Twenty-seven years ago, Barbara Smith asked “Where’s the Revolution?”. We’re still waiting. Pride season 2020 has finished now and we desperately need some reflection on how to build an uncompromising movement capable of disrupting conservative social control and joining up struggles in increasingly anxious times.
If we study how drastically mainstream Western queer politics has morphed over the last fifty years – from a large groundswell that was in many ways actively and militantly organising towards a working class revolution, to today, where we have a selection of charities, corporate window dressing diversity initiatives, and a small number of Pride event organisers who put on Pride events sponsored by petrochemical companies – it’s not surprising that so many disillusioned queers feel like the LGBTQ liberation movement has been hijacked by a handful of undemocratic organisers who have stripped the movement of its unpalatable radical queer class politics and transformed it into a sickly corporate spectacle.
Have you ever wondered who the organisers of Pride events are? After all, these are the people who we trust to plan some of the biggest days of the LGBTQ calendar and have a large influence on the politics of the mainstream movement. Who is it that gets to decide? Let me provide an insight into my experience of talking to Pride organisers as a queer person in 2020.
This summer I became involved in a grassroots group, consisting of queer members of the People & Planet network, that attempted to speak to the organisers of four UK Pride events (LCR Pride, Northern Pride, Pride Glasgow, and Pride in London). We were running the People & Planet ‘Divest Pride’ campaign and asked if they would reconsider their sponsorship deal from Barclays, a bank that invested in South African apartheid in the 80’s and is currently the largest investor of fossil fuels in Europe. Four Pride events in the UK this year were sponsored by a bank that has funded the destruction of major ecosystems, and with it human rights abuses, to the tune of £91billion ($118billion) in the five years since the signing of the Paris Agreement. We approached them as queers, wishing to speak to the people who supposedly represent us. Three of the four organising teams ignored us entirely. Only Pride in London gave a reply, telling us that the board would discuss it, and then gave us no further update. Unsurprisingly, Barclays remained sponsors of all four events. Do you think that something might be going wrong when, in 2020, you can be a queer person and not even be dignified with a response by the organisers of Pride events when raising the most basic ethical concerns about the state of your own movement?
This kind of scenario is completely unimaginable within the political framework of the Gay Liberation Front that formed after Stonewall or Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners that supported the UK miners’ strikes in the 80’s. Most of the people in control of Pride and mainstream LGBTQ institutions today have made our movement unrecognisable to the dynamic, inspiring liberation movement that it once was. When they embrace Barclays Bank and exclude queers, they can’t claim to meaningfully represent anything about the queer liberation movement or anybody in it. They suck up the political energy of queer people into a vacuum. We have a rotting corpse of a mainstream movement, dressed up in rainbows, brought to you today by our proud sponsors, Barclays Bank.
I’m certainly disheartened at what the LGBTQ movement has become, but more importantly I have huge concern over the undemocratic manner in which it’s happened. It’s only a relatively small group of people who organise these Pride events, only a few people who sign off on appeasing rapacious corporations, only a handful of people who actively sought to normalise the presence of police at our events, a minority who have power to ban radical queer politics on some of the biggest days of our historically revolutionary movement. They’re authoritarians too, it’s the only way such a small number of people can enforce bourgeois politics onto the movement. Queers with working class politics have to be silenced and excluded from Pride by these people in the interests of capital. Anarchists, socialists, anti-fascists, radical trade unionists, revolutionaries – people with politics and beliefs in the interest of the queer working class, similar to some of the most inspiring figures of our history – have their views pushed out of Pride.
When we’ve campaigned for changes in a homophobic workplace, the boss or CEO may have begun by ignoring us, dismissing us behind closed doors, dragging their feet, or giving us some scraps, hoping us annoying gays go away. We’ve often been forced to go public, have demonstrations to raise awareness and put on some pressure to get heard. It’s a strange moment to realise you have to campaign against the people who are supposed to represent you, who themselves are like you, in the same way you would campaign against your oppressor.
We don’t expect the movement to be the same as it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Like any movement, it is an adapting struggle and a historical process along a path to liberation. What we
shouldn’t accept, however, is this path being dictated by a small number of authoritarian, bourgeois organisers who listen to the demands of capital but not queer people. The very minimum that we must demand is that Pride should be for queers, not multinational corporations that loot and plunder ecosystems. It is absurd that we even have to say that banks investing in environmental catastrophe and military violence shouldn’t be anywhere near our Pride events. Our souls have been subsumed by a neoliberalism and commercialisation that make this reality seem normal. Walk past a rainbow Barclays sign on the way to work and don’t ask where their money goes, don’t think about the hired paramilitary death squads killing union leaders and civilian protesters (mostly women) at coal mines in Columbia, don’t worry about the oceans becoming unsafe to swim in, just get on with your day and sleep well at night without paying a second thought to Barclays using your liberation movement as an advertising vehicle.
I don’t put all of this down to the bad internal politics of a few individuals with power in the movement. This assimilation into neoliberal capitalist hell is something that is being done to us from the outside, too. We have to see this as a queer struggle in and of itself. In fact, I believe fighting this assimilation is one of the most important queer struggles right now. Possibly even just as important as the kinds of struggles we were having fifty years ago, when we would say things were much worse, because there is so much at stake here. The capitalist state is violently racist, misogynistic, ableist, and queerphobic, it sentences millions to poverty and starvation while a few become billionaires, it starts wars, it colonises populations, and it’s making the planet collapse – for the sake of so many people, we need to be unmistakably clear that we want no part of it and fight determinedly against attacks on the working class across the world. Corporate Pride in any form is obviously incapable of doing this or even confronting these issues. It harms so many of us by forgiving these capitalist state crimes and it needs to be overhauled entirely by a revolutionary grassroots movement.
There’s a Trans Day of Remembrance every year to commemorate and protest the murders of people at the hands of this capitalist state and its racialised transphobia. It’s insufficient for the movement to just say that these people are killed because they are trans and some people hate trans people. We die because we so often find ourselves in situations in close proximity to violence where we have no protection, where we are vulnerable and are made to rely on precarious or dangerous means of getting by. We are put in these situations because capitalism punishes us for being trans and then, when we are poor, capitalism hits us again. We’re a threat to the gender binary and the nuclear family that help to sustain the flow of capital, and so the public is made to see us as a threat to everything. If our movement is serious about stopping the continuation of deaths that we remember on November 20th each year, then we can’t be compatible with capitalism.
It is illustrative of the weakness of this LGBTQ movement that while so many of us face this intense attack on our lives, at a time when the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu, Andrzej Duda, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Narenda Modi are heads of states and the far right are mobilising on the streets, the most fashionable mainstream campaigns are for things like diverse gender markers on IDs, lots of
calls for representation, and even equality in murderous state militaries. We need a movement that has the courage to intervene in this violence.
The positive news is that we can have these liberating anti-capitalist queer Pride events and we don’t have to spend a lot of money doing so. The only thing stopping us is the politics of a small group of current Pride organisers. It costs a lot less to demonstrate outside Conservative offices than to book Britney Spears. It doesn’t cost much to march on police stations, to join a picket line for precarious workers, to shut down the offices of BP or Shell by force, to occupy empty buildings hoarded by landlords, or to share skills and knowledge for our liberation. Give everybody that comes to Pride a balaclava with their first drink. In Greece, hundreds take to the streets each year to demonstrate against the police state for the whe. All of our annual Pride events should incorporate this political character and should be heard by all the systems that repress us. Our movement has a proud history of forging these and even more revolutionary tactics to claim some degree of power from capitalism. Reading Barbara Smith’s article from 1993, “Where’s the Revolution?” (a must-read for all queer people!), is a reminder of this and I make sure I read it at some point every year.
That’s a Pride I could feel actually proud about too. If you’re a young queer person, can you imagine the pride of watching people like you unapologetically saying that this world is not good enough for them? Or Pride events that tell us we all have the power in ourselves to change this world? Isn’t that pride in the real sense? Contrast that to a LGBTQ movement now that tells us we should love who we are, just as long as it doesn’t make capitalism too uncomfortable. There is more shame than pride in that message – shame that breeds conservatism – and this is the only LGBTQ movement that a lot of young queer people have ever known.
There’s still plenty of time for queer parties, parades, dancing, art, fashion, drag, music, and loving too, don’t worry, these are just as important, and you know the parties organised by left grassroots groups and communities are so much more fun and sexy. The left does these things better, without needing to spend a fortune. The LGBTQ movement can’t just be a social routine though, we have to break out of it, and that’s why I periodically read Smith’s article. We don’t party together to celebrate being free – that’s a deception we make to ourselves – rather most of us are secretly, desperately unfree in many ways. We deceive ourselves of our biggest fundamental problems by having politics-free corporate Pride events. We’ve been ritually congregating and sipping tea together for twenty-seven years without getting to the bottom of the issues we’re all having. We can’t afford another twenty-seven years, because one day fossil fuel capitalism and global warming will catch us.
There is a parallel between the ways the queer movement in large has not tackled the problems of capitalism in the last thirty years and how wider capitalist society has ignored the science on climate change in spite of it being an existential threat; all the warnings we need are there but we irrationally choose to ignore them as we continue on through our routines. It’s clear and obvious to everyone that we need to do something differently, Pride organisers know this perfectly well too, everybody does! The LGBTQ movement can’t carry on and keep looking the wrong way, and each of us needs to assertively make it clear that we won’t. It depends on you
and me, and everyone like us, in all our collective influence, to decide if we continue with a corporate Pride or if we fight this commercialisation and build a movement for global freedom.
Another central criticism that Smith made was that the queer movement of the 90’s had an almost non-existent culture of solidarity or collective liberation:
‘“Queer” activists focus on “queer” issues, and racism, sexual oppression and economic exploitation do not qualify, despite the fact that the majority of “queers” are people of color, female or working class. When other oppressions or movements are cited, it’s to build a parallel case for the validity of lesbian and gay rights or to expedite alliances with mainstream political organizations. Building unified, ongoing coalitions that challenge the system and ultimately prepare a way for revolutionary change simpIy isn’t what “queer” activists have in mind.’
Almost three decades on and every sentence of that remains more relevant today than ever. At the same time Pride season was happening this year, we had a prison abolition movement bringing thousands to the streets and gaining global media coverage. How many Pride organising teams threw their support behind that, built coalitions, planned time in their Pride schedules for black queer people to talk about prison abolition and the radical anti-racism organising we were seeing, or provided a space for people to strategise about how the queer movement could give practical solidarity to other movements? Solidarity is our weapon and the time to use it was thirty years ago when Barbara Smith was making these arguments, but it’s never too late to start.
Barclays can keep the rainbow capitalism Pride, I’m looking for more hopeful alternatives that bring real pride to me and my queer siblings, like the excellent Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants and QueerCare groups in the UK, or the queer comrades in People & Planet I worked with this summer who motivated me to believe in a better queer movement. We’re searching for other queer collectives with new strategies of serious direct action and international solidarity that show some promise of genuine freedom from global racial capitalism. We’re looking for opportunities for mass transnational revolutionary anti-capitalist organising, using all the power that we have, away from the people responsible for bringing us corporate Pride, to cut through the mass conservative unconscious psychology of a repressive capitalist civil society and build something better for everybody. Pride should be empowering this kind of movement and devoting effort to the people who need it the most. We’re still looking for Barbara Smith’s revolution and we need to find it soon.
Photo: Guy Smallman