This book demonstrates how the personal became political in post-war Britain, and argues that attention to gay activism can help us to rethink fundamentally the nature of post-war politics. While the Left were fighting among themselves and the reformists were struggling with the limits of law reform, gay men started organising for themselves, first individually within existing organisations and later rejecting formal political structures altogether. Gay activists intersected with Trotskyism, Stalinism, the New Left, feminism and youth movements. As the slogan of the Gay Liberation Front proclaimed, ‘Come out, come together and change the world’. Culture, performance and identity took over from economics and class struggle, as gay men worked to change the world through the politics of sexuality. Throughout the post-war years, the new cult of the teenager in the 1950s, CND and the counter-culture of the 1960s, gay liberation, feminism, the Punk movement and the miners' strike of 1984 all helped to build a politics of identity. When AIDS and Thatcherism impacted on gay men's lives in the 1980s, gay politics came into its own. There is an assumption among many of today's politicians that young people are apathetic and disengaged. This book argues that these politicians are looking in the wrong place. People now feel that they can impact the world through the way in which they live, shop, have sex and organise their private lives. The book shows that gay men and their politics have been central to this change in the post-war world.
The history of homosexuality has often presented gay activism as spontaneously erupting in a fit of excitement at the Stonewall Riots in June 1969. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in New York City was formed in reaction to the Stonewall Riots, but the Front took its political inspiration from the wider counter-culture, feminism, black power and anti-war, anti-psychiatry and free Speech movements. The GLF announced itself through three major campaigns; the defence of Louis Eakes which tackled the legal oppression experienced by lesbians and gay men, demonstrations against the evangelical National Festival of Light which challenged religious oppression and GLF's campaign against Dr Reuben's book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex but Were to Afraid to Ask, which opposed oppression by medical institutions. It was when the GLF tried to act on the third liberational stage, to Change the World, that it came most directly into conflict with both the existing homosexual reform movement, particularly the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and the Trotskyite Left.
This chapter differentiates between the competing Trotskyite parties in order to trace the variety of attempts to curtail and depose the growth of gay politics. It follows the liberationists who moved back into the Trotskyite or Stalinist Left and discusses how the Left was changing and dealing with the new forces of identity politics and of the Right. The Communist Party and some of the Trotskyite groups began to engage further with youth culture and took up the counter-culture and liberation movements' use of performance as protest. Meanwhile, punk was taking lifestyle politics and running with it. Punk offered particular possibilities for young gay men who felt that neither the reformist nor liberational models spoke to them. As Punk's initial moment was disseminated, the Left belatedly attempted to harness the rise of lifestyle and cultural politics. This is examined through the examples of the Communist Party of Great Britain's People's Jubilee, Workers Revolutionary Party's Right to Work Campaign, and the Socialist Workers Party's Anti-Nazism and Rock against Racism. The chapter also considers anti-racism and gay activism.
From Gay Left Collective to Greater London Council, paedophile identity and the state of the Left
Punk and Rock Against Racism took on the liberation movements' emphasis on culture and lifestyle. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had not helped to build a world-wide revolution. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that many of the original aims of gay liberation ‘[could] be gained this side of socialism’. This chapter looks at what gay activists did instead of the third liberational stage. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, post-GLF organisations took on the self-conscious role of discerning ‘what went wrong?’ in the liberation years and what opportunities there were now for gay left politics. Groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay Workers Movement continued to work to unite gay activism with the Left, alongside the Gay Left Collective's more theoretical stance. The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) explored the lessons learnt from lesbian and gay politics and tried to relate them to a different, more challenging, sexual identity. Meanwhile, other gay activists edged closer to the mainstream, for example by supporting the Greater London Council.
The Bermondsey by-election, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and AIDS activism
This chapter looks at how the relationship between gay men and the Left was further crystallised through events in the 1980s. Although there were clear moments of out and out animosity between gay activists and the Left, there were also significant moments of unity between the two. These two poles can be traced through two gay activists at the time, Peter Tatchell and Mark Ashton. Tatchell felt the full impact of both the parliamentary and radical Left's attitudes to gay politics when he stood as Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election (1983). Ashton was the first out gay Secretary of the Young Communist League, a bit player in Red Wedge, and a key player in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Despite these shared campaigns where gay activists were able to engage with the Left without compromising the politics of their sexuality, Tatchell's experiences were ultimately more representative. By the time AIDS and Clause 28 made lesbian and gay self-defence an absolute necessity, the Left had already burnt its bridges.
Although identity politics tends to concentrate on novelty, it has developed in an ongoing series of reactions to both past and present. Gay politics did not develop in isolation and then force itself on the Left's agenda. It was forged in the counter-cultural milieu between radical and reformist politics. Despite points of unity, like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, overall we can trace a development along a broad continuum, with a consolidation of the themes that divide the Left from gay activism. This is a partial explanation of the state of protest and politics today, when the traditional institutions of both reform and revolt appear to offer no attraction and personal politics can be misread as political apathy. This concluding chapter looks at the emergence of more recent political activism, such as The Unity Coalition — RESPECT, and the ways in which New Labour has negotiated the politics of sexuality. It evaluates the ‘apathy’ that has been read into falling electoral participation, challenging the popular idea that young people are more interested in reality television than in politics.
This book brings together and cross-references Left history and gay histories that have previously been separate. The relationship between gay men and the Left is significant in itself, after all the decline of the conventional Left offered particular new possibilities for gay political organisation. But more than that, the relationship between class and identity politics also brings social and political change in post-war Britain into clearer focus, allowing us to trace changes in both political culture and the politics of culture. Across the various forms of the Left under discussion here—both revisionist and traditional Labour, Stalinism, Marxist/Leninism and Trotskyism, a shared assumption exists; that there is little relation between the politics of homosexuality and the politics of class. The book examines the Left's attitude to homosexuality and homosexuals in post-war Britain, the variety of transgressive political identities adopted by homosexual men outside of the Left, the Gay Liberation Front in London and the ways in which New Labour has negotiated the politics of sexuality.
This chapter provides an overview of reactions to homosexuality across a broad spectrum of the Left from the late 1940s to just before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. During this time, we can see an increase in public discussion of homosexuality and we can also see that the social, cultural and economic changes in post-war Britain had marked implications for the Left. The working class seemed to be blurring with the middle class, and the age of affluence had unsteadied traditional alliances. The Labour Party and Communist Party both negotiated youth as a political category, but, were not able to countenance a left-wing politics of sexuality. World War II changed the ways in which many men experienced their homosexuality. This chapter also looks at the lives of two contrasting figures within the Labour Party, Tom Driberg and George Brinham. It then examines how the Trotskyite movement influenced the gay liberation movement, and later gay activism. Finally, it discusses entryism among the Left.
Law reform, homosexual identity and the role of counter-culture
When the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 partially decriminalised homosexuality, it also exposed the limits of reform. Of all Labour Party's reforms, the decriminalisation of homosexuality was most clearly not a simple party issue. This chapter focuses on the choices made by homosexual men as new arenas of political and cultural activism instead. It looks through the eyes of a variety of key participants, some of whom experienced at first hand the limits of traditional law reform and party politics: Anthony Grey, Allan Horsfall, George Melly, Colin MacInnes and Ray Gosling. In different ways, all these characters had a lasting impact on gay politics and each is emblematic of the different strands that fed into the gay liberation movement. Through these men's experiences, we can see the pull of single issue identity politics in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the emergence of a counter-culture around events such as the Wholly Communion in 1965 and the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967. The counter-culture offered a place for gay men to move away from reformism's apologies and the Left's silences.
Fanzines serve as portal back in time, but also as examples of history being
created. Professor Robinson asks what fanzines can teach the historian, both
in terms of methodology and in archiving the past.