Re-Igniting Socialist-Queer Politics

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By Dustin Guastella

June 28 marks the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. Stonewall is often recognized as the beginning of the modern movement for LGBTQ equality. Out of these riots, early LGBTQ activists formed radical and militant organizations. The most notable among them was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The GLF sought to challenge hegemonic notions of sexuality and gender. Their politics was not narrowly confined to LGBTQ rights or a discourse of “normalcy” but rather consisted of an effort to liberate all people from the yoke of sexual and gender oppression.

In order to do so they recognized that the very foundations of contemporary society, where heteronormative behavior and queer repression find their roots, had to be dismantled. They critiqued capitalism, the family, the bureaucratic state and all structures that contributed to the reproduction of sexual repression.

They formed coalitions with other groups struggling for change, the feminist movement, civil right organizations, the student movement and other left-wing political organizations. Unfortunately, while the GLF was the spark that started the worldwide movement for LGBTQ liberation, they dissolved in 1972 due to infighting among organization leaders.

As the movement for sexual and gender freedom progressed, LGBTQ visibility has increased and LGBTQ issues have broken into the mainstream. While it is clear that the movement has made significant gains, the radical edge, the demand to fully restructure sexuality and gender norms as well as the economic and social foundation on which they rest, has been lost for many queer activists and allies. It should be of concern that the greatest achievements to date are acceptance into the military and acceptance into the nuclear familiar structure. While these may be important gains for many queer people, they are hardly the victories of a vibrant left-wing movement.

Today, we confront a vicious form of capitalism but one that is wholly capable of tolerating a plurality of identities. The neoliberal and libertarian Right cannot stress enough the degree to which we must be free to choose. Certainly they feel some degree of comfort that the push for marriage equality never insists on de-coupling social rights from marriage. Under our contemporary regime of accumulation we see both the ascendance of a mainstream LGBTQ movement and a reassertion of the oppressive forces early activists had fought hard against. How could this be?

Indeed, many "pride" marches, once a militant and transgressive assertion of identity meant to confront directly the dominant sexual ideology, have been “pink-washed” by major corporations and effectively marketed for suburban consumption. Nowadays, it is not difficult to find advertising with pro-LGBTQ messages or imagine corporations jockeying for sponsorship rights of this or that festival. Not long ago many of these same companies refused to hire members of LGBTQ communities, and actively backed anti-gay politicians, but seeing how profitable the "gay market" can be they have since changed their tune. Pink-washed LGBTQ campaigns also, quite intentionally, neglect to call attention to the very real poverty and violence that so many queer people face.

Further, the dominant liberal ideology surrounding queer politics is stuck on affirming traditionally oppressive and constricting structures (the nuclear family, fixed sexual categories etc.) in the service of queer rights. Many liberals insist on a biological root of sexuality (“born-this-way” rhetoric has traditionally been used in the service of genocide, not civil rights) which allows no room for flexibility and fluidity. Liberals are expected to believe that queerness is no different than straightness and insist that the family form (two parents, two children) should remain perfectly intact.

But in fact, reactionaries are quite right to be nervous about queer identities because the existence of queers affirms their fear that sexuality is not a fixed category. Conservatives also recognize that queerness does (and should) fundamentally change marriage. Further, queer behavior does affect the way straight people think about their own sexuality (while biologists are determined to find the “gay-gene” we should be wondering what it is that makes people straight and why has this been the hegemonic form of sexuality under capitalism?). Yet many progressives with good-intentions push for change in a way that reifies those sexual categories and suggests a path toward “tolerance”. This is a problem; we tolerate long meetings and annoying colleagues. Tolerance is not the clarion call for sexual liberation.

In order to reestablish the radicalism of the LGBTQ movement (and push against the inhibitive nature of liberal rhetoric), we should reaffirm the articulation between socialist and queer politics. As John D’Emilio points out in “Capitalism and the Gay Identity” the development of capitalism has played a substantial role in creating the possibility for a sexual identity. While same-sex behavior is as old as humankind, the construction of an identity based on sexual desire is seemingly unique to capitalism. Therefore, a substantive critique of capitalism is necessary in order to challenge the conditions that structure how we experience sex and sexuality.

Further, socialist issues are queer issues. As Martin Duberman points out, the queer community is predominantly working-class and poor. This means fighting for more pluralistic work environments, better pay and unionization (and fighting for democracy within those unions) are not simply class issues that are parallel to the LGBTQ struggle -- they are integral to it. Let’s not forget that, while there have been victories for LGBTQ rights in the political sphere, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is still met with staunch opposition.

Finally, the queer critique of the nuclear family together with a critique of neoliberalism is key. The neoliberal state absolutely relies on interdependent structures like the family to provide much of the social support that should be de-coupled from work and the market. The marriage equality movement has often claimed that access to these structures is unfairly denied to queer people, but they have failed to articulate that it is also denied to all unmarried people.

The LGBTQ movement thus far has been remarkably successful in terms of political victories and this should not be discounted. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that we are on the cusp of queer liberation. And it is worrisome to see how quickly corporate interests have co-opted and marketed the gay movement. The radical flame of Stonewall must be reignited and socialist-queer politics along with it.

Dustin Guastella is a member of Philadelpia DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

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