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Book Review
Smash the Church, Smash the State: the radical early gay movement
Bob Schwartz
volume:  
volume 30
issue 5
October 2009
imagestuff

Detail from the cover: Sylvia Rivera (seated) and other members of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, 1970. Credit: City Lights Books

"Gay Liberation Front was a quantum leap forward. No more semiclandestine meetings. No more special pleading. No more apologies. Here was a radical organization — wild, woolly and wonderful — ready to fight militantly for freedom." So writes John Lauritsen in his article "Radical Spirit and Vision," one of nearly 50 short recollections by and about activists in the new book Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights Books).

The book includes a few manifestos, such as Huey Newton's 1970 Black Panther letter calling gays perhaps "the most oppressed people" and the 1970 "Woman Identified Woman Manifesto," the seminal work challenging the dominant male paradigm. It is also notable for its strong inclusion of transgender activists.

Numerous pieces in the anthology refer to the Stonewall Inn events of late June, 1969. While earlier conflicts had erupted between gays and cops, Stonewall became a movement starter, due in large measure to its conjunction with movements for Black and women's rights and against the Vietnam war. These struggles radicalized many youth, including lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people (LGBTs) who were charged and ready for their own liberation.

The book makes crystal clear that it was the organizing that followed the dust-up that made Stonewall the start of the modern gay liberation movement.

Many contributors confirm that the post-Stonewall Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was in solidarity with other oppressed sectors in the U.S. and globally: African Americans and women, as well as Vietnamese being killed in that earlier Washington war of aggression.

Solidarity was easier to declare than to carry out, and lesbians disgusted at male chauvinism split to their own spaces, often to battle as well the homophobia within the National Organization for Women.

By the mid-1970s, the era of GLF solidarity politics succumbed to the single-issue "identity politics" of the Gay Activists Alliance. Although committed to direct action as a strategy to win gay rights, the GAA led directly to today's quagmire of the Human Rights Campaign and similar organizations, all allied to the Democratic Party and Barack Obama, the darling of the gay establishment who opposes equal civil rights for LGBTs.

"What happened?" is a question raised at times explicitly and nearly always implicitly in the pages of this anthology.

Although the GLF had an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist vocabulary, it lacked the political program and organization necessary for sustained activity. Similarly, as Merle Woo says in her essay, while the militancy of ACT UP won the organization respect and some medication breakthroughs in the 1980s, "There was no political program to bolster ongoing action."

My own experience in Chicago mirrored Woo's criticism of ACT UP. Here former radical Ferd Egan and his allies blocked every effort to turn the chapter toward multi-issue politics, to fight the racism and indeed the homophobia that exacerbated the medical crisis.

As some ex-radicals mourn the years of a lost militancy, and others seem content to have helped prepare a future gay "place at the table," revolutionary Marxists point a way forward by recognizing that rights gained under a capitalist regime can be taken away piecemeal, as occurred in California's Proposition 8 wave of hate, or even swept away in toto, as happened in the German capitalist crisis that culminated in Nazi rule in 1933.

We need to affirm the "wild, woolly and wonderful" spirit and vision of the early Gay Liberation Movement, and embrace the lessons of 40 years of gay resistance since 1969. Some mentioned by Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women leader Merle Woo bear repeating here, as I see them:

• The growth of gay resistance has always coincided with movements of women, workers and African Americans. When the gay movement was weak, so were the other movements. The right wing and state apparatus oppose these and other movements and are always multi-issue;

• Attacks on the movements intensify under economic chaos and right-wing reaction. Times just like today.

• LGBT struggles and those of people of color, women and workers must be seen as one struggle. This is the political truth of the intersection of class, race, sex and sexual orientation. This is the strength of solidarity politics.

• Gay liberation cannot be securely realized short of international socialism, and international socialism will not be won without LGBT liberation. The goal is to create an egalitarian socialist democracy and a truly human culture.

Finally, kudos to Tommi Avicolli Mecca for being the driving force behind assembling and publishing this important history of the early, radical LGBT movement.

Bob Schwartz belongs to Chicago's multi-issue, direct action Gay Liberation Network, a political descendant of the Gay Liberation Front.