Notes Towards the Re-Rioting of Pride

As Pride month draws to a close, I think about all the “first pride was a riot” t-shirts I have seen this June. The shirts and the slogan have now become an early summer tradition of the US left, alongside rediscovering Juneteenth, the sharing of Frederick Douglass’s speech on July 4th, and commenting on how as hot as this summer is, they will become literally unbearably hot if we do not actually overthrow capitalism and imperialism.

Tradition is not always bad. We have our own traditions. The aforementioned slogan is certainly a good one. The referenced rioting is even better.

But in many locations across the US, including in some of the most densely populated coastal cities with a disproportionate share of the queer-and-out working class, one does not feel the riotous energy. Pride month often has, despite the apparently popular wishes to the contrary, the energy of an officially mandated period of relative tolerance for queer summer fun.

Obviously, no one can be individually blamed for not simply declaring, launching, willing a riot into existence. If we could do this, we would do it constantly and with great enthusiasm, an enthusiasm with a popular basis easily observed at the outbreak of actual spontaneous riots, in which to this day queer youth play a visible and considerable role, often confronting those same cops face to face in spite of the latter’s heavy weaponry, legal sanction to use force, and de facto guarantee of getting away with “excessive” use thereof.

Debates rage over the inclusion of cops in parades, but even where the debate is settled for the anti-cop side, uniformed cops at any rate are frequently seen around and walking through pride events without direct challenge, only with the scornful gaze of participants.

But there is a problem here: queerness is understood (rightly) as an axis of oppression and accordingly a potential focal point of organizing, young queer people are increasingly politically radical and conscious about diverse issues, and yet queer political agitation and organization is surprisingly reserved in the US at present.

Behind this lie several interconnected objective and subjective factors, which I am briefly outlining my thoughts on per request by comrades, a modest set of notes towards further discussion and action.

Why is queerness anti-system?

It can be said most simply that queerness is anti-system precisely to the same extent and for the same reasons feminism is. The state of the modern, capitalist world is a patriarchal “man-state”, it assumes patriarchal forms of gender, family, sexuality, and the dominant bourgeois ideology in diverse forms aids and abets in reinforcing their norms and accommodating their exceptions only in so far as it does not upset the balance of power which already exists. This is a real problem for queer people, just as it is for women inclined towards their own liberation. Quoting from the piece on feminism I published two years ago, with brackets to emphasize the connection between womanhood and queerness:

“As a bourgeois modernist ideology, nationalism tends to identify with the normative form of the nation-state, which in turn places great importance on the patriarchal family: symbolically, in ‘ruling families’ (in the US, one can think of the President and the ‘First Lady’ and their ideological role), and practically, in terms of how society is organized (with families as an economic unit, the household, the division of labor predicated on the market, etc.).

In capitalist society, women [and queer people] are generally taught to think about nations and their interrelations in terms that have been taught to them by nationalist ideologues, but they do not tend to dominate as nationalist ideologues. [Straight m]en may be subject to the same ideological indoctrination as [the gender oppressed], but they tend to identify more readily with the violent defense of ‘the nation’, and subordinate women as a collective national ‘honor’ to be (sexually and physically) defended from men of other nationalities.”

To the last line one immediately wishes to add: queer people, on the other hand, are a collective national ‘dishonor’, as the recent fascist upsurge has loudly stated at any opportunity, particularly in diatribes against trans women. Queerness is a sexual and physical threat, often cast as the accomplices of other nationalities, indeed, in a conscious echo by neo-Nazis attempting to Trojan Horse their Hitlerism into the mainstream, this not infrequently involves an anti-Jewish undercurrent.

But there is a problem here from our perspective: the system’s objective anti-queerness only provides us with an objective fact of queerness, and not a conscious or active queer subjectivity.

Queer consciousness of patriarchy

Queer spaces are often very patriarchal. In 2022, it is still easier to find queer spaces, including relatively politically conscious organizing spaces, which are dominated by white men than not. Queerness taken as a whole is a threat to patriarchy, but queer people as individuals exist in a patriarchal society just as all workers exist within capitalism. They are likely to conform, they are likely to reproduce learned social patterns, and without concerted political education and intervention, they are unlikely to self-criticize.

This means that the aforementioned “whole” of queerness is an objective thing and not a conscious subjectivity for itself in political terms, much like the proletariat as objective economic class vs. the proletariat as political class. Given that each individual person is in the first instance conscious of the world through the mediation of their own individual experience, this is a problem which has to be confronted directly much more than we might like.

Like all progressive spaces dominated by young people in recent years, there are no shortage of cases of queer activist groups which, even if led by non-white individuals, are disproportionately white as a whole, in spite of a recent surge in appropriation of Black liberationist signalling in politics. Often those white progressives (queer and/or communist and/or anti-fascist or whatever else) who are most guilty of reproducing segregated, white-centric, man-centric political spaces are those most formally committed to problematizing these trends in self-flagellating theory.

This points to a more crucial task: these issues can only be combated by active intervention, practical self-criticism, dynamic and diverse recruitment methods, and ultimately organizational change.

Queerness and nation; queerness and class

It is to be noted that queerness’s relationship to patriarchy, even when it is positioned in direct and rhetorically naked opposition to it, has a direct bearing on problems of nation and class: just as there is the much derided “white feminism” born out of the real experience of white women growing up as a gender oppressed part of white society, just as the first experience of proletarian identity is generally mediated by one’s national context, so too for example do white queer people come to their own understanding of queerness in such a “national”, culturally specific context.

Owing to their population size and the antagonism between their respective national positions, Black queer life and white queer life in the US are two quite separate and quite socially unequal social reference points for one another and all other queer experiences in the US. They interpenetrate and influence one another, but their segregated quality is felt and observed by anyone not firmly shutting their own eyes to this fact. Again: increasingly young white queer people will impotently acknowledge it as an act of personal absolution without building towards structural solutions.

Let us note something else, something not at all unimportant: the whiteness of most queer spaces not coded explicitly as Black and rooted in specifically Black communities, and the whiteness of communist organizations in the US (in general) are both widely acknowledged. One may also say that compared to the US-wide average of out queer people or conscious communists, “white” queer spaces are disproportionately communist and communist organizations disproportionately queer, at least among their youth. These trends are reproducing themselves not out of the isolation of shrinking subcultures, but within a growth trend.

Why is this “racial” division so crucial to understanding the timidity of progressive politics in the US? Because the US’s settler-colonial history and present codes these racial divisions with relative closeness to the ruling classes, and rewards and punishes individual identities accordingly. The strength of the proletariat is found most readily in its most exploited and oppressed, its most heroic strugglers accordingly are found among them.

The guilty fear of Black America by white progressives pushes them towards the social patterns of more privileged sections of white America, often with direct financial reward for doing so, and if not, with the subconscious hope thereof. But this is a push towards conformity with the state and its beneficiaries, and away from those who share the radical ideas they may espouse.

Being an exploited worker with an oppressed identity will not and cannot provide this worker with liberation, and does not make them a communist. It can just as well be a fig leaf. Only the ability to build a political movement of all workers, appropriating and uniting all of our identitarian struggles, can do this.

Being white and queer will not grant queer liberation. Only the will to really educate, organize, and unite all victims of patriarchy against patriarchy in all of its forms can do this.

Practical reality

While it’s true that many activist groups merely acknowledge the above problems and do not address their implications or change anything about their social reality in response, we should admit that even without political interventions of this kind things are changing: particularly in larger cities, where multiple Pride events exist, it’s also easy to see challenges to mainstream-friendly “gayborhood” culture. When all resources do not have to be pooled in one location or moment simply to allow for any public gay life, the second or third largest Pride events, and sizeable “scenes” around certain bars, can be observed to challenge the “racial” and economic boundaries imposed covertly and overtly by the ruling classes, including on queer people.

San Francisco Pride 1977 – “A gay landlord is still a landlord”

This has a history in the US, and was in many ways the norm prior to the 90s, before which almost all gay life was so marginal that boundaries therewithin were harder to enforce. From the 90s and particularly afterwards in the 2000s, mainstream guilt over the countless AIDS dead made the media particularly friendly to a happy-go-lucky, politically non-confrontational, extremely white model of gay manhood.

This created, in a limited way, a gay (and very notably man-centric and not lesbian-centric!) reflection of the state: bourgeois gay men in particular began to gradually receive some measure of social recognition and even state protection, and in return nobody else was to think too long or hard about any of the more socially unacceptable forms of queerness, and the state’s own role in the slaughter of the AIDS epidemic among gay men and Black people in particular, separately and together.

A return to older norms is happening already on a grassroots level as much out of economic necessity (not everyone of the growing ranks of the queer urban proletariat can afford to take part in the pricier models of fashionable gay life) and out of conscious disgust. The New York Times profiled a particular contrast between “Dyke Day LA” and the West Hollywood Pride with this quote:

“Mekleit Dix, a 25-year-old researcher who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, said that Dyke Day was a welcome counterpoint [to] the heavily branded hubbub in West Hollywood. ‘I think the sense of programming there is like, ‘It gets better, that’s why we’re partnering with JPMorgan Chase,” she said.”

The piece in question details what is in many ways the alternative many more politically conscious, proletarian, and more gender and nationally oppressed queer people in the US want and seek out: diverse in every sense, anti-patriarchal, against gender binarism and body policing, with a radical tone and real social life at its heart. So such a culture exists, it seems to be growing: what is our complaint, and/or what is to be done?

What is to be done?

Some readers of the previous section may have easily lapsed into pessimism at the latest iteration of the problem of imperialism and its real effects on social belonging in an imperialist core country such as the US. Some readers of this section may just as easily become quite optimistic. Perhaps the same readers, prone to ideological mood swings: “We’ll just make the communist groups spend more time in alternative queer spaces, soak up the good youth culture and bring it back to the organizing space, and then come back again and distribute Marxist propaganda, why you’ve got yourself a mass line there!”

I regret to inform the reader that I will reiterate my less than optimistic appraisal of this June once more, although I likewise promise to leave nobody hopeless, in so far as I am capable of doling out hope by text: one can read the New York Times piece I referenced above, and if one has spent enough time in alternative queer spaces, one can recognize that it is not being unfair in presenting what is by and large a safe space, a casual hangout/hookup space which is necessary and good, but not itself a form of mobilization.

But this is not to suggest that there is no potential to mobilize through this particular form of socialization. I would like to pose that there is in fact more potential for radical mobilization from participation in alternative queer spaces and events than mainstream straight life, but it is crucial that we grasp how: queer spaces and events are not an alternate reality outside of the violence of patriarchy, capitalism, and the state. They are a respite or a meeting place, but everyone there exists in the same system as those who would dare not enter them. This means negative things from without (mentioned above in terms of the recreation of oppressive norms in queer spaces) exist in the positive of queer belonging, but it also means there is a positive quality to bringing queer consciousness to the grand stage of mass politics.

As I said at the beginning of the piece, none of us can simply will riots into existence. We cannot plan Pride events to be confrontations with the state. But we do have models of how to bring Pride to the riot, so to speak, and in so, re-instilling the riotousness of queer pride.

A rainbow flag from the Gezi resistance in Turkey

This is something that can be done in practice, as can be seen from the conscious, mass participation of LGBT people in the Gezi Park occupations and protests in Turkey in 2013, when not only were rainbow flags visible, but many LGBT groups took part in popular resistance self-governance, articulated their needs and struggles to the other resisters, and socialist organizations actively stood shoulder to shoulder with them and recruited and organized them to further struggles to this day.

In the US, where as I have said and as readers know full well, socialist politics is already disproportionately LGBT and LGBT-friendly relative to the society at large (one of the silver linings of the movement being relatively youthful for the bad reason of the de facto collapse of the older generations of the movement and most of their structures), the main obstacle to a robust anti-patriarchal politics of queer and women’s liberation is the weakness of practical organization.

The subjective form of these ideas is weak, but by no means for lack of their necessity: as “religious freedom” is touted by dominionists as their pretext for assaults on reproductive rights, trans rights, queer and women’s rights of all kinds, it is clear that common enemies exist requiring common platforms and common strategies. A general anti-fascist front is, to be sure, the order of the day, against the real and deadly threat of fascism which can strike anywhere. But in particular it is clear that from the highest levels of state, fascists are busying themselves with undoing all the reformist gains of the 20th century in the United States, a strategy presently rooted in the undermining of the 9th and 14th amendments, again, on religious grounds. These are aimed primarily at women and queer people and all permutations and intersections of either.

This is why we said in our initial piece on the repeal of Roe v. Wade that we wish to actually minimize the conceptual division between the idea of women’s liberation and queer liberation: they are one common struggle, the whole struggle against patriarchy as such.

I invite all interested readers to peruse the pieces from this site linked to above, where we go into particular detail about how we seek to connect anti-oppression political fronts to each other conceptually and what implications exist practically. We at Struggle for a New World also invite feedback in all forms, be it compliments, clarifications, or criticisms, whether through private correspondence or public polemics. The only way we will build the subjectivity I describe above is through contact, discussion, debate, and organization.

For this practical dimension, I wish to not lengthen this piece much further, but I would be remiss if I did not say something at least general, after all that:

Everywhere and always our task is to unite all oppressed against all oppression, to reveal our commonality and organize on this basis. We wish to take part in the building of political networks and structures that can generalize and articulate the common will in all the particular tools and sites of struggle of oppressor against oppressed that exist. Riots do not come from wanting riots, they come from a united political subjectivity willing to defend itself.

One tool that must be in our hands is the brick, one site we must be found at is the riot.

Marsha P. Johnson

Stonewall lives. In this we can have Pride.

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