Queer politics: the debate

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Queer politics are influential in LGBT liberation movements. Should this be embraced or is it an obstacle to taking the fight forward? We present the cases for and against.

Queer is radical
by Alan Bailey, NUS LGBT officer (personal capacity)

The gay and lesbian rights movement has never been made up of simply gays and lesbians - it's always been an alliance of activists with a whole host of sexualities and gender identities. The Stonewall riots are often referred to as riots of gays and lesbians, but actually many of the rioters were trans.

Queer is nothing new; it's not some recent invention by activists deciding to divide the movement. Queer has been about for a long time. During the 1990s a group called Queer Nation held demonstrations and actions in the US.

So what are people's problems with the term Queer? The first panicked remark that most of us will hear is that "Queer is an offensive word, that's what the bigots call us - how can we call ourselves that?!" Now this argument (apart from the obvious flaw of us even considering being worried about what a bigot calls us) lacks an understanding of bigotry.

What the advocates of this argument need to realise is that a bigot hates us for what we are, and any term we call ourselves will be an insult that they will use, because to be us is an insult in their eyes. A bigot isn't going to double check which words we define ourselves with before launching a tirade of abuse. How many of us have had "gay boy" shouted at us? Yet many people against the use of the word Queer will have no such problem defining as gay! The "offensive" argument is nonsensical at best, and hardly an appropriate argument from a political standpoint.

The pigeonhole labelling system for sexuality and gender suits capitalism just fine. We box ourselves up into groups and create clear differences - all the better for capitalism to brand us. We split ourselves off into these groups and kid ourselves we are too different to be together - all the better for capitalism to divide and control us.

Queer breaks down these boundaries, these differences. By refusing to pigeonhole our sexuality and gender we are also refusing to be branded. It is a statement of rejection of being assimilated after "coming out" and it rejects being branded at all. Some make a big fuss about how Queer is indefinable, but this is part of the point, and part of what makes it so good.

Queer activism is within the LGBT movement: it's building links with the feminist fight, it's providing an alternative to the assimilatory offer ings of many gay scenes, it's fighting the commercialisation of our Pride and it's providing an identity to those who think gender and sexuality are a bit more complicated than a tick box.

Many say the now slightly cliched line "I'm not gay as in happy, I'm Queer as in fuck you!", but that in a sense captures the heart of it. Queer is not about being happy with the current set-up, it's not about being happy about being assimilated into a heterosexist capitalist culture, it's about being angry (because we do still have a lot to be angry about), it's about being radical, and it's about fighting for liberation.

Some have said that Queer represents a split in the movement. Well, that is true to a degree, but there is no need for the surprise - it is not as if the "straight" dominated movements are so unified!

The fact that Queer, according to some of its critics, is somehow the invention of the lofty middle class, yet also a term so horrifically offensive to the same society that the middle class seeks to thrive in, seems at times a little bizarre.

When we "come out" (as whatever we may identify as), in a sense we free ourselves from the branded roles of gender and sexuality imposed on us by society. However, this has led to the commercialisation of gay scenes and the gay community. This should come as no surprise to us - it's the same capitalist tactic of taking everything good we have and everything we have achieved and corrupting it, branding it and selling it back to us, all the while telling us how liberated we are. Everyone knows the value of the "pink pound"!

In this climate Queer is becoming a rallying flag for all those who are left out of the commercial gay man dominated scenes. "Queeruptions" appear at world Prides and elsewhere to provide a radical political alternative to the depoliticised and often commercialised events that are many modern-day Prides. If we were to compare a Pride such as Manchester, run by some of the same people who run Marketing Manchester, with Queeruption, which often hold events in squatted buildings and have workshops on radical Queer and left politics - which one seems the more middle class?

Queer is anti-capitalist. It's just a shame that more anti-capitalists aren't pro-Queer.


We need unity
by Hanif Leylabi, NUS LGBT committee (personal capacity)

We still live in a society where LGBT/queer people are attacked in the street, bullied in schools, unrepresented in the media and oppressed in many other ways. The complexity of human sexuality is shoehorned into boxes marked gay, straight and bi. We can be more open about sex than people could in the past - but that openness is used to distort sexuality and make it into a commodity.

So we're on the side of anyone who wants to fight for a truly liberated sexuality and recognises that getting there will mean smashing capitalism. This discussion is about how we conduct that fight most effectively.

The common sense of the LGBT movement since the 1970s has been identity politics - that only LGBT people really understood our oppression, and so only we could fight it, as part of a unified "LGBT community". In the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) we've never agreed with that approach. Just being LGBT doesn't make you left wing - there are LGBT Tories and LGBT millionaires who have no real problems with the way capitalism is structured. Their money and power insulate them from most homophobia and transphobia, most of the time.

We'd also disagree with the common sense of the LGBT movement that the problem is straight people. Of course some straight people are homophobic bigots. But just as white people can join anti-racist campaigns, straight people can campaign against homophobia. We saw that in Liverpool on the protest march after James Parkes was beaten up - a noisy, angry demo dominated by young LGBT and straight people.

During the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 groups of LGBT people collected money for the miners and visited the picket lines in South Wales. At first they faced some hostility, but those ideas changed. As one miner told a 1,500-strong "Pits and Perverts" fundraiser, "You have worn our badge, 'Coal not Dole', and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us; we will support you. It won't change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks, and gays and nuclear disarmament, and will never be the same."

There is a long and hidden history of struggles where working people, rather than organising separately on the basis of their sexual identity, came together to create sexual freedom. It happened in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, where workers took power, abolished homophobic laws and challenged accepted gender roles. It took place in South Africa in the 1990s: in the context of a near-revolutionary fight against apartheid, working people were won to the belief that equality should also include lesbian and gay equality.

To carry on this tradition we need radical ideas. In the SWP we'd say that means understanding that the struggle for sexual liberation is part of a wider struggle for justice and freedom, not a single-issue campaign. The people with the power to create a just and free society are the working class, without whom capitalism grinds to a halt.

We have to be activists, fighting back on every front, presenting radical ideas in a way that relates to people's everyday experience, but without diluting them.

The question is how far queer politics, or any other sort of politics, helps this process along. Obviously different people have different understandings of queer politics. But it's striking that use of the term "queer" is restricted to certain areas, particularly among students and academics. Almost every trade union now has an LGBT group, and none of them use the word.

The word itself isn't the main issue, it is the political strategy which the use of the word implies. It reflects anger at homophobia and transphobia, but also frustration with moderate groups like Stonewall and the male-dominated commercial scene. It suggests that the main battle to be waged is one against sexist and right wing LGBT people.

I don't think that's true: I disagree with Stonewall's politics, but they aren't the enemy. The legal changes for which Stonewall campaigned have made real improvements in the lives of millions of LGBT people. The main enemies right now are the Tories - when they were last in power they made massive cuts and passed homophobic laws. Now they pretend they're not homophobic, but Cameron supported Section 28.

I don't think that identifying yourself as queer is how you unite people. Campaigns like Love Music Hate Homophobia seek to bring everybody together - LGBT, queer, straight - on a radical agenda of fighting the Nazis. You create unity on a radical agenda. You don't separate yourself off.

We share many ideas in common with queer activists, and we'll continue to work together. But the fundamental issue is how we win sexual liberation. Through the struggles of the oppressed? Or through a broader fight with the working class at its centre? That's the central disagreement between us.