Lavender Left organizes: the Northeast Multi-National Lesbian and Gay Male Feminist Socialist Conference

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In the Memorial Day weekend, lesbians and gays representing every shade of lavender left politics transformed the placid surroundings of Appel Farm in the New Jersey countryside into a high voltage political forum. Every basic social and economic issue affecting the lives of lesbians and gay men in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada was confronted.

Led by the most dynamic sector of gays — lesbians of color — the three days in May of talk and de bate were marked by respectful collaboration, generating a powerful commitment to return to urban centers to organize against mounting racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and class exploitation.

The Third World caucus, the women’s caucus and the Jewish caucus played active roles.

Conceived during the Lesbian/Gay March on Washington, D.C. in October 1979, and organized by a coalition of gay activists and left groups, this conference mirrored the same high level of feminism, class consciousness and women’s leadership so evident at the First National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays held in Washington, D.C. last October.

150 participants came from the U. S., Canada, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico. One-sixth were people of color, and lesbians constituted an impressive majority.

Organizations present included Boston’s Lesbians and Gays against the Right, and New York City’s Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, the Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists, and COHLA (Comite Homosexual Latinoamericano). From Baltimore came the Lesbian and Gay Study Group and the Movement for a New Society. Philadelphia was represented by the Lavender Left and Toronto by the Body Politic newspaper.

Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women delegates came from New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other radicals present were Workers World Party, Revolutionary Socialist League, New American Movement, and Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee.

Dozens of independent radicals, active at work, on campus and in the community, contributed the lessons of their rich experiences.

Lesbians of color

Lesbians of color quickly emerged as the conference leadership, giving form and direction to every major issue. Steeled from years of fighting on every front, they set the political tone for the discussion of racism held by the women’s caucus and various other panels, and they presented regular reports from the Third World caucus. They strongly defended feminism, supported the intervention of left parties in the lesbian/gay movement, and articulated their right to autonomous organizing to advance their own consciousness and program.

The Third World caucus, which included men and women, warned against disastrous attempts to polarize the gay movement and the struggles of women and people of color. Weighing one movement against another constitutes a subtle form of racism and sexism, they said, which poisons the movement from within and drives people of color and women out of the ranks and the leadership.

Triad of controversy

The participants of color sparked a broad agreement around the necessity to build an antiracist, antisexist and class conscious lesbian! gay movement; this was tested and refined by debates over socialist feminism, Marxist theory and Leninist parties.

The Maoist-oriented Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee totally rejected feminism, but was met with resounding opposition from Freedom Socialist Party panelist Laurie Morton of New York City, who won majority support. “Socialism without a feminist tone is no help to me!” declared a Puerto Rican lesbian.

Dr. Susan Williams of New York Radical Women defended Trotskyist socialist feminist theory. Tracing the development of private property, women’s oppression, and class society, she thoroughly exposed the bankruptcy of the antigay Stalinist notion of the “revolutionary nuclear family.”

Opponents of Marxist theory emphasized culture over political action, or advocated pragmatic, nonprogrammatic activism or anarchist theory as the antidote to Marxist socialism. But the conference would not be swayed from its predominant socialist and feminist course.

The Revolutionary Socialist League avoided the feminist issue and as the controversy over Marxism developed, they disappeared from the debate.

The initial hostility displayed to Leninist parties and their promotion of ideological debate was defeated by a stirring defense of free speech that won broad endorsement. Everyone was encouraged to express opinions on controversial issues rather than allowing only one person from each left organization to speak.

In one workshop, justifiable anger erupted at the heterosexism of much of the left, but this was tempered by the contrary example of the FSPers, with their years of working at building the leadership of women and gay radicals.

Into the streets!

A sense of unity, bred by discovery of wide areas of political agreement, resulted in resolutions that mark a high point for the U. S. gay movement.

Resolutions were passed calling for an end to police brutality, the withdrawal of troops from Miami’s Black community, a “Fight Racism and Sexism” contingent in New York City’s Stonewall Commemoration in June, support to the People’s Convention called by the Coalition for a People’s Alternative in 1980, and August demonstrations outside the Democratic Party Convention.

A resolution to build alliances and united fronts against increasing attacks on people of color, women, Jewish people, lesbians and gay men was passed unanimously.

A Lavender Left quarterly newspaper was established.

Since the conference, the planning committee has called on leftist lesbian and gay activists to organize national and regional conferences with the same format of discussion and debate.

The Appel Farm conference shone with a ray of hope over a movement polarized by liberal reformism. These radical activists, whose political work touches every struggle against intolerance and discrimination, have advanced the gay movement one step closer to its rightful central role in the general movement against racism and sexism, the social glue of U.S. capitalism.

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