Some specifics of gay/lesbian politics

Issue 

By Michael Schembri

Our politics is based on our sexuality. We are oppressed because we have sex with others of our own sex. We are not essentially apparent to everybody else. We can hide.

But having to hide is part of our oppression. States legislate against us; churches denounce us; the media vilify us; politicians scapegoat us; police forces hound and physically assault us; fellow workers victimise us; kids in the street call us names and gang up to bash and murder us; parents kick us out of their houses.

All this hatred causes fear, which is internalised into guilt and self-hatred. We are turned into our own oppressors by the oppressors outside us. Many young people attempt suicide.

Notwithstanding all this, every year large numbers of people find the courage to come out openly. It is an exhilarating process. It is also a painful process. Some take a few weeks or months. Others take years. Some choose to come out to friends only, some to family, some socially, some at work as well.

Just imagine my reaction when a left-wing friend queried, "What's so political about coming out?"

Without coming out, there can be no gay and lesbian politics. Coming out is a challenge: to ourselves individually, to tackle head on the internalised guilt and hatred, to start a process which heals us and leads us to a feeling of gay pride.

A challenge, also, to the society which oppresses us, an act of defiance: we will be ourselves, act as we will, and up yours if you don't like it!

Coming out is the essential first step for a gay and lesbian politics. However, it is not the solution to all our problems. Discrimination, violence and other facets of oppression force many to remain closeted. Without a political fight (for union policies to defend us, for neighbourhood self-defence, for anti-discrimination legislation, etc), many will have to remain in the closet.

Lifestyle?

Given the above picture, to describe living openly as gay or lesbian or transsexual as defending our "lifestyle" is to trivialise issues. It is offensive.

The oppression of gay men and lesbians has its roots in the class nature of our society. To

end our oppression as homosexuals, this society's structures must be radically changed.

To say that we're just defending a lifestyle doesn't just trivialise our oppression; it covers up that oppression and weakens the potential links between the various struggles carried out to change our society.

To claim that there is a gay lifestyle is also insulting. It implies that we are a breed apart. The truth is we are all different individuals, with varying interests, characters, lives, looks, cultures. Our oppression brings us together, gives us our common thread. Hopefully it gives us our politics (but some do vote for the National Party).

Community

Is there a gay community? Very definitely yes.

It is a very heterogeneous community, but it is definitely there. Its borders are very tenuous and changing. Within the community there are sexual, racial, social, class and personal differences and conflicts. Not everybody knows everybody.

While a community does exist, it does not incorporate all homosexuals. Many live isolated lives (through choice or necessity). There exist other independent gay and/or lesbian communities, some of which interact with the inner city mob, some of which don't.

But a community does exist. If proof is needed, AIDS is it. In Sydney and Melbourne, gay men mobilised to tackle the crisis, and the sum total of that effort is a model to all the world for its high level of success. It would not have happened if there had not been a sense of community.

A lot of the community revolves around the scene. Basically the scene is places and means by which gay people get to meet each other. Here they socialise, cruise each other and generally feel safe and comfortable because they are away from the disapproving gaze of heterosexists. The scene provides a (relatively) safe haven within a rampantly heterosexist world.

The scene can also provide the medium for people to learn mutual solidarity, to acquire confidence to act together. It is because of this that activists are wrong when they purse their lips at the mere mention of the gay scene. Sure the pubs overcharge. Sure they are often purely commercial venues. But they provide a much-needed space. If activists stay away, they will simply isolate themselves. To the extent that the gay movement (political) and the gay scene (social) are separated, gay politics is weakened. Conversely, the more embedded the movement is in the community, the stronger it is.

In Sydney we have a proliferation of organisations: social, political, cultural, sport, religious, student and media. This context makes it possible for more people to come out,

which makes it possible to build a larger, stronger movement which is pushing for more change at a number of levels.

Autonomy

Left-wing groups and parties must respect the autonomy of the gay and lesbian movement, its right to organise independently, and not seek to control it.

As the direct victims of heterosexism, it is up to us to lead the fight against it. That does not mean that we should go it alone.

Should any section of the left attempt to control the movement, it will lose the support of most gay men and lesbians, so that gay/lesbian politics moves to the right. The larger social struggle, consequently, is weakened.

Historically, gay and lesbian issues were raised solely through the work of gay men and lesbians. The left took up the issues only belatedly.

This is true of the first wave of gay liberation (which was brought to a terrible end by Stalinism and Nazism) in which the early homosexual rights movement was large and dynamic, and which won the support of the German Social Democratic Party.

It is even truer of the "second wave" (following Stonewall). By this time, the deadly combination of traditional conservative working-class politics and culture and the legacy of Stalinism meant that the left took a long time coming round to supporting gay liberation. It was mostly out of the new left that progressive politics took up the challenge of developing a theory of gay/lesbian oppression within a larger context of social oppression, and of developing a politics of gay/lesbian liberation. The importance of autonomy is an essential part of that politics.

Autonomy is also extremely important in the context of coming out. If any left-wing section controls the movement that will mean a restriction for a person coming out into the movement/scene. We need space in which to move and develop.

The left should help the movement to develop, and support it where it can. Tangible support from the left will help the spread of socialist politics within the movement and the wider community.

If the left adopts the right approach, the socialist movement and the lesbian and gay movement will expand and grow closer. We will get that much closer to developing a large social movement which will challenge the very roots of our unjust society.