Which way forward for australian gays?

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International Socialist 12 Summer 1981/2 (Journal of the International Socialists, Australia)
Introduction: At recent homosexual conferences there has been substantial debate around a number of issues facing the gay movement. The most prominent one has been how to relate to the subculture based on the gay bars. Other questions include the ALP [Australian Labor Party] and the value of reform work and the relationship of lesbians and male homosexuals.
For socialists, the question remains how to link our current activities with the building of a movement which can change society. This is even more critical given the decline in the women’s and gay movements and in the face of the economic crisis and increasing attacks from the right wing.
In this new “Controversy” section in the journal, a member of the IS debates the question “what is the way forward for Gay Liberation today?” with an independent socialist and an member of the CPA.
Phil Carswell


Phil Carswell is a member of the Victorian State Committee of the CPA and is on the State Council of the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria. He has also been active in gay liberation for several years. Phil is a member of ALSO (Alternative Lifestyle Organisation) which organised 1981 Melbourne Gay Day.

The very terms of this question presuppose certain assumptions.

  1. Is there such a thing today as a “gay liberation” movement compared with the popular upsurge of the late sixties, early seventies?

  2. Are “liberationist politics the only possible avenue of legitimate action within the gay sub-culture?

  3. Is there a precise and clear path that is possible to delineate now, for all those interested to follow?

I would rather take up the question of socialists in the emerging gay community. This to me seems more relevant, realistic and appropriate.

Gay politics in the mid-70s focussed on ‘the campaign’. Its agent was ‘the activist’. As the sub-cultures politicise, the agent of struggle for gay rights will not be an activist but an\an organizer’. A decisive factor for the success of gay struggles (not of course the only one; alliances with other social forces including the labour movement, feminists and radical-liberals, will be important) will be the extent to which the sub- cultures organize themselves and then develop their own political voice. This is a role for gay radicals: to help in the unification/solidification of the gay subcultures, help them to explore their way politically and develop clout. That is, build a gay community. (Craig Johnston, The New Radicalisation)
With reference to this quote from Craig and an understanding that these developments are proceeding anyway, I believe it is important to examine our politics and our political practice so that we become effective and credible organizers within our milieu.
It is my understanding of Marxist politics that one of the major tenets is the role of intervention and the process of winning the majority to a more advanced position. (What winning means, or rather doesn’t mean, is explained well, I believe, in Beyond the Fragments, Rowbotham et al.)
This long, uneven and sometimes contradictory process involves plateaus, impasses and a lot of uneven development. So be it. This is not a recipe for despondency, rather a clear message. We have to use the basic principles of Marxism to distil and develop our past theory and practice into that which is appropriate today.
With this in mind, my long range perspectives are those of mass work, social and political change as a process and a tentative grappling with the fact that the area we work in is almost incredibly complex. These themes are the background for my work in the gay community. For me, the strategy and tactics that flow from that position must involve part or all of the following elements:

  • they must involve and reflect the felt needs of homosexuals

  • they must challenge the dominant ideology of individual solutions for political problems, with an emphasis on collective thought, actions and democratic operations

  • they must build unity – as wide as possible. If mass work is the perspective then building unity is the tactical necessity.

  • The day to day tactics must be appropriate to the particular situation

  • They must make an honest attempt to handle contradictions – not to run away or ignore them. This is the crucial element in the understanding of Marxists, that contradictions exist everywhere, it’s how we handle them that distinguishes us from liberals or reformists. A defence of the positive side of a contradiction doesn’t mean an endorsement of the negative, it points the way forward.

  • Finally, the tactics and strategy must recognise the strength of the diversity of the gay community. This diversity is not divisive.

What this means in practice is that our role as socialists should be to inject our organisational, theoretical, rhetorical and political skills into the community. At all times we must attempt to develop solidarity which is the crucial element of difference between a sub-culture and a community. Put simply, “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”

A practical example may help to give substance to this theory.
In Melbourne, a loose coalition was formed to organize a day of celebration in response to the recent law reform in Victoria’s Parliament. To debate the worthiness of this action, its tacit endorsement of Parliament and the relevance of the legislation is another question. What is important is that it would be the first time an open, broad group had organized any public display of the diversity of Melbourne’s emerging gay community.
The potential of thousands of people coming into contact with other points of view within our sub-culture promised a major re-direction for gay activists in Melbourne. We would now have our base, our so-called “broad masses” in one spot at one time, able to be influenced by all types of thinking and action.
The original view of the organizers was that it should be non-political, open to every group and organization and “fun day”. After debate (and being involved in the shit work – ie gaining credibility) this perception was refined. There was almost total acceptance that the term “non-political” was nonsense – any large gathering of openly gay people was by its very nature political.
This debate initiated by the few socialists on the committee led to further debates about sexism and racism, the role of gay culture for the day (ie films, debates, etc) and promoting methods of operation that did not alienate sections of the gay community. The desire for unity and openness about operations (including financial) was the distinctive thread that held the whole committee together.
It also became apparent that bar owners and commercial establishments may know how to raise money but they can’t run meetings, or organize publicity to any great extent. Once the tentativeness from both sides was overcome a reasonably successful welding of skills took place so that on the day 2500 people took part in Melbourne’s first openly gay exposition.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. It clashed with the early stages of May Day and some of the entertainment was questionable. But the positive effects were overwhelmingly good. The International Bookshop [left wing bookshop] did well and was introduced to a new range of customers, most of whom didn’t know the place existed. Gay Community News sold well (as did The Battler [IS paper] I believe!)
To me, it’s primarily a matter of presenting our politics in a more relevant way, in a way people can identify with, in a way that isn’t bogged down in clichés and rhetoric that won’t reach them, let alone penetrate the new gay consciousness. It means a lot of hard work because this is a creative effort, not a prescriptive formula.
The gay community is developing. It’s up to gay Marxists and socialists to put into that development, to create new alternative ways of approaching problems, to work hard to challenge old preconceptions of “gay activists” and finally to win over more and more people to a more complete understanding of our potential strength, the complex terrain we inhabit and the methods needed to gain and keep our freedom.

Michael Hurley

Michel Hurley is a Melbourne teacher and union activist. He has been active in gay liberation for several years and was a member of the organizing collective of the 1981 Socialism and Homosexuality Conference.

In 1972, Gay Liberationists believed they were making a new revolution; it was to be a clearly social revolution in which masculinity, femininity, sexual repression, the nuclear family and institutionalised heterosexuality would all disappear. They were heady days. The solidified pain of self-hate cracked into a thousand pieces. The chance of a new way of living and being emerged. Hope dominated our lives.
Ten years of struggle and organizing later, Gay Liberation is organisationally scattered. In its place is a series of autonomous political groups with specific purposes, organisation skills and a somewhat grim, but resilient, political commitment. Outflanking these groups numerically is a growing commercial sub-culture whose origins are economic and social rather than specifically political.
Homosexual politics now have two major organisational focuses. The annual national homosexual conference regularly attracts 600 self defining “radical”. The 1981 April Socialism and Homosexuality conference had 150 participants. The first priority of these gays is a public homosexual politics which confronts both discrimination (gay rights) and oppression (gay liberation). But the sense of how these two are connected is fragmented.
Secondly there are the annual celebrations of sexuality which are increasingly dominated by the commercial and social sub-cultures. Numerically, these are far more successful than “movement” politics. Sydney’s Mardi Gras from 1978 to 1981 involved 5000 celebrants. Melbourne Gay Day and Queen’s Birthday picnic saw 1500. The priority here is a self-assertion of identity through fun.
These changed realities involve revolutionary homosexuals in political choices. The choices are complicated by the tension between a “movement” politics and a class politics; this tension requires a continuous resolution politically. However, it is not solved by the false dichotomy of only one or the other. Nor will many of us accept a solution that says “yes” to both, but gives only tactical support to autonomous organising. The historical and political reality of oppression, its lived daily experience, necessitates strategically autonomous groups.
Liquidating autonomy is not an option. Autonomy is the first political choice for the 80s.
But historically and politically in the 70s autonomy was in practice often separatism. The second political choice for the 80s has to be the politics of alliance, coalition and cooperation. This is crucial to extending our social power.
The major tactical re-orientation argued for, so far, within the movement has been that of organising within the commercial sub-cultures. This has occurred mainly in Sydney with the Mardi Gras, the 1981 Law Reform Campaign and to a much lesser extent, Stonewall Day. In Melbourne it has only involved Gay Day. It has not occurred in Adelaide, nor as far as I am aware, Perth or Brisbane. For homosexuals outside the urban centres or the “gay scene” it is not an issue.
Proponents of organising in the bars, pubs, saunas and commercial gay media want to politicise a gay “community” defined as the clientele of these businesses. Those in favour of community organising are attempting to solve the problem of a decline in radical, activists politics. Their solution is to organise amongst the visible gays “free” enough to exist in the commercial ghetto.
There are four major objections to this tactic as presently pursued: the continued definition of homosexual politics largely in the interests of males; the priority given to a cross-class political alliance; the reduction of gay liberation politics to at best, gay rights; and capitulation of revolutionary hope to the brute fact of commercial dominance.
To begin with the latter: the most visible sector of homosexuals is that which socialises in the commercial “gay scene”. This scene is social and economic in origin. Its expansion and consolidation is dependent firstly, on the “goodwill” of the state; secondly, on a coincidence of economic and ideological interests on the part of gay entrepreneurs; and thirdly, on the economic forces which determine the success of small business in Australia. At the moment gay business is holding its own on these three fronts.
The closure of sex shops in Kings Cross is the most recent example of the state’s “goodwill”. “Be gay”, “Buy gay” is a slogan as much of separate but unequal containment as it is a celebration of a culture of resistance. And finally, small business has been going to the wall since the economic boom burst under McMahon. The tactic of sub-cultural alliance will inevitably lead to a campaign in defence of the gay petit bourgeoisie against the state and eventual disillusionment as the gay market bottoms out. The former can easily merge into a nationalist defence of “Australian” business against multinational monopolies and the latter will be blamed on “ultra-leftists” who refuse to support the commercial scene.
This scenario is also the main reason for not giving cross-class alliances a high priority. The assumption is not that the petit bourgeoisie is part of the ruling class. Rather, the argument is that there are more important priorities for revolutionaries.
Liberation from the sexual division of labour and from the psycho-social organisation of personal life and sex around gender are strategic to ending class exploitation, women’s and gay oppression. Any socialist politics which is restricted to ending the sexual division of labour is not acceptable.
The commercial sub-cultures are sex-segregated, sexist, racist and male dominated. They economically exploit social oppression. We haven’t got the forces to organise there without being swamped by a politics that de facto accepts totally different tactical requirements for male and female homosexuals’ liberation. It would mean a retreat to the sexism and lesbian separatism that bedevilled homosexual politics in the 70s. We would encourage male gay rights with no revolutionary perspective.
Consequently, demoralisation, similar to that between 1975 and 1978, would recur, as moralistic attacks intensified generally, with no clear focus for opposition.
The tactics for the 80s must provide this focus. We need to protect ourselves as long-term organisers. Revolutionary homosexuals are limited in numbers, resources, energy and influence. There is no point in burning out. This means a careful selection of tasks and targets.
Firstly, we are not in a position to set up ongoing coalitions against repression in our own right. Nonetheless, the Festival of Light, Right to Life, the “Catholic Mafia” in the NSW ALP, the Concerned Parents Associations in Queensland and Victoria, the NCC and the various education departments all have to be monitored and selectively counteracted.
Secondly we have to recognise that the unions and the ALP are the major working class organisations. Our work in the former requires consolidation. We have neglected the ALP and must reconsider it as a target for specific campaigns.
Thirdly national conferences and national media are central for general propaganda work amongst both new activists and the already committed.
Fourthly each city has to consolidate its gay liberationists into groups with regular contact. We need to support the emerging socialist lesbian forces.
Therefore Sydney has to unify behind the immediate aim of law reform with the perspective of building a campaign against repression. The law reform issue creates the possibility of proving good-will in the sub-culture, re-activating experienced organisers, pushing the Trades and Labour Council to at least financially support its anti-discrimination policy and building popular support. It exposes the right wing of the ALP and flushes out the “moral majority” forces.
Initially this will mean supporting the existing law reform efforts at the basic level of organisational hack-work. Credibility has to be gained if further political suggestions are to be taken seriously. Law reform is not inherently reformist and subjective lack of interest is elitist arrogance. Some of us made the latter mistake in Melbourne and paid for it with the irrelevance which comes from passive defeatism.
In Melbourne, the situation is less clear though any knee-jerk militancy would be a mistake. The 1982 election can be a focus for a campaign to make sex and sexuality re-appear as political issues. Rescission of Education Department guidelines on Young, Gay and Proud and Health and Human Relations courses could be campaign objectives.
A longer term activity is supporting the building of the national viability of Gay Community News as a political alternative to the gay rights emphasis of the sub-culture’s media. GCN is the only existing media outlet open to the possibility of radical social change. As such it is a bulwark against the liquidation of all gay liberationist ideology.
Forming and consolidating distribution outlets and readers’ groups could provide the impetus for organisation in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
Ultimately, radical homosexual politics rest on consenting homosexual visibility; visibility to each other and wider society. The first German gay movement (1864-1935) broke the silence. The second Gay Liberation movement made us visible. The challenge of the 80s is to consolidate and extend these gains.

Graham Willett


Graham Willett is a member of the International Socialists in Melbourne. As a gay liberation activist he has been involved in Gay Community News and was also a member of the organising collective of the 1981 Socialism and Homosexuality Conference.

New situations call for new analyses and this has become particularly clear over the past few years in the area of gay liberation politics. In response to the new gay consciousness, to the rise of the commercial sub-culture, to the escalating attacks from the right, socialists in general and gay socialists in particular, have responded with confusion.
The most prominent response has been to argue for a turn to the commercial sub-culture. The argument is that socialists must intervene here to build a community of homosexuals from the hitherto atomised and apolitical sub-culture.
This is a recent and still largely undeveloped theory but already some of its problems have become apparent. There has been no serious analysis of the relationship between the hoped-for community and the struggle for socialism.
The obstacles to the linking up of this community with the broader struggle for socialism are legion. The prevalence of racism, sexism and over anti-communism in the sub-culture is only passingly acknowledged. More importantly, the material basis for these obstacles is ignored. The cross-class nature of the sub-culture, the leading role of small and not-so-small capitalists and petit-bourgeois, the gender separatism of its social centres – all these provide real barriers to wining over the commercial sub-culture or any community based on it, to socialist politics.
The class interests of the entrepreneurs who feed off the commercial subculture have, it seems, been perceived more clearly by them than by socialists. This is most apparent in Sydney where a bitter battle was fought to establish an umbrella organisation that excluded the left. The NSW Council of Gay Groups is dominated by conservative, commercial interests who more and more are claiming to be the real mouthpiece of the gay community. The separation of an apolitical Mardi Gras from a political Stonewall Day is simply the first step in a campaign to exclude and isolate the left from the “Community”.
What all this boils down to is that community-building politics is based on a stages theory of development: first we build a community by allying with all gays, regardless of their politics and then we think about socialism.
But, in fact, the commercial subculture exists unmolested only to the extent that it does not threaten the ideological hegemony of the capitalist system. If the community (when it is built) is to play a role in the struggle for socialism it needs to be shown that it will have the cohesion and strength to stand solid against the repression that will be launched against it and further, to play a part in the socialist offensive. To take only the most obvious historical examples: will it be able to resist any better than did Hirschfield’s World League of Sexual Reform? Will it be able to participate in the socialist struggle without fragmenting like the women’s movement in Russia in 1917?
The oppression of gays springs ultimately from the demands of class society and the abolition of the one is bound up with the abolition of the other. But the struggles are not, in the final analysis, separate. Oppression and exploitation feed off each other and they should be fought simultaneously.
What follows from this is that socialists must work to construct a mass socialist movement that not merely incorporates the struggles against exploitation and oppression but which actively binds them together and advances them as one.
It is obvious that today the working class as a whole, and much of the left, have not yet taken up the demands of gays and have no real appreciation of gay liberation politics. This fact cannot be ignored or wished away, but neither can it be used to justify abstention from class politics. The question I am addressing is one of strategy, not tactics. Gays are in the vanguard of the struggle fro gay liberation and we can and must organise as gays to advance our struggle. The question is, where do we direct our energies?
In Australia at the moment there is no mass revolutionary movement or consciousness and this places limitations on what we can actually do. The role of socialists here and now is essentially propagandist. The aim of our propaganda and our activity is to build – to bring together the oppressed and exploited.
An example of what this actually means in practice can be gained from the Sydney Mardi Gras arrest campaign.
Police attacks on gays have varied from the spectacular and open such as those in Sydney in 1978, to the quiet and low-key, such as the day to day arrests on the beats or the campaign of harassment that is going on in Sydney at the moment.
It is obvious that police do not only attack gays. Women’s marches and general left demos are considered fair game; in Brisbane now the punks are being driven off the streets in preparation for the Commonwealth Games; blacks are constantly harassed and bashed by cops; workers picket lines are often attacked. To organize effectively against police violence we need to draw together all these groups into mass, political campaigns.
The Mardi Gras “Stop the Attacks” campaign in Sydney in 1978 confined itself to the particular case of attacks on gays and thereby lost an ideal opportunity to agitate widely and link up all those who, if socialism is to be possible, must be linked up. This parochial attitude was responsible for the ephemeral nature and impact of the campaign.
Three years later, the cops were on the move again as part of Neville Wran’s “clean up the city” pre-election manoeuvring. It was suggested that Sydney’s Gay Left attempt to mobilize very wide support to oppose this new attack and this represented a great step forward.
The need is for broadly based overtly radical campaigns around the issues that affect us as gays and to which other sectors of society can be won over. The propaganda value of these campaigns is powerful – through them we engage in consciousness-raising among both straights and gays and we develop our politics in a practical and effective way by bringing together gay and socialist politics.
These sorts of campaigns are not, of course, the last word in gay politics and obviously issues cannot be conjured up out of thin air. Working in unions and workplaces, local councils, the left parties and the ALP forms the basis for our day to day struggle for reforms and a political awareness of our demands. We must participate in gay caucuses, reform groups, rank and file committees and policy-making bodies. The point we should keep in mind at all times is the limitations of reforms. What can be extorted from the bosses and their political representatives can be lost again. The revolutionary potential of work for reforms lies in educating people and raising consciousness and in mobilising people so that they discover, in a concrete way, the realities of radical and revolutionary politics.
Pro-gay policies need to be followed up and not allowed to languish unnoticed on the books. Education work, defence of victimised members, primary and secondary boycotts and so on all serve to bring people, through their own activity, to a real understanding of the links between the oppressed and exploited.
The best recent example of this work paying off was the stopwork called by the Liquor and Allied Trades Union at Melbourne Uni in 1979 when Terry Stokes was expelled from Graduate House for his homosexuality. The pressure brought to bear by the cafeteria workers was instrumental in forcing a backdown by the administration.
The significance of all this for socialists is not this or that reform as such but rather in winning people to a practical understanding of socialist politics. The precondition for the building of a mass socialist movement is the recognition of our oppression and exploitation and the mobilizing of opposition to it – that is where socialists, women and men, gay and straight, must direct our energies.

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