“LGBTQ+ communities are on the frontline of an international offensive. The left must join them in the fightback, building unity through shared struggle, rejecting all attempts to divide us, and utilising the most powerful tools at our disposal – our ability to organise and our solidarity.”
By Sam Browse
On Saturday 25th March, hundreds of anti-fascist activists rallied at the Honor Oak pub in Forest Hill. They came to defend the pub from the far right goons of Turning Point UK who planned to demonstrate against the drag queen story time hosted there.
Reprising an old homophobic slur, the far right see the storytelling sessions as an example of sexual predation – of perverted men, duping PC-gone-mad-parents in order to crossdress in front of their children for sexual satisfaction (rather than, say, as professional performers whose craft has deep roots – in the UK at least – extending from renaissance theatre, music hall, into pantomime, variety, and then prime-time Lily Savage, and children’s box office hits such as Mrs Doubtfire). They were rightly drowned out by chants of “what’re you so afraid of? It’s only wigs and makeup” and “we’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear”.
Though they were outnumbered at least five to one by the anti-fascists, it would be wrong to see the far right demonstration outside the Honor Oak only as a singular event organised by a marginal, fringe group. The demonstrations are part of a national and international mobilisation of the fascist and far right against LGBTQ+ people, especially in Europe and the US. There have been numerous protests against these story time events in the UK, alongside a precipitous rise in violent anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime, but we have also seen sieg heil-ing fascists in Australia demonstrating alongside Gender Critical feminists, and the massacre of queer people in gay bars in the US.
The assault isn’t restricted to street mobilisations, rising violence, or so-called “lone wolf” gunmen, but those who also hold the levers of state power: for example, in Tennessee, they have banned drag shows and venues that host them while more legislation is being tabled in other states; in Poland, they have created anti-LGBTQ+ zones, apparently “free” of “LGBTQ+ ideology”; in Hungary, they have banned the depiction of LGBTQ+ people and topics and instigated new Section 28-style laws; and in Italy Georgia Meloni’s post-fascist government have instructed the Milanese municipal authorities to stop registering the children of same-sex couples.
Of course, there is a relationship between the streets and the corridors of power. Where there is fascist or far right policy, there is always a fascist or far right street movement. However, it would be mistaken to see this as always a movement from the pogrom to parliament – the direction can also be top down. Indeed, in recent British political history this has been quite normal. It was not the British National Party or the English Defence League but a New Labour government that mainstreamed Islamophobia. One strand of the ideology justifying military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq required the demonisation of Muslims, and the creation of Blair’s very own “enemy within”.
As the government legislated for Prevent, tried its luck on 42-day detention, and extradited Muslims to Guantanamo Bay on the flimsiest of pretexts, is it any wonder that the BNP’s Nick Griffin opined, in not so many words, that Islamophobia was the new acceptable racism and that his fascist party would be wise to take advantage of that fact? Where New Labour foreign policy led in the domestic realm, the fascists followed and several organisational iterations later became the English Defence League and a virulently Islamophobic street movement was born.
Anti-LGBTQ+ politics in the UK is following a similar pattern. Opposition to trans rights and so-called “gender ideology”, for example, has become a totemic issue for some Tory MPs (and indeed some Labour and SNP politicians). While being trans in the UK has never been easy, what passes for debate has reached a febrile pitch in the media and the House of Commons chamber. The effect is palpable. Hate crime targeting the trans community rose by 56% from October 2021 to October 2022, following significant debate about reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
More recently, throughout the parliamentary and media debate on blocking Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, trans women were repeatedly characterised as predatory men. There is not such a big leap from this to arguing that all gender nonconforming queer people – like drag kings, queens, and drag acts in-between – are predators too. Indeed, the arguments are very similar – compare “this trans person has ‘auto-gynophilia’” to “this drag queen is a cross dresser who gets off on performing in front of children”. For LGBTQ+-phobes, the “problem” with queer people is that they trouble conventional views on what is appropriate behaviour for someone assigned x or y gender. Women are “not supposed” to sleep with women, and men are not supposed to sleep with men; men are certainly not supposed to become women and women are certainly not supposed to become men; and non-binary people are not supposed to exist at all.
The logical progression of the anti-trans offensive is therefore a widening of the attack to all LGBTQ+ people for destabilising – through the temerity of their existence – established gender norms. There is, then, a close connection between debate in Westminster, the lurid headlines in the newspapers, and the anti-drag protests outside libraries, and other public spaces. Those connected, mutually reinforcing dynamics are themselves part of the global offensive against LGBTQ+ people.
The political driver of that offensive is – in the last analysis – the international crisis of capital, and the relative decline in the global North’s economic power – and in particular, the US. As Michael Roberts sets out, the rate of profit in the global economy has been in stagnation and decline. Increasingly, the only way for private capital to reap returns is not through investment in the real economy, but via speculation (see the global increase in food prices) or price gouging (see the obscene profits of the oil companies) – both of which have led to rising prices, falling real wages, and the cost of living crisis. These are not the abnormal consequences of a distorted but normally functional system, but the inevitable systemic consequences of a global economy which, with the exception of some parts of the world, is governed by the pursuit of private profits.
Rather than explain the inability of the global North to deliver on the historic promise of rising living standards (for its domestic population, at least) through an analysis of these internal contradictions, the boss class is compelled to turn to other means. To put it crudely: rather than a crisis of capitalism, they seek to confect a crisis of culture. At times, this even takes the form of explaining imperial decline as a consequence of cultural degeneration. For example, far right memes often depict mid-20th century masc men alongside contemporary femme men and non-binary people (the singer, Sam Smith, is a favourite target) with text about the corresponding decline of masculinity and Western civilisation (amusingly, these images often showcase a naivety of masc gay cultures and aesthetics – such as bear and clone culture – which often exemplify or exaggerate ultra-masculine archetypes. It never occurs to these social media posters that their intended mid-century ultra-masculine role models – for all their testosterone-oozing manliness – might also be shared by some LGBTQ+ people or, even more scandalously, might also themselves have enjoyed sex with other men…).
In the UK, some Tories are more or less explicit about the turn to culture as the field of contention. For example, the arch-reactionary deputy chairman of the Conservatives, Lee Anderson, has argued that the Party should go into the next election fighting on ‘the culture wars and trans debate’.
Faced with this, the left should be clear: there are no “culture wars”; there is a class war which sometimes takes the form of attacking one section of workers with a particular vehemence in order to disorganise the resistance to the overall capitalist offensive on living standards. The focus, in this piece, has been on LGBTQ+ people, but refugees are another group of people who have obviously faced demonisation from the dispatch box alongside similarly organised street movements – for example, the horrific scenes in Merseyside. This intensification of reaction is a symptom of the stagnation and general morbidity of contemporary capitalism, the relative economic decline of its political leadership in the global North, and its thrashing about for a politics that can cohere a winning cross-class electoral coalition – kicking up old reactionary, homophobic detritus as it does so.
The morbidity is also expressed on the social democratic – and some strands of the socialist – left in a nostalgic, identitarian politics of the working class. Rather than see the so-called “culture war” as a concrete attack on a section of our people deliberately designed to disorganise us, it is instead conceived as a “distraction” from a more primary working class politics. In this – often prolier-than-thou – formulation, working class people are implicitly seen as white, usually male, and in its most vulgarised form, not far from the caricatures in Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch. At its worse, not only are queer workers entirely missing from this conception of the class, but the politics of queerness are construed as a middle class deviation – the social and political rights of LGBTQ+ people seen as a middle class distraction from the “real” politics of pay and conditions. At absolute rock-bottom, this manifests in the likes of Lee Anderson claiming to speak for working class communities on the basis that to be working class is to be a bigot.
This homophobic, monocultural view of working people should be challenged and rejected for what it is – a backward conception of the class which is utterly useless as a heuristic for organising and marshalling all-out resistance to the ruling class offensive. It is true that there are some workers that take a bigoted view of LGBTQ+ people. But equally many do not and – perhaps more importantly – many workers themselves identify with one of the colours on the Pride Progress flag. A “class” politics that is incapable of defending all working people is no class politics at all. Socialists should therefore seek to win the labour and social movements to a conception of class politics that recognises and defends working people in all their diversity.
To do that means building solidarity across the left and labour movement through concrete action. The mobilisations of the broader left alongside and in support of the queer community at pubs and venues like the Honor Oak through Stand Up to Racism and the wider anti-fascist movement should be supported. The best moments of the Honor Oak counter-demonstration were when LGBTQ+ culture was pushed to the forefront, for example with anti-fascists loudly singing along to “I Will Survive” which was played through a PA system (highlights included, shouting/singing at the fascists, with varying degrees of tunefulness, “you’re not welcome any more!”). These moments should be fostered as ways of building solidarity between the community and the wider left and labour movement.
Queer socialists obviously have a central role to play in building links, too. For example, it is undoubtedly positive to see Pride and Trans Pride flags on the marches and demonstrations against the racist Illegal Migration Bill. The work of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners – and their recent inheritors, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – is an excellent template for this kind of solidarity-building and should be strongly supported.
Finally, we should not be drawn into an LGBTQ+ politics that sees “the West” as the liberal guardians of LGBTQ+ rights and “the rest” as backward purveyors of homophobia (indeed, deconstructing these lazy binaries should be second nature to queer people!). The assault on LGBTQ+ people in the global North, alongside the wider reactionary social policies we are seeing, is a function of imperialism in crisis – a crisis that is entirely systemic, indivisible from the institutions, Manichaean militarism, and governing logics of profit accumulation. Rather than reinforce the binary, unipolar conception of the world, an authentic politics of queer liberation is properly oriented to dismantling the global system of exploitation that has given rise to this wave of attacks on LGBTQ+ people and replacing it with one that services the needs of people – whatever their gender or sexuality – and planet.
LGBTQ+ communities are on the frontline of an international offensive. The left must join them in the fightback, building unity through shared struggle, rejecting all attempts to divide us, and utilising the most powerful tools at our disposal – our ability to organise and our solidarity.
- Join the next South London Stand Up to Racism counter-demonstration against Turning Point UK at the Honor Oak on the 29th April. Details here.
- You can find more information about Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners (LGSM) here, and more about Lesbians and Gays support the Migrants here.
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