Queer Struggle, Class Struggle: Reflections on Stonewall at 50

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. The three-day riot against police violence will be commemorated with radical demonstrations, but also with “parades” including police, corporate floats and speeches by capitalist politicians. What happened? Has queerness lost its revolutionary potential?

Part I | Part II

Has the queer movement (which is still illegal in 75 countries) lost its revolutionary potential? Has it become a rainbow brand, despite the growing persecution of queer people with the rise of the extreme right? We will try to address these issues by looking at the history of LGBTQI+ struggles with a specific question: How do we achieve a society without oppression and exploitation?

The answer will surprise you. Or perhaps not, since in the history of revolutionary Marxism, there is a tradition that seeks to unite different oppressed groups with the working class, the class that creates all wealth and on whose exploitation the capitalist system is based. But what does wage labor have to do with the dominant sexual morality?

The patriarchal family benefits the capitalists in several ways. As new generations of exploited people are reproduced, the family makes it appear “natural” that women are the ones who carry out unpaid domestic and reproductive work. It is also in the patriarchal family that the new generations “learn” to respect authority and accept hierarchies as a “natural order”; this task is continued by churches, schools and other institutions like the army.

But the patriarchal family is neither static nor self-sustaining. In its ongoing historical evolution, it requires an ideology that encompasses other aspects of life and that does not just establish this model of family as “natural.” And this is where the systemic rejection of sexual and gender diversity comes into play as part of patriarchy. Capitalism reinforces, reproduces and reinvents different forms of oppressions like patriarchy and racism, or it implants them where they do not exist via colonization.

How do these different forms of oppression interact? There has been a particularly intense debate on this question in recent decades, centering on the idea of intersectionality, [1] especially since anti-racist feminists produced analyses of how double or triple systems of oppression complement each other. Yet this sort of analysis has existed throughout the history of Marxist thought.

The Question of Class Runs Through All Forms of Oppression

Does Barack Obama have the same interests as working people in the countries he bombed? Does a young lesbian who endures bullying in a precarious job or a trans person rejected from one job interview after another have the same interests as members of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce in Washington? No, and this is where an old idea reappears: the class struggle.

Increasingly, the LGBTQ+ movement wins more and more rights, provisional though they are, within the framework imposed by the capitalist system. These rights are only granted to a relatively small part of the world population who adapt to the impotence of bourgeois law. They become pawns to be sacrificed by the “modern” capitalist state in the face of the rise of the extreme right. In other words, the (fragile) equality before the law is not equality in life.

As the Spanish writer Daniel Bernabé points out in his book “La trampa de la diversidad” (The diversity trap), “The achievement of LGBT rights is conceived of as a question of access to goods and the respect that society pays in a meritocratic fashion. In this way, the message is conveyed that the problems a homosexual encounters are not systemic, but derived from the attitude of the individual.” [2]

This is class struggle—a Trojan horse of a capitalist class that in 40 years of neoliberal restoration has been striking a balance between co-optation and repression. It does this to neutralize the struggles against both the exploitation of the working class and against the systems of patriarchal and racist oppression, fragmenting these struggles and thereby maintaining the status quo. If the struggles against oppression are separated from the struggle against class exploitation, the system can be maintained and reconverted.

As the Madrid journalist Josefina Martínez pointed out in an article in Contrapunto, the magazine of our sister site IzquierdaDiario.es, “From an emancipatory perspective the goal is that no difference in skin color, place of birth, biological sex or sexual choice can be the basis of an oppression, an aggravation or an inequality. … But in the case of class difference, it is a matter of eliminating it as such, so that it no longer exists. The working class, through the struggle against capitalist social relations, seeks the elimination of private ownership of the means of production, which implies the elimination of the bourgeoisie as a class and the possibility of ending class society entirely.” [3]

The history of the LGBTQI+ struggle has also been to some extent the history of the class struggle; both struggles, with their long historical journeys, have met at a crossroads. It is at this crossroads that we want to ask some questions about intersectionality: What causes these overlapping forms of oppression? And, above all, how can we free ourselves from them? To reflect on this history, let’s go back 50 years to the Stonewall Inn.

A Sexual Revolution in the Midst of Class Struggle

On June 28, 1969, the police raided New York’s Stonewall Inn to humiliate and arrest the bar’s patrons, triggering three nights of street fighting.

After Stonewall, the movement for sexual liberation found a new center of gravity: the transformation of social relations. In the 1960s, women’s and sexual liberation movements began to develop around the world, winning important reforms, forcing parliaments to pass laws, tearing down prejudices and gaining visibility and recognition.

An extended process of radicalization stretched across continents from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. During this period, the United States was defeated in the Vietnam War, millions of workers and students launched a general strike in the famous 1968 uprisings in France, the Chilean working class organized workers’ councils (cordones industriales), the Czech people confronted the tanks of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Prague Spring, workers and students mortally wounded the Argentine dictatorship in the “Cordobazo” uprising, the people of Portugal toppled the dictatorship in the Carnation Revolution, and so on.

How, then, did we get from this moment of political radicalism one where the question of “diversity” is seen as a mere question of identity? Why did people stop questioning the capitalist system as a whole?

It would be incorrect to explain this evolution of sexual diversity as a “trap,” without contextualizing that when a significant sector of the youth and the working class tended toward openly anti-capitalist positions during the 1960s and 1970s, the big workers’ organizations (that is, the social democratic and communist parties) largely upheld their traditional LGBTQI-phobic positions, considering non-heterosexual orientations to be improper “deviations” from the working class. They thus turned their backs on the movements for women’s liberation and LGBTQI+ rights, which were booming and radicalizing in many countries.

For example, the French Communist Party (PCF) played a bureaucratic and conciliatory role toward the bourgeoisie during 1968, signing the Grenelle agreements and ending the strikes. On top of that, the party’s presidential candidate in 1971, Jacques Duclos, called LGBTQ+ people “pederasts.” Meanwhile, the German Democratic Republic continued to imprison LGBTQ+ people for their “crimes,” as capitalist West Germany did as well. Fidel Castro’s Cuba responded to the hopes of thousands of LGBTQ+ people who supported the revolution by locking them in the UMAP camps from 1965 to 1968 or expelling them from the Communist Party in 1971.

Sexual freedom in socialist countries did not differ much from that of capitalist countries, where many people also suffered judicial, police, social and psychiatric persecution. A large part of the traditional left did not question the bourgeois and patriarchal state. A social counterrevolution of this kind had also taken place in the USSR: Most of the revolutionaries who lived through the Russian Revolution and the decriminalization of homosexuality in the USSR were imprisoned in 1934 by the Stalinist apparatus.

This terrible track record is one of the reasons that many of the LGBTQ+ movements that emerged after Stonewall disassociated themselves from the organizations of the working class, such as communist parties or bureaucratized unions. In general, and especially in the context of the May 1968 protests in France, they were divided into three large sectors: those that followed the Maoist and Stalinist parties covertly; those that broke with the workers’ organizations and their strategies, drifting toward autonomism and postmodernism; and a small minority that tried to combine the revolutionary demands and strategies of the working class, feminists and LGBTQ+ people, largely promoted by small Trotskyist groups.

The 1970s saw the birth of the Gay Liberation Fronts (GLF) throughout Europe and the Americas. These combative organizations were descendants of the “spirit of Stonewall” and emerged as one of the most revolutionary wings of the sexual liberation movements. Aiming to form alliances with the workers’ movement and with the anti-racist, anti-imperialist and women’s liberation movements, they fought for the rights of LGBTQ+ people with a discourse that identified capitalist society as the source of these various forms of oppression.

One of these groups’ strongest points was precisely their attempts to forge alliances with anti-racist movements. They participated in demonstrations demanding the liberation of Black Panther prisoners, one of whom, Huey Newton, said in 1970: “Homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society. … Maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary. … We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups.”

These alliances were established while police persecution of LGBTQ+ people was brutal and while most of the population, including much of the working class, saw sexual diversity as something to condemn and hide their children from.

The Black Panthers brought ideas and methods of self-defense to the LGBTQ+ movement. Within their organization, they confronted the idea that sexual diversity and abortion are inventions of white supremacy to reduce the number of black children. At the same time, sectors of the working class were also able to challenge prejudices about sexual diversity. This was achieved in the heat of struggle, developing solidarity among oppressed sectors.

The GLFs also created alliances in labor conflicts, and supported the 1971 San Francisco transportation workers’ strike. They received support from construction workers in Sydney, who stopped construction of the university until LGBTQ+ students were readmitted in 1978. Starting in 1971, the GLF in France marched on May 1 with the slogan “Down with the dictatorship of normality.” This was their argument: ”For us, class struggle also runs through our bodies. Our rejection of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie means we want to liberate the body from this prison in which it has been systematically locked up for 2,000 years by sexual repression, alienated labor, and economic oppression. Therefore, there is no possibility of separating our struggle for sexual freedom, for the liberation of desire, from our anti-capitalist struggle, for a society without classes, without masters or slaves.” [5]

One of the best expressions of this solidarity would be the creation of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the miners’ strike of 1984-85 in the United Kingdom. The group raised more than £20,000 in cash for the strike fund after Thatcher’s government confiscated the bank accounts of the National Union of Miners. In 1988, the miners were among the main allies of the LGBTQI+ community during the campaign against Section 28, which made it illegal to “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” Miners participated in Pride marches in subsequent years, forcing the Labour Party to support LGBTQ+ rights under pressure from the National Union of Miners.

In the last 35 years, we have seen a change of orientation in by LGBTQ+ movements. They have retreated from an offensive to radically transform the world, instead resisting the neoliberal agenda, the emergence of HIV and the conservative restoration starting in the mid-1980s. But the goal of the radical transformation of society does not end here. In the second part of this series, we will address these changes.

Notes

[1] Josefina Martínez, “Feminismo, interseccionalidad y marxismo: Debates sobre género, raza y clase,” Contrapunto, no. 1 (February 2019), our translation.

[2] Daniel Bernabé, “La trampa de la diversidad: Cómo el neoliberalismo fragmentó la identidad de la clase trabajadora” (Madrid: Akal, 2018), 133, our translation.

[3] Martínez, “Feminismo, interseccionalidad y marxismo.”

[4] Huey Newton, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” New York, August 15, 1970.

[5] 4FHAR, “Rapport contre la normalité” (Paris: Champ Libre, 1971), our translation.

First published on April 21 in Spanish on Contrapunto / IzquierdaDiario.es.

About author

Roberto Jara

Roberto Jara

Roberto is a history student at the University of Zaragoza. He writes for our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.