Regaining the radical roots of gay liberation

A look back at the history of the fight for gay liberation, and the lessons it has for us today.

Homophobia and transphobia are far from dead. There’s more to fight for, and more they will try to take from us. There will be more battles to come, and tomorrow, just as it was yesterday, the lives of LGBT+ people will be thrown to the tide of history. It will be an active political question who wins, and what direction our lives are forced. It matters for that future what we do today, and for that reason, I’m looking back at the history of the fight for gay liberation for the lessons it has for us today.

People will not be surprised to learn that it was not the cops, the Liberals or ‘GAYNZ’ who fought for the rights LGBT+ people enjoy today, though they will probably continue to receive pride of place in Mardi Gras marches. The fights of yesteryear reveal instead that is was committed radicals at the heart of those fights, who saw first hand that the fight for gay liberation meant confronting the structures and institutions that produce homophobia. It reveals those willing to stand up to state, church, medicine, and ultimately a capitalist world that relies on a heterosexual nuclear family to produce its workforce.

The seeds of struggle

Australia’s movement for gay liberation didn’t merely materialise; it was built on an upsurge in struggle. The late 60s saw flourishing radicalism worldwide. In France 1968, workers mounted then the biggest general strike in world history, spurred on by student radicalism, breaking the idea that capitalism had reached any kind of period of stability. Meanwhile, the Prague spring showed that people could fight against Stalinist dictatorship. An escalating fight against US imperialism in Vietnam showed the possibilities of confronting the world’s biggest superpower. When student protests against the war at the Chicago Democratic Party Convention were crushed by cops, the intensity of police brutality became obvious to many young radicals who saw clearly the need to fight back.

All of this set the stage for the Stonewall riots in New York 1969, where LGBT+ people fought back against police brutality. This instilled not just for those who were there, but people across the globe, that opposition to homophobia could be proud, loud, and public. It led to the beginnings of the US Gay Liberation Front (GLF)—who describe themselves as a “revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realisation that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished”. This overtook the pre-existing ‘homophile’ movement which aimed to assimilate itself into capitalist society, presenting gays as unthreatening. Rather, the GLF maintained that homophobia was produced by the society that criminalised and attacked them.

This sent ripples around the world. In Australia, it inspired some of the first gay liberation groups. The Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) explicitly cited Stonewall as inspiration for its establishment. In Australia, gay liberation built on and grew alongside movements for Indigenous rights and women’s liberation, and against the Vietnam war. It drew on a trade union movement that was taking strides by world standards. Gay liberation drew from women’s liberation in particular, with women’s liberation groups supporting some early CAMP groups, and helping set up the first national homosexual conference through the newly created NUS women’s officer position. Gay liberation in Australia would be unimaginable without the tangible assistance and overall backdrop of these growing struggles.

  A Radical History

The emerging movement for gay liberation grew gradually—from the first political organisations in the late 60s, to the modest demonstration for gay freedom outside a Liberal Party office in 1971, and the first street march in 1972. Gay and lesbian activists joined women’s marches, leafletted pubs that refused service to homosexuals and protested when the ABC cancelled coverage for Denis Altman’s seminal book ‘Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation’. Marches, sit-ins, and ‘zaps’ publicly and proudly challenged homophobia.

With the numbers of days lost to strikes nearing their all-time height, some workers took the world’s first industrial action on a gay political issue. When Jeremy Fisher was expelled from Macquarie University’s Robert Menzies College on the grounds of his sexuality, the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) placed a ‘pink ban’ (politically motivated stop worke strike) on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of projects at Macquarie University, eventually succeeding when the University Council came out in support for Fisher’s reinstatement.

In 1978, this movement was shot forwards with what was then the largest gay and lesbian political event in Australia’s history—Sydney’s first Mardi Gras. This was famously smashed by cops, leading to 53 arrests, brutal attacks on those involved, and the publishing of arrestee’s names and occupations in the Sydney Morning Herald, this lead to sackings and public ridicule.

But it was not police brutality that made the difference. Police violence was common; attacks on gays in beats including entrapment were regular, and the murder of Dr George Duncan in 1972 was well known. What was different was in how people fought back against brutality, and the attitude of proud defiance. In the words of gay liberationist Peter Murphy, “It was a police riot, and the poofters and dykes were fighting back… Garbage and garbage bins were flying. I had never seen anything like it, and neither had the police.”

A thousand marched on the streets, celebrating and protesting. In the coming months, thousands rallied in support of those arrested in the Mardi Gras. The movement eventually saw most charges dropped, and the Summary Offenses Act ended, meaning protesters no longer needed to apply for permission from police to rally. NSW later became the one of the first places in the world to ban discrimination against homosexuals, and later still decriminalised homosexuality.

Prominent in these responses to homophobia were socialists and communists. Communists were at the centre of arguments for solidarity in the BLF. Trotskyists and communists played leading roles in the origins of Gay Liberation. Socialists were at the heart of organising the 1978 Mardi Gras. This was no coincidence. These were precisely the people who connected the dots between gay oppression, the capitalist system that produced it, and those with the power to challenge that system.

These episodes were key turning points in the struggle that has transformed the experience of LGBT+ people in our society—a movement that fought for decriminalisation, the equalisation for the age of consent, the end of the ‘gay panic’ defence to murder (allthough not in SA), for adoption rights, and now marriage rights.

The movement today

Last year, on the backs of decades of struggle, we won marriage equality, a step forward in formal equality for LGBT+ people across Australia. This was an important win, putting the final bullet in Howard’s attacks on the possibility of marriage equality in 2004. But it was more than just a fight about marriage; it was a step towards tackling the roots of homophobia in our society. With tens of thousands taking to the streets, we felt how we could force change on our governments who refused to legislate for equality despite the overwhelming weight of public opinion. Many came away realising the necessity of a genuine movement for liberation.

We have a long way to go in tackling homophobia in Australia however. The ‘gay panic defence’ still allows South Australians to downgrade the charge of murder to manslaughter if the victim is gay and the purpotrator claims ‘self defance’ because of this. Religious schools still can, and do, fire people because of their sexuality. Most telling is the mental health statistics which speak for themselves, with 16 per cent of LGBT+ people and 42 per cent of trans people aged 16-27 attempting suicide.

Meanwhile the issue of transphobia continues to rear its ugly head. Until recently, Australia was the only country in the world where kids were forced through the family court to access stage two hormone treatments. Most Australian states require surgery for changes to the gender recorded on birth certificates. This February, a popular hormone treatment, Primoteston Depot, was removed from the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme. Overseas, cissexism is snowballing, with figures shuch us Trump increasingly turning to transphobia as a tool of division. The UK has seen a tripling of transphobic hate crime in the last five years, and the US has seen a huge spike in murders of trans people, 2017 reaching a decade-long high.

We should not take the success of marriage equality to mean the LGBT+ movement is necessarily thriving and strong. Truth told, marriage equality was not the battleground of choice—there is no reason any government benefits should be tied to the oppressive institution of marriage. The plebiscite was just an attempt by Turnbull to appease his party’s right wing, and it emboldened homophobes across the country. There’s no reason our rights needed to be put to the vote in the first place. Even in the campaign itself, many attempted to distance the fight for marriage equality from that of trans liberation, leaving people prey to a transphobic scare campaign by the right.

This gutless move was the symptom of the move away from the proud defiance of the ‘70s to an assimilationist urge that ducks from the battle for full liberation in efforts to gain small concessions. This move from revolutionary radicalism to reformism is again no accident. It happens in the context of the overall strength of the left, and a low level of class struggle. It happens with weakened unions and low strike days, and consequently of social movements all too disconnected from the power wielded by the workers who produce our society. Our best chance for regaining the radicalism and the successes of the ‘70s is to rebuild the same seeds of struggle that were preconditions to that radicalism.

The allies we will need for future battles for LGBT+ rights are working alongside us in the fight against Australia’s torture camps on Manus Island and Nauru, against Indigenous incarceration and child removals, and against the Liberals’ savage cuts to welfare, healthcare and education. By pouring our energies into these campaigns, we foster the healthy social movements and deep solidarity that we will need for a full agenda of gay and trans liberation. Equally importantly, we must rebuild the union movement. As workers today or else workers tomorrow, we have to win the right to strike by breaking bad rules, because it is this capacity to strike that hits hardest and deepest against the capitalist system that produces homophobia.

So today, as it has been in the past, the LGBT+ movement needs radicals who see the interconnections of oppression, and understand how the same system that creates racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, crushes all the people who make it work. It needs people who understand that this means not fleeting skirmishes but a long battle against homophobia and transphobia. But it also needs people who make the connection not just of oppression but of resistance. It needs people who see that our fight must be fought not against our cis and hetero brothers and sisters, but together in solidarity against the homophobes who sit in parliament.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.