Socialist Alternative

Pride is protest! Build the fight for LGBT+ liberation

Pride is celebrated every June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. These historic riots represented the bubbling over of anger from LGBT+ people sick and tired of being victimised and attacked by the police, who targeted gay bars regularly and arrested those attending. On her arrest, butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie called out “Why don’t you guys do something?” and this call was taken up by the crowd – including trans woman Marsha P Johnson.

The growth of solidarity

The following year solidarity protests took place across the US but also worldwide. In the UK the first pride event happened in London, organised by the Gay Liberation Front. This focused both on showing solidarity with the Stonewall riots but also took up issues in the UK around age of consent discrimination.

These were political events, which focused on campaigning, not just for visibility, for LGBT+ people, and actual tangible political demands. When reports were made of LGBT+ people being harassed by police in a similar fashion to at Stonewall, the London Pride event was moved to Yorkshire to protest against this. This political essence remained the case for other prides set up in the UK. In Manchester the first pride event took place in the early 80s to campaign for funding for HIV prevention. More prides were set up throughout the 80s to campaign against the homophobic policies of the Thatcher government such as Section 28, and also in solidarity with workers’ struggles. Lesbians and Gays Support for the Miners organised a contingent at the 1985 Pride, becoming the biggest pride to that point.

Big Pharma looks for profit

There were clear connections made between these protests and broader struggles by workers, opposition to big corporations and especially the way pharmaceutical companies sought to profit from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. These big protests recognised it wasn’t HIV/AIDS which was killing gay men, it was homophobia, it was society, and it was capitalism.

The activist group ACT UP staged die ins in front of pharmaceutical companies, which took place during Pride marches as well. The slogan “If I die of aids, dump my body on the steps of the FDA” was emblematic of the attitude increasingly being taken by LGBT+ campaigners. 

Ultimately however, particularly in the West, as victories were won as a result of these campaigns there became less of a draw for political campaigns. Pride organisations became dominated by well off individuals who were more interested in respectability politics – fought against by the early Pride activists – who were more than happy for Pride to just become a celebration.

Pride must be a protest

Celebration is an important part of Pride no doubt. Being surrounded by “your community” and feeling able to party away from the homophobia of day to day lives is something LGBT+ people desperately need – particularly younger LGBT+ people. The recent increase in LGBT+ hate crimes also shows the importance of these places and events where people can feel safe. But the struggles against that day to day oppression are important too, we cannot forever live in a bubble –  we need to fight to change society.

The problem increased when in order to fund these increasingly sized celebrations the Pride organisations started to look at getting sponsored by big companies – including weapons manufacturers, banks and the same pharmaceutical companies the original pride activists campaigned against. As well as charging increasingly extortionate ticket prices to attend. To attend the full weekend at Manchester Pride this year tickets start at £76.45.

This has caused an outrage amongst activist groups in Manchester. Manchester Pride pays its CEO nearly 100k a year, spent nearly 500k on organising their Pride festival to pay people like Ariana Grande to perform – but has announced it will no longer be funding HIV charities in Manchester, nor will it be funding a free condom scheme. These are things which should have never been funded by a charity, and they reflect a failure of capitalism to properly fund healthcare for LGBT+ people – but the withdrawal of this funding should be opposed.

A Reclaim Manchester Pride protest is being organised to coincide with the main event, and will be protesting for funding for trans healthcare, banning conversion therapy and opposing transphobic division.

This follows a Reclaim Pride event in London in July organised by Peter Tatchell, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front, which also protested to put political issues on the agenda. There is a potential for more of these protests to take place against the corporate and depoliticised nature of pride.

No to ‘rainbow capitalism’

The companies sponsoring pride events are happy to paint themselves in rainbow colours, but in reality do next to nothing to actually support LGBT+ people.

In 2019 Tesco was the main sponsor of London Pride. In the same year they slashed their workers terms and conditions, removing overtime pay, and premium pay in return for a wage that still sat below the Living Wage.

This is reminiscent of when Primark first released a Pride collection of clothing and claimed to be supporting prides, but were actually keeping the profits rather than donating to local pride events.

The cosmetics company Lush regularly uses rainbow flags in their products and claim to be an inclusive and campaigning company. But they have donated thousands of pounds to Woman’s Place, a transphobic organisation.

HSBC sponsors Birmingham Pride, but actively supports the Chinese state’s repression of minorities, the oppression of LGBT+ media in China and the repressive National Security Law that has criminalised dissent in Hong Kong.

These corporations don’t care about LGBT+ people, they have adopted LGBT+ imagery now it has become socially acceptable to do so, in order to make more money. Workers are the ones who will need to fight to win victories and to retain the victories we already have.

Capitalism is the root cause of oppression and division

As socialists we understand attitudes towards sexuality and gender are inherently tied to the kind of society we live in. Gendered distinctions arose due to the creation of the family as a way to pass wealth on to future generations. As well as oppressing women, enforcing this system meant repressing those who deviated from the set gender norms. History shows this was never able to be done completely. In Native American societies the idea of “two spirit” people exists to describe those who are gender variant. Similar in tribal societies in Africa and India, gender variant behaviour was common until capitalism, spread by European powers, destroyed this and replaced it with reactionary and divisive attitudes.

Whilst under capitalism LGBT+ people have broken out from some of the constraints placed upon gender and sexuality, but we still exist in a system that relies on division and oppression to exist. Of course capitalism can adapt in the short term with victories we have won. But these are merely stop gap solutions which don’t really challenge the nature of oppression.

When capitalist society seeks to divide working class people by spreading increasingly virulent transphobia, socialists need to stand firmly in opposition. We recognise that a socialist position on sexuality and gender is one that includes trans people breaking out from the constraints of a false binary attitude towards gender. A socialist position rejects the false divide between trans people and women and fights to improve the lives for all oppressed people. Socialists should be united in our shared need to break the chains of oppression and understand that it is only by the whole of the working class standing together that we can achieve this.

What this means, is that the LGBT+ liberation movement cannot be separated from the working class movement and the fight for socialism as a whole, and also that only the working class has the ability to end LGBT+ oppression. We need a return to this attitude throughout pride events. 

Liberation through socialism

The Russian Revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 showed that this can be done. Homosexuality was decriminalised and same sex marriage was legal. There were people who decided to live as a different gender following the revolution and by 1926 it became legal to change your sex on passports. Intersex and trans people received medical care and were not demonised. Research on these issues were state-funded and permission was granted to perform gender reassignment surgeries at the request of the patient. The Bolsheviks supported the Institute of Sexology in Berlin, and the revolutionary work they were doing in research on sexuality and gender. Whilst this was eventually reversed by the reactionary Stalinist bureaucracy, revolution represented a massive step forward for LGBT+ people.

We should campaign today for any changes that would make the lives for LGBT+ people better. But we understand that we will only fully win the fight for LGBT+ liberation by fighting for a socialist society, free from capitalism’s endless inequalities and crises. 
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Picture credit: “no justice no pride protest” by kelly bell photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0