A Special Online Feature Of Left History 9.2

From Liberation to Rights: The Politics of Responsibility

Gary Kinsman became a gay left activist during the early 1970's, while he was still in high school. I recently interviewed Gary about his participation in building a gay and lesbian liberation focus within the organized left, while simultaneously building a left politic within the lesbian and gay liberation movement. This longer interview is published under the title, "Workers of the World, Caress!" I also asked Gary to reflect on the significance of this early gay left organizing for the contemporary period. A selection of his comments follows.

BROCK: In the early years of the lesbian and gay liberation movement, there was an interplay between activism to achieve important but inherently limited social reforms, and the belief that more fundamental social change required revolutionary strategies. Gary, you agree that there are some useful spaces for reform within the context of broader revolution. So, for example, it is a useful tactic to support sexual orientation protection, or to challenge laws that discriminate against gay and lesbian youth's right to sexual autonomy, or to demand the repeal of bawdy house laws that criminalize consensual sex. But legal reform strategies alone don't create social liberation. I want you to reflect on the massive liberal, legal reforms that have occurred since the struggle for lesbian and gay liberation became a mass movement in the 1970's. What has been gained, and at the same time, what distinctions must be made between these accomplishments and a broader strategy of liberation for all kinds of people?

KINSMAN: I still subscribe to the notion that full queer liberation can't exist within the context of a capitalist society. Certainly, however, some of the ideas that I held in the 1970's were clearly unfounded, given how the historical process has actually developed. For example, in 1979 some of us who were part of (but increasingly disaffected from) the Revolutionary Worker's League formed a tendency within the RWL called ' Tendency Z'. In our declaration we made the argument that the heterosexual family requires gay subordination, and capitalism required the heterosexual family; for example, for the reproduction of labour power. Therefore there were certain things, like gay and lesbian liberation, that just would not be tolerated within a capitalist society. We believed therefore that gay and lesbian liberation necessitated the radical transformation of capitalism.
Given the changes that have taken place, with family relations becoming less central to capitalist social organization, and given the shifts in moral regulation that have occurred inside and outside of families, clearly capitalism is far more adaptable than many of us would have thought.

BROCK: And doesn't really depend on who we have sex with, or how we organize our domestic relationships.

KINSMAN: Right. So while I think that some of our critique was accurate- for example, there is a relation between the organization of capitalism and the organization of the nuclear family-we put this forward in far too absolutist a fashion at that point of time.
The mainstream of the gay and lesbian movement has been successful in using Section 15- Equality Rights - of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to secure some really important gains. But I am concerned that these gains have been seen to be achieved through lawyers fighting court cases on behalf of individual clients. This approach can neglect the broader social and political context; a context that has been about the expansion of mass movements for change, about the growth of communities as more people come out. We can loose sight of how a broad based and highly participatory social movement has shifted the social and political context, thereby creating the possibilities for these legal victories to be won. We have won a whole series of equality rights that are certainly of consequence, and mark a dramatic change from the 1970's.
With respect to sexuality, and with respect to our relationships, these legal gains are still very abstract, formal and individual in character. The legitimacy of our sexuality still hasn't been fully secured, fully won. For example, the same week that the Ontario decision was released approving same sex marriage, a BC school board in Surrey refused to allow primary school students to have any access to lesbian and gay positive books. As well, we have a peculiar situation where people may have the right to get married, but the consensual sexual activities that they engage can still be partially criminalized as "acts of indecency." More generally, there is still a gap between formal equality and what is actual substantive social equality.
We have been able to secure some major forms of equality without any fundamental challenge to capitalist social relations. In fact, what we have seen is the integration of gay men - white middle class gay men in particular - and some lesbians, into capitalist social relations. A strategy of assimilation and respectability has gained hegemony, rather than the more radical approaches of the earlier movement. We couldn't predict how class relations would be re-formed within lesbian and gay communities, so that there would be new layers of middle class lesbians and gay men. There was some critique of gay businesses and gay capitalists in the 1970's, but really no notion that they would rise to the top, out of grassroots struggles such as the major mobilization that emerged in response to the bath raids in 1981. We didn't realize that a new professional, managerial, pro-capitalist strata would emerge; one that would simply want into capitalism.

BROCK: The people who were already the most privileged.

KINSMAN: But once the mass mobilizations died down, it would be these people who would be able to rise to the top because they were able to speak the language of ruling. They were trained in it as middle class people and managers and business people, and were able to become the spokes people for the community.
This strata has reshaped the organizing of movements so that certain forms of gay and lesbian legal equality could actually be integrated into capitalist social relations. Some forms of moral regulation could be loosened up or attenuated, with more acceptance of lesbians and gays in popular culture and in the legal system. I don't think that any of us could have imaged that in the 1970's.

BROCK: A concrete example is the fight for same sex benefits. I am not opposed to fighting for same sex benefits. However, what has happened is that people argue for their individual, private, economic rights; rights that should not be withheld because of their sexual orientation. What we should have been fighting for is the principle that everybody should have benefits such as prescription drug coverage and dental care. This should not be a matter of you or your partner having a job that provides a good benefits package. In merely demanding the same rights as heterosexuals, individualistic values are reproduced that ignore the broader goals of social equality.

KINSMAN: I agree with you entirely. We need to differentiate between a liberationist strategy and the rights strategy largely adopted by the mainstream gay and lesbian movement. By the rights strategy I don't mean the mass action human rights approach that provided the basis for the formation of the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario in 1975. I am being critical of its modification and narrowing thoughout the '80's and '90's, especially following from the extension of equality rights contained in the Charter to explicitly include sexual orientation in 1995/1996. What that's actually produced in some really quite incredible ways is the acceptance of the social forms that surround us and not arguing for any radical transformation of them. Not challenging forms of family relations, not challenging forms of spousal relations, not challenging the state institutionalization of marriage, but simply demanding that respectable, responsible lesbians and gays be let in. And then seeing that moment as being the moment of liberation, rather than understanding what the movement actually emerged against. I recently saw a picture from a 1971 demonstration, where someone was holding a sign reading "Smash Heterosexual Imperialism." Gay and lesbian liberation was seen as a movement to actually challenge sexual classifications, to challenge the ruling character of sexuality. It was not just about the rights of a minority, but a movement to challenge how sexuality was organized in a much more significant way. That has disappeared from the movement, something that became pretty clear to me when I attended the EGALE conference in Montreal in 2003. There have been dramatic transformations. One of the things that I would really like to remind people of is this history; where we come from and how we actually got to where we are, because without that radicalism, and without the connections to other movements such as feminism, anti-racism, the labour movement, and left organizing more generally, the gains that we have won would have not have been won.

BROCK: As significant as legal decisions have been over the past 25 years, lawyers and courts are not our liberators.

KINSMAN: If we remember those connections and that history we could perhaps begin to understand where we might go from here. Because there are lots of queer people who don't fit in. Who are still experiencing dramatic forms of oppression. Young queer people in particular who experience horrific forms of oppression and violence. Poor queer people, people of color, working class people experiencing multiple forms of oppression. Who now won't even necessarily identify with queer politics because it doesn't speak to their needs and concerns at all. They aren't necessarily interested in getting married. They are not necessarily interested in how the mainstream media, popular culture, and some sections of queer communities have constructed an image of being queer. An image that is largely white and middle class and male. So, if you don't fit in to that image, then the image becomes a way in which you are marginalized or excluded from being queer. It's really interesting that some of the young queer people I have met, who do work with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or similar groups for instance, would never touch with a thousand foot pole the mainstream lesbian and gay movement. They show up on Pride Day, but to attend a Mardi Gras style parade. It is not a central political event for them. They go for fun.

BROCK: Yes, most of the activist dykes, of all ages, that I know, are not organizing and have not for some time organized within the lesbian and gay movement. They are involved in labour struggles, immigrant and refugee support work, and so on. Gay and lesbian organizing is not their focus, although many of them were very active when queer activism was interconnected with a broader agenda for social change.

KINSMAN: Mainstream gay and lesbian movements are quite establishment movements now, and the moments of social contestation and the challenging of oppression that many people want to get into largely can't be accomplished there. You just have to reflect back on the Tory reign in Ontario. Where was the mainstream gay and lesbian movement during the major mobilizations against the Harris government? It wasn't there. Some activists carried rainbow flags, which was great, but in terms of actually seeing how neoliberalism has impacted on their lives.... there has been no challenge at all there, and that's very very unfortunate.

"Workers of the World Caress"




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