Gender & Sexuality
Socialism and LGBT Liberation
The Left Voice presents an interview with Sherry Wolf, an activist, public speaker, and writer from Brooklyn, NY. She is an associate editor for the International Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.
September 07, 2015
Photo credit: JFJP website
In this interview, Sherry Wolf discusses the impact of the Stonewall Rebellion, advances in LGBT rights in the early years of the Soviet Union, Gay Pride, as well as accommodation and oppression within capitalism.
This interview was originally published in Portuguese in Esquerda Diário on June 28, 2015.
Stonewall was the birth of the LGBT movement in Brazil and in the world. Yet, even before then, there were gay rights organizations. Can you describe the LGBT movement before Stonewall?
It was pretty crude. It was pretty splintered. The first organizations came about in the 1950s in the United States. That is to say, any organizations with any lasting memory, organizations with publications—the Daughters of Bilitis had a publication called The Ladder and there was a men’s organization, Harry Hay’s organization. In essence, what began as circles of friends on the West Coast in the mid 50’s, it’s really like so many other issues in the post-war era; racial issues and gender issues are being discussed and of course, sexuality. As the U.S. becomes so much more intensely urbanized and World War II itself became an enormous coming-out experience given the extraordinary effort of 16 million people corralled into same-sex units and this efflorescence of sexuality.
The ‘50s are the first time there was any sort of gay or lesbian organizing, but it was very modest. Nobody today would refer to their efforts as radical in any sense, but just to be out was certainly radical and what the queer community was facing was a ban from the federal government for the first time in the Eisenhower administration. Federal employees could be fired for being gay—and so began a sort of witch hunt of gays in the workplace on a level that had been unprecedented in the U.S.
At the same time, people as people were coming out and becoming slightly more visible—and only slightly. There was this federal clampdown that led to a horrific witch hunt against gays and lesbians. These witch hunts ultimately sparked much of the early organizing in the ‘50s. Harry Hay himself had been a communist. And the most famous woman lesbian organizer, who began writing for The Ladder and was not known for being a lesbian because she used a pseudonym, was Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun. An African-American woman, former financier of the Daughters of Bilitis and author of The Ladder, was known within circles as a lesbian and advocated for equal rights.
Also, there is a very good example of working-class organizing, that was exceptional for its time. The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in the 1920s, a Black-led union, came out against race-baiting and red-baiting (attacking and persecuting because of race or possible communist affiliation). They also came out against queer-baiting and actually had on its union hall, "Race baiting, red baiting and queer baiting are union busting." This is an extraordinary step, but it also shows the importance of active socialists and communists inside of that union and the sort of world that existed on the United States’ West Coast at that period of time. However, it can’t be said that this example gave rise to other working-class organizing efforts; rather, we know about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Unions because they stand out as an exception.
All of those organizing groups come after the Bolsheviks take power in the Soviet Union. As you describe in your book, the liberatory way that the Bolsheviks dealt with LGBT people is a very little-known fact. Can you talk about how the Bolsheviks dealt with LGBT people?
It’s a stunning story that is worthy of more exploration. It’s not as though the Bolsheviks were deeply enlightened about gender or sexuality issues. To say otherwise would simply not be accurate. But they were interrogating and investigating the idea of human liberation and they stood in opposition to oppression; when you start from these standpoints, it allows for many more conversations to open up. The ideology driving the Bolshevik party created a methodology for approaching all sorts of human questions.
For example, they decriminalized homosexuality decades before it was decriminalized anywhere else. And what is striking to me is that the earliest known sex change operations were happening in the Soviet Union—although I shudder to think about what those were like, given the realities of surgery and of medicine in that era. Women served in the Red Army, serving openly as women. Trans men served in the Red Army as men because they were men, not because they had to hide.
There were weddings performed between same-sex couples. All of these things were part of the liberation of identities centered around sexuality and gender, and the Bolshevik Revolution is what made such liberation possible. To confront this really makes you wonder what could have happened if the dreams of the revolution hadn’t been so crushed by the end of the 20’s and certainly by the rise of Stalinism, where you see a complete reversal of all of these kinds of policies.
The Soviet Union even had a foreign minister who was known to be gay. He was the face of the revolution going out there and travelling abroad. He wasn’t going around saying he was gay, but it was known. He was not living a closeted life from what we can tell. But we know that there was enormous exploration of this question, as is always the case when there is a throwing up of everything; why not the most intimate of human relations?
Photo credit: MSU Libraries Special Collections
Certainly the icon for LGBT liberation today is not the taking of power by the Bolsheviks. It is Stonewall. Why was Stonewall so important in the US and in the world?
I think the moment in time it happened where you have a convergence of the anti-war, the Black power, women’s liberation movement, of mass mobilizations and even the rise of labor struggles and labor radicalism in particular among black workers in auto, postal workers soon after go on a mass national strike.
The one important thing to remember is that this was not the first time there was even a riot. That had happened years before among trans women and drag queens in the Bay Area where violence erupted in response to police violence. Why we remember Stonewall the way we do is not only because it lasted for days; we remember it because started to get more and more people involved. The Black Panthers sent people out. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican and Latino equivalent of the Black Panther Party and the entire American Left that had any soul whatsoever, sent people to the riots; the non-Stalinists and even sections of the Stalinist left came out and supported and participated. So many people who had never thought at all about gays or lesbians—much less bisexuals and trans people—came to the protests and got involved in this battle with the police that lasted for days.
But I think the reason we really remember Stonewall is because people got organized as a consequence of its occurrence. Unlike many public protests that last for as long as they last, Stonewall gave rise to lasting effects. The Gay Liberation Front formed within 24 or 48 hours of Stonewall’s end. At the time, the United States was at War with Vietnam; the Gay Liberation Front lifted their name of the Vietnamese Army that the US government was fighting at the time, the National Liberation Front. To take from, transform that name into the Gay Liberation Front was wildly radical thing to do; the GLF’s manifesto was equally brilliant, radical and transformative. For the first time gays didn’t begin their public appearance from a position of defensiveness when fighting for their rights. Before Stonewall, the attitude in public was “Please, please, please don’t hurt us.” After Stonewall, it became a different mantra: “We are full human beings and you are going to treat us better. We are done with your shit.” It was a real break from the prior years of much more apologetic activists. I think the organizing that came out of Stonewall is why we remember this riot better than we do other public outcries and eruptions.
All of those groups came to the Stonewall Riots—the Panthers, the Left, etc. Were the different groups’ ideas exhibited in the organizing that happened after Stonewall? Who organized the Gay Liberation Front? What were their ideologies?
Many of the people who participated in the riots were street kids who were thrown out of their homes or ran away for being gay. They were trans people, they were butch lesbians—people who were outliers, who were rejects. I mean, the Stonewall bar was a total dive bar. It was hardly even a bar. It was a filthy joint. There had been a Hepatitis outbreak a week or two before the riots and authorities were frequently shutting it down. It was a real hole-in-the-wall. Many of these people got involved in the organizing of the Gay Liberation Front, so these are people who were independently radicalized through the circumstances of their own lives and their own oppression, but absolutely individuals from the Left, some of the Trotskyist left who were part of the Socialist Workers Party and some independent socialist groups and some who had been radicalized by Students for a Democratic Society. All kinds of folks found their way into the Gay Liberation Front and the various iterations afterwards and even people who are premiere historians of our movement—like John Demilio was a student at Columbia and Martin Duberman formed a Gay Marxist reading Circle at Columbia University. They called themselves the “Gay Academics Alliance” and theorized what was going on while they were active in the Village as well. They were trying to come up with a theory about sexuality and gender oppression while they were actively trying to get involved. And the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto really reflects the radical sentiments of people who were organizing.
We have Stonewall and from there, we have the birth of the Gay Rights Movement and then we end up today with these Gay Pride parades. Brazil is home to the biggest gay pride parade in the world, but also kills more LGBT people than any other country in the world. The Pride parades are places for “pink money” and corporations to profit. What happened? How did we end up in this moment with these Pride parades? What do you think of the potential of that political space?
Let’s talk about how we got here first. I think that, with the waning of radical activity and the diversion of many radicals into the Democratic Party, at least in the United States, there came a turning point in the ‘70s. Activists’ and radicals’ demands became much more modest. But I think there seems to be a bit of a paradox, because as people came out, being gay became more acceptable among wider and wider circles of American society, including eventually, corporate America. As such, capitalism has shown a degree of plasticity when it comes to its approach to homosexuality.
It’s not that oppression of gays, lesbians and bisexuals has ended (to say nothing of trans people for the moment, because society hasn’t given them much leeway at all), but things are rapidly opening up for them—I am not going to say changing, but opening up—a conversation about trans people has opened up in this country like no other time in our lives. I think that as more and more people came out, capitalism figured out (as it has with women who have risen into managerial positions and black people who entered into elected positions) a certain accommodation with some some presentations of homosexuality—though not all, to be sure.
I think it’s very important to make note of this, because it’s not at all as if capitalism has ceased to need divide-and-conquer tactics. It hasn’t ceased to desire the oppression of people who lead their lives in a way that is a dissent from the status quo. Capitalism absolutely needs a status quo, and a group of outsiders to oppress on the basis of that status quo, but it has shown that it has the capacity to adapt to and accommodate certain kinds of lifestyles, certain kinds of bodies and certain kinds of presentations of sexuality that it previously would not have.
We see something similar in the way that a capitalist society has made room for Barack Obama, even though the front page of every newspaper and the streets of every American city are littered with the bodies of black and brown men and women who have been beaten and murdered. Oppression and adaptation can co-exist in capitalism, and I think we are seeing that right now with the rise and spread of gay marriage, which is going to most likely become a national reality in the next week or so. The Supreme Court of the United States is going to make a ruling and almost everybody expects the Supreme Court to decide in favor of same sex marriage. It will be transformative in many ways for many people but, what does that mean to somebody who is poor or working class, to someone who doesn’t look a certain way, wear a certain kind of clothing, or go to certain clubs, or live in certain neighborhoods. We still don’t have workplace rights in nearly half the states. And forget rights for trans people—they have nothing. But even with gays, it’s perfectly legal to be fired for no other reason other than that you are gay or lesbian in half of the American states where most people live.
These systemic contradictions will continue to exist so long as capitalism exists, but we are seeing an ability and a need from the people at the top of the system to co-opt a section of the oppressed that they find to be acceptable, just as we’ve seen happen with women like Hillary Clinton and men like Barack Obama. The ruling class created a space for an upper-class layer to have all sorts of freedoms while they continue to persist with an ideology and the denial of material benefits for the overwhelming majority of LGBT people. So both are co-existing right now in the U.S. We live in an utterly contradictory moment.
And what about Pride parades?
I think it’s important to remember something. As much as in cosmopolitan circles it’s passe to be out and not a big deal, it’s still the reality that in much of the United States, being out is controversial. So for those people, Pride continues to be a place where people can be their true selves and have the freedom to celebrate that fact. It’s something we shouldn’t be so cynical about.
However, the utter disgusting corporatization is noxious to all of us who are on the left and those of us who don’t believe that our freedoms are brought to us by Citibank or Budweiser but what is happening is that with the rise of the Left in the United States, and I do think there is a sort of developing left, not just through Black Lives Matter, but through many fronts, such as the Palestine Solidarity (BDS), so we have elbowed our way in with these contingents. For example, in NYC and in many other cities there have been Queers for Palestinian Liberation in the Pride Parades. NYC has many Gay Pride parades—each of the boroughs has one and then the big one is on the weekend of the anniversary of Stonewall in Manhattan. In the working-class borough, like in Queens, there was a contingent “From Stonewall to Baltimore” bringing together the issues of gay liberation and Black Lives Matter. We’re seeing this happen much more frequently.
There has been a re-entering of corporate space by leftists; we are carving out a niche for ourselves and getting an enormously positive response, especially in the working-class districts. The response we get, even in immigrant communities, which are not thought to be progressive on this issue, has actually been very positive. People cheer. Immigrant families put their fists in the air, cheering gay people come out for Black Lives Matter or Palestine; this is actually a fascinating moment where you can see people thinking a little differently.