Until we all work together, not on symbolic inclusion, but on free treatments for HIV, on access to housing and food and education, on dismantling violent border regimes and on the decriminalisation of sex work and drug use, then we will be doing the work of racial capitalism.
This year, the month of June — which is popularly, and in some cases officially, designated “Pride Month” in parts of the Western world — coincided with the continuing movement of anti-racist protests, marches, and uprisings across the United States and beyond, interrupting the capitalists’ regularly scheduled programming of Pride pandering and attempts to do business-as-usual amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of crowds of glittery parade-goers, vendors’ stalls bursting with polyester pride flags, and corporate floats decked out with strings of rainbow balloons, the streets have been filled with masses of protestors, activists, and workers who are taking organised actions to resist police violence, demand an end to the inherently racist institutions of police and prisons, and claim justice for the countless Black people whose lives have been stolen by these systems and their agents. Catalysed by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25th May, the movement that has been surging through streets around the world for over a month now is not one of spontaneous opportunism acted out by mindless rioters, as the ruling class media would have us believe, but one that has been building momentum under the leadership of radical Black and marginalised people for decades. Reforms conceded by the state have continually “failed” — more accurately, they were never trying — to change the fact that police and prisons exist expressly for the systemic subjugation of Black people and non-Black people of colour and the protection of the interests of the white ruling class. Now more than ever before, white and other non-Black POC too are reckoning with this reality, in what could arguably be understood as a massive awakening of class consciousness, galvanised by the equally deliberate “failure” of the U.S. to prioritise proletarian life over bourgeois profits in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the first half of 2020. This June, juxtaposed against the prior months’ viral images of health workers without basic PPE were scenes of heavily equipped police attacking protestors with military-grade equipment, practically advertising the fascist intentions of capitalism in crisis. The world seems to be at a turning point, a crucial juncture, a revolutionary moment in which “the toiling masses” are realising the interrelatedness of what bourgeois ideology has classified as separate, disparate issues — racism and anti-Blackness, colonialism, poverty, prisons, war, (trans)misogyny, homophobia, ableism, fatphobia — and the importance of intersectionality and solidarity in resisting the one system, white supremacist capitalism, that generates such diverse oppressions.
At the same time, white chauvinism, colonial attitudes, and anti-Blackness remain pervasive threats to revolutionary momentum and focus, including in so-called progressive elements of society: leftist and LGBTIQ spaces are no exception. For all non-Black people, there is endless work to be done in dismantling anti-Blackness, but capitalist liberalism sells aesthetic reform (“inclusion,” “recognition,” “representation”) as the solution to structural inequality, and people buy into it. A lot of white queer “anti-racism” is sheer self-serving performativity, backed up by little or no material action. Every Pride season, especially this year, social media platforms echo with rote choruses of lip service to the most well-known Black and brown icons of the Stonewall uprisings and the early LGBT movement (typically Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, sometimes Stormé DeLarverie or Miss Major). Instagrammable graphics abound, repeating variations of one statement: “Stonewall was a riot started by Black trans folks against police brutality.” “Pride started because of trans women of colour throwing bricks at the police.” “There wouldn’t be any Pride if Black trans sex workers hadn’t started a riot.” Similarly, every March and November when Trans Day of Visibility and Trans Day of Remembrance (respectively) roll around, the uniquely vicious oppression of Black and Indigenous trans and gender-nonconforming people is reduced to easily digestible factoids. “Trans women of colour face the most violence of any group in the LGBT community.” One discredited but still widely recited statistic drills the message that “Black trans women have a life expectancy of 35.” White people repeat these factoids dutifully to one another, affirming their personal brands of political consciousness, but “fail” (and the nature of this “failure,” much like that of the state to address its own violence, must be called into question) to meaningfully integrate them into a radical understanding — i.e. that Black and brown trans and gender-nonconforming people have been at the forefront of resisting police violence precisely because they face the brunt of it — or to take action to change the conditions they routinely acknowledge. Mainstream, liberal, white LGBT culture performatively recognises the people who occupy the most dangerous and marginal positions within society and venerates them as queer saints for their painful struggle, rather than acting to assist in their struggle. It puts them on a pedestal, but is content to leave them in the margins.
This recitational approach to LGBTIQ history and solidarity constructs Black trans and gender-nonconforming people as cogs in a machine of queer liberation, of which white LGBTIQ people today are the grateful beneficiaries. Credit to intersectionally oppressed groups, and the influential individuals who belonged to them, is hardly undue, but the popular trivialisation of Stonewall raises questions: if white LGBTIQ people’s connection to “our” history is so threadbare, then what was the Pride that we celebrated every June before this one? What is being celebrated when Pride attendees march with banks, corporations, and police departments as participants and guests of honour? Is the Pride that exists today the same Pride that Sylvia and Marsha supposedly fought for? Why are their names known, but not their politics? How did a movement that started out so radical (anti-war, anti-prison, anti-imperialist) end up so invested in capitalism, neoliberalism, and reform? Considering Stonewall’s place in the context of resistance to police and prisons in 1969, do white LGBTQI people in 2020 have any right to claim its legacy? Whose Pride is it, anyway?
Race and sex: social hierarchies of colonial capitalism
As Marxist-Leninists we understand that capitalism necessarily, definitionally, produces and reproduces oppression. Patriarchy, white supremacy, gender, and race are not arbitrary abstract concepts; these ideologies, these ways of categorising human beings, exist for political reason. Race and gender are social and economic hierarchies that were constructed as a necessary component of capitalism; patriarchy and white supremacy are the ideologies created to justify and perpetuate the structures. Primary accumulation of wealth in Europe was achieved through the mass enslavement of racialised and colonised people and the mass subjugation of women; the establishment of colonies that enslaved people around the world and the witch-hunts that terrorised women in Europe were parallel processes which combined to form the engine powering rapid capital growth. While European ideology in the transition from feudalism to capitalism used both science and religion to position its hierarchical division of people into clear-cut races and binary sexes as “natural,” this division is in fact purely political and cultural, as scholars from a wide range of fields have pointed out (Oyèwùmí, Federici, Fausto-Sterling, binaohan, Wittig). It serves an economic purpose: to force people into labour roles which they cannot challenge because of a biologically ordained destiny. It creates a logic that sustains a system of inequality: certain people had to be slaves because they were not white, while other people had to be slave masters because they were white. Women had to be inferior to men because they were female, and men had to be superior to women because they were male. If these power relations were not understood as biologically inescapable, subordinated people would resist their place in the hierarchy, and the capitalist system, still in the process of being built, would collapse. To actually inculcate a culture with these biological justifications for hierarchy, as well as build the material basis of that hierarchy, required an unfathomable amount of violence: from the late 15th to 19th centuries, European men carried out a campaign of systematic mass violence against hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and millions of colonised and enslaved people around the world.
Since the function of both sexual and racial categories was to prop up a certain hierarchical social-economic order, constructs of sex/gender did not spontaneously manifest in white people and people of colour the same way; white supremacy, materially implemented by and for white people, imposed constructs of sex/gender on differently racialised people in drastically different ways. White people decided themselves to be the most civilised and therefore the most sexually dimorphic, with women obligated to be as unlike men as possible; they deemed Black people and other people of colour backwards, animalistic, and hermaphroditic (less sexually differentiated), incapable of possessing real (i.e. white) manhood or womanhood. White women were treated as reproductive machines for the purpose of perpetuating the white race; Black people subsumed into the category of “women” were treated as breeding stock for the purpose of producing more slaves. The patriarchal sex/gender ideology prevailing in Western and colonised societies today originated from whiteness primarily as a means to classify white people and so, from the beginning, essentially excluded Black people and non-Black POC. In other words, under the European/Western patriarchal system, the gender categories of “man” and “woman” are implicitly white, and to be racialised as non-white is automatically to fall short of the standard for gender conformity.
In earlier frameworks of gender, what is now conceived separately as “sexuality” was also implicitly a part of “sex” or “gender.” To be a woman was to be sexually available to men; to be a man was to sexually possess women. Same-sex attraction, if at all conceivable, represented a fundamental transgression of one’s sex category. The earliest model of sex used in medieval Europe was the one-sex model, in which women were an inversion of men, and “hermaphrodites” (intersex people, in current terms) were incomplete women. Then, so-called experts considered there to be instead four sexes: heterosexual men and women, and “sexual inverts” (same-sex attracted men and women). It was the scientific fixation on “biological sex” beginning in the late 19th-early 20th century that shifted this paradigm. As doctors spent more time picking apart bodies to determine which parts indicated a person’s true, essential sex — and developed medical technologies/strategies to assimilate the “hermaphrodites” whose existence impeded their agenda — they eventually decided that there were only two sexes, male and female, and sexual attraction to the same or different sex was a matter of individual psychology. However, culturally, compulsory heterosexuality continued to be the pillar of the gender binary, with gay men and lesbians being inherently gender-nonconforming. To patriarchal society, such nonconformity represented a “perversion of nature,” that is, a challenge to the capitalist order — hence the criminalisation of sexual activity between people of the same sex, wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, and so on. White LGBT people were targeted by police and the law as gender deviants (known gay bars were subject to regular stings and raids, for example), while visibly intersex infants were and still usually are subject to ‘corrective’ surgeries and other forms of medical intervention to eradicate their sexually deviant/defiant embodiment before they are even aware of it.
The racialised policing of gender/sexuality
For people of colour, particularly Black, Indigenous, and South Asian people, imperialism and colonisation has meant the disruption and erasure of traditional cultural frameworks (equating them with white colonial categories by calling them “genders” arguably reiterates the violence) and, for those living within the imperial borders, coercive assimilation into the colonial society as men and women. However, unlike white people, they did not have the option of avoiding police scrutiny by conforming to white gender norms and thus ‘passing’ as a respectable man or woman. The police forces of the U.S. originated as slave patrols tasked with catching runaways (as well as freed Black people) and returning them to slavery. When the 13th Amendment was passed in the United States, ‘abolishing’ slavery except in the case of punishment for a convicted crime, the slave-catchers were simply renamed law enforcement officers and their job became, essentially, entrapment of people of colour, particularly Black people, in acts of law-breaking, such that they could be imprisoned and effectively (re-)enslaved. Policing was always fundamentally a racialised form of violence, and for Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour who overtly subverted, rather than attempting to assimilate into, white norms of gender/sex/sexuality — whether by carrying on their own cultural traditions, or by identifying with white Western/colonial nonconforming categories — this threat was multiplied.
So, although anti-LGBTIQ violence has killed white people too, there is a distinctly racialised element to the cultural and legal policing of gender and sexuality. Well-known white individuals who lost their lives to homophobic/transphobic violence, such as Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena, have been enshrined in mainstream LGBTIQ culture through bourgeois media representation, but an overwhelming majority of anti-LGBTIQ violence is committed against Black people and non-Black POC: consider the Pulse club massacre, which took the lives of mostly Latinx, Afrolatinx, Black people. Consider that the names on the lists read out on TDOR every November are overwhelmingly the names of Black, Latinx, Indigenous trans women. Consider that in the time it took to write and publish this article, at least five more Black trans women have been murdered: their names were Dominique “Re’emie” Fells, Riah Milton, Brayla Stone, Tatiana Hall, and Merci Mack. However white trans and gender-nonconforming people may be dehumanised — and certainly they are — this is only possible because their whiteness first grants them a claim to humanity. For LGBTIQ people of colour living under a white supremacist system that literally treats them as less than human, the patriarchal suppression of gender/sexual nonconformity does not freshly jolt them from a default position of respectability to a lesser status; it is an additional dimension of colonial violence.
Achieving liberation for all LGBTIQ people is a matter of deconstructing a violent colonial gender/sexual system — and so it is, and always has been, about race. Although Stonewall is often namedropped as an isolated event in “queer history,” the Stonewall uprisings in June 1969 did not occur in a vacuum or in a linear progression of queer rights, but rather emerged at the same time and from the same roots as the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the fight for Black liberation against the openly white supremacist state. The riots happened a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — Black and brown communities had been organising against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence for some time. It is therefore interesting to note that several of the terms and icons that have come to connote LGBT struggle first appeared earlier in the 1960s as part of the Black struggle. Black Pride was a movement begun by Black people to reclaim and celebrate their African heritage in the midst of a society that denigrated it. The Rainbow Coalition referred to a multiracial, multicultural alliance between the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, which was founded by Fred Hampton of the BPP in 1969, and the “rainbow” was used by several subsequent groups organising for cultural diversity and racial solidarity. It is difficult to source information about specifically how and when and why “rainbows” and “Pride” became associated with the LGBT movement by default, but it is also difficult to imagine that it didn’t have something to do with the consciousness of Black LGBT communities in the struggle against police violence.
The deradicalisation of Pride
Stonewall was the catalyst for an explosion of Pride demonstrations and, later, celebratory parades and festivals across the US, which were overtly political and usually leaned radical. Large marches occurred in the summer of 1970 and kept increasing exponentially. As the Pride concept spread further, it was politically defanged in order to make it more appealing/acceptable/respectable to the white bourgeois contingent of ‘the community,’ and so became increasingly liberal/reformist and deradicalised into the 80s and 90s. The LGBT movement was whitewashed and appropriated into the American and European neoliberal projects — as a movement for individualist freedom of sexual expression (conceived as legal property under capitalism in the form of ‘human rights’) rather than for the radical abolition of capitalist sexual hierarchies and state surveillance/documentation of bodies and relationships. Historical sources consider Brenda Howard, a white bisexual activist, the “Mother of Pride” due to her lead role in organising the first LGBT Pride March in 1970, and many grassroots activists continued to organised commemorative events around the end of June, but June was first officially declared “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” by then-president Bill Clinton in 1999 (and again in 2000). Obama declared it LGBT Pride month every year he was in office, 2009-2016. Donald Trump even did so in 2019 (describing LGBT people as “outstanding” contributors to “our great Nation”). The LGBT movement has been co-opted by the capitalist imperialist state to promote an ideology of homonationalism (as coined by Jasbir K. Puar), in which “queerness” does not challenge, but instead participates in, imperialism and capitalism. Likewise, a mainstream LGBT culture has developed in which capitalist and white supremacist power structures are not resisted, but fetishised. To use an extreme but illustrative example, in 2014 a San Francisco kink club planned a prison-themed “play party” event for Pride, which was challenged by a number of prominent prison abolitionists and LGBTI activists/cultural workers including Miss Major, Angela Davis, and Janet Mock. As their open letter states, “[we’ve] been doing this for years, and we’ll be supporting our brothers, sisters and siblings behind prison walls while you’re hosting a sex and dance event on Pride weekend that trivializes themes of incarceration and abuse as a good time.” In the 50 years since Stonewall, LGBTQI communities have been divided between those who understand the police to be pigs, class enemies, foot soldiers of a hostile white supremacist state, and those for whom the police can be playfully reconfigured as sexual fantasy.
For LGBTIQ people of colour living under a white supremacist system that literally treats them as less than human, the patriarchal suppression of gender/sexual nonconformity does not freshly jolt them from a default position of respectability to a lesser status; it is an additional dimension of colonial violence.
This rapid deterioration of the LGBT political movement — from radicalism to liberal assimilationism — can be largely attributed to capitalist empire’s repressive backlash against the genuine threat it faced from radical movements in the 60s-70s. The response comprised two complementary strategies, one being the outright criminalisation and destruction of radical movements (as with COINTELPRO and the BPP, and as seen more recently in the lynchings of Ferguson BLM activists over the past several years and of many politically engaged Black people throughout June). The other was the expansion of the non-profit sector in order to commercialise social movements, divide existing intersectional struggles into commodified “issue areas,” and generally steer the focus of organising toward “social services and legal reform projects rather than radical projects aimed at the underlying causes of poverty and injustice.” Both of these strategies “left significant sections of the radical left traumatized and decimated, wiping out a generation of revolutionaries and shifting the terms of resistance from revolution and transformation to inclusion and reform” (Captive Genders, 2011). These campaigns of anti-radicalism were followed by the AIDs crisis, which devastated countless radical communities, abetted by deliberate eugenicist negligence by capitalist states — a narrative which sounds all too familiar today, mirroring the same governments’ treatment of the disabled, elderly, and other high risk communities during the COVID-19 crisis. Seeking to become more palatable to mainstream society, bourgeois gay organisations started to corporatise and claim stakes in imperialist national interests: work hand-in-hand with police, campaign for open homosexuality in the military, pass “hate crimes” legislation to extend prison sentences, involve police in Pride events.
White complicity and the failures of liberal “inclusion”
Such diversification of the capitalist state does not improve it materially, but does increase its reach and power to mislead (particularly white) working class LGBTIQ people into becoming invested in capitalism. Pride has effectively been whitewashed of its radical Black origins, while policing has attempted to paper over its inbuilt white supremacy with rainbows. But the racialised nature of policing has not changed; Black people and non-Black POC, particularly those who are also trans/gender-nonconforming, are still the targets of systemic police violence. White LGBTIQs as a group have effectively been bribed into liberal complacency, while people of colour continue to be disenfranchised, and racialised LGBTIQ people are alienated — often actively and deliberately — from LGBTIQ-oriented resources, spaces, and movements. Many people celebrate Pride every year, but it means different things to different communities. Really, the common phrasing of “the LGBTIQ community” obscures the existence of two dialectically and diametrically opposed branches of political thought: between reformists and radicals, between assimilationists and revolutionaries; between those who can and do eagerly ascend the ladder thrown down for them by the capitalist ruling class, and those for whom assimilation has never been an option. Between the Ellen DeGenereses and Elton Johns, who become producers of capitalist “mass culture” and accomplices of the bourgeois media to excuse and obscure the death wrought by US empire globally, and the Marshas and Stormés, who continue toiling on the ground to feed children, fight oppression with material resistance, nourish life and community. And often, between the white/imperialist/settler and the Black/Indigenous/colonised. The neoliberal, individual-focused, medicalising, and reformist approach, the framing of “acceptance” and “inclusion” (code for political neutralisation and assimilation) into the existing power structure as liberation for LGBTIQ people “function as a strategy for counter-revolution” (Captive Genders, 2011) by trying to assure white LGBTIQ people that they will get their share of power and wealth if they play nice with the system.
However, recent events are revealing the uselessness of reformism in LGBTQI politics even for its white, bourgeois proponents. Despite a consultation returning results that 70% of the UK public support trans people’s rights to gender/sex self-identification, the UK government has scrapped planned reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. These reforms would have allegedly streamlined the deliberately overcomplicated and dehumanising bureaucratic process of appealing to a panel of judges for gender recognition and receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate (a functionally extraneous, but supposedly protective or affirming, legal document). This announcement was accompanied by promises to “protect women’s single-sex spaces” and calls for vigilante policing of restrooms from trans bogeywomen. Currently trans people must stand before a committee and declare their gender; the issuing of a GRC constitutes recognition of that person’s legal pledge to live in a particular fixed gender role for the duration of their life. Thus, people could later be judged guilty of perjury if their gender expression or identity ever visibly shifted. While expansion of the GRA to recognise non-binary identities and reduction of requirements for the GRC may appear to be progressive demands, especially when the opponents of gender recognition reform are mainly anti-trans bourgeois feminists (more concisely, gender fascists), the terms of the whole argument take gender for granted as something that must be “recognised,” i.e. observed and regulated, i.e. policed by the law.
The common phrasing of “the LGBTIQ community” obscures the existence of two dialectically and diametrically opposed branches of political thought: between reformists and radicals, between assimilationists and revolutionaries; between those who can and do eagerly ascend the ladder thrown down for them by the capitalist ruling class, and those for whom assimilation has never been an option.
In this time of intensifying fascism, it is vital to challenge the idea that visibility, documentation, and state recognition are the solutions to LGBTIQ oppression. In fact, they can be a prelude to campaigns of incarceration and extermination. This statement is not an exaggeration or without historical precedent. A sort of gender recognition system existed in Weimar Germany; (some) transsexual people could acquire a permit from a professional exempting them from the laws that criminalised wearing the clothing of the opposite sex. A few years later, this same register of permits was used to identify gender deviants and send them to concentration camps. Is it too paranoid to think that the same thing could happen here? The Scottish Trans Alliance has discussed plans for “gender-neutral prisons” with the Scottish Police Service and released statements validating anti-trans ‘concerns’ about trans women being a danger to other inmates in women’s prisons; the non-profit Mermaids UK has argued that it is important for trans groups to work closely with the police (which it does — calling the cops on suicidal and otherwise at-risk children who contact the organisation for support) and equated anti-police sentiment to transphobia. That the loudest and most well-funded NGOs dedicated to promoting trans ‘acceptance,’ ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality’ in the UK are openly involved in developing gender-affirming incarceration practices ought to say everything about the true nature of this ‘inclusion’ and the system offering it.
LGBTIQ people must understand the roots of our struggle and categorically reject ‘inclusion’ in white supremacist carceral capitalism. Policing and captivity is not better if it is trans-inclusive. Freedom is not freedom if it can be taken away at the wave of a hand. And increased surveillance/documentation is not increased freedom; it is an extension and invisibilisation of the prison. The failure of white, bourgeois LGBTIQ orgs (including the ironically-named Stonewall!) to make any meaningful progress with the years-long fruitless campaign for GRA reform, or the fact that suggestions like “gender neutral prison” are even tolerated, shows how the implementation of gender/sex in capitalist/bourgeois law follows an essentially carceral logic, even when the alleged purpose/intent is socially progressive. As gender as with prisons: we need abolition, not reform.
Conclusion: moving forward
Looking at the capitalist, imperialist charade that Pride has become, and acknowledging the overall failure of white LGBTIQ communities (like all white communities) to already be meaningfully engaged in anti-racism, it is difficult to identify what exactly gives white LGBTIQ people any right to Pride. On the contrary, they should feel a certain degree of shame and disappointment with themselves. The legacy of resistance at Stonewall is not theirs to claim: what they should feel about Marsha, Sylvia, Stormé, Miss Major, and their unnamed comrades is respect, reverence, and a desire to learn from them. Anti-Blackness, neoliberalism, and homonationalism have severed the LGBT movement from its historical roots in working class, Black and brown communities. Our work, all of our work, is to mend this tear, to unravel and re-knit our environments, to weave our communities together in solidarity, into a new LGBT movement that is revolutionary, communist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist. If we can do that, then we will really have something to celebrate. ☭
- Captive Genders
- Assata Shakur
- Audre Lorde
- Angela Davis
- Mariame Kabe
- b. binaohan
- Alok Vaid-Menon
- @gothhabiba (Twitter)
- @bountay_ (IG)
- Jasbir Puar