such as “how building an inclusive environment is good for business”. Guest speakers come from the Royal Navy, IBM and Barclays Bank.
If the mainstream of the gay movement is embracing capitalism and consumerism, on the left we see remnants from the radical past that remember some of that period’s tactics, but forget most of its lessons or context.
OutRage! for example has continued the tradition of shocking stunts and publicity geared events – but without the wider understanding.
It was never the case, for instance, that gay activists in the 1970s (apart from the separatists) refused to support or take part in struggles unless the organisations behind them backed gay rights. If we had taken such an approach, there would have been nothing for us to join or support.
Welcoming arms did not greet the arrival of gay activists on picket lines, demonstrations and such like in the 1970s.
Workers were often homophobic and had to be argued with. We had to fight inside unions to change their policies and practices. But that can only be done when you fight together against the common enemy.
The often used but rarely understood phrase “unconditional but critical support” means supporting people who did not necessarily support you – and supporting them without any preconditions.
CND campaigns had links to the homophobic churches. The Vietnamese struggle had links to Stalinism. But both were supported by most gay activists, because they realised that the basis of any effective criticism had to be from within a common struggle.
Today the most widespread form of racism is Islamophobia and the most important anti-imperialist struggle that in the Middle East. Imperialism and Islamophobia need to be opposed without conditions being placed on those opposing them.
If the gay movement sees itself as just one more pressure group refusing to join in the wider struggle, it isolates itself from potential allies and abandons any wider struggle to transform society.
And this undermines the ability to fight effectively for gay liberation and change the ideas of those involved in the struggle.