Amber Maxwell: Queer fighter and socialist

Amber Maxwell at International Women's Day rally in Perth 2013. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Amber Maxwell was a great activist. She was one of the most dedicated young cadres of the Socialist Alternative Perth branch, and a co-convener of Equal Love WA. She committed suicide on August 24. She was 20 years old.

I consider myself lucky that for a year and a half I worked with her in the queer struggle. I considered her a comrade and I cared about her.

In the queer movement, we understand that youth suicide is really a form of murder. Like all transgender youth, Amber was terribly abused by our society. She was homeless. Numerous crisis accommodation services rejected her because they didn’t accept her as a real woman.

Amber contributed a great deal to society, even though society treated her with absolute disdain. Even while she was homeless she campaigned hard for equal marriage rights. She was also one of Socialist Alternative’s top paper sellers in Perth. I see Amber’s commitment and activist discipline as a lesson for the rest of us. I imagine that Amber gave her all to the socialist movement because it was the only source of hope for a genuine improvement to her situation, and that of other transgender and homeless people.

Amber, alongside many other people, was in the process of changing the world. The campaign for equal marriage rights has been one of the most powerful social movements in Australia, demonstrating that it is possible to take on the federal government and make genuine gains. This movement has won civil unions in several states and anti-discrimination legislation. It has also been the major driving force in a huge shift in Australian public opinion towards the acceptance of queer people.

Amber was building a better future for all queer people. It is so sad that she felt forced to cut her own future short. The disjunction between the positive social change she was creating and her own situation is very revealing.

If we look at things superficially it might seem as if queer oppression is nearly over in this country. We have had a string of legal victories. The Prime Minister now supports the right to marry. We have even been on the cover of Marie Claire.

But look more closely at the reality on the ground and you’ll see how far we are from queer liberation. People are still killing themselves. People are still carving barcodes into their arms. High school students are still beaten up. Parents are still kicking their kids out of home, and homeless queer youth are still refused crisis accommodation.

The situation of gay people, although improving, is uneven. Yet Amber’s story makes me think that the situation of transgender people has barely improved at all.

I admired Amber’s thinking about the queer movement. She had a strong sense that the queer movement rightfully belonged to her, and to people like her. Amber said that when we win the right to marry, we will throw a party to declare that it was not won by either of the major parties or even the Greens.

When we win, it will be a victory that belongs to the activists who fought for it, in particular the political left.

Amber won’t be there for our victory, but when we win I intend to shout what she said from the rooftops. She was correct that the queer movement was her rightful property.

The queer movement has never been driven by the comfortable middle-class white-picket-fence type of people who populate its peak lobby groups and who try to make it appear as white-bread as possible.

The movement at its most powerful has always been driven by people like Amber. Just take a look at ACT UP, started by people who were dying of AIDS, or the Mattachine society, initiated by working class queer communists living under McCarthy era repression.

Take a particularly close look at the Stonewall riot, begun by homeless transgender youth as desperate and as explosive as Amber. Compare Amber to Stonewall’s Sylvia Rivera and observe the parallels.

I loved Amber’s wide, spirited solidarity for the oppressed people of the world. It is totally fitting that the last thing Amber did before she died was to attend a protest for refugee rights. She not only cared about queers, but the working class as a whole. I would like to see everybody express the same solidarity for transgender people that Amber showed to so many others.

I loved Amber’s non-sectarianism. When she encouraged me to attend Socialist Alternative’s Marxism conference I got the distinct impression that she wasn’t only thinking of her own party’s political gain; she genuinely wanted me to see Billy X Jennings and to participate in an important political event.

Working together in Equal Love WA, we had the usual disagreements between Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance (as well as the common ground). We were always able to resolve our differences amicably, because of our basic good will for each other and for the queer struggle.

Amber was enthusiastic about the unity discussions between Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance because she could see the prospects for a more powerful socialist movement. If we all conduct ourselves like Amber, unity is possible. I also think we have a duty to people like Amber to try and make it happen.

Amber had some bold plans for the queer movement. She wanted leftists and progressives to educate themselves more deeply about trans politics and experience. I agree that we all need more of an education. As well as listening to the trans activists in Australia, we can also do some reading. Leslie Feinberg, Patrick Califia, and Sylvia Rivera are good authors to start with.

Amber also wanted us to commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) on November 20 in Perth this year.

This would be a bold political move — to my knowledge there hasn’t been a specifically trans themed protest in Perth since 2002. Sadly she won’t be able to see her ideas come to fruition. It is up to the rest of us to implement them. It makes me sad to think that if we do TDOR rally in Perth, Amber will be one of the people we will be commemorating.

I will remember Amber not primarily as a suicide victim, but as one of the fieriest queer activists I have known in my 10 year involvement in the movement. I regret that I never told her she was a fantastic comrade.

Losing her has made me realize how much we have to treasure the young people in socialist organisations —whether or not they are in the same organisation as we are.