This talk was presented by Alison Thorne on 30 October 2018 at an event hosted by Rainbow Atheists.
I’d like to start by acknowledging that we meet this evening on the stolen lands of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to elders and pledge my solidarity, not only to elders, but also to the young warriors in the struggle. I’d especially like to acknowledge inspiring First Nations elders from the LGBTIQ community such as local legend, Noel Tovey; Tiwi Island sista girl, Crystal Johnson; and feisty lesbian activist, Esther Montgomery who is a Mardudhunera woman from the Pilbara.
A hearty thanks to Rainbow Atheists for organising this very timely gathering. With “religious freedom” becoming the latest manufactured cause that rightwing forces, both inside and outside parliament, are organising around, there’s never been a better time to explore the lessons of history and to talk about what is needed to defeat the emboldened conservative, rightwing populist and outright fascist forces that are seeking to extend their influence and win recruits to their menacing agenda.
In this talk, I’ll be speaking about the far right in general — some openly fascist and some not. A grouping or political party is openly fascist when it is seeking to build a violent mass movement of the disaffected based to stopping workers and the oppressed from organising.
I thought it might be useful to share the basis of my rainbow atheism.
My working class family is from Yorkshire in England. We migrated to Australia as “10-pound poms” when I was six years old. My childhood was mostly secular, although my family were nominally Church of England and would have ticked that box on the census.
I began identifying as an atheist after I became a Marxist feminist. I embraced gay liberation in my late teens and threw myself into the movement, which in the late ‘70s was awash with exciting ideas about what was needed to win our freedom.
My quest to understand the basis of homosexual oppression quickly led me to the discovery that before the rise of private property, society was matriarchal and communal, gender identity was fluid and sexuality was free. This changed gradually over generations with the rise of private property. The new economic order required its own institutions: women were enslaved in strict male-headed households comprised initially of wives, children and slaves. Religious taboos were imposed to repress residual sexual and gender diversity.
Wow, what an epiphany — the institutions that oppressed my youthful self and all my friends — the law, the church, and the stiflingly oppressive institution of the monogamous, patriarchal, heterosexual family — hadn’t always existed, and they arose alongside private property to serve the ruling class!
It was in the early ‘80s, that I also first encountered two socialist feminist organisations — the Freedom Socialist Party and sister organisation, Radical Women. I was impressed by their pioneering work, including a series of articles published in the Freedom Socialist newspaper in the late ‘70s called Gay Resistance the Hidden History.
This series, which was later published as a booklet, documents the Judeo-Christian taboo against homosexuality, describing how Jewish and then Christian religion “associated free sexuality with the Great Mother cults of the ancient matrilineal world, and used sexual prohibitions as a weapon against the lingering, embedded influence of matriarchal customs among the people.”
The Christians, then, “borrowed the Judaic taboo against sexual freedom and homoerotic behaviour and proceeded to extend the taboo against virtually all sexual enjoyment to a scope undreamed of by even the Hebrew patriarchs.”
The pamphlet then describes what it characterises as a “medieval holocaust” against women’s self-determination and free sexual expression, condemning all sexual activity occurring outside the sacrament of heterosexual marriage.
Once I understood the basis of my own oppression as a worker and a woman who was not heterosexual, I could not un-know what I had learnt. I joined both the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women in 1982 and commenced an action-packed life as a Marxist feminist. This philosophy informs every aspect of my world view.
I have a scientific materialist approach to the world, appreciating that the physical world precedes the world of ideas. I came to understand that not only Christianity, but also all religious doctrines, are idealist philosophies. So, for the last four decades I have been ticking “Atheist” on my census, which is just about the only time in predominantly secular Australia I am even asked the question.
I have titled this talk, “Remembering the Pink Triangle: A call for rainbow atheists to resist the far right,” because I firmly believe in the importance of studying history and then applying the lessons.
When we remember the pink triangle, we think first of oppression: of the chilling horror of the Nazis making homosexuals one of their scapegoats as they came to power in Germany, snuffing out all democratic rights and imposing more than 12 years of fascist rule.
But we also think of struggle as the gay liberation movement in the ‘70s reclaimed the pink triangle and turned it into a symbol of queer resistance! We are reminded of how the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) adopted the inverted pink triangle along with the powerful call to arms that “silence equals death.”
While gay liberationists were marching on the streets with the Tshirts, badges, placards and banners proudly displaying the pink triangle, the movement was also part of the sweeping struggles taking place that won queer studies on campuses alongside women’s studies, Aboriginal and labour history and ethnic studies. The outpouring of writing resulted in published history that ceased describing the past from the perspective of the winners. Voices other than rich, white, heterosexual men became heard!
There was a flowering of historical discovery: evidence was re-examined and important stories painstakingly uncovered. Those who survived were inspired to tell their stories. Important memoires such as Heinz Heger’s The Men with the Pink Triangle packed a powerful punch.
Alongside the truth telling the horrors, a huge amount of invaluable historical work asked how and why did fascism come to power and crucially, could it have been stopped?
Studying the decades before fascism is rich with lessons. The first homosexual rights organisation in the world emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th century. For more than three decades, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, led by Dr Magnus Hirschfield, was a key part of a large queer community with a thriving hub based in Berlin. The committee educated around sexuality, organised for homosexual rights and campaigned to repeal paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. They gathered more than 6,000 signatures on a petition demanding the repeal of this anti-gay clause, with support coming from prominent community leaders. This organising became part of a struggle for sexual reform across Europe. The pinnacle of its success was the Bolsheviks’ removal of all laws restricting consensual sexual conduct, just two months after the October Russian Revolution. They also legalised divorce and abortion.
All this took place in a broader political context. Socialist ideas were growing in popularity, with the German Social Democratic workers’ party attracting huge numbers of members. First-wave feminism was sweeping Europe. Germany was no exception, where the movement was demanding civil rights, reproductive justice and equal education. Workers were demanding healthier living conditions in the cities, and a radical youth movement attracted thousands.
This also took place in a broader economic context. During the 1920s, the German economy was saddled with the legacy of debilitating reparations and loss of territory from the First World War. This posed significant costs, especially on heavy industry.
Ordinary people experienced unemployment, shortages and inflation. Heavy industry, keen to shore up profits, cranked out goods but, with the population squeezed, much of this production failed to find a market. Then, in the late ‘20s a global financial crisis hit the already beleaguered German economy.
Fascism becomes an option for the capitalists during times of economic crisis. The big end of town needs to squeeze workers harder to make more profits. But if the movements are well organised, they’ll resist.
Faced with this situation, scapegoats come in handy to distract people from the real source of their misery. Using this approach, the far right will seek to build its own mass fascist movement. This is exactly what happened in Germany.
As first the fascist threat was small, it could have been easily stopped if all of fascism’s targets had united to stop them building a mass movement of street thugs. But this did not happen in Germany because of disastrous political errors.
While the German working class and the movements for social change were well organised, they supported two mass parties — the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party. Tragically, the socialists believed that the constitution and the capitalist state would keep them safe from the Nazi menace, while the Communist Party made a different, but just as fatal, mistake. Stalinism dominated the communist movement and believed there was little difference between the Nazis and the socialists, who they called social fascists. The communists also failed to recognise the seriousness of the situation and refused to form a united front with the socialists.
To learn more about this period of history, I highly recommend a collection of writing by Trotsky, published as the Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. Trotsky, by this time in exile and living on the run from the forces of Stalinism, had a small core of supporters who argued the urgency of the socialist and communist parties working together to defeat the fascists through a united front of all who fascists seek to target.
By the time those in leadership woke up and understood that the goal of fascism is to crush working class organising and all mass movements independent of the fascist state, to put women’s reproduction under Nazi control and to snuff out democratic rights entirely, it was too late. Fascism had arrived.
That fascism in Germany resulted in a holocaust against Jews, Roma people, trade unionists, communists, homosexuals and people with disabilities is now well known. Less well known is that, with the right strategy, it could have been stopped.
So, what of today?
We are living and organising in an increasingly polarised world. The results are deadly, particularly for people of colour, including LGBTIQ people.
Far-right parties of both fascist and rightwing populist varieties are on the rise across Europe: we see this with Golden Dawn in Greece, the Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, AfD (Alternative for Germany),, the Freedom Party in Austria and Jobbik in Hungary.
Last year, white supremacists from across the U.S. marched in Charlottesville in a Unite the Right Rally where one rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotests, killing one and injuring 19. And just this week we’ve seen Robert Bowers — a far-right, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant man — perpetrate a mass shooting that killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburg.
Indonesia is in the grip of rightwing populism with hard-line Islamist groups and the conservative politicians who back them, ramping up homophobia and transphobia. The repression is forcing people underground and leading to a rise in HIV infections, because people are too scared to access services.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro, an ultra-right candidate backed by the military, recently won the presidential race. Bolsonaro has a far-right agenda, which includes extreme homophobia. He infamously said, “I would not be incapable of loving a gay son. I prefer that he die in an accident.” This is happening in a country that is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an LGBTIQ person, with homophobic crimes, including murders, reaching epidemic proportions. Transwomen in Brazil have a life expectancy of just 35 years!
This is the global context, while here is Australia we also have a fight on our hands.
Conservatives, rightwing populists and open neo-Nazis are also organising in Australia.
They are organising on the streets, aiming to build a mass movement. Since early 2015, when Reclaim Australia held rallies around the country, including one in Melbourne’s Federation Square, there’s been provocation after provocation through far-right and Nazi actions. There’s also been a parade of fascists, “alt-right” and other assorted nasties visiting, from Milo Yiannopolous to Lauren Southern to Nigel Farage. Meanwhile, the government stopped Chelsea Manning from visiting Australia on so-called character grounds!
Fascists paid a visit to community radio station 3CR and to the Melbourne Anarchist Club. They invaded and harassed local council meetings in the City of Yarra and Moreland after these councils spoke out against celebrating Australia Day. They’ve also disrupted rallies and harassed participants, including actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people and refugee rights.
In parliament, the right wing prevented marriage equality from being legislated long after it was well established that there was mass community support. And they succeeded in imposing the odious postal survey, which inflicted such pain on the LGBTIQ community. They’ve gutted the Safe Schools Program. And just this month we’ve seen One Nation propose a motion to denounce “anti-white racism,” based on the white supremacist slogan, “It’s OK to be white.” This initially got the backing of the Liberal Party, until they realised it wouldn’t play well in the Wentworth by-election.
The far right in Australia is globally connected and takes up the same causes. They’ll tap into any issue they think may help them build their movement. We have flag waving nationalism through to admiration for Donald Trump. They defend Australia Day, while fascists recently defaced a monument to the stolen generation. They want only the “right kind” of immigrants, generating outpourings of support for white South African farmers, while fuelling Islamophobic fear-mongering over everything from Halal food to mosques and schools. They hate feminism. They “march for the babies,” champion men’s rights and oppose the Family Court as biased in favour of women.
They lampoon political correctness as a tool to silence ordinary folk, while selectively championing free speech to spread their poison. They demand increased law-and-order measures and use xenophobia to fuel insecurity as the economy unravels. Their hysterical policing of the gender binary knows no bounds!
The latest cause celebre of the right wing is so-called “religious freedom.” Once again, this internationally connected movement is taking its cue from battles overseas, such as the U.S. wedding cake battle.
The Ruddock Review into religious freedom became a weapon for the Right to bash the LGBTIQ community, which would force limitations on the marriage equality victory. It received more than 16,500 submissions, many equating religious freedom with the right to discriminate. The task of the movement now is to get organised and make sure this tactic backfires, and does so spectacularly!
The religious exemptions to anti-discrimination protections have existed for years. While some LGBTIQ activists and feminists as well as the Independent Education Union have continued to speak out against this travesty, it was not widely known until recently. The combination of the Ruddock Review, coupled with the LGBTIQ movement finally moving on from its almost single-issue focus on marriage equality, means that this issue is now getting traction.
There’s real potential now to build on the public support, demonstrated by the marriage win, to get these odious exemptions scrapped.
LGBTIQ teachers in religious schools live in fear of being outed, causing immense stress. These exemptions are currently being used. In 2006, a divorced principal was sacked from a Catholic school for remarrying, and in 2012 a pregnant teacher was sacked from a Christian school for being unmarried.
This fight needs to link the LGBTIQ and feminist movements as well as the trade union movement.
As a socialist, I do not oppose the right of people to hold religious beliefs. The state has absolutely no business interfering. Everyone has the right to profess whatever religion they choose, and this includes the right to have no religion.
A key issue with the religious exemptions is that religious schools in Australia are publicly funded institutions. As we campaign for the full repeal of all religious exemptions, we should also be educating about the need for the separation of church and state. Religious influence must be removed from all public institutions, and the state must immediately stop funding all religious organisations!
This talk is a call for Rainbow Atheists to fire up and resist the far right.
First and foremost, everyone who is concerned about these issues needs get active — resisting the far right is not something that can be delegated to someone else. We all have a role in it.
We’re also vastly more effective when we join an organisation that shares our perspective, so that we can campaign collectively. This boosts our efforts! It would be great to see Rainbow Atheists move from being a Facebook group into being an activist group — there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.
For those interested in finding out more about socialist feminism, check out the Freedom Socialist Party, starting with our publications the Freedom Socialist and Freedom Socialist Organiser. We welcome those who would like to know more to join one of our study groups, to work with us in the movements and, if you agree, we’d invite you to join.
We also need to absorb those lessons from German history and apply them to Australia today. Neo-Nazis are organising and they cannot be ignored or simply dismissed as a joke. Those like the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, who have been countering fascists grouplets, have kept them small. But they are not defeated, and they are just looking for that spark to build a mass fascist movement.
We’re working as part of a group called PUSH! Organising and Educating to Build a United Front against Fascism. PUSH is a nucleus seeking to build a united front of all of fascism’s targets that is democratic, disciplined, accountable and effective. It would be great to have Rainbow Atheists come on board. Check out the PUSH call to action and get in touch to become involved.
History tells us that there is way too much at stake. Don’t sit on the sidelines — the time to get active is now!
Alison Thorne is a veteran LGBTIQ liberationist and the Melbourne organiser for the Freedom Socialist Party. She is currently working with PUSH! Organising and Educating for a United Front against Fascism and has more than three decades of experience countering neo-Nazis, patriarchal foetus worshippers, homophobic bigots and other assorted rightwing types! Contract PUSH at firstname.lastname@example.org