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Workers World Party: Long history in LGBT struggle

Published Jun 24, 2009 4:50 PM

Following are excerpts from a talk by Workers World Party member Shelley Ettinger at a WWP meeting in New York City on June 19.

When I volunteered to speak about Workers World Party’s history with regard to the party’s role in the lesbian, gay, bi and trans struggle, I didn’t realize what an enormous task I was taking on. The party’s contribution to this struggle is, in fact, a huge topic.

As Frederick Engels showed in his 1884 work, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” and as anthropological research has confirmed, patriarchy and the subjugation of women are not natural or original features of human society. Rather, they arose and displaced the original matriarchal communal cultures when societies divided into classes based on the accumulation of surplus wealth.

All that we today group under the headings of sexism, male supremacy or misogyny is a product of class society. LGBT oppression arose in tandem with the subjugation of women; it is, in fact, part and parcel of women’s oppression. While we fight against every manifestation of both, we fight above all to overturn the capitalist system to which women’s and LGBT oppression are integral.

While most of the left tendencies in this country now more or less support LGBT demands for civil rights and oppose discrimination, none has been as involved in fighting for these demands as we. Unfortunately, most of them view this movement as a matter of “identity politics,” “lifestylism” or, even today, see homosexuality and transgender identities as deformities of capitalism. Of course the opposite is true: It’s the oppression, not our sexual or gender identity, that is the deformity of capitalism.

We recognize the treatment of LGBT people as a special oppression under capitalism. “Special oppression” is a Marxist term that identifies specific mistreatment of a minority group arising from capitalism. Racism and the subjugation of women are special oppressions. The constellation of discrimination, homophobia and violence faced by LGBT people amounts to special oppression.

We of course always had LGBT members, and the party had always accepted and treated them well. But the transition to recognizing this struggle as one we must support, and then embracing it and plunging into it, was amazingly quick. By 1971, at only the second Gay Pride march, we were there, carrying banners and signs and taking a stand.

Our LGBT comrades were of the community, and once the community took to the streets we were, of course, there, pitching in, providing militant leadership when we could, drawing toward us some of the best fighters. There are so many struggles we’ve played a part in over the years—from street battles in the Village to shutting down shooting of the anti-gay movie “Cruising”; to the fight against Anita Bryant’s vicious “Save the Children” campaign to overturn gay rights laws that cities across the country were starting to pass; to twice running a gay candidate for the state senate in Manhattan.

[We were also] deeply involved in the AIDS activist movement, including getting arrested at the first-ever ACT-UP demonstration, the sit-in on Wall Street, and a protest at the U.S. Supreme Court, all the while caring for and then mourning our own comrades with AIDS; and played leading roles in the organizing for the three big LGBT marches on Washington in 1979, 1987 and 1993. For the 1987 march we organized and led the labor contingent, and a comrade was one of two labor speakers, along with Cesar Chavez.

We co-founded the first gay labor organization, the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network, and later helped to found Pride at Work, the official AFL-CIO LGBT constituency group. We fought against the Pentagon’s gay ban and then “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—not because we want LGBT people to join the military, but because we have to uphold the fight against discrimination wherever it takes place.

We fight for same-sex marriage rights, not because we are in favor of the patriarchal institution of marriage but because we demand simple equality. We fight against anti-trans violence and defend lesbians jailed for defending themselves against bashers. We work always to build multinational, anti-racist unity.

Two comrades have made particular contributions to the struggle and to the theoretical understanding of LGBT oppression. One is Bob McCubbin, whose 1976 book “The Gay Question: A Marxist Appraisal” was groundbreaking in many ways. I remember attending a feminist-socialist conference that year, a young lesbian justifiably wary of Marxist groups, all of which I’d encountered until then were anti-gay. And Youth Against War and Fascism [the youth wing of WWP] was selling Bob’s book. I couldn’t believe it—a socialist party was not only for our struggle but had written a whole book to build it.

Bob’s book traveled around the world and had a strong impact on our comrades in several other countries who were influenced by our analysis. In 1992 we reissued the book in a new edition [now titled “The Roots of Lesbian & Gay Oppression: A Marxist View”] with an updated introduction and afterword to address developments like the AIDS crisis.

Then there’s the work of comrade Leslie Feinberg. Her books have raised consciousness about the special oppression of trans people. And she has introduced a generation of young militants to socialism.

There’s our newspaper, which has covered this movement with hundreds and hundreds of articles written by activists who are directly involved.

There’s also our unwavering solidarity with every socialist country and every country under attack by U.S. imperialism. When U.S. imperialism tried to portray the Cuban revolution as anti-gay, we were the most stalwart defenders of Cuba, exposing the purpose of this cynical maneuver and insisting on the Cuban people’s right to address this issue as they saw fit. It was WWP that held meetings in defense of revolutionary Cuba at the LGBT Center [in New York City], meetings that were physically attacked by counterrevolutionary Cubans.

And we in WWP stand with Iran in defense of its sovereignty and take the stand that it is up to the Iranian people to address social issues as they see fit. Our solidarity against imperialism is unconditional.

What is the role of a revolutionary Marxist party with regard to the struggle for LGBT liberation? The role of the party is to advance that struggle in every way we can; to provide class-conscious analysis; to promote unity; to do what we can to move the struggle forward. Because this struggle is part and parcel of the larger struggle to build a new world, and that is the whole reason we exist.

The LGBT movement has made many gains in these 40 years since LGBT people fought the New York Police Department in the streets of the Village in June of 1969. There is an amazing, and amazingly swift, shift in consciousness among the masses. Every one of these gains is the result of struggle. But there are many more victories to be won, and none will be won without struggle.