by Emery Addams (Maine Educators Association, personal capacity)
Over 50 years since the Stonewall Riots and the political origins of Pride month, the LGBTQ+ community is under attack. The most recent right-wing offensives are laws targeting trans people, and trans youth in particular. These range from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans any mention of LGBTQ+ people from being discussed in public schools, to laws that have popped up across the country that would restrict access to gender affirming care, with some even classifying it as child abuse or a felony.
These attacks come only seven years after the oppressive bans on same-sex marriage in the U.S. were overturned by a Supreme Court decision—after which capitalist commentators told us that “homophobia was over” and that there was nothing left to fight for. Socialists have been clear from the start that this was never the case. The uptick in attacks on LGBTQ+ rights should show just how fragile these victories remain under the capitalist system. Any rights granted to us under capitalism are rights that the capitalist class slowly erode to further exploit workers. The capitalist class relies on divisions of gender, race, sexuality, and more to continue its divide-and-conquer tactics against the working class.
None of the rights that have been conceded to the LGBTQ+ community have been granted to us through a moral change-of-heart of the Supreme Court, or through any legislative body. Instead, they were concessions given because of the strength of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement as it worked together with other mass movements. In many cases, its success hinged on union power and labor tactics. This powerful movement is what we need to create again today, not just to defend against attacks on our rights all over the country, but to fight for our real, material needs: LGBTQ+-inclusive universal healthcare (including the right to an abortion), a living wage, workplace protections, affordable housing, real answers to the climate crisis and continuing pandemic, and much more.
The Origins of Homophobia
While LGBTQ+ people have always existed—though not always as a separate social category in the way we are viewed now—the oppression of LGBTQ+ people is not innate to society, nor has it always existed. Homophobia and transphobia, similar to the oppression of women, are tied to the central position of the nuclear family (straight couples with children) under capitalism. Capitalism needs to have a continuous supply of workers to perform labor and produce profit. By enforcing strict gender categories and legal constraints on family types, marriage, and parenting, capitalism has used the nuclear family to guarantee a continuous supply of workers. Historically and today, women are expected to take care of the elderly and raise children in addition to the daily work of cooking, cleaning, etc. Whereas rich families can hire a maid, nanny, or nurse, working-class women have to do this labor without affordable help being an option, often after a full day at work. LGBTQ+ people are oppressed because we challenge the family roles that capitalism depends on. Social attitudes of homophobia and transphobia grew out of these concrete conditions and forces. LGBTQ+ liberation will be won not through surface-level legal reforms or moral arguments against oppression, but by material changes to the lives of LGBTQ+ people and the working class as a whole. Universal healthcare would provide real access to gender-affirming care and reproductive care for millions. Guaranteed housing would end housing discrimination and help LGBTQ+ people trapped in abusive situations due to lack of other options. Universal, high quality, affordable child care would reduce the double burden placed on working women.
Our History of Struggle
Pride has only recently become a sanitized, corporate celebration with parties, rainbows, and bank floats. What sparked the first Pride protest was a militant, organized response to generations of brutal repression. In 1953, Eisenhower signed an executive order that made “sexual perversion” grounds for being fired from government jobs. This order was a tool of the Lavender Scare—the American government’s witch hunt to remove LGBTQ+ people from government jobs, the labor movement, and public life in general in the name of winning the Cold War. This came at the same time that similar orders were being used against socialists (the Red Scare) and other groups which the government thought of as “subversive”. Records of having been fired for “sexual perversion” were shared with private businesses as well, meaning that anyone who was outed would have a nearly impossible time finding a job, and would be left without means to support themselves. In a system where workers can only survive by selling their labor, capitalists use the threat of joblessness—and with it, homelessness and hunger—to coerce workers into compliance.
Even prior to the Lavender Scare, both federal and state governments went to extreme ends to attack the LGBTQ+ community. Sex between consenting adults of the same gender in their own home was considered a crime that could be punishable by life in prision, being sentenced to a mental institution, or even castration in some states. Most states had laws banning anyone who had been outed as a “homosexual” from holding any kind of professional licensure, and countless hospitals would perform torturous electroshock “therapy” on LGBTQ+ people who had been admitted by family or the state. Parents would lose custody of their children if they were outed. Anyone found to be wearing less than three articles of clothing from their assigned gender would face arrest at best, and a brutal assault from the police at worst. This incredible, top-down violence from the state was paired with rampant interpersonal violence. As many visible and outed LGBTQ+ people were stripped of their formal work opportunities, many had no choice but to turn to informal markets and sex work. This exposed them to incredibly high rates of violence and assault.
One of the earliest gay rights organizations in the US, the Mattachine Society, was founded by socialists and trade union activists to fight back against this constant repression. In its earlier days, it was involved in campaigns challenging homophobic policing and workplace firings. As time went on, however, the absence of an independent workers’ party which could have aligned the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community with other groups and the labor movement led to a turn away from radical action and workplace struggle. The Mattachine Society fell prey to a series of political mistakes common among gay rights organizations of its time. They abandoned their work to build a movement with organized labor, instead advocating for assimilation into the official institutions of capitalist society, and acceptance for gay people that fit the norms of heterosexual capitalist society.
The Stonewall Riots on June 28th, 1969 stepped into this political void. Fed up with constant harassment, abuse, and violence, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay bar, fought back against yet another police raid. Outside the bar, a crowd grew, shouting at the police, enraged by news that patrons being detained by the police inside the bar were being beaten. The crowd erupted after a woman was dragged out of the bar by police and beaten in the head with a baton for telling them that her handcuffs were too tight. She shouted into the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” as a cop shoved her into the back of a wagon. This sparked days of resistance. The violent face-off continued every night through July 2nd—attracting even more LGBTQ+ working-class people ready to fight back against the police for years of oppression. Elements of the organized left joined them in the streets, correctly recognizing the significance of this explosion.
The Stonewall Riots were far from the first moment of resistance from the LGBTQ+ community against police and state violence—even just a few years before in 1966, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots were fought over similar issues, but without as lasting of an impact. What really separated Stonewall from previous actions was the movement that was born out of it—one uniting organized and unorganized LGBTQ+ people, socialists, members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords, and other working people in the ongoing battle against police violence. As the riots died down, organizers began calling meetings and publishing leaflets that read “Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are.” This momentum led to the formation of a new organization: the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The GLF pushed much further than their predecessors, correctly identifying that the common thread of all oppressed communities were the forces of capitalism, and that they could only see true gay liberation with the removal of the capitalist system. Pride marches became annual protests every June as the political struggle surged. These were not celebratory events, but active, political protests demanding an end to the continued oppression and persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. Pride started in Greenwich Village, New York, but quickly spread across the globe as the demands for an end to the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, people of color, women, and the working class as a whole resonated internationally.
Labor Rights for LGBTQ+ Rights
The LGBTQ+ community continued to fight—and win—with labor power. On the other side of the country in California, in 1977, Teamsters and LGBTQ+ organizers organized a boycott of Coors beer in response to the company’s 178-question employment application form. Some of the questions on this form included asking “are you homosexual” and “are you pro-union,” both of which would automatically terminate the application. Nancy Wohlforth, co-founder of AFL-CIO’s Pride At Work constituency group explained, “[t]he gay bartenders marched out with the bottles of beer and dumped them in the sewers. Coors was anti-gay, and racist, and anti-Latino. And to this day, you can’t find Coors in a gay bar in San Francisco.” The enduring success of this effort showed the power of combining forces to both the LGBTQ+ community and other unions, and inspired similar campaigns.
Today, the face of Pride has largely been turned towards the corporations: for one month a year corporations dress in rainbow costumes and fund parades, while the rest of the time they finance anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, backing homophobic and transphobic politicians and regimes here and around the world. We’ve seen this most recently with Disney. Disney holds a yearly Pride event at their parks and sells hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Pride-themed merchandise. Disney also donated $197,162 to members of the Florida legislature who voted in favor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, including two of its sponsors. The company remained silent following the initial public outcry—until they were forced into action by Disney workers staging a walkout. Corporations, and corporate politicians, are not interested in protecting our rights. They’re interested in protecting their bottom line, even when that means selling us out to homophobic and transphobic politicians.
Workers make society run, and when workers organize, walkout, or strike, they have the power to very quickly force through demands that previously seemed impossible. Utilizing labor power in this way has been a fundamental part of Pride since its inception. Only very recently—within the last few decades—has that understanding been taken out of Pride. As the labor movement in the US has been weakened, the LGBTQ+ movement has been pushed further into the sphere of corporate politics. Marriage equality, a demand that came out of the AIDS epidemic so that those hospitalized and dying would be able to list their long-term partners as next of kin, was not instilled in law until 2015—nearly 40 years later. Now, we risk losing these concessions to a conservative, undemocratic Supreme Court. It took a unified mass movement relying on labor power and united with other working class movements to win our rights before. It will take that kind of mass movement again to defend our rights now, and fight for what we, and all workers, need to thrive.
Accomplishing real and lasting gains for LGBTQ+ people will mean fundamentally changing our society. Corporations today might symbolically support the LGBTQ+ community, but when it comes to real action, they vehemently oppose, at every level, the changes necessary to improve conditions for the LGBTQ+ community and for all workers. Universal inclusive healthcare, affordable housing, and union-guaranteed job protections would all massively aid LGBTQ+ people yet corporations wage a fierce war against these policies. To eliminate the economic roots of homophobic and transphobic oppression means doing away with our society run for the rich—capitalism—in favor of one run by the workers, by the majority, with the democratic involvement of all—socialism. We must recognize the struggle we share with other oppressed groups under capitalism; the fight against homophobia and transphobia needs to be joined with the struggles against police brutality, racism, sexism, poverty, homelessness, labor exploitation, and all other forms of oppression in capitalist society. Only a united movement of the working class, fighting to end oppression for all, can permanently win the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
To defend and extend our rights, the LGBTQ+ community must fight to bring politics back into Pride. Unions must take up the struggle of LGBTQ+ rights, and join in a mass movement of unionized and non-unionized workers and youth. The labor movement can bring powerful workplace actions and tactics to the LGBTQ+ liberation movement and unite the struggle with the environmental, anti-racist, immigrant, women’s, and labor movements. This movement could help form the basis of a new independent workers’ party that will actually fight for the interests of the working class. This party could help organize the movement to defend and extend LGBTQ+ rights, as well as fight for other reforms that the working class needs like universal, trans-inclusive healthcare and sex ed for all, universal childcare, fully funded and staffed schools, a living wage, and a future free from climate catastrophe.