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Coming Out Against Imperialism

In the 1970s, pioneering gay activists in the US and Britain saw the fight against homophobia as part of a much broader struggle – one which linked Pride to the cause of liberating the world's oppressed peoples.

‘Gay Liberation is for the homosexual who stands up, and fights back.’ In 1970, the year after the Stonewall riots, fliers for the first Christopher Street Liberation Day captured the theory, practice and spirit of a new generation driven to action. The origins of this new movement and its principles of popular mobilisation, however, can be found as much in the struggles for freedom fought in Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine as Manhattan’s West Village or Islington’s Highbury Fields.

Stonewall wasn’t the first time queer people in the US had revolted against police repression, but its importance reflects a revolutionary moment in the history of LGBTQ+ struggle. The riots signalled a new unity forged between the established, largely white homosexual rights campaigns and an insurgent movement of people of colour – and the integration of the new gay liberation movement into revolutionary political fronts across the world. By the mid-1960s, riots against police violence exploded across the US, largely led by Black youth. The people who confronted the police at Stonewall belonged to the most criminalised sections of society: Black, Latinx, homeless, sex workers and gender non-conforming people. A large number of participants were seasoned activists already involved in a wide range of struggles, a fact that is elided by the contemporary understanding of Stonewall as a purely spontaneous eruption.

The first Pride march, a year after the Stonewall Riots. Credit: Fred W. McDarrah.

As they fought to liberate the Village from the police, the locus of legitimacy shifted to those on the front lines. Meetings of the Mattachine Society—then the main established homosexual organisation—swelled. The appeal of radical politics grew, and there was no more powerful contemporary example of popular mobilisation than the national liberation movements advancing across three continents, in what Frantz Fanon described as an ‘immense tyranny-destroying wave’. Gay Liberation Fronts—their names taking direct inspiration from anticolonial movements in Algeria and Vietnam—were founded in the US and Britain. Around them, a rich gay associational life and vibrant gay culture flourished, the foundation and engine of a movement that went on to win important freedoms.

In the decade before Stonewall, national liberation movements had been mobilising the peoples across the Global South to destroy colonial states and imperial client regimes. By 1969, the Cuban people had overthrown the US-backed Batista dictatorship. Over 130 years of French colonial rule was overturned by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), while the South Vietnam Liberation Front was on track to liberate the country from American occupation. In the same decade, the Palestinian Revolution grew in strength after the historic Battle of Karameh, while popular struggles had been launched in South Africa, Namibia, Zanzibar, and Mozambique, among others.

In confrontation with empire and its doctrines of power, as Karma Nabulsi has described, national liberation movements practiced a radical principle at the heart of every democracy: popular sovereignty – and that the will of the people emerges in struggles against domination.  This was no abstract doctrine or utopian vision, but was instead evident in a range of practices, including the building of broad-based and ideologically diverse coalitions designed to overcome the fragmentation wrought by colonialism. Only by the participation of all sectors of a population in the liberation struggle could a popular force be created capable of transformation.

The advances made by national liberation movements had a profound radicalising effect which stretched far beyond their respective national confines, inspiring new movements and emboldening existing radical currents in the heart of colonial powers and the American empire. In 1966—the same year that anti-colonial movements consolidated into a political front spanning Asia, Africa, and Latin America at the Tricontinental Conference—the Black Panther Party was founded. The Panthers’ dedication to the particular struggle of Black people in America, while simultaneously being committed to a universalist vision of human solidarity, was firmly within the national liberation tradition.

In September 1970, the Panthers convened the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. In Philadelphia—the birthplace of the US constitution—up to 15,000 people participated in the assembly of self-determining movements gathering ‘in a spirit of revolutionary love and friendship for all oppressed people in the world’, which sought to rewrite the American constitution ‘to claim our inalienable rights’. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), radical lesbians, and the Third World Gay Revolution all took part: in this new fighting republic founded on universal principles, America’s oppressed and excluded—among them queer people—had found a home and in the process provided the country with a living model of democracy.

Ahead of the gathering, Panther co-founder Huey Newton in his ‘Letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements’ wrote that homosexuals ‘might be the most oppressed people’ in society – and could subsequently be ‘the most revolutionary’. It was the first time the Panthers had publicly embraced the movement, signalling both the developing solidarity between the two and the integration of the gay liberation movement into the revolutionary political struggle in the US. The convention set out a broad common platform, through workshops covering a range of themes from international relations and women’s self-determination to education and gay liberation.

Located within this revolutionary tradition, ‘coming out’, as it is often understood today, wasn’t simply an act of solitary defiance against the repressive family or workplace. It also signified something altogether more positive and collective, with national and international dimensions. Nor was it reducible to a desire for recognition or a defiant celebration of individual sexuality – although for many, both were important. The GLF slogan ‘out of the closet, into the streets’ described a freedom that was not a lonely pursuit. It captured the transition from the private to the public, from fearful homosexual to revolutionary gay, a full participant in a broader movement for liberation.

Angela Davis and Jean Genet. Credit: Robert Carl Cohen.

In order to reclaim the ‘self-determination of our bodies’, as the GLF magazine Come Out! proclaimed, it was necessary to secure certain rights, but this was only the first step. Civil rights alone were inadequate: they joined a fight against a whole system of domination, with its divide-and-rule logic that extended into the individual self. Ultimately, as long as the oppressive social categories of heterosexual and homosexual existed, neither could be truly free. ‘The roles are beginning to wear thin,’ wrote Martha Shelley in the pages of Come Out!,

The makeup is cracking. The roles – breadwinner, little wife, screaming fag, bulldyke, James Bond – are the cardboard characters we are trying to fit into, as if being human and spontaneous were so horrible that we each have to pick on a character out of a third-rate novel and try to cut ourselves down to size. And you cut off your homosexuality- and we cut off our heterosexuality.

No longer were gay people standing outside power, asserting their own place within the system. ‘Gay liberation’, as the London GLF manifesto put it, ‘does not just mean reforms. It means a revolutionary change in our whole society.’ This extended to ‘the right to self-determination of all third world [peoples] and gay revolution’, as the GLF sixteen-point platform affirmed.  In rejecting the values of the established order, the GLF stood for practicing ‘relations based on brotherhood, cooperation, human love and uninhibited sexuality’ and thereby affirming the core principle of the indivisibility of freedom – that no one is free until everyone is free.

This expansive approach to liberation was by no means limited to the GLF: the summer of 1970 saw the formation of Third World Gay Revolution (TWGF), a breakaway from the GLF devoted to mobilising Black and Latinx communities.  As Nestor Latrónico, a leading TWGF activist, later said, ‘we added the word Revolution to the name of the group because it made us feel like brothers and sisters of the national revolutionary movements that were happening all over the world at the time.’

Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both well-known for having been active in the Stonewall riots, was another group which saw its cause as multidimensional: it became involved with the Young Lords Party, a movement which fought for the empowerment of Latinx people in the States while opposing US imperialism in Puerto Rico. ‘I became one of them,’ said Rivera of this relationship. ‘It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect. It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself—being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen.’

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, leaders during the Stonewall Rebellion. Credit: LGBT Foundation.

As these movements advanced, a common international culture of liberation grew. Figures like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Jean Genet drew inspiration from the revolutionary causes while also contributing some of its finest art. In their own unique cultural engagements, each integrated the cause of sexual liberation with the wider revolutionary movement. Homosexuals in Genet’s novels were members of the most marginalised sections of society and embodied a spirit of rebellion.

Genet’s political commitment led him to tour the US to raise funds for the Black Panthers, as well as spending time among Palestinian revolutionaries in Jordan and Lebanon.  ‘He had made the step, crossed the legal borders, that very few white men or women even attempted,’ as Edward Said put it. In the Algerian struggle, and later the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Revolution, he saw—and experienced—a spirit of freedom and love he found rare in modern society.

Gay liberation and its principles of international solidarity broke from the racist and Orientalist depictions of Black, Arab, and other peoples from the Global South. Identifying with the anti-colonial struggles contributed to transforming representations of the colonised from objects of fantasy in Western queer culture, simultaneously feared and desired, to members of a common humanity seeking freedom. Genet’s descriptions of Palestinian revolutionaries in his later work, Prisoner of Love, even though often erotic, were free of the paternalism and power-play of Orientalist representations of Arab men, as Said argued.

Gay politics in the Britain was intimately linked to the transformation of gay politics that had happened in the wake of Stonewall. It was at the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor met and were inspired to build a gay movement in Britain. Following their return to London in October 1970, the first meeting of the London Gay Liberation Front was held in an LSE basement.

According to its founding principles, the GLF saw gay liberation as intimately tied to other struggles, ‘part of the wider movement aiming to abolish all forms of social oppression,’ among them ‘peoples oppressed by imperialism, who lack the national, political and economic independence which is a precondition for all other social change.’ The commitment to internationalism was paramount: on the fiftieth anniversary of the GLF’s formation, Angela Mason recalled how ‘we wanted to change the world and we were going to change the world by linking up our own actions and spreading the word about lesbians and gays.’

Jean Genet and Elbert Howard of the Black Panthers. Credit: David Fenton / Getty.

In Britain, gay liberation was closely tied up with an empire crumbling with the advance of anticolonial movements.  It was a time when conservatives were attempting to reassert a British ethnonationalist identity and, according to Rahul Rao, there was a common view among the establishment that the emergence of homosexuality was bound up in the loss of Empire. Queer people, seen as walking evidence of moral turpitude and the loss of manly virtue, became scapegoats for this imperial decline – as immigrants had.

In the midst of a resurgence of British racism, Gay liberation represented an anticolonial relationship to the Global South based on common solidarity.  ‘Because of our own ex-colonial links, there was a sense that there was a worldwide struggle,’ says Jeffrey Weeks, a prominent member of the GLF. ‘There was always this commitment to struggles around the world.’ He recalls that Irish Republicanism and support for the anti-apartheid movement was especially prominent long after the heyday of the GLF.

Over fifty years since the first ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’, there is a widespread sense of alienation among queer people attending official Pride celebrations. For all the symbols of resistance and inclusion held aloft by corporate and Home Office-sponsored floats, what it means to be queer today has been narrowed and hollowed – what Roderick Ferguson has termed the emergence of the ‘one-dimensional queer’.

Alienated from the tradition of struggle that gave birth to the gay liberation movement, queer elites grasp towards empty icons in vain. Fanon had described a similar dynamic at play when a commentator class becomes detached from the vitality of a living struggle:

The culture that the intellectual leans toward is often no more than a stock of particularisms. He wishes to attach himself to the people; but instead he only catches hold of their outer garments… the man of culture, instead of setting out to find the [real, living] substance of culture, will let himself be hypnotized by these mummified fragments which because they are static are in fact symbols of negation and outward contrivances…

Queer people today are inheritors of a rich heritage of struggle and international solidarity, and a tradition that defined being gay as intimately tied to the most oppressed sections of society and their struggles for freedom around the world. Little wonder then that so many people today feel alienated from mainstream, liberal queer politics, which is both too close to power and lacking any of it.

But the legacy of gay liberation is alive in the practices of queer solidarity today that mobilise support around collective principles – in the ongoing struggle for trans rights, campaigns against pinkwashing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and the fight for Black liberation. In each of these causes, the principles of self-determination, solidarity, and popular sovereignty that were such a vital part of the anti-colonial tradition remain as relevant, and as key to what it means to be queer, as ever.