The increasing commercialization of today’s Pride parades has corroded and concealed the political nature of Pride’s roots in commemorating the historic and heroic Stonewall riots of 1969, which was a response to the endemic police brutality and repression suffered by LGBTQ people. Stonewall served as a catalyst for mass movements organized in support of gay rights across the US, specifically the Gay Liberation Front, at the height of women’s liberation, black power, civil rights, and anti-war movements. At home, the 1981 bathhouse raids in Toronto re-energized the struggle for gay rights across Canada. In effect, Pride has now regressed into little more than a giant party, with massive corporate sponsorship from TD, Trojan, and Pfizer. There is nothing wrong with a great party—but when the party stops, LGBTQ youth and workers continue to be amongst the most oppressed layers of society. They continue to face discrimination, violence, and hate crimes, and continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty, homelessness, suicide, and mental health issues. This is why we must link LGBTQ issues to the broader struggle for socialism—so we can celebrate our victories while continuing to fight for genuine liberation.
Changes for LGBTQ people are slowly moving in a positive direction. In Canada, gay marriage was legalized in 2005, and many places around the world are taking up this fundamental right of marriage equality. Toronto’s Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly and city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam have put together a video invitation for a “mass” LGBTQ wedding at Casa Loma during the World Pride festivities. Yet after almost a decade of legalized gay marriage in Canada, many serious issues facing the majority of the LGBT community remain: hate crimes, police repression, lack of support and resources in school, and homelessness are just a few.
LGBTQ liberation movements have fought for and won many victories which we should undoubtedly celebrate. But these victories are not absolute or final; they must be used to advance the struggle and further our liberation. How can we do this under capitalism?
Addressing the issue of a woman’s right to divorce in 1916, Lenin wrote:
“Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her "domestic slavery" is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is, the clearer will it be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of lack of rights, but of capitalism. And so on.”
This extends to LGBTQ rights today. We must fight for every reform and right that even marginally improves the lives of LGBTQ people. But we must understand that legal and political rights are limited. We should support gay marriage as a reform, as this undoubtedly alleviates some discrimination. For example, there are many tax breaks and medical benefits for married couples, as well as implications for immigration and citizen sponsorship. Yet, if we frame the gay marriage debate in a different way, we could ask, why should any kind of marriage allow you easier access to tax, health, and pension benefits? Why aren’t those fundamental spheres of life taken care of for all of society, regardless of household arrangement or marital status? While the demand for equality means that LGBT people must be free to choose whether or not to marry, the mainstream emphasis on marriage equality has largely been at the expense of other serious issues faced by LGBT people. As a reform under capitalism, marriage rights alone will not end LGBT oppression.
As much as formal legal changes are necessary to fight for, deeply ingrained social and cultural attitudes are much more difficult to transform without an understanding of the economic basis for oppression. Even with full formal and legal equality, there must be a material basis for equality to actually be practiced.
Implications of austerity for LGBTQ people
The implementation of austerity will reverse many of the important gains made by LGBTQ struggles. There may be more awareness, resources, and advocacy organizations for LGBTQ youth and workers, but funding cuts and attacks on youth services, counselling, health services, etc. will have a destructive effect on LGBTQ people.
A 2013 report by UK-based charity NatCen Social Research found that the key ways in which austerity affects LGBT people includes “greater financial hardships from redundancies, real term pay cuts and changes to benefit rules; problems finding accommodation where they could feel safe and that was LGBT-friendly; a reduction in sexual health and mental health services that addressed their specific needs; and greater feelings of marginalization and invisibility as specialist LGBT services and support disappeared.”
The report also found, “LGBT issues and concerns were treated as less important than other concerns; as a ‘nice thing to do’ that could be dropped in harder times.” This is where scapegoating comes into play — capitalism pits us against each other, fighting for the leftovers of the ruling class who have more than enough “funding” to line their own pockets.
In 2011, funding cuts forced Street Outreach Services (SOS) in Toronto to close its doors. The support centre for homeless and LGBT youth sex workers was shut down after 26 years, with the justification that “with the advent of cellphones and the internet there is a significant decrease in street prostitution by youth, there are also now many LGBTQ services, there has been an increase in services for homeless youth, and there are a number of other youth-serving agencies providing services to the same kinds of youth served by SOS.” This is a concrete case of the concerns raised by the report.
In British Columbia, a 2008 Adolescent Health Survey (AHS) of students from grades 7 to 12 found that 28% of LGBT youth had attempted suicide, compared to 4% of heterosexual youth. In Ontario, a 2010 study of trans* youth aged 16 to 24 years of age revealed that 47% reported having seriously considered suicide in the previous year and 19% attempted suicide. In Toronto, a disproportionate amount of homeless youth —an estimated 25 to 40 per cent — are LGBTQ.
LGBT communities significantly use and rely on public support services, including those that help with housing, employment and welfare issues, discrimination in the workplace and in schools, medical matters, and other issues. Many LGBT people face barriers to accessing mainstream services, due to experience with discrimination and lack of specialized knowledge. An end to LGBTQ oppression is fundamentally linked to the fight for good jobs, affordable housing, and against cuts to social services.
LGBT and the labour movement
Labour unions and other mass workers’ organizations have the organizational power to extend and strengthen LGBT gains. Women’s committees within the unions were spaces where LGBT issues were first raised, and led to the establishment of LGBT caucuses to voice specific demands. Labour’s engagement in LGBT issues is crucial at both a formal legal level and broader level of consciousness. At the formal level, there have been many gains, primarily, but not limited to, large public sector unions. For example, in 1998, Canada’s largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), successfully challenged heterosexual bias in the Income Tax Act, which successfully extended the definition of “spouse” to provide pension plan benefits to those in same-sex relationships. Formal legal rights have immediate benefits for marginalized groups, as it affects income, tax, health care, housing, employment, and other significant areas of life. However, if all these areas of life are being attacked by austerity and the capitalist crisis, these marginalized groups will also be the first to feel the brunt of the attacks, but which will affect all workers across communities.
A brilliant example of LGBT-labour solidarity was during the British Miner’s Strike in the 1980s, where “Lesbians & Gay Men Support the Miners” groups were established to raise money and extend solidarity to the miners’ heroic struggle against the Thatcher government. This formed links between two communities who are generally considered separate, or even antagonistic toward each other. But this myth of all workers being homophobic, or of LGBT movements being insulated “single-issue” causes, was proven false. As one of the miners, David Donovan, expressed in a speech toward the lesbian & gay allies: “You have worn our badge ’Coal not Dole’ and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks, and gays, and nuclear disarmament. And we will never be the same.” This is the power of changing consciousness through united struggle. Only the united struggle of all sections of the working class can breakdown the divisions and oppression on which capitalism thrives.
Capitalist division and working-class unity
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other backward ideologies are sowed and exploited by the ruling class, as they benefit from these divisions. When some sections of the working class are exploited more than others (women, LGBT people, racialized people, etc.), this brings down the conditions of all workers. Yet these “identities” allow parts of the exploited working class to perceive common interests with their exploiters based on allegiance to race, gender, or sexuality. In contrast, Marxists maintain that actual common interests lie between classes, and it is class which forms an effective basis for struggle. The working class has no common interest with the ruling class; a system to which oppression is endemic perpetuates a lower standard of living for all workers. Additionally, the multiple oppressions under which different sections of the working class suffer, helps weaken the entire working class and attempts to prevent workers from uniting organizing effectively.
It is also, of course, false to create a dichotomy between workers and LGBT. Most LGBT are workers. Yet, with the emergence of identity politics, LGBT struggles, among others, have been compartmentalized and isolated. Feminism, queer theory, and abstract academic theories that dismiss the centrality of material conditions are not an effective strategy for liberation and fundamentally cannot provide a way out for LGBT youth and workers. Any movement that ignores the centrality of capitalism and neglects the role of the working class in the struggle is bound to lead to dead ends.
The reason the working class as a whole is the key instrument in defeating capitalism is because it is workers who are in an objective position to organize and gain economic and political power. The vulgar economism that is attributed to Marxism is a crude caricature of Marxism. Issues around gender and sexuality are not trivial or less important than the economic base of society, but the economic base of society creates the framework under which our struggles take place. When we understand that the roots of oppression are entrenched in class society, we can understand why it is in the interest of all workers to end all forms of oppression. The fight for LGBTQ equality and an end to homophobia and transphobia, then, cannot be separated from the class struggle.
Joining the broader struggle for a socialist society!
Pride is an incredible achievement and indication of the LGBTQ community’s refusal to be ashamed or live their lives underground. But for many LGBTQ people, being “out” is not an option. Discrimination by families, workplaces, and landlords often make hiding one’s sexuality a matter of survival. Poverty and economic inequality will always undermine sexual freedom since we are less able to make decisions free from considerations for our living conditions, safety, and survival.
The resistance against the sanitization of Pride and a reconnecting with its political roots was expressed at World Pride 2012 in London, where a popular chant was: “Stonewall was a riot — we will not be quiet!” This is why we must link LGBT struggles with the broader struggle for socialism. The co-optation of gay liberation by petty-bourgeois leadership obscures the economic basis of LGBT oppression, and instead channels its struggle into apolitical spheres and those based around identity politics.
In order to address homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and all forms of oppression in a truly transformative way, we have to eliminate the very roots of sexist and homophobic violence and oppression; we have to eliminate the conditions that make this oppression possible and necessary under capitalist society. We have to struggle for socialism. Capitalism strips us of our humanity in myriad ways. Society under capitalism is driven by the dictates of capital and profit rather than by the needs of human beings. LGBTQ youth, workers, and activists must link our struggles to the broader fight against capitalism and for socialism — for a society where we can all have the opportunity to live up to our full humanity, toward full sexual and gender liberation!