WeeklyWorker

07.07.2022
That was 1972

Take it back from them

As everyone knows, Pride began as a radical protest march, but has long been taken over by big business. Eddie Ford warns against the logic of sectionalism

Last Saturday more than a million took part in the Pride parade in London - an impressive number. This being, of course, the 50th anniversary of the first event, which saw just 700 bravely march.

Organisers described it as the “biggest and most inclusive in history”. In Trafalgar Square, the retired British Olympic athlete, Dame Kelly Holmes, told the crowd she would “never live behind that curtain again” after coming out as gay last month - recalling “the fear of judgement and retribution” that was instilled in her since the age of 18, because of the laws in the military and her status as a public figure. Naturally Sir Keir and Angela Rayner, plus Sadiq Khan, were there too. Mainstream ‘centre-left’ careerists want to be seen as ‘allies’ of the LGBTQ+ ‘community’.

After being cancelled for the last two years due to Covid, this year’s parade paid homage to the original 1972 march organised by the Gay Liberation Front - held in response to the Stonewall riots a few years before, which followed a brutal police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. With GLF veterans leading the parade, revellers passed significant sites from the history of Britain’s LGBTQ+ movement. Floats lined Park Lane ahead of the main march through the capital, led by GLF activists holding placards saying, “I was there in 1972”. More than 600 LGBTQ+ local groups joined the parade, which included a lengthy line-up of artists performing across four stages.

Earlier in the week, Pride in London had said uniformed police officers would not be welcome, following calls from LGBTQ+ campaigners to bar them due to recent revelations of homophobia, racism and misogyny in the Met - particularly over Scotland Yard’s allegedly homophobic handling of the investigation into serial killer Stephen Port, who murdered four men and committed multiple rapes after meeting his victims via online gay social networks and dating/hook-up apps. The day before the actual march, the Met announced that officers who wished to join the celebrations should do so in civilian clothes after listening to “legitimate concerns.”

Peter Tatchell, a leading campaigner and former Labour candidate for Bermondsey, has called upon Pride to “reclaim” its radical roots. Leave aside his own shift to the right, particularly over the Ukraine war, Tatchell pointed out that marchers back in 1972 were campaigning not only for equal rights for the so-called LGBTQ+ community, but also for social change - the GLF seeing itself as part of a “wider social movement for the liberation of all oppressed people”, like women, the black and Irish communities, and the working class and trade unionists. Tatchell says that the GLF “did not want equality within what we saw as an unjust, flawed society” - it wanted to transform society, “not adapt and assimilate into it”. In particular, the GLF called out straight male supremacism, which was seen as oppressing both LGBTQ+ people and women.

Telling you almost everything, the main sponsors of Pride 2022 were Barclays Bank, Tesco, Coca Cola and Sony PlayStation - seeing it as a heaven-sent marketing opportunity. They certainly respect the pink pound.

Manifesto

Looking back 50 years, the programme for the 1972 march listed recent prosecutions of gay men for sex in public toilets, cottaging, having been arrested by “plainclothes pigs”. Formed in 1969 in New York, the GLF was bouncing off the prestige of the National Liberation Front in Algeria and, of course, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.

In 1971 the British GLF issued a manifesto that, as testified by Peter Tatchell, was far more radical than most of what was on offer in 2022.1 Indeed, it was sometimes referred to as the LGBT equivalent of the Communist manifesto. For the GLF, there needed to be revolutionary change to the whole of society - not just piecemeal reforms. It worked to form a “strategic alliance” with the women’s liberation movement, “aiming to develop our ideas and our practice in close interrelation”. In a deliberate echo of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X, the GLF believed that “the starting point of our liberation must be to rid ourselves of the oppression which lies in the head of every one of us” - which means “freeing our heads from self-oppression and male chauvinism”. The aim of the GLF went beyond overturning homophobia and sexism: the aim was to end “male chauvinism” and the “gender system”, which were identified as underpinning both sexism and homophobia.

The GLF located the oppression of gays and women in the family, the law, schools, media, employment and also psychiatry - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in America listed homosexuality as a treatable condition.2 Yes, in Britain sex between men over 21 was decriminalised in 1967 - but only in private. Therefore if I had gone out with my girlfriend holding hands and had a snog, that was perfectly legal and normal. But if I done the same with my boyfriend in public, it would have been illegal. Thus we are not just talking about sex, but kissing or an intimate embrace - openly showing such affection was a criminal offence and that took a long time to change.

Marx and Engels famously called for the abolition of the family in the Communist manifesto - a demand which goes back to the French Revolution and various communist thinkers at the time. It is clear from what they wrote that Marx and Engels meant the abolition of the family as an economic unit of production and consumption - ie, children would be collectively reared. The Marx-Engels team also called for public education in schools - what a violation of the family, which is how the bourgeoisie saw it at the time. But they also talked about the proletarian family, and definitely did not call for its abolition. Rather, they pointed out that under capitalism “all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder” and “their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”. That is, prostitution, child labour, etc.

In other words, the GLF was radical - a reflection of the times - but not way out in front. Trade unionists were in revolt, women, black people, Irish republicans, students and the so-called third world too.

What was the reaction of the left to the call for gay liberation? Whether due to chronic economism, ignorance, pro-Sovietism or sheer prejudice, most of the left were nonplussed or outright hostile. The CPGB opposition faction around Fergus Nicholson launched Straight Left - a giveaway title. As for the Socialist Workers Party and Militant Tendency, they were suspicious, regarding gay liberation as a diversion from the class struggle - something neither will mention today, having sanitised the past (although both organisations took a long time to come round).

In fact, the only exceptions I know of were, firstly, the International Marxist Group, which did turn up to pickets of WH Smith, which refused to stock Gay News, and, secondly, the Liverpool-based Big Flame group. Apart from them, very few left organisations seriously dealt with the gay question. Now, by contrast, if you look at The Socialist, for example - SPEW’s paper - it has a double-page spread on the GLF’s 50 years and how things now need to be re-radicalised, taken away from the corporations, and so on. The same goes for the SWP’s Socialist Worker. What the comrades say now is quite true, of course. But there is a loud significant silence. They make no self-criticisms, no acknowledgment of past mistakes and the lessons they have since learnt. More like ‘There are a million people on the streets, so we better join them’.

When it comes to the past, we have all made mistakes - that is no sin. But to gloss over these mistakes means you are not learning any lessons, which is sadly the case for too much of the left.

Linear progress?

At this point, it is worthwhile recalling that one of the first acts following the Russian Revolution was to abolish tsarist laws against homosexual activity - but this gain was reversed by Stalin in 1934. The lesson of that is, just because there are a million people on the streets today, celebrating their sexuality and having fun, you should not imagine that progress is linear and inexorable. All you have to do is look to the US and the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe vs Wade judgement - ushering in a future of constitutional fundamentalism or essentialism. After all, what did the founding fathers think about gay sex - did they approve? What about former slaves or women having the vote, or contraception? All such rights can be removed.

Think about Margaret Thatcher too and her notorious clause 28 in 1988. Local authorities were told that they “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 family relationship”. As intended, this made it near impossible for teachers to even discuss homosexuality.

There is always struggle. That is what the GLF was about, so too was Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, set up in 1984 by Mark Ashton, general sectary of the Young Communist League. It drew on the urban club scene and not only changed attitudes in the National Union of Mineworkers, but the wider trade union movement. Mike Macnair - now of the CPGB - moved the successful motion to the 1986 Labour conference calling on the party to positively support gay and lesbian rights.

Yet the whole movement for sexual liberation has fragmented into wretched sectionalism. Although some on the left see intersectionalism as a sign of strength, it is more a sign of weakness and readiness for corporate takeover. Evidence for this thesis can readily be seen - and not only on the streets of London last Saturday. It has happened to the women’s movement. International Women’s Day began as International Working Women’s Day and is now more about getting women promoted to top jobs in business, politics, the arts and education. Corporate money is all over it. The same goes for Black Lives Matter, etc, etc.

What is needed is working class unity, not sectional unity and therefore class disunity.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. petertatchellfoundation.org/gay-liberation-front-manifesto.↩︎

  2. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201509/when-homosexuality-stopped-being-mental-disorder.↩︎