I have a confession to make. Not too long ago, I began to wonder if we had gotten it right with the slogan I used to push: “Lesbian and gay liberation through socialist revolution.” After all, democratic rights for queer people, a revolution in how society understands and accepts LGBTQ+ people: these things seemed on the advance, as they do even right now under global imperialism.
Even though global capitalism seemed as rotten and powerful as ever, we queers here in the belly of the beast were experiencing less of the open disdain we had once felt. Violence against us wasn’t over, but the scorn of the early HIV/AIDS era was tempered; you could watch a sympathetic TV show about gay men living in rural areas; we had open role models in popular culture, even the occasional media celebration of a queer Black man in a dress. We used to argue that capitalism couldn’t do this, that it was so wrapped up in the oppression of women — and by extension queer people — that it would never, could never, fully tolerate us.
Oh, I certainly agreed with those who said the path through marriage equality rather than rights protection (employment, etc.) was a poor and conservative strategic choice. But despite the unbelievable odds, it seemed as though progress was being made. It didn’t make me question my commitments to revolution, to communism; it just made me question my theoretical presumptions about what capitalism might be capable of. Perhaps the oppression of queer people was not as inexorably wrapped up in the social web of capitalism? Perhaps the acceptance being expressed in corporate and liberal political circles had genuine aspects that would legitimately allow queer people some respite, some safety?
I mean, it wasn’t just bourgie gays in Chelsea and Hollywood doing better: many working-class queer people, queer people of color, took advantage of legal changes and got married. In places like New York City, companies did not purge their “undesirables” but rather urged their LGBTQ+ employees to organize. The increased visibility and at least partial embrace of trans people suggested that society’s responses to queer self-definition might no longer be the closed fist or thrown rock. Trans visibility in particular seemed like a rocket of hope: Could it be that there were precious queer children who were finally going to be allowed to grow into their true selves? Would they be gifted the time to experience the joys of an open self in youth, and not just in the crusty resolve of middle age?
I watched with some concern as Democrats added a weaponized program of LGBTQ+ rights to their foreign policy advocacy. The rainbow flag was unfurled at the embassies of imperialism across the globe, and the vile blood-soaked Hillary Clinton, fresh from decades of working against LGBTQ+ civil rights, suddenly hijacked our cause as her own cause célèbre wedge issue as a hammer against regimes offering only limited compliance to Washington’s political demands. A host of LGBTQ+ groups, at home in the hallways of bourgeois civility, abandoned activism or even political advocacy for cocktail parties and lobbying circuits.
Had we gotten it wrong … was capitalism now acting as some kind of agent of queer liberation? The answer is simple and bitter: no.
Now, in the face of a massive social and legal assault against us, it appears that we are about to be reminded of the cost of letting down our guard, that we are guilty of complacency, of failing to extend and develop our understanding of the deep web of oppression embedded in capitalism; and, worst of all, we are about to reminded of exactly how the poison of capitalism functions as a growth medium for hatred, bigotry, and violence.
Mainstream gay and lesbian NGOs and “community” organizations have abdicated their responsibility to defend the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ communities, in favor of the Democratic Party’s dishonest and ultimately traitorous political positioning. This has worked to strengthen the hand of our worst enemies, as is evident in the new legal threats against LGBTQ+ people. There is now a wave of vicious anti-trans (and ultimately anti-all-LGBTQ+) agitation and legal repression sweeping from Republican-dominated legislatures, cultural fora, and media outlets — even trickling down via confused and disappointed boomers into the consciousness of liberals and even leftists. It is a literal counterrevolution against the democratic rights and cultural acceptance won by LGBTQ+ people in the previous few decades. LGBTQ+ NGOs have bet the rent by lobbying and investing in the boardrooms of corporate America, turning their backs on grassroots organizing other than massive mail-in donation campaigns. The result is a deafening silence from established organizations.
In growing sunshine states like Florida and Texas, as well as smaller ones with heavily conservative extra-urban populations, the fascists and neo-Confederates have a growing role in local governance, built on a growing right-wing base. In the face of sustained messaging on national media platforms of hatred and intolerance, those “progressive-minded” corporations are starting to shrug their shoulders and quietly accede to the demands of the Far Right out of corporate expeditiousness and the unavoidable pressures of the profit motive.
We are unprepared and disarmed in the face of a right-wing onslaught of potentially lethal and society-changing venom and ire. Not weighed down by truth, much less fact-checking regimens, the fascists have launched a broad assault on education and on healthcare, one that targets and demonizes the most vulnerable among us: trans kids. They have dared to suggest that the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, that marriage equality (and along with it, legal interracial marriage!) might be sent down the same drain as the right to abortion. Their contempt and mockery of our lives are highlighted by their bizarre lie-based campaign to pass legislation against placing cat litter boxes in schools “for children who identify as animals” — an utterly fantastic conspiracy theory designed to tarnish and dismiss the real challenges of trans kids.
To be sure, this assault is not directed against LGBTQ+ people alone: other waves of this multipronged assault on civil rights include the rollback of Roe v. Wade, the barely challenged racist attack on so-called critical race theory in education, and the “back the blue”/tough-on-crime post–George Floyd rebellion backlash that has dominated recent electoral cycles.
If the viciousness and hostility against trans people and ultimately all LGBTQ+ people is today open-carried on the Far Right, it is our dependence on fair-weather liberals and the politicians of the Democratic Party that is our Achilles’ heel, our vulnerability to attack. Wise revolutionaries once said, “The liberation of oppressed people must be the work of oppressed people themselves: we can only win our own liberation.” This is a call for the majority of queer people to find our strength in the class of people who have nothing to benefit from capitalism, and everything to gain from its destruction.
The people who hate us queers are the same ones who love the police for gunning down Black people in the street. The people who laugh cruelly at trans kids and call drag queens “groomers” are the ones who want border walls and war machines. We need to understand these patterns, to dig deeper into their meaning.
There are some very rich queer people in the ranks of our enemies, doing what capitalism does, oppressing and exploiting the rest of us. We cannot know whether their money and power will ultimately protect them from the increasingly dangerous actions of their allies. But those enemies, in their lily-white gated worlds built on privilege and selfishness, stand in stark contrast to what is possible for us: concrete solidarity with other regular working-class people, with the rainbow web of color, gender, and nationality that brings us collective strength, power, and potential liberation.
Friends and comrades, LGBTQ+ people do indeed remain deeply oppressed by society, and as the brittle nature of existing reforms is revealed, we must remember this truth. We must reject the false, fair-weather hopes and wishes of liberal public opinion in favor of the fighting solidarity of communities with their lives on the line. We cannot wait for the further unraveling of our fragile legal protections: we must band together now and fight the forces that are targeting us. And direct action, not lobbying and fundraising campaigns, must transform our rage into effective struggle.
Rights that are handed to us can be grabbed back. Laws written by fickle allies can be ripped up or erased. Politicians helping us out by using us may discover more utility elsewhere. Governments that have passed laws to protect us can turn into nightmares of brutality and repression. These things are happening now.
Despite all the bourgeois delusions and promises of equality under capitalism, our only real hope lies in joining with all the other people oppressed and exploited under capitalism, and breaking all the chains and rules that bind us to its cycles of hatred and ignorance and violence.
“Socialism or barbarism” isn’t just a frightening aphorism. It’s a reality close at hand. I no longer question my old slogan. Capitalism hasn’t liberated us. Not only that, its veneer of welcome is torn and shredded, worn transparently thin and dripping with the blood of someone murdered at a traffic stop by a cop or gunned down in a club by an armed bigot.
In this moment of mortal peril, it’s time to fight back, and fight back hard. We — LGBTQ+ people together with the other victims of capitalism — must do it ourselves.
So yeah, queer liberation through socialist revolution. Yes, indeed.