marxism 2011 program notes: the fight for queer liberation today

These are my notes from the 2011 Marxism conference in Toronto. The series starts here.

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The Fight for Queer Liberation Today
Tim McCaskell and Michelle Robidoux (Michelle not present)
May 29, 2011

In this context, "today" means the political juncture we’re living in. The use of the word "liberation" is interesting, since most movements on the ground are rights-based, seeking to make queer people “good subjects”. We want to ask, what were the material conditions, class formations, ideologies present when queer liberation first burst on the scene?

We hear about the “Stonewall moment," but the more historians look at it, the less it looks like the beginning. There was the Mattachine Society coming out of US Communist Party. It represented the disruption of traditional, patriarchal society that had been able to control the way sexuality was expressed. As capital moved in, began to lose control of that.

Alan Berube's book shows us how during the post-war demobilization, queer people were returning to urban centres, not going back to small-town conformity.

We can look at the economic conditions of the time, which were Keynesian and reformist, designed to redistribute enough wealth to create a consumer class (i.e. better paid workers, forming a middle class). There was much less disparity of wealth, and that carried capitalism until the mid-1970s.

We can look at that middle class ideal - one salary, mom home with kids, own a home, even a second home - and reflect on how much class structure has changed in the last 30-40 years. Young people achieved independence from their families sooner, had more disposable income. For queers, this led to the growth of gay villages, which developed their own networks - and eventually their own political expression. The earlier gay communities were class/race/neighbourhood specific. These post-war gay communities were more “hegemonic communities”.

The Stonewall movement modeled itself on the struggles of blacks, women, and anti-colonial/national liberation movements, then broadened into human/civil rights - and eventually settled into assimilationist, rights-based strategies. The movement rose on a base of liberalism, anti-conservatism: liberating sexual desire from social constraints of family, religion, etc. But it was part of the market-driven society, with the individual seen as a consumer. It's a cross-class alliance with a middle class focus: “how queers can become proper citizens”.

In Toronto, it was recently the 30th anniversary of bathhouse raids. In that moment, there were tensions between the political organizers’ contempt for people not fully out versus people busy having a good time, annoyed by people who wouldn't stop "bringing politics into it". Thursday night was the discount night, so when the raids took place, huge numbers of people were arrested.

Now the rights agenda is virtually completed, but those successes have taken place as deteriorating economic conditions have eroded the class alliances that gave rise to those successes. Neoliberalism has dramatically transformed class structure. People who are benefiting from the system are living very differently from those affected negatively. From this, the way that people experience homophobia has changed.

The fight over Queers Against Israeli Apartheid revealed the split:: corporate, middle class on one side versus everyone else. There are the people marginalized only by homophobia - get rid of that and they’re fine - versus people dealing with racism, anti-immigrant, economic struggles.

The first Pride is about celebration. The second Pride is about politics.

So Pride becomes way to deliver queer consumers to corporations. If you’re not of much interest to corporate sponsors (you are poor, immigrant, otherwise marginalized), you don't count, which explains why “everyone else” is an afterthought for Pride.

Conservative, homophobic interests are happy to take advantage of these divisions. Funding cuts based on homophobia dovetail with “fiscal austerity”.

We are seeing the unraveling of neoliberal experiment: a society with greater wealth disparity, greater class conflicts, as the state becomes more authoritarian, its subjects more conformist. Now the queer community is more divided, and also more vulnerable because it is more integrated into the state apparatus.

Seen in a world context, Stonewall took place in context of anti-colonial nationalist struggles. Now those struggles have been re-integrated into capitalism. Now sexual identity categories move around the world more quickly, but they’re moving into societies where conditions don’t yet exist for them.

What does it mean when queer liberation takes place under global capitalism, when resistance takes place under authoritarian, hostile forces. The reaction to economic resistance is often framed under “western decadence”, dovetailing with homophobia. From the western viewpoint, we can look down on homophobic Arabs or Africans, imagine our society as better than theirs.

Where does this leave us as Marxists and queers? There are four struggles we need to look at.

1. Struggles against the remains of traditional conservatism, our “bread and butter" opponents, such as the Catholic School Board that prohibits gay-straight alliance clubs in schools. This reconstitutes traditional cross-class alliances.

2. Redistributive struggles, coming from the erosion of state redistributive forces: i.e., budget cutbacks to youth support, counseling, queer-focused health services. This affects both the users of those services and the workers who provide them.

3. Struggles against repression, as society becomes more authoritarian (G20, anti-Israeli apartheid): this engages the middle class and can be both cross-class and cross-politics.

4. Anti-colonial struggles. These are the most difficult to maneuver, as we fight against both neo-colonials (e.g., people calling for cutting off health funding to Uganda because “they are homophobic”) and reactionaries.

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