Gay Liberation: Pink triangles, red banners

By LIZ ROSS [email protected]

[Liz has provided this article to introduce her website with writings from the Australian Gay Left. The article original appeared in Socialist Action no 13, October 1986.]

Like the Women’s liberation movement, Gay Liberation has had a major impact on mass political consciousness in the last two decades.

Gays of course have been fighting their oppression under capitalism long before Gay Liberation. In the 1920s German gays had an active organisation which was crushed by Nazism. Driven into their closets by McCarthysim, US gays organised clandestinely through the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. In July 1966 they held their first public demonstration for job security in government agencies. Many gays were active in left wing parties and in civil rights and anti-war movements in the US.

Such activities lay the basis for Gay Liberation to emerge.

The watershed came on the night of June 28, 1969, at New York’s Stonewall bar. Until then gay bars had always been easy targets for police harassment. But that night gays fought back. Lesbians, drag queens, effeminate and macho gay men joined together in a pitched battle against the cops.

With this fiery fightback, Gay Liberation was born. It questioned existing attitudes to sexuality and openly challenged the nuclear family. It denied that gays needed treatment or imprisonment and marchers defiantly chanted "Gay is Good!"

Most importantly, it was an activist movement. In just three weeks in 1970, for example, New York gays confronted local election candidates and leafletted polling booths, sat in and picketed three media houses over anti-gay statements and demanded equal time, demonstrated at a bar which had ejected a gay, picketed a gay activist’s trial and marched against police harassment.

This militancy rapidly raised support from straights as well. And while it did not achieve its goal of overturning society, Gay Liberation won vital changes. Law reform, anti discrimination legislation, pro-gay union policies and an accompanying decline in bigotry meant a noticeably more secure life for lesbians and male homosexuals.

Some of the most important gains here were won by gay workers.

Unions like the ACOA (now CPSU), the Theatrical Employees (now MEAA), teacher unions and the Plumbers adopted pro-gay policies. "Homosexual discrimination is an industrial issue and has to be fought on that basis," said one Plumber’s official.

Workers struck at Melbourne University’s cafeteria in support of Terry Stokes who was thrown out of a campus college. Sydney’s builders labourers fought to have Penny Short reinstated in her teacher training course, after she was expelled for writing a lesbian poem. More recently, waterfront solidarity has kept a drag queen wharfie his job.

Such working class involvement raises problems for Gay Liberation’s philosophy that all gays have a common struggle. Precisely because, as the slogan says, "Gays are everywhere" in capitalism, oppression confronts them in different ways.

A classic case arose in San Francisco in 1980. Gay bar workers complained of illegal practices, including the absence of lunch and coffee breaks and overtime payments, in the gay bar. Workers at Church Street Station restaurant approached the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union.

The management, also gay, responded by bringing in a union-busting firm. Within a fortnight, five pro-union activists were fired for anonymous "customer complaints" and so on. The Tavern Guild, the association of gay bar owners which was a powerful force in the gay community, blacklisted pro-union activists from working in their bars. The unionisation drive was defeated.

So gay workers have more in common with other workers than with gay bosses. It is unity around class rather than sexuality that is the key to liberation.

As gays are only about 10% of the population, links with other groups are vital to maintain the gains already won, let alone fight for liberation.

Activists in the US learnt this in the late 1970s. The right wing backlash led by Anita Bryant was in full cry. Bryant herself claimed the Californian drought of 1977 was God’s punishment for San Francisco housing so many gays. The backlash culminated in the Briggs Initiative, a bill that would have enabled employers to sack anyone espousing gay rights, especially in education.

Until then, gays had been low key in resisting the backlash and had lost every battle. The liberal vote they had relied on had not come through. But against Briggs they came out and fought openly. Organiser Amber Hollibaugh recalls:

"It was frightening, a statewide confrontation. Doing publicity meant going to small farm towns, facing very conservative working people. We went to the farmers, to the union locals, to the schools, to the hospitals, the childcare units, all the places we hadn’t been before. And we won, won in every single area of the state where we went and did work. We won because we came out and the community was politicised."

At Clapham in England, a more humorous example showed how worker solidarity could also turn the tide. Two lesbian sanitation workers outraged a supervisor who saw them leaving the depot holding hands. He threatened them with "dire consequences". When the news got around, all 32 women working at the depot pinned on "Gays Against Nazis" badges and marched out of the workplace holding hands.

Gays have not only found support from fellow workers. In turn, they have shown solidarity for other struggles.

Gay support groups formed to back the miners’ strike in Britain. They were still working recently in support of Rupert Murdoch’s sacked employees at Wapping. Locally, this year’s National Homosexual Conference voted to support the Builders Laborers' Federation (BLF) [which was facing government attack]. Lesbians and gay men have been active in the BLF support groups and on the picket lines in Melbourne.

Through actions like these, the struggle for gay liberation remains long after the movement has collapsed. And it is by taking up the banner of working class struggle that liberation can be won for all.

Back to opening page