A searing critique of straight supremacism with an agenda for social transformation
By Peter Tatchell
The Gay Liberation Front Manifesto, published in London in 1971, was a revolution in consciousness and it remains so today. It offers a radical critique of sexism and what we now call homophobia; as well as a pioneering, far-sighted agenda for both social and personal transformation.
Amazingly, it was not written by high-powered intellectuals but by a collective of grassroots activists, driven by idealism and passion for the betterment of queer humanity. They included anarchists, hippies, left-wingers, feminists, liberals and counter-culturalists.
The final text was a compromise between these different factions – and it shows. Some of it reeks of writing-by-committee. In places, the style and language is dated and inelegant. Some ideas are expressed too crudely and simplistically. Often you have to read between the lines to comprehend the full implications of what is being said.
Despite these shortcomings, the central theses stand the test of time. They remain fresh, innovative, challenging and inspiring; stratospheres above the frequent mediocrity of today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) politics.
Although I did not write the Manifesto, I was a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) activist at the time and involved in the discussions – and rows – about it. Inspired by the ideas of the black civil rights movement in the US, I had already conceptualised LGBT people as an oppressed minority, similar to black people, and that we had a comparable claim for equal treatment.
But the GLF Manifesto went much further. It was an eye-opener; expanding my civil rights perspective into a more radical critique of heterosexism, male privilege and the tyranny of traditional male and female gender roles. It woke me to the fact that queer liberation involved both social and personal change; that we could, within the bounds of the existing society, begin to create a new alternative culture that would liberate everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality or gender identity.
I can vividly remember my excitement on reading the finished text. It was revolutionary and mind-blowing; challenging the straight male supremacism of centuries. The LGBT equivalent of the Communist Manifesto? Well, not quite.
Although it included demands for an end to heterosexist discrimination, equal rights was not the main focus of the GLF Manifesto. Equality was a far too limiting agenda. It went beyond mere equal rights; seeing society as fundamentally unjust and seeking to change it, to end the oppression of queers – and straights.
The Manifesto aligned GLF with other liberation movements, such as the movements for women’s, black, Irish and working class freedom. Although critical of the misogyny and homophobia of the “straight left”, it positioned the LGBT struggle as part of the broader anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement, striving for the emancipation of all humankind.
Most importantly, it argued that LGBT people needed to embrace and ally with feminism:
“As we cannot carry out this revolutionary change alone, and as the abolition of gender roles is also a necessary condition of women’s liberation, we will work to form a strategic alliance with the women’s liberation movement, aiming to develop our ideas and our practice in close inter-relation. In order to build this alliance, the brothers in gay liberation will have to be prepared to sacrifice that degree of male chauvinism and male privilege that they still all possess.
The GLF Manifesto articulates a radical agenda for a non-violent revolution in cultural values and social institutions. It critiques homophobia, sexism, marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy, the cults of youth and beauty, patriarchy, the gay ghetto and rigid male and female gender roles.
As well as opposing the way things are, it outlines an alternative vision of how society and personal relationships could be, including living communally, gender subversive radical drag and non-possessive multi-partner open relationships. The message was: innovate, don’t assimilate.
The Manifesto’s idealistic vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – queer, bisexual and straight.
In echoes of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X, it stated that the precondition for this social revolution is transforming our own consciousness and lives:
“The starting point of our liberation must be to rid ourselves of the oppression which lies in the head of every one of us. This means freeing our heads from self-oppression and male chauvinism, and no longer organising our lives according to the patterns with which we are indoctrinated by straight society. It means that we must root out the idea that homosexuality is bad, sick or immoral, and develop a gay pride. In order to survive, most of us have either knuckled under to pretend that no oppression exists and the result of this has been further to distort our heads. Within gay liberation, a number of consciousness-raising groups have already developed, in which we try to understand our oppression and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. The aim is to step outside the experience permitted by straight society and to learn to love and trust one another. This is the precondition for acting and struggling together.”
Revolutionary not reformist, GLF’s Manifesto went beyond overturning homophobia and transphobia. The aim was to end “male chauvinism” and the “gender system”, which were identified as underpinning both sexism and homophobia.
Straight male hegemony was seen as the common oppressor of both women and queers. Subverting the supremacy of heterosexual masculinity was, to us, the key to genuine liberation for LGBTs and the female sex.
The GLF Manifesto argues that much LGBT oppression results from the way we queers deviate from the socially-prescribed, orthodox gender roles of masculine and feminine:
“By our very existence as gay people, we challenge these roles. It can easily be seen that homosexuals don’t fit into the stereotypes of masculine and feminine and this is one of the main reasons why we become the object of suspicion, since everyone is taught that these and only these two roles are appropriate….popular morality, art, literature and sport all reinforce these stereotypes. In other words, this society is a sexist society in which one’s biological sex determines almost all of what one does and how one does it; a situation in which men are privileged, and women are mere adjuncts of men and objects for their use, both sexually and otherwise.”
In most societies throughout most of history, men have been expected to act masculine and desire women. Likewise, women are supposed to behave feminine and be attracted to men. Instead of fitting in with these expectations, LGBT people subvert the gender system. Gay men love other men and are often disparaged for being insufficiently macho. Lesbians love other women and tend to be less passive, feminine and dependent on men than many of their heterosexual sisters. This is a major reason why we’re persecuted. Our gender non-conformity threatens the gender system that helps sustain the hegemony of male heterosexuality and misogyny.
Queer men don’t need to sexually subjugate women. Queer women don’t need men to fulfil their erotic and emotional needs. This failure to meet traditional gender expectations is profoundly threatening to straight male supremacism:
“The long-term goal of Gay Liberation, which inevitably brings us into conflict with the institutionalised sexism of this society, is to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression. This can only be achieved by eliminating the social pressures on men and women to conform to narrowly defined gender roles. It is particularly important that children and young people be encouraged to develop their own talents and interests and to express their own individuality rather than act out stereotyped parts alien to their nature.”
The GLF Manifesto positively celebrates queer deviance. It argues that the right to be different is a fundamental human right and this includes the right to disobey straight gender norms. The espousal of “radical drag” and ”gender-bender” politics is a call to opt out of passing for straight and seeking male privilege. We were attempting to subvert the oppressiveness of traditional-style heterosexual masculinity because we understood that it was one of the main sustainers of the subordination of the female sex and same-sex love.
The Manifesto posited that LGBT people were often in the forefront of breaking down the rigid, suffocating gender system:
“Gay shows the way. In some ways we are already more advanced than straight people. We are already outside the family and we have already, in part at least, rejected the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ roles society has designed for us. In a society dominated by the sexist culture it is very difficult, if not impossible, for heterosexual men and women to escape their rigid gender-role structuring and the roles of oppressor and oppressed. But gay men don’t need to oppress women in order to fulfil their own psycho-sexual needs, and gay women don’t have to relate sexually to the male oppressor, so that at this moment in time, the freest and most equal relationships are most likely to be between homosexuals.”
The core, ground-breaking message still rings true: that true queer emancipation involves changing ourselves and then changing society, rather than adapting to it. What’s required is a revolution in culture, to overturn centuries of male heterosexual domination and the limitations of traditional gender roles. Then, and only then, will queers and women be truly free. Bravo!