How the Anti-Trans Movement is Weaponising Gay Liberation

We must reject spiteful misreadings of queer politics.

by James Greig

17 September 2021

LSE Library (Flickr)

“Liberalism isn’t good enough for us,” wrote radical lesbian activist and writer Martha Shelly in 1969, “and we are just beginning to discover it. Your friendly smile of acceptance—from the safe position of heterosexuality—isn’t enough. As long as you cherish that secret belief that you are a little bit better because you sleep with the opposite sex, you are still asleep in your cradle and we will be the nightmare that awakens you”.

Last week, Spiked columnist Brendan O’Neill put forward a very different notion of gay liberation. In a (to my mind, viciously transphobic) review of Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, O’Neill argues that the comparison Faye draws between the trans rights movement and the gay liberation movement is “unconvincing”, on the basis that “gay liberation was a profoundly important effort to win true autonomy by expelling controlling forces – whether psychiatrists, the state or the so-called ‘moral majority’ – from the lives of gay people”. 

Trans activism, by contrast, contends O’Neill, differs in the sense that it welcomes these same controlling forces (for example, doctors) and “pressures the moral majority to change their thinking and genuflect to correct-think”. This is not only a misrepresentation of Faye’s argument (much of which is precisely concerned with freeing trans people from the control of the medical establishment), it also mischaracterises the nature of gay liberation. 

In doing this, O’Neill provides yet another iteration of a common transphobic talking point. It has become an anti-trans cliche to insist that gay people in the post-Stonewall era were concerned only with negative freedom: that they “just wanted to be left alone” and “to live their lives in peace”. 

The LGB Alliance (a trans-exclusionary advocacy group which has been described as an “anti-trans hate group” by a number of prominent LGBTQ figures), once claimed, “In our historical gay and lesbian rights movement, we never demanded that society change its laws, its activities and its language to accommodate us. We never cursed people who disagreed with us or tried to get them fired. We always built bridges.” The implication, here, is that the trans movement, by contrast, is uniquely demanding, dogmatic and extreme. 

But such a depiction is simply untrue: gay liberation was a radical, socialist, and anti-imperialist movement which aimed to transform society at every level. You could even argue that many of the demands of the present-day trans movement are modest by comparison. With elements within the anti-trans movement eager to strip the movement of its radicalism in order to promote their own agenda, we should be seeking to reclaim a radical, socialist queer politics, and with it, the idea that the liberation of trans people is indivisible from everybody else’s.

Gay liberationists didn’t just ‘want to be left alone’.

The argument pedalled by the likes of the LGB Alliance is that gay liberationists didn’t aim to redefine any concepts, transform society at large, or concern themselves with anything beyond their own rights to sexual freedom. Rather than wanting to be “the nightmare that awakens” the straight world, gay liberationists were, supposedly, reluctant to ruffle any feathers. 

Helen Joyce makes a similar case in her recent book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, writing that, “As more gay people came out, starting in the 1960s and continuing through the AIDS crisis into the 2000s, straight people gradually realised two things: that gay people were just like everyone else apart from their sexual orientation, and that their orientation was no skin off anyone else’s nose.” 

The most charitable reading of this argument is that it’s badly written, and that Joyce isn’t actually trying to suggest that social attitudes towards gay people improved during the AIDS crisis (which would be a silly thing to say.) But in any case, it’s a view that robs gay people of any agency in transforming social attitudes. It also misses the point that gay liberationists actively wanted to be “skin off the nose” of the straight world, as well as resisting the idea that gay people were “just like everyone else”.

Certainly, the “gay people just wanted to be left alone” argument holds true for some elements of gay activism, a broad tradition that has always had its conservative, assimilationist, and indeed transphobic participants. But if we’re discussing gay liberation as an intellectual and political tradition, to say that its demands were limited to negative freedom is simply incorrect. Gay liberationists weren’t exactly subtle about this stuff: their radicalism wasn’t a secret agenda or something they cloaked in palatable language – in fact, they wrote rather a lot of manifestos about it

Gay liberation is not a distinct tradition from trans liberation.

The crucial thing to understand here is that gay liberation is not a distinct tradition from trans liberation. In fact, The term ‘gay’ was a political identity that was intended to include gender diversity. As Faye argues in The Transgender Issue, while we should be cautious about retroactively applying today’s terminology to people in history who didn’t, for the most part, identify in quite the same way, there were always gender non-conforming people involved in the movement – whether they defined themselves as drag queens, transvestites, transexuals, or whatever.

In the US, groups like Street Action Transvestite Action Revolutionary (STAR), which was co-founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, played an important role in the early years of gay liberation. It was also an explicitly radical, leftwing organisation, a detail which is often lost in the wrangling over whether  Johnson and Rivera can be considered trans. As Johnson said in a 1972 interview, “STAR is a very revolutionary group. We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary. Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and free and have equal rights that other people have in America.”

Such a stance was far from unique. It’s easy to find other examples of proto-trans politics in the early years of gay liberation. In 1970, for instance, the Black Panthers organised a Revolutionary People’s Convention which included a “male homosexual” workshop: one of the 18 demands they read at the meeting was “the right to free physiological change and modification of sex”. Meanwhile,  in the UK, ‘Come Together’, a specifically lesbian edition of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) journal, featured a trans manifesto written by Roz Kaveny and Rachel Pollack, which showcased not just a commitment to what we might now understand as ‘trans rights’, but also emphasised that the project needed to be multi-dimensional, encompassing women of all races, ages, and class. “Think of how much more inspiring and beautiful the women’s revolution will be when it joyously includes all women,” they wrote.

Gay liberationists wanted to abolish all forms of oppression.

Beyond the issue of trans rights, gay liberationists really did want to transform society in the most radical and far-reaching ways imaginable. The UK GLF, according to the second issue of ‘Come Together’, stood in opposition to “the structure of the family”, “Judeo-Christian culture” and “all forms of oppression” including misogyny, racism, the class system and colonialism. It argued that while ‘legal reform and education’ were necessary to achieve these ends, they were ultimately insufficient solutions. Instead, the GLF saw itself as “part of a wider movement aiming to abolish all forms of social oppression”.

Its US counterpart took a similarly radical approach: “We are in total opposition to America’s white racism, to poverty, hunger, the systematic destruction of our patrimony; we oppose the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and are in total opposition to wars of aggression and imperialism, whoever pursues them. We support the demands of Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, Women, Youth, Senior Citizens, and others demanding their full rights as human beings.” This was a vision of freedom that encompassed gender, racial and national oppression, and saw them as being indivisible from one another.

And what’s more, gay liberationists actually put these principles into practice. “Gay Liberation was a bold attempt to show that resistance to homophobic institutions of the state, and wider society, was rooted deeper in the need to organise social change across British society,” says Thomas Ward, a PhD candidate in the history of radical gay activism at Queen’s University Belfast. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, multiple collectives of gay men and lesbians emerged,  organising their own housing solutions in opposition to inadequate provision from local government and discrimination from private landlords, explains Ward. “At the dawn of gay liberation,” he says, “a group of drag queens who were kicked out by landlords not only established themselves in a North London commune, but also campaigned with other working-class people in Notting Hill against deteriorating housing conditions and unsanitary homes”. These people, and others like them, actively worked to transform the world around them, their concerns both larger and more particular than merely achieving legal parity. 

Some gay liberationists have become ‘gender critical’. 

That said, there is still a danger in looking to the past for a straightforward vindication of the contemporary trans movement. For a start, a number of fairly high-profile gay liberationists have become ‘gender critical’  – a branch of feminism concerned with an essentialist view of biological sex, or a polite rebranding of the ‘transphobe’ depending on your perspective –  which is sad but not really surprising; people becoming more reactionary as they get older is hardly an unusual trajectory. 

Bev Jackson, a co-founder of the ‘gender critical’ group LGB Alliance, was a founding member of the GLF; Fred Sargeant, a participant in the Stonewall riots, who went on to become a police officer, has become a prominent voice in the anti-trans movement. Indeed, there are plenty of ‘gender critical’ people today who are proud of their own radical histories and sincerely believe that their current politics fits within that tradition.

“Generally, I don’t think that TERFs are trying to say things were polite back in the day,” says Chardine Taylor Stone, an activist, educator and author of the forthcoming book, Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost Its Soul. “They were involved in sometimes quite violent, direct action-based radical feminist groups – something which they love to tell us all the time. What I actually think is that it’s a generation of people who haven’t recognised that they themselves are now the establishment rather than the radicals.” 

But even if the tendency to position gay liberation as a liberal, single-issue campaign is not representative of the ‘gender-critical’ movement as a whole, the idea that historical gay movements were polite, reluctant to cause offence and open to negotiation with their oppressors is still pervasive (presumably because that’s how ‘gender critics’ would like trans people to behave today).   

Such a position forms part of a wider effort by the ‘gender critical’ movement to retroactively characterise gay liberation as a milquetoast, rights-orientated and single-issue campaign. As Roderick Ferguson argues in his book, The One Dimensional Queer, “The ascendancy of a single-issue notion of gay liberation put in place a gay rights agenda that constructed the critique of racism, capitalism, the state and their overlaps as outside the normal and practical interests of gay liberation…it provided momentum to the argument that social and political freedom for queers would come through capitalist economic formations.” 

If you’ve ever felt dismayed by the lack of substance in contemporary mainstream gay politics, if you’ve ever shuddered at the sight of a weapons manufacturer marching in Pride, you should reject the idea that gay liberation has only ever been about legal rights. It’s a notion which, to this day, enables the marginalisation of LGBTQ people of colour, migrants and homeless people – in effect, everyone who is not well-off, cisgender and white. We should aim to recover, in Ferguson’s words, “the real and historically productive convergences between queer politics and other forms of struggle”. 

Queer politics must be expansive. 

It’s no secret that many ‘gender critical’ feminists today oppose such a multidimensional view of queer politics. While she does acknowledge the importance of cooperation and the existence of occasional shared interests, Kathleen Stock, in her recent book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters to Feminism, argues that, “Feminism is only for women and girls, in the sense that women and girls should be its exclusive political project…Similarly, gay and bisexual people should be the exclusive political project of gay activism, with separate campaigns for lesbians and gay men where their interests differ. Trans people should be the exclusive political project of a separate trans activism.” While it’s true that certain identity categories may have specific needs and demands (trans healthcare, for instance) which are deserving of space and attention, this is ultimately a limiting way of thinking about liberation, and one which serves to institutionalise a single-issue approach. 

As Faye argues in her book, policies that would help homeless trans people would also help homeless people in general; policies that would help people in precarious jobs (for example, tackling the zero-hours contracts which effectively legalise discriminatory dismissals) would also help the trans people who are likelier to find themselves working in such roles. 

Cisgender gay people, like myself, would do well to take inspiration from this expansive model of politics. There are vanishingly few ‘rights’ we don’t have, but many of us nonetheless experience oppression, for reasons which may or may not be related to our sexuality. Like trans people, or any person, we are not reducible to narrow interests. 

One of the most important principles of gay liberation was the idea that our freedom depends on the freedom of others. Erasing this radical tradition provides ideological cover for an LGBTQ politics which has little to say about the world beyond its own remit. Whether cis or trans, gay or straight, it impoverishes us all.

James Greig is a freelance journalist.

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