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Stonewall 53rd Anniversary: The radical history of LGBTQ+ liberation movements

Read our article // Pride is protest: LGBTQ+ liberation not rainbow capitalism!

Pride traces its roots to the struggle of the Stonewall Riots in response to police harassment at the Stonewall Inn, a queer bar in New York. At this time, LGBTQ+ spaces were forced into a world of criminality, as bars catering to “openly known homosexuals” would fail to obtain licenses.

At the Stonewall Inn, the police were paid by the mafia to look the other way and abused their power to raid the bar at their discretion. 

During raids, drag queens and trans women were searched invasively. After a spate of raids on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, people fought back on 28 June. Shouting, violence and smashed glass left the police trapped inside the building as it caught fire. Reinforcements were required to put out the fire and rescue the holed-up cops.

Such iconic moments mark the initial movement of LGBTQ+ resistance, when diverse individuals linked by their attitudes to gender, sex and sexuality acted as a unified group with a common mission.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed during this struggle, typified by their anti-capitalist ethos and collective discussion, they provided a much-needed alternative to liberal gay rights groups and rejected pursuing change through the capitalist system.

The GLF organised a march and protest a month after the riot. The tradition has since continued annually on the anniversary of the riots and has been replicated in Pride events across the world to become almost universally celebrated by LGBTQIA+ communities and allies.

The movement drew strength from the New Left, the civil rights movement and other revolutionary movements, supporting the Black Panthers in solidarity and linking their struggles. The GLF was organised without structure. 

They claimed that every member was the organisation and without any hierarchy the sections of the organisation were independent. This meant that some groups were ineffective, some held wildly differing views and this limited the organisation’s capacity to make decisions. 

It also meant the organisation was easy to infiltrate. Anybody at a meeting was considered a member despite an understanding that the FBI would be infiltrating the group as they became more prominent.

As the GLF required unanimous voting it struggled to focus debate into action outside of pride marches and Stonewall protests and therefore failed to penetrate further into revolutionary struggle in the US. But it did gather international attention.

No longer watching nervously from the closet door, the movement in the US inspired queers around the world to rise up in the battle for sexual liberation. Three years on from Stonewall, in 1972, the first Pride in Britain was held in London by activists who also set up a Gay Liberation Front.

Some oppositional attitudes within the community remained, with the organisers getting bottled and thrown out of some gay pubs when they went rallying for support. 

Many feared the openness and outward-facing nature that this new movement embodied. Despite the 60s and 70s being seen as decades of sexual liberation, there still remained legal and social challenges for LGBTQ+ people.

Homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. Until 1974, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still listed homosexuality as a disorder, and same-sex acts required a consenting age of 21, as opposed to 16.

This criminalised young lovers – an estimated 15,000 were convicted. Same-sex activity remained illegal in the military as well as for millions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Gay Liberation Front

The Gay Liberation Front rightly linked queer oppression to the patriarchal and heteronormative capitalist state, which through the oppression of women provides a free labour source and a mechanism to distribute private property.

They also tied oppression to the mechanisms of the state; the law, the church, the media, the education and healthcare systems. 

They critiqued society’s expectation for monogamy, heterosexuality and rigid gender roles, as well as the obsessing over conformity, beauty and youth. The GLF called for a revolution to liberate women and LGBTQ+ people.

Their manifesto stated “We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights. If this involves violence, it will not be we who initiate this, but those who attempt to stand in our way to freedom.”

The UK GLF took prominent direct action and attracted press attention. They published zines and pamphlets, took to the streets to perform theatre in drag and held dances as well as protests and marches. The group linked a broad range of people to the gay rights movement. 

However, by 1974 this broad church had splintered into several offshoots due to ideological differences and the anarchic nature of GLF organising.

This led to the formation of a number of groups that are still active today, such as OutRage! and Stonewall, with different approaches to the fight for rights.

Pride takes off in Britain

In 1981, Pride began to spread outside London as the LGBTQ+ liberation movement rallied against the oppression facing patrons of the Gemini Bar in Huddersfield.

The local police raided the club, which sat on the doorstep of the red-light district. The local sargeant described the club as “no more than a cess-pit run to make money out of sexual filth”. In solidarity, the London Pride headed north. 

The march faced public bewilderment as well as reactionary opposition including from the fascist National Front. At the end of the march these groups clashed, with activists using their flags and banners to barrage their way through the far-right groups before heading to the university campus for their evening of entertainment.

Pride had cemented itself as a protest once again, as militant LGBTQ+ people fought to be an antidote to the oppression experienced by the patrons of a gay bar in a working-class town.

Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) also galvanised a gay movement in solidarity against oppression, this time with the striking miners in 1984.

Urban LGBTQ+ people became aware of the strikers’ cause, and in exchange the often isolated mining communities became aware of the issues facing the LGBTQ+ activists rallying to their cause. 

LGSM was explicitly socialist. It highlighted many struggles people were facing by raising awareness of the unique issues experienced by queer people while also campaigining alongside others for equality, nuclear disarmament and working-class solidarity. 

LGSM developed a strong association with the Miners’ Strike. The group organised the ‘Pits and Perverts Ball’, which raised over £5,000 for striking miners. Their campaigning brought miners and LGBTQ+ activists together in solidarity, culminating in the miners and their trade union banners leading the London Pride of 1985, during a time when the community was reeling from the HIV crisis. 

At the Pits and Perverts Ball, South Wales miner David Donovan declared: “You have worn our badge, and you know what harassment means. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you.

It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks, and gays, and nuclear disarmament. And we will never be the same.”

Reactionary Tory attacks

Simultaneously, Thatcher’s Tories attacked the mining communities’ very existence and LGBTQ+ people through their neglect and mishandling of the HIV/AIDS crisis. As the state failed to support those impacted, the ruling class poured blame onto victims. 

During this time lesbian and bisexual women were credited with holding up much of the LGBTQ+ activism and supporting the gay and bisexual men who made up a significant proportion of the crisis’ early victims.

They did this by organising to run helplines, share information and by creating patchwork quilts to commemorate those who lost their lives.

Obsessed with so called ‘public decency’, and backed up in their culture war by right-wing newspapers spreading misinformation about ‘gay propaganda’ and ‘child recruitment’ in public education, the Conservatives pushed through reactionary, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. 

In 1986 they introduced an amendment to Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which stated that a local authority (council) “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended relationship”.

The aim of the Tories was to create a culture of fear to discuss and educate on LGBTQ+ issues. Literature was removed, plays were censored and staff lived in fear of speaking out in an accepting way of homosexuality. Same-sex education was banned and funding for LGBTQ+ charities pulled.

Public fears had been whipped up to believe that left-leaning councils were indoctrinating children into being gay and this led Thatcher to infamously denounce “the inalienable right to be gay”.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) complained publicly that Section 28 left staff in education without the ability to advise and counsel students appropriately. Section 28 became symbolic of government attempts to clamp down on progressive trends and beliefs on sexuality. 

Legalisation of same-sex relations in Scotland and Northern Ireland happened in 1980 and 1982 respectively. Conversely in Scotland, Section 28 was repealed in 2000, while in England and Wales the first attempt at repeal was defeated in the House of Lords.

While approval amongst the political establishment to remove Section 28 in Scotland was more pronounced, Brian Souter (multimillionaire owner of Stagecoach) privately funded a public campaign against repeal and a public ballot which he claimed declared over 86% support for Section 28 in Scotland.

Despite this, Scotland’s newly devolved assembly repealed Section 28. In England and Wales, Section 28 was finally repealed in 2003.

There are many lessons to learn from the history of the gay rights movement and it should be obvious that much of the success has come from the roots in radical methods of struggle, and also socialist ideas.

This has built solidarity between different groups in struggle and furthered working-class consciousness for the benefit of a broad range of people facing oppression, in turn making them stronger and louder. 

As the gay rights movement has seen success, so too have these successes been attacked or coopted by ‘rainbow capitalism’ on the condition of making acceptable the queer experience through traditional institutions. 

In the last few years, the battlelines against LGBTQ+ oppression have been particularly focused on the fight for trans rights and recognition of gender identity. Britain is making a name for itself as at the forefront of anti-trans reaction.

Anti-trans rhetoric has appeared not only from the traditional reactionary right, but also from liberal so-called ‘feminists’ who see their identity challenged by the acceptance of trans rights. 

Starmer’s refusal to support trans members during his leadership is especially disgusting when the Conservatives have been actively removing trans healthcare options and denying a ban on trans conversion therapies.

Reports on inequalities in areas from education to housing to jobs, show huge challenges for trans individuals coupled with a sharp rise in hate crimes.

As the Tories have sought to rebrand as the party who enabled same-sex marriage, can we really celebrate a cultural zeitgeist? Once a threat to the state and an educating political force of class solidarity, the ‘official’ LGBTQ+ movement has stalled with the acceptance of certain rights. 

Pride to many people is now a corporately-sponsored event and, in many cities, tickets are required to attend. Pride’s origins as a radical protest are drowned out by celebration and consumption.

It’s time for socialist politics to once again find their expression at Pride. If we truly want to fight oppression, we must work together to fight capitalism.