New chance to get it right: S11 revives the spirit of Stonewall

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There’s a new political mood among young queers. It’s militant and activist! The global anti-corporate movement is rapidly moving beyond protesting the ravages of neoliberalism to opposing capitalism itself. And queers — especially young queers — are at the front lines. The debate of the day is: How to achieve global economic justice — do we try to fix the system or nix it?

The questions Why are queers oppressed? How will we win our liberation? are back on the agenda. Growing numbers of queer activists are rejecting the bland assimilationism of community leaders who feel more comfortable in a boardroom than on a blockade.

From pride to protest. June is the traditional month in the northern hemisphere when the queer community celebrates gay pride. These events have their origins in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which sparked the modern gay liberation movement. But in many cities, the celebrations are little more than a big party and marketing opportunity for companies chasing pink dollars.

June 2001, though, saw a shift in focus from choosing DJs to making political demands. In New York, a mass queer-led protest demanded the cancellation of the third world debt and access to HIV/AIDS treatments for everyone, everywhere! In Everett, Washington more than 200 queer unionists gathered for an Outfront Labor Conference, organised by Pride at Work. In London, a group inspired by the anti-corporate movement, put on a hugely successful anti-commercial Pride event. They also produced a spoof on the commercialised Pink Paper, called the Pink Pauper! Radical and anti-capitalist queer groups across Europe have linked up via a website called “queeruption,” and many cities in North America and Australia have similar groups.

These developments are truly exciting. Queers who identify with the new anti-capitalist movement are disgusted with the glossy image of a community held together by little more than a love for pink dollar consumerism and corporate sponsorship deals. The popular chant “We’re here, we queer and we’re not going shopping!” neatly sums up the anger.

The commercialised single-issue community has always been more like an exclusive club. Left out are the queer majority — the young, poor, elderly and disabled; unionists, rural people, Indigenous queers, other queers of colour and most lesbians.

But it did manage to occupy a certain status as the voice of the lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered (LGBT) community. The re-emergence of an alternative radical current means that the cautious careerists now face a challenge for leadership.

From Stonewall to S11. A spontaneous uprising against police brutality, the Stonewall Riots ignited the international gay movement. The Stonewall Inn, in New York’s Greenwich Village, was the place for poor, working class queers at the bottom of the Village pecking order. They were mostly young people of colour, gays living on the street, working class lesbians, transgenders and gay men. Usually, they acquiesced to the constant police harassment. But it was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, and rebellion was in the air. On July 27, 1969 Stonewall’s patrons fought back, taking the NYPD by surprise.

The movement Stonewall spawned was a product of its times: its goal was liberation, nothing less. Gays and lesbians who became active found themselves discussing heady questions: Why are we oppressed? What’s the link between heterosexism and sexism? Why are women oppressed? How will this be overcome?

The dominant theories in the movement were radical, anti-capitalist, anarchist, feminist and Marxist. Many gay and lesbian liberationists understood homophobia to be a product of sexism. They were against the patriarchal family, the church, marriage and monogamy; they were generally anti-Establishment and countercultural. Those influenced by Marxism took anti-Establishment politics a step further, arguing that before the rise of private property, society was matriarchal and communal, and sexuality was free. But, they said, as private property emerged, the matriarchy was overturned by patriarchy, and women became the property of husbands. The oppression experienced by queers, women, people of colour and workers was ultimately rooted in capitalism.

But what happened to the spirit of rebellion which symbolised Stonewall? Where did it go?

Because the movements of the ’60s failed to progress beyond militancy to insurrection, conservatism set in. Nothing stands still — and what doesn’t advance, falls back.

For radicals, the ’80s and ’90s were harsh and disorienting. It was the period of Reagan and Thatcher’s tub-thumping anti-communism. In Australia it was the Hawke-Keating years and the politics of consensus. Labor Party policy was to tame the movements through funding programs, thus buying off their leaders. The lesbian/gay movement was no exception.

The bourgeoisie then went on an ideological offensive. In a climate of individualism and manic consumerism, it heavily promoted the myth of universal prosperity.

During the past decade or so, many campaign groups succumbed to this regressive trend by transforming themselves into narrowly-focused fundraising machines. The ALSO foundation, Mardi Gras in Sydney and the Pride March in Melbourne all exhibit elements of this. The militant demands of the early days were diluted into pleas for equal treatment. As if liberation is simply legal equality!

If straight white men are the Joneses, then a lot of energy has been spent trying to keep up with them. The minority of affluent lesbians and gay men have indeed benefited from some of the concessions wrested from the Establishment. But those who can’t afford the trappings of suburbia — dual incomes, a white picket fence and a mortgage — have been left out of the “equality” equation. In any case, as neoliberal economic policies bite hard, the Joneses are going backwards as well. Nobody can achieve liberation under capitalism!

Movements are affected by the political climate of the day, as the LGBT movement shows. A rise in temperature caused a combustion of protest in November 1999 against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. It then spread around the world, reaching Melbourne the following September to shut down the World Economic Forum. All this fanned queer passion for freedom.

For the 32 years since Stonewall, people have put up with the ravages of economic rationalism. But now, young working class people from Palestine to Port Moresby, from Quebec to Queensland, are mad as hell and not taking it any more. Starting with the 1994 uprising of Indigenous people in Chiapas, the fierce mood of protest threw the corporate leaders off guard, and they still don’t know what to do about it.

Let’s get it right. As in the 1960s, rebellion is in the air. At the start of the 21st century, we’re presented with another chance to bring it on. The radical wing of the queer movement can, and must, go beyond militancy and media stunts to building a sustainable multi-issue, anti-capitalist movement — attracting new activists ready to fight for the complete liberation of humanity.

Plans to build a Queer Bloc for the mass protests in October against the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Brisbane and the CHOGM Business Forum in Melbourne provide a fantastic opportunity. Political schooling in why queers should protest must replace diversionary debates over tactics and anarchistic super-militancy. The success of the Queer Bloc will be judged by its size, its impact on the protest and the wider queer community, and its ability to win fresh support for anti-capitalist queer politics.

When celebrating the 20th anniversary of Stonewall in 1989, the Freedom Socialist Party coined the slogan “Stonewall Was A Riot. Now We Need A Revolution!” We produced leaflets, a banner, badges and t-shirts which were immensely popular and ended up going all around the world. This slogan is striking a new chord with today’s anti-capitalist queer activists. It characterises the real challenge that queer radicals face — to build a movement which can take the necessary step from riot to revolution!

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