Radical Politics & the Queer Community
aotearoa / pacific islands |
opinion / analysis
Tuesday February 25, 2020 12:21 by Matthew Burns - AWSM
An exploration of the intersection between the queer community and anarchism.
On June 14, 2019, A video was uploaded to YouTube. The video was uploaded by someone whose channel name is “Suris the Skeptic.” But Suris doesn’t appear very much in the four minute and three second video. The video was called “We Deserve to Live”. It was made by people who sent in video or audio clips to Suris, all following the same format “My name is x . I am y and I deserve to live.” For nearly everyone y was different, it was a combination of traits after all, but they shared a theme. Queer. Gay. Trans woman. Trans man. Bi. Lesbian. Non-binary. Intersex. Asexual. Aromantic. Demisexual. The video is moving to say the least. It’s incredibly sad, and something about it starts to bring you to tears, about two-thirds of the way through, something that’s very hard to put your finger on.
During 2007 an image started circling the internet. For many it had a profound impact, even if it was a little silly. It prompted this description by a writing collective known as The Mary Nardini Gang:
“A skeleton, dressed as a pirate, bearing a torch named ‘anarchy,’ with ‘communes’ emblazoned upon her chest, ‘round bombs’ around her hat and ‘free love’ on a pin. A sword hangs from her belt and she bears a scroll proclaiming “be gay! do crime!” The skeleton is frenzied.” 1
The skeleton is rather comical, based on a Californian propaganda poster. Something about the image is haunting. I found myself staring at it. Perhaps the absurdity of it that made me laugh drew me in. Or maybe looking at anything long enough makes you laugh. There are a few people in the back of the image, but they seem to turn their heads from the skeleton.
Two days ago, on the 14th of September 2019, the body of Bee Love Slater, 24, was found burned nearly beyond recognition in a car. She was the 18th Transgender woman to be killed this year in the US.
The thing that causes you to cry as you watch “We Deserve to Live” is not graphics, most of it is phone video, or drawn avatars. It’s not really the music, which doesn’t stand out too much. What causes you to cry two-thirds of the way into the 4-minute video is that you realise that the video had to be made.
Something about the image is haunting. The Mary Nardini Gang wrote “The skeleton is frenzied” and it is. But the people behind seem to turn their heads at the skeleton. No one watches her. Eventually as you stare at it you read the small text underneath. It’s a quote from a small comic anthology by a group of queer prisoners. “Many blame queers for the decline of this society—we take pride in this. Some believe that we intend to shred-to-bits this civilisation and its moral fabric—they couldn’t be more accurate. We’re often described as depraved, decadent and revolting—but oh, they ain’t seen nothing yet.” After reading it you take a breath, and your eyes go back from the small text to look at the skeleton again. She’s not funny any more. She’s deadly serious, and her hollow eyes seem to scream silently to a crowd that doesn’t want to know she exists. She screams: “Revolution”.
Part 1. Be Gay, Do Crime.
The Gay Star News published a piece in August 2018 that is partly an interview with Io Ascarian, who created the image of the skeleton , which is an adaptation of an 1880’s political 2 cartoon. Io says at one point:
“We’re still out here risking arrest just to stay fed, housed and alive while waiting to drown in boiling sea water and no cis-gay winning elected office has done a whole lot to change that material reality. But expropriating entire shopping carts worth of video games, art supplies and baguettes to redistribute amongst all the poor gay kids like faggot Father Christmas has at least brought us some comfort.
So I guess the slogan means we’re done negotiating with mainstream gays over respectability. We realized being a gay criminal is the coolest thing you could be and war on bourgeois morality is the coolest thing you could do.”
The revolutionary nature of the cartoon is something not uncommon in gay or queer culture. I believe there are two main reasons for this: Firstly, there has not long been a mainstream gay or queer culture; even now this is only starting to develop, and cultures outside of the mainstream have commonly adopted politics equally radical. Io Ascarian mentions that the gay and queer community has been historically marginalised and disgraced, often homeless and otherwise impoverished. Often the separation between legality and morality becomes increasingly obvious the further into poverty you get. Stealing food from a supermarket doesn’t seem that wrong when you’re starving on the street, so “Being a gay criminal is the coolest thing you could be”. Secondly, the social changes the queer community have fought for and continue to fight for are radical changes. These social changes are something that nearly every queer person has had to fight for on an individual level. Even in New Zealand where we’ve had rather impressive legal reform already, casual homophobia is still a problem, and transphobia even more so. Having to fight this predjudice just to exist as who you are makes radical change something queer communities are more willing to accept than many predominantly straight communities.
I feel it is necessary to mention just how much American politics affects the queer community. US politics has a huge influence throughout the world, both through the country’s admittedly decreasing use of ‘soft power ’ or diplomacy and foreign influence but also as an influence for 3 what is considered acceptable political discussion. The so called ‘bathroom bills’ that target which rest-rooms a trans person can use were originally American talking-points, talking-points I have heard repeated in New Zealand. It is worth noting that many people in New Zealand are strongly influenced by US politics to a potentially harmful degree. This was particularly obvious after the gun buy-back after the Christchurch shooting, when some people complained about losing their second-amendment rights, despite New Zealand not having a constitution. Another factor that applies to queer youth is that finding other queer people is quite hard. Even though there can be hundreds of you in the same city, finding each other can be very difficult, especially since there are very few ways to tell visually if someone is queer, and not many people are publicly ‘out’. In addition to this, the few very obviously queer oriented spaces are usually places like gay bars and gay clubs, which are age-restricted. To make matters even worse, there are many queer youth who are not publicly ‘out’ who are scared of being seen in a queer space and outed without their consent, something that can open them up to bullying and harassment. There have been many instances of young people lying about their ages on queer dating apps just to find another person like them to talk to locally. There are, however, many places to find queer people online, many family friendly chat-rooms or forums and the like. There is a massive representation of US queer people in these online places, in part just because of the size of the US population, and simply from that there comes a large influence of US politics. Radical politics can also be influenced by the politics of the United States, a place where the police, while not exactly exceptional in their oppression of marginalised groups, are far more obvious about it.
The need for radical change is something many queer people have felt in their lives, whether prompted by their own environment or by the environment that international friends have told them of. However, many of the changes commonly considered necessary by the queer community do not exclusively affect queer communities. Many social issues can be unique in the exact way they form for queer people, but uncomfortably similar to those that racial minorities and women have faced and continue to face. As current US senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in conversation with Harris Brevis during a charity live-stream : 4
“And that’s why we have these conversations about intersectionality that are so important, because the Trans community does face a crisis when it comes to housing and healthcare, like most people (especially most Americans) do, except when you have this added layer of discrimination it makes these issues much more acute in their crises than they usually are on average for other people, so it’s important that we do talk about these issues in the economic frame but not let go of the fact that discrimination is a core reason for the economic hardship.” 5
Poverty and homelessness, for example, are issues that do acutely affect the queer community. 22-40% of the homeless in New Zealand are queer . Mental health and suicide are problems 6 that acutely affect the queer community. 70% of people contacting New Zealand queer helplines call about suicidal thoughts, and 65% have had a close friend kill themselves . These are not 7 problems that solely affect the queer community, but the queer community feels a particular pressure to deal with them.
Part 2: What’s so Radical Maaaaan?
Poverty is a catalyst for many of the radical views within the non-mainstream queer community, as many of the issues the queer community is faced with are either exacerbated by poverty or exist soley because of the frequency queer people find themselves in poverty. Because of this I expected fairly radical systemic changes to be on the minds of those in queer movements, especially considering the focus on poverty that Marxist analysis. But one ideology in particular caught my eye, one that I intially thought was unrelated to queer issues: Anarchism.
Anarchism is possibly the most misunderstood ideology that exists. You probably have an idea of what an anarchist looks and acts like in your head: black mask, violent, deranged, some sort of Heath Ledger Joker-esque “wants to watch the world burn” attitude. Maybe he’s even a terrorist. What you probably wouldn’t picture is an older Russian man from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s with an impressive beard and small reading glasses. Such a man was scientist and philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin, one of the most prominent anarchist philosophers . I was very 8 surprised when I found out that Anarchism was in fact its own ideology, with a strong philosophical backing and a wealth of literature; some books explaining anarchism are nearly older than the typewriter! Anarchism is, at its heart, an ideology that aims for all people to be equal in political power and to be free from coercion. To this end it attempts the abolishment and/or dissolution of all unnecessary or unjustified hierarchies. From this goal there are several quite distinct branches of anarchist thought, varying in either what they consider justified or unjustified hierarchies, or how an anarchist society should be run. Anarcho-Communists are the most common kind of anarchist, and they believe the class hierarchy is unjustified and must be abolished, and that the state as it would exist in a communist society is a form of unnecessary hierarchy. They advocate for a society that is not simply free from any form of government and law, but one with a bottom-up, direct democracy form of government. Anarcho-Communists are opposed in many respects to Marxist-Leninists, and were very against the authoritarian nature of the USSR. They argue that the state created a new hierarchy, not truly freeing the proletariat from class hierarchy, but replacing a capitalist hierarchy with a statist one . Stalin even had the 9 Russian anarchists executed because of this. Another group of Anarchists are Anarcho-Capitalists, who believe in free-market capitalism and the dissolution of the state. They are hugely criticised by other anarchists,who argue that laissez-faire capitalism would be even worse for people, and exacerbate class and other hierarchies. The other main form of anarchist thought is Anarcho-Syndicalism, which is also somewhat socialist, and believes that governments should be done away with and replaced by a board of worker super-unions. They generally argue that private ownership of the means of production should not be legal, and generally advocate some form of market socialism.
When people look up anarchist flags, there are two that might be surprising. Along with the red-and-black flag of Anarcho-Communism and the yellow-and-black flag of Anarcho-Capitalism are the purple-and-black and pink-and-black flags labeled Anarcha-feminism and Queer Anarchy. These are less whole-form ideologies themselves, but specific movements within the broader anarcho-communist movement (in fact for the rest of this essay I will be focusing on how these groups work, so will be referring to Anarcho-communism as just Anarchism, as Anarcho-Capitalism is rare and there is still hot debate as to whether it is really a form of anarchism). Anarcha-feminism is a movement specifically focusing on how women are treated within anarchism, how anarchist organising should be done in order for women and women’s issues to be properly represented, and finding anarchistic solutions to women’s issues. Anarcha-queers focus on the same but for queer groups. These two approaches are most apparent in the country of Rojava, an autonomous region in east Syria that is currently organised using anarchist principles. There are dual power structures for specifically feminist activism, even including a women-only militia and a form of ‘feminist court’ that deals with women’s issues such as familial abuse and assault. The region also has a similar militia for queer people, The Queer Insurrectionist and Liberation Army, or TQILA. The region has been a dominant force in the fight against ISIS, and a photo of TQILA marching with the sign “These Faggots Kill Fascists” went viral around July 2017. Anarcha-Queer movements are not limited to Rojava however; Queer Mutiny is a British Anarcha-Queer group, and the Bash Back! Movement in the US was an explicitly Anarcha-queer movement during 2007-2011. Queer Fist have been involved in direct action in America, and The Fag Army in Sweden has been politically active since 2014. It is important to note that social progressivism is an important part of most anarchist movements; nearly all anarchist thinkers, far back as the 1800s (with the exception of Proudhon), thought that women should be equal to men. Queer issues lend themselves to anarchism too. Famous writer and gay man Oscar Wilde explicitly called himself an anarchist in his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”. Anarchism is very focused on equality when it comes to people’s ability to live free from coercion, and gender roles as they currently exist can be very oppressive and limiting in the way society tends to apply them.
Being slightly radical is one thing, but anarchism?! How does the queer community find itself involved with such an out-of the way ideology? One reason is the way anarchists do their activism, and where they focus their attention. A core part of anarchist philosophy is direct action. There is much more anarchist action than one might expect in the world, as anarchists are focused with helping the homeless or those in extreme poverty, those who slip through the cracks of capitalism so to speak. The kinds of direct action that anarchists take part in can include simple things like running community pantries, but anarchists will often be more than willing to work outside of the law if it will help people. An example of such extralegal methods is the work of the Autonomous Nation of Anarchists and Libertarians (or ANAL, anarchist movements tend to be brilliant at creating acronyms), a group in the UK dedicated to setting up squats for homeless people in houses owned by foreign billionaires that haven’t used these giant houses for years. In an interview with the Independent one member of the group says 10
“With this building you can see it’s empty and it’s falling apart in places and there’s dust on the windows. The reason we have done this is because it’s cold and we have a lot of homeless people in the Victoria area that need shelter. We researched the building before we took it and saw it was owned by this Russian oligarch so we figured the damage caused to him compared to the gains for the homeless community is nothing. This is nothing to him but for these homeless people it could stop them from dying, especially with snow on the way apparently.”
Since queer people are much more likely to be homeless they are more likely to find themselves helped by anarchist movements such as ANAL, or the countless other movements who do other social work through anarchist means.
Another reason for some of the queer community to adopt leftist/anti-capitalist ideologies like anarchism is issues that have started to arise from the mainstreaming of queer culture into our neoliberal society. One way this materialises is queer representation in media. Queer people 11 have always had trouble with media representation. They still do, and a notable speaker on the subject is Rowan Ellis. Rowan Ellis started on Youtube making videos predominately about queer and feminist issues, which led into giving talks and participating in panel discussions across Europe and America. Her video “The Evolution Of Queerbaiting: From Queercoding to Queercatching” she describes something very interesting about the way queerness has been handled in cinema recently:
“So although Queerbaiting itself hasn’t finished it’s still going on, we have actually moved onto a third phase. And it wasn’t, as I hoped, that we would have just plain representation and everything would be fine, what a fool I was. This is the phase that I would like to call Queercatching, a.k.a. put it in the movie, not the press tour.
We’ve basically moved from the baiting, which is this kind of underground trapping element, to the explicit catching. Trying to ‘catch the queers’, and then also catching us out.”
She defines Queercatching as: “Explicitly talking in the promotion of a film or TV show about a queer character, but not following through in the piece itself in any meaningful way.” or “Putting little to no indication of a character’s sexuality into a piece of work, and then retroactively telling the audience they were LGBTQ+ all along.” Both of these definitions reveal something about how queer people are treated by corporations: as a marketing demographic. Ellis demonstrates that Queercatching is used to to get queer people excited to to see a film, while not alienating conservative, queerphobic audiences either: being able to sell to two demographics simultaneously, rather than take chances at portraying queer people well. At its worst, this practice shows how willing mainstream film is to throw queer people under the bus (by denying the representation that could help queer people be if not accepted, at least understood by mainstream society), while for the sake of profit, something unsurprising to an anticapitalist view such as anarchism. This exploitation of queer people has come to the fore most obviously in Pride parades. In queer culture Pride parades and festivals are incredibly important, prompting celebrations and generally embodying both the feelings of being able to be who you are, as well as a bit of a “F you, I am who I am despite what you think” to homophobes. However, more and more corporations have been cashing in on this fervour around Pride, which journalist John Paul Brammer notices in his article for the Washington Post “Priced Out”
“The story is much the same for New York. This year, PrideFest VIP tickets will run you $50, though the parade is still free. NYC Pride, meanwhile, offers T-shirts at a cool $55 and a hoodie at $90. Don’t get caught without an overpriced Pride-branded beer in your hand, either! Merchandise at Pride isn’t new, necessarily, but it is the byproduct of Pride growing into a more commercial space where being nickel-and-dimed is the norm rather than the exception.” 13
Brammer goes on to examine how this excludes the poorer parts of the queer community, a large group of people, finishing his article: “So as the celebration marches onward to ticketed festivities, it’s worth asking: Who can afford to be proud?”. This is an extremely valuable analysis, but there are also many other questions to be asked: What do brands get out of supporting pride? Do these oppulant parades wrongly create a wider public image that excludes the topic of queer poverty from mainstream discussion? Do these brands do anything outside of pride month to benefit the queer community, or is it more about being percieved as queer friendly? Also writing for the Washington Post, Vincent Delaurentis notes:
“But a critical contradiction attends brands’ marketing of Pride apparel. The global garment industry is defined by exploitative labor conditions that render workers — particularly queer workers — vulnerable to abuse. For all the alleged solidarity that brands telegraph to their queer consumers, it is rarely extended to queer workers in the factories where apparel is sewn.”
As corporations are increasingly present in pride events it is important to analyse both the effect of their presence on the culture and image of the festivals and the ways in which corporations benefit from the involvement. These are very similar analyses to the analysis of Anarchists and Anarcha-queers. The UK based Anarchist Federation website critiques London Pride through this framework in their article “Queer Liberation – Not Rainbow Capitalism”:
“Pride in London is no longer an act of resistance in the way that Stonewall was. Stonewall was a riot against the police; Pride in London marches with them. Stonewall encouraged everyone to participate; Pride in London hosts TERFs and requires payment in order to be in the march. Simply looking at their website shows us that this march is not something revolutionary, but simply another route to monetary gain. The revolution will not be televised, but it also cannot [must not] be sponsored. Barclays, Amazon Music, and Tesco are sponsoring this year, just to name a few rainbow capitalists” “If we continue to allow marches like Pride in London to be co-opted by corporations and greed, Queer Liberation will become less of a battle cry and more of a Che Guevara t-shirt.” 14
When talking about anarchism, one is almost certain to run into the topic of antifa, or Anti-fascism. Just like anarchism, there are a lot of misconceptions about anti-fascism, most importantly how the movement works. Antifa is a movement aimed at combating fascism wherever it may pop up. Recently many people have been actively performing anti-fascist action in the US, partly in response to a proto-fascist administration, and partly in response to increasing levels of action from known fascist groups such as the Proud Boys. As a decentralised movement many anarchists are also involved with antifa movements: they are often involved in organising support for antifa demonstrations, such as setting up systems of providing protesters water, or making sure as many protesters as possible are informed of the necessary legal details, or they can be actively part of the demonstrations. This is important to mention because fascist organising is incredibly dangerous to the queer community. Fascism is very identity-driven, and works by blaming an outside identity for the problems of the world. As ‘excluding’ these identities fails to stop problems, more are added to the list, and queer people are never far from the chopping block. Anti-fascist action inherently defends the queer community, something that most politically active queer folk are intimately aware of.
In this essay I have focused on aspects of the queer community borne out of a shared discrimination and oppression. It is important to note that anarchist organising, which has an emphasis on community and group effort, has provided something positive for many people. The Mary Narindi Gang, the anarchist writing collective mentioned earlier, describes this effect:
“We proceeded, despite the end of the world, seeking joy everywhere we could. Our communiques took the ruins for granted and we insisted upon dancing amid them. Sex parties, dance parties, street parties, reading parties – partying emerged as a central form in that frenzied moment.”
The revel was, to the Mary Narindi Gang, the greatest accomplishment of the Bash Back! movement. They describe the party like a rebirth, a dance amid the ruins of the old. To many this feeling is the feeling of being truly who you are, among other people who finally see who you are, a rebirth of being you, and this is the other thing that Queer Anarchist movements give: an accepting sub-community.
This essay I hope explained some of the reasons behind a movement that fascinates me, and the reason it appeals so much to the queer community. The queer community has always been radical just in its existence, and has been in a position to be helped by anarchist movements, which can give queer people the basics of life as well as a community in which they can grow and be themselves.
My name is Matthew Burns, I am bisexual, and I deserve to live.
3 Hard power contrasts with soft power, which comes from diplomacy, culture and history. According to Joseph Nye, hard power involves “the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will”. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_power;) 4During the live-stream Brewis completed the game Donkey Kong 64, a feat that took him 57 hours. All the money donated during the stream went to the UK charity Mermaids, which deals with trans and gender-queer youth and families. During the livestream Brewis also had many guests including the CEO of Mermaids, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Chelsea Manning. The stream raised a total of $340 000, not counting any money that was directly donated to Mermaids during the time.
7 https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/Our-Work/policy-advocacy/Suicide-... opulation-submission-to-the-draft-NZSPS-26062017.pdf
8 Among the likes of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma
9 This is of course over-simplified, potentially to the point of inaccuracy.
10 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/anarchist-squatters-15-m... an-billionaire-oligarch-andrey-goncharenko-eaton-a7549136.html
11 Neoliberalism is a policy model—bridging politics, social studies, and economics—that seeks to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership. Peter Coffin states it more simply as “Fetishisation of the Market” and the finding of market solutions to all problems.