In 2013, when the Tory government brought forward legislation for same-sex marriage, many felt that we had reached the promised land. No mainstream political party in Westminster and none of the parties in Holyrood have been anything other than supportive of the move. It may not be fine but it’s getting there – even right wingers are starting to support gay rights. There’s a strange connection being made here between what you think about the economy and what you think about people of the same gender pumping each other. A connection that I’m not sure exists.
The left makes a big deal out its alleged “support” for gay rights but our history tells a much more complex and challenging story. Even today, the left finds a myriad of excuses to ignore or trivialise these issues. Worse still, many actively stand in the way of lesbian, gay, bisexual and particularly trans people.
Before we begin… I’m a white, cis-gendered man. I can barely recount my own experiences, never mind speak universal truths about other people’s. I know I’m privileged, not just in a political sense, but also in a personal one, in that I’m fortunate to have had so many amazing people – LGBT and straight alike – who’ve been here for me in my personal and political life. I can’t possibly hope to understand how terrible some things were for those in a much worse position than I’ve ever been in, nor can I document all the bad stuff that’s ever happened to LGBT people on the left since the dawn of time. But I still think it’s important that we call out our horrible history. And I hope that at least some of the lessons will have resonance for an audience wider than just queens like myself.
This piece also carries a massive trigger warning not just for discussion of homophobia and transphobia but also for discussions of sexual abuse, rape, mental health and ableism.
My final warning is that it’s far too fucking long, especially since I’ve just said it’s far from comprehensive or cheery. But it’s made longer and more boring by constant contextualising, self-apologising and health warnings, so let us begin.
No Marx for the old homophobes
The birth of modern day socialism is traced by many back to the works of Karl Marx & Frederick Engels. The desire to have a single book or author who was totally bang-on about everything isn’t a very radical one, or a very socialist one. Yet shouting down anything that wasn’t “Marxist” (whatever that was) became a trait of much of the left for a long time. It’s worth putting things in context here, since we’re talking about works written over a hundred years ago. The point isn’t that every single thing anyone says should be written off because they didn’t see into an enlightened future of homo love . But if you’re using old theory as the sole basis for your world view, you should remember that the authors of such texts didn’t have a clue about sex or gender. Marx wrote little on the subject, leaving it to his pal Engels to pen the weighty ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.’ This also says little of much use or little that hasn’t been said better since. It does however include the line,
this degradation of the women was avenged on the men and degraded them also, till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy
Boring Trots dispute the translation, saying he was almost definitely talking about having men having sex with boys rather than other men. Maybe that’s true. So how did Engels respond when early gay rights pioneer, Karl-Heinrick Ulrichs, approached him for support? Having been given the text by Marx he replied:
Those are just unveilings being extremely against nature… By the way, only possible in Germany that a guy like that appears, translates the dirt into a theory… Unfortunately he was not yet as courageous as to confess openly being ‘That’
What a charmer! Anyway, Engels’ text wasn’t the most important at this particular time when it came to understanding sex and gender. In 1879, August Bebel published his ‘Women under Socialism.’ In one chapter he describes homosexuality as a “crime against nature.” Being gay was always linked to being middle class, with references to all kinds of Parisian decadence, Germanic opulence and Victorian bourgeois prancing. These ideas held weight for a long time and they are still bouncing around the left today.
There were ideological reasons for this hatred; as well as economic reductionism (the view that if you make the economy equal then everything else falls into place), socialists LOVE production. Marx is full of the wonders of making things and how it’s our true nature to be churning out a vast array of stuff. Gay sex doesn’t make things, and so it had no point at all in a world view based around production and reproduction. A similarly laughable analysis of how contraception and even masturbation are not in the nature of the working class can be found in the works of many of Marx’s Victorian socialist chums. “There will be no chugging,” thankfully didn’t remain a communist idiom for long. We’re very glad.
There’ll be none of that around here thanks
The other basic point is that for the left, as for everyone else, homosexuality was and is always someone else’s problem. During WWII, the US & the USSR were united in their belief that it was definitely mostly the Nazis who were limp-wristed spreaders of all things queer. I’d been brought up to believe Hitler was most probably just a small Austrian poof with one ball, who liked tall blond boys – this may be comical but it‘s notable that homosexuality is similarly used by all sides in conflicts. British imperialists saw it as a savage or primitive condition when they encountered it on their travels, whilst today many residents of former-colonial countries see the idea of being gay as a Western imposition. When the Cold War was in full swing, we had the US denouncing the “Homintern” of the USSR, determined to spread the gay agenda. The Soviets condemned homosexuality as a capitalist disease. LGBT people have always been them over there, the enemy. It could never just be anyone, or someone you know, or you.
When Communist governments did come to power in the last century, it wasn’t a happy tale either. In the USSR, homosexuality was punishable with hard labour, which in reality meant death for thousands, the same policies applied in Cuba whilst in China, a mix of imprisonement, castration and execution were used interchangably (although no policy was ever stated) . Russia wasn’t unique in criminalising homosexuality of course, nor in its cruel treatment of gay people. Being gay was illegal in the UK until 1967 and the British government had no qualms about torturing gay people, like war hero/inventor of modern computing Alan Turing, to death. That doesn’t mean Communist states killing gay people was fine. More recent developments in Cuba (where the state has recognised and apologised for it’s crimes) do stand in stark contrast to some of its neighbours in the Caribbean, who continue to persecute gay people. It’s still fair to say that by any standards, the Communist states fell rather short on the whole issue of equality.
These failings and many others led to growth of Trotskyism in Europe, an ideology which asserted that it was possible to be socialist and not end up being a totalitarian dictatorship. Trotsky was certainly far from perfect, as any grumbling anarchist will tell you, but the Trotskyist parties did have a critique of both the USSR and western capitalism as undemocratic and unequal in their various ways. By the 1970s, many of the newer generation of gay rights organisations were emerging, seeing themselves as being firmly rooted in a left wing and radical tradition. They ended up being squeezed both by the more mainstream gay rights groups – who were keen to seem respectable – and the left-wing/Trotskyist political parties who were keen to seem…not gay.
In the UK, between the 1960s and 80s, more socialist parties than socialists emerged with an ever increasing array of true revolutionaries coming to the fore, each more correct and pure than the ones before. It’s quite hard to track the exact stances of these many groups towards LGBT issues, but it’s fair to say the broad theme was “mixed“, if not openly hostile.
The Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) didn‘t tolerate homosexuality at all – expelling gay members and denouncing them as a “disease.“ The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) saw the whole thing as a distraction from the class struggle and just as importantly, a challenge to their hierarchical and undemocratic structures. Tony Cliff was forced to concede defeat in the end but he always saw it as that – a defeat for his values, a concession to the middle class moralism and creeping feminism of the women and the gays. The best that the Militant/CWI/Socialist Party can say is that no-one can prove anything because they never wrote it down. Prominent members like Ted Grant did openly say that homosexuality was a capitalist deviation which would “disappear” under socialism, but the Militant never actually stated this in their party literature. That doesn’t mean many didn’t think it. When Grant & Co split from the Militant, their members got to retrospectively claim that all the homophobia was his fault and they had always loved the gays. Countless testimonies from former Militant members and those who encountered them tell a different story. The lack of evidence of the existence of a “party line” on homosexuality is frankly bizarre in an organisation like the Militant, which had a position on everything. If a position didn’t exist, it would be reasonable to ask why not. It certainly leads people to the conclusion that none of those groups really took LGBT rights at all seriously.
Less sects, same scandals
Luckily, we are no longer in the 1980s and the grip of the old sects on radical politics was beginning to loosen as we approached the new millennium. In Scotland, the new Scottish Socialist Party had emerged which was rather better than the sum of its constituent parts might suggest. The SSP had a decent position on gay rights from the beginning and it’s worth pointing out that it was probably the only party out on the streets in working class communities campaigning for the abolition of Section 28.
But socialists always struggle with concepts of power which weren’t written down by beardy men hundreds of years ago, and some hangover from the dark days lingered inside the SSP. The formula remained “under socialism, X will disappear.” X had simply changed from “homosexuality” to “homophobia.” Saying there’ll be no homophobia under socialism is a bit like saying we’ll all sleep when we’re dead. It’s just a truism. A more meaningful analysis of the dominance of compulsory and violently enforced heterosexuality as a failed system of sexual organisation was not forthcoming. No-one was really sure why fair taxes meant everyone suddenly loved queers but they all said it anyway. This was and is about as good as it gets on the left when it comes to gay rights.
Things all went a bit pink handbags at dawn during the SSP split. In the typical fashion of straight, white, male leaders of socialist organisations, Tommy Sheridan used the press to denounce members of his own party as troublesome feminists and homos when he declared in his Open Letter,
Class identity defines us first. Not our gender or sexual orientation
That’s very easy for Tommy to say (although of course, it was someone else who actually wrote the letter, as with most of his “written work“). I distinctly remember it was around this time when a bunch of guys were thumping on my windows, shouting abuse as they passed by on a pretty regular basis. It wasn’t about the fact I was poor or identified as being working class. I didn’t have a choice about what “defined me first” in their eyes and neither do thousands of people when they are faced with hatred. Tommy knew that but when his own power was at stake, he didn’t give a fuck.
This was a pointed and deliberate attack, aimed to rally those who objected to the presence of a layer of activists who were younger, more female and more queer than Tommy’s now loyal band of followers. These party members didn’t take kindly to Sheridan’s insistence on pursuing false claims he was a heterosexual-monogamous tee-totaller through the courts in order to make him some cash/save his rep. We didn’t really care who people slept with, believe it or not. So long as men didn’t use the power of the state to compel their ex-partners to appear in court and be publicly humiliated and called liars, we didn’t think it was our business. He was therefore given the option of confessing or saying exactly that it was no-one’s business when allegations of his constant shagging started to appear in the tabloids. He chose to pursue the more questionable strategy of going absolutely batshit and calling all his best pals “scabs” and “cunts” instead. He split from the SSP and formed his own “Solidarity” party with him at the helm and without all those troublesome feminists. He was soon off to jail for perjury.
Blackout at the Castro Centre
We really wish he had been joined in the slammer by his party’s sole elected representative, erstwhile Glasgow City Councillor, Ruth Black. Ruth abandoned Tam and his Solidarity pretty damn quickly after her election, joining Labour. Had she followed him to the pokey, instead of the City Chambers, then the Castro Centre – a centre for young LGBT people in Glasgow – might still exist. After resigning from the Castro Centre just months before it emerged it was bankrupt, owing £300k, she miraculously reappeared leading the new… Castro Centre, complete with more council funding. Council auditors raised concerns about non-payment of tax, no employee insurance, massive phone bills, employing her son against council rules, buying a car with council money etc. etc. Amidst a public outcry, Ruth was eventually deselected and hilariously attempted to seek re-election (and get her son elected by making him a candidate) on the ‘Glasgow First‘ ticket. As with the Castro Centre, their election bid didn’t end well for either member of the Black family.
This depressing end to the story of Scotland’s recent left-wing unity project is contextualised somewhat by looking at what was happening in England during this time. Their problems started at the very beginning. Having been expelled from Labour, populist windbag George Galloway sought his own election vehicle to take on his former party. He made an attempt to put together a coherent force from the broad alliance which had opposed Labour’s wars in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan. The pre-existing Socialist Alliance in England had failed to make the kind of inroads the SSP made in Scotland for a number of reasons (electoral system, more sect wars, no charismatic male leader to shout at people) and so many drifted towards Galloway’s new group. The party was explicitly anti-war and anti-racist and it did succeed in actually having some prominent non-white members which was a real positive change for the left. Galloway seemed determined not to let those troublesome gays get in the way of his election and colluded with others to remove any mention of gay rights from his election literature. In the end, his manifesto contained a passing reference to opposing discrimination based on “lifestyle choice.“ Life. Style. Choice. RESPECT was born.
The Gorgeous one gets ugly
Galloway and his Trot pals blamed “the Muslims” for the lack of explicit support for gay rights within Respect. We simply don’t believe them. None of this would have been possible without the collusion of senior socialists within the party. In 2003, then SWP member Lindsey German famously declared that gay rights shouldn’t be a “shibboleth” to revolutionaries working in Respect. A straight person saying they didn’t really give a fuck so long as they got more support for their own organisation was hardly news to gay people (especially if that organisation was the SWP) but it was pretty depressing nonetheless. The left were determined that all Muslims were homophobes and therefore not mentioning LGBT issues was definitely the best way to deal with this. I could try to deconstruct this in so many ways – but I will just say that it’s incredibly lazy, racist, homophobic and fucked up. It’s nowhere close to socialist or radical or progressive. It’s all just a bit “George Galloway” really.
Even when LGBT rights do make it onto Respect’s agenda and even if their position is completely sound, no-one in the party has any control over the shit Galloway talks anyway. His outburst excusing men who rape sleeping women, which led Respect leader Salma Yaqoob to resign, is another example of this trend. He is also a paid employee of the Iranian government and has used his fondness for their cash as yet another excuse to be a homophobic arsehole. He went on live TV and declared “all the papers seem to imply that you get executed in Iran for being gay. That’s not true.” He then denounced the story of the partner of a man executed for his sexuality in Iran, claiming this was all propaganda and that his partner was actually a paedophile – a claim never made or supported by any other source, not even the Iranian government. When he’s not confusing being gay with being a paedophile, Galloway can be found confusing Blackburn with Bradford or anti-racists with racists. If there is a glimmer of hope in all this, it’s that at least he’s not in Glasgow anymore.
Whilst we’re onto things that just don‘t seem to want to go away, it’s fair to say that homophobia and transphobia didn’t just disappear with the sects, or with the last generation of left unity projects. They are very much alive and well within our movement even today. If we’re contemplating building new structures, we need to look at where we are now and acknowledge how much further we have to go.
“We’re all very tolerant these days”
It seems like in the nineties and the noughties, queer people in society spent most of their time doing as they were told and being thankful for the fact that they weren’t being condemned as deviations and getting the shit kicked out of them quite so much. This culture was mirrored within political movements. This allowed many activists to lazily assume they were all totally super-educated about this stuff without bothering to actually educate themselves. The “end of history” had arrived. Everything was now completely fine.
Ignorance about LGBT history and politics is something we have to take responsibility for as queer people. But it’s not our job to be constantly forced to remind heterosexual or cis-gendered people that they are still fucking us over all the time. Rather than deepening their own understanding about how to get rid of inequalities in our society, straight activists just stood around looking smug and pretending all they were waiting for was the political class to “catch up” to where the enlightened society over which they presided already was. LGBT rights weren’t actually on their radar though and increasingly, LGBT people were seen as being part of the problem.
It’s not history when it’s still happening
Some particularly poignant recent examples come to mind. It’s very difficult for me to divulge the kinds of salacious details you’ve become accustomed to at A Thousand Flowers. Partly because they are very painful, but mostly because I would never betray the trust of other LGBT people who have confided in me when they‘ve been treated like shit by straight people on the left. The lessons from all this cannot be so easily ignored and I hope we can examine some general themes without naming names. They all know who they are anyway.
I’ll start with something that’s certainly not a secret. The equal marriage debate is a great recent example of why some on the left are still as boring and stubborn and straight as ever. The orthodox, old-schoolers continue to say that equal marriage is still marriage and therefore definitely wrong – Engels said so, look it up. They are almost invariably married themselves, of course. They are now joined by certain strands of feminists keen to point out that, not only is marriage still marriage but gay men are still *gasp* men. Many of them are also married. But everyone on the left loves a truism, especially one they can use against queers. Of course, this does nothing to acknowledge that these straight women and boring old men have a choice to get married or reject marriage which gay people don’t. If some gay people want to fight to be in the army, get married or give blood, then so be it. I don’t believe gay people should all be radical ideological heroes to please a few feminists or lefties, not least because I’m less than convinced that all feminists or lefties are necessarily as down with the queers as they try to make out. Ideological purity at the expense of the ability to do things certain things is fine and maybe even admirable, ideological purity at the expense of other people’s rights is not I may not want to get married or even agree with the concept. I don’t think my opinion on the issue should form the basis of a universal law under which everyone else must live. That wouldn’t seem very fair or radical at all.
Speaking of very unradical people trying to pass themselves off as our allies, what happened at the Bedroom Tax demo last March is well known/documented on the Glasgow left. It’s fair to say that amongst those of us who think we should speak out against rape and rape apology within our movement, there were a reasonable number of queer people. It’s also fair to say many of our detractors came from the left-wing sects with a less than perfect record on all kinds of sexual politics.
The whole debacle provoked a familiar response about how divisive, embarrassing, screechy and generally off-putting we all are. This does have a significance when it’s coming from straight people, whether they see it like that or not. We can see that it’s being coloured not just by a hatred of us but by a tactical and political choice they’ve made to continue to minimise our importance within our own movements. We’re just trouble as far as some on the left are concerned, it’s certainly not “real politics”, like allowing powerful men to rape young activists and get away with it. The most repugnant of the “left wing” goons even circulated a “blacklist” of people who were definitely all state-plants/illuminati/creeping feminists/probably gay. Even for the waverers, the desire for “unity” with dodgy left-wing sects who endanger their female activists gets prioritised over unity with actual radicals who don’t want to allow that to happen.
When “academia” attacks
The way we deal with instances where activists are called out on homophobia and transphobia needs to change. We can’t repeat recent failings, like when queer activists, many of whom have been badly affected by their own horrendous experiences of life on the left, were so viciously attacked for daring to speak out. I’ve heard a couple of instances of straight lefty men hurling abuse at poofs in the street – when the context of the disagreement was homophobia and transphobia, I can‘t not call that what it is. I watched in horror as straight men used the mental health of some activists as further proof they were “worse than useless” when they dared to challenge prejudice, silencing and exclusion.
In these dark times, we can still see that absolutely nothing is off-limits for some on the left when it comes to winning an academic and theoretical argument. The real lives and experiences of queer and trans people are often marginalised to placate activists seen as more valuable or ideas seen as being unchallengeable. The icing on the cake was being denounced as insufficiently left-wing by random student activists on the grounds that “people with identities can‘t be revolutionaries.”
So basically, in the 21st century, many on the left still treat us like we’re a deviation which will just go away under socialism. Many still believe this is a matter of “identity“ and by extension idealism in contrast to their own materialism – something we can just choose. Many still actively ask us to unchoose it so they can get on with all the really “useful“ stuff. When directly confronted about this behaviour, people who behave like this just fall back on the claim they never noticed it was poofs they were shouting at, queer women they were demeaning etc. etc. Some of us can’t help but notice. Not because we’re so wrapped up in our own “identity,” but because we don’t think academic theory is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our fellow human beings.
Another obvious marker is when people who are openly transphobic and abusive (and accepted as such by the left on the grounds they happen to be women) are sometimes called out when they say homophobic things. The response demonstrates two things – that no-one ever gives a fuck about trans issues, and that people are only interested in seeming not homophobic – not in actually learning not to hate us or to take issue with others when they do. Maybe I do feel more responsible because I’m part of a movement which chucked a “T” on the end of an abbreviation and continued to not give a fuck for so long. In fact, I’m part of a good few different movements who have behaved like this and continue to do so. There will be another schism, another massive left-wing bunfight for our detractors to laugh at over trans issues, sooner or later. The question is how long will we allow transphobes and those who enable them to remain in positions of power and build support within our movement before we deal with it. I say it’s been far too long already.
Beyond the F(r)ag men(t)s
The left has made a massive mess for the past few centuries when it comes to LGBT rights and maybe now we need to accept just how little we’ve really changed rather than laud our progress. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. Not least because even our recent history shows a list of groups (WRP, SSP, SWP, Respect) who were all undone to some extent by a crisis or series of crises involving sex and power. Bad gender and sexual politics have done massive damage to us and to the movement we’ve been trying to call home. The first step is to understand that the left doesn’t have all the answers and that we won’t find them in those old pamphlets. Life just isn’t that simple anymore, but I also don’t think it’s particularly difficult either. It’s not all someone else’s fault, all the fault of just capitalism or patriarchy or imperialism, all the fault of the enemy, all something or someone over there. Sometimes it’s been people like us, the people close to us and indeed us who‘re to blame.
There are many old structures of power which need to be challenged, changed and abolished and the only way to make sure this happens is to empower people to do it for themselves. It says a lot about the left that it tries to get in the way as often as it does.
Recent experience suggest things may get worse before they get better as queer politics increasingly challenges straight power. The left certainly isn‘t “post-sexual.” At times, its ignorance or indifference has boiled over into open hatred of queer people and our place within political life. There are some on the left who employ a tactical, political and willful ignorance of power because it benefits them as straight people. The days of telling LGBT people what is and isn‘t up for discussion within our movement are over. We’re not here to hold your flags or be a tick in a box anymore.
Do you think you’re better off alone?
All LGBT people have ever asked the left to do is stop assuming everything is just about them and what they say it is – to stop demanding absolute straight power and authority and not seeing a problem with that. It won’t all be fine for queer people when we nationalise the railways or bring in redistributive taxes, because that‘s not why so many people hate us or are threatened by us – including people on the left. The demand not just to analyse the world but to change it still matters to us, even if it’s long since been abandoned by many straight left-wingers in favour of their own literal/biblical interpretations of the academia of yesteryear (or just not caring about anyone other than themselves). We also need to realise there is nothing radical about silencing queer voices in our movement or using outdated ideology to bully the weak or diminish the experiences of non-straight people.
People will always be rubbish at fighting other people’s battles for them but we do have to listen to what self-organised groups have to say. Acknowledging how important independent organisations have been is a challenge to a left which likes to take credit for everything.
The left may one day get over itself and realise that “support” means listening more than it means talking. It means improving ourselves just as much as shouting at others to improve. It means understanding why our movement hates LGBT people so much and why it still goes to such great lengths to exclude them. Or they may not. Either way, we’re all still going to have to be here, gaying away.
It’s not been mainstream or even more radical left-wing organisations who’ve fought for LGBT rights over the years- it’s LGBT people who have fought and struggled for these changes to their own lives and their own political and social movements. It’s exactly this kind of political independence we all need to be encouraging; a queer culture which continues to say that OK is never enough and shutting up about it is just not an option.
If we ever want anything close to equality in future, we need to realise that our sexual system, just like our economic system, isn’t working for a huge number of people. Placing “sexual politics” within the broader political discussion may be a big challenge in a country like Scotland but we can’t run away from it for much longer. If the left needs to learn just one more truism, it’s the one I never tire of repeating – we’re either all equal or we’re not. We either challenge all power or we allow inequality to flourish.
Equality is going to be pretty gay, we all need to get used to that.
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