The bisexual American black nationalist leader, MALCOLM X, was a forceful advocate of self-help and community empowerment. Self-reliance is also the key to queer emancipation.
What’s interesting about Malcolm X is not his fleeting gay affairs but his more enduring political ideas. Surprisingly to some, these ideas have a striking relevance to our contemporary struggle for lesbian and gay human rights.
Prior to his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X was a leading spokesman for black consciousness, pride and self-help. These themes of identity, self-worth and community initiative have been also central to the movement for queer liberation.
Likewise, Malcolm X’s positive celebration of racial difference, as opposed to emphasising racial similarity and black conformity to white values, is echoed in the anti-assimilationist queer politics of the l990s.
This common ground is also evident in the way he recognised the symbolic power of language. Rejecting “negro” as a “white man’s” word, he reclaimed the hitherto pejorative term “black” as a symbol of self-affirmation.
Malcolm X can, of course, be justifiably criticised for his religious superstition, sexist attitudes towards women, and separatist ideology.
However, there are also many positive aspects of his political philosophy that lesbians and gay men can learn from:
Malcolm X argued that the black community could not depend on a white-dominated political system to deliver it from racism through legislative reform.
Instead, black people had to rely on their own efforts and look after themselves. Only when they had built up their own strong and independent power-base, through self-organisation and community-controlled institutions, would black people be able to force the white establishment to accede civil rights.
This self-reliant approach would only work, in Malcolm X’s view, if it went hand-in-hand with a more self-critical attitude; including a greater willingness by black people to challenge ideas and institutions within their own community that were holding back their advancement.
It is this reform and renewal of the black community which he saw as a precondition for its empowerment. Then, and only then, could black economic and political power be effectively mobilised to secure racial emancipation.
In response to critics who accused him of reverse racism over his strategy of black empowerment, Malcolm X replied: “It isn’t black supremacy. It’s black intelligence.”
The ideas of Malcolm X are not just past history of exclusive interest to the black community. They also ring true for those of us involved in the queer movement of the 1990s. For us, too, self-reliance and community-building are prerequisites for our betterment.
Over the last quarter of a century since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, there has not been a single instance of significant lesbian and gay law reform. A heterosexual-dominated Parliament has repeatedly rejected calls for the repeal of homophobic laws. Instead, the only substantive legislative changes since 1967 have increased discrimination.
In 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. Three years later, Clause 25 (now Section 31) of the Criminal Justice Act reclassified many forms of consenting gay behaviour as “serious” sex crimes and empowered judges to pass longer deterrent sentences.
While the rest of Europe has scrapped many homophobic laws, Britain still has on its statute books anti-gay legislation which originated in the Victorian era. Nearly a century after the trial of Oscar Wilde, thousands are still being arrested for consensual cottaging, cruising and sex with 16-21 year olds. Many others continue to be denied employment, child custody, donor insemination, fostering/adoption, political asylum and the legal recognition of their partnerships.
Despite this scandalous lack of legislative progress, the quality of life for most lesbians and gay men has dramatically improved over the last two decades. This has been largely the result of our own self-help initiatives. We have created a safe and supportive lesbian and gay community, with switchboards and social centres, bars and discos, employment and legal advice organisations, publishers and book shops, housing and immigration rights groups, counselling and befriending services, newspapers and magazines, AIDS helplines and buddy schemes, bereavement and rape survivor networks, and much more.
When straight society has ignored our needs, we’ve responded by looking after our own. Over the years, these self-help efforts have made a huge difference to millions of lesbians and gay men. It’s now much easier to get positive information about homosexuality, feel a sense of self-worth, come out, socialise with friends, meet a partner, challenge discrimination, and get help when in need. In just over two decades, our own initiatives have created a large, supportive, visible, self-confident and influential lesbian and gay community for the first time in human history.
Few of these positive changes have been due to straight politicians. Queers have done it for themselves.
If the post-1967 period has taught us anything it is that we cannot depend on mainstream political parties. They have repeatedly failed to deliver law reform. For most politicians, lesbian and gay rights are a low priority, forever subject to the vagaries of political expediency. This means that our issues are often the last to be adopted and first to be dumped.
In contrast, by focusing on self-help we are less at the mercy of heterosexual-dominated institutions and more in control of our own destiny. It doesn’t mean that we always succeed, but with self-reliance there are fewer externally imposed barriers. The obstacles that do exist are mostly self-imposed, and they are self-removable with imagination, stamina and determination.
Self-reliance is about concentrating on creating our own self-affirming community where we don’t have to justify ourselves or plead with heterosexuals for acceptance. It represents our refusal to conform and defer to a homophobic society, and our dissent from the social demand that we participate in society on heterosexual terms.
By developing the lesbian and gay community as a focus of counter-culture and counter-power, we are helping to subvert and undermine the ideas and institutions that sustain heterosexual supremacist. In effect, we are withdrawing our allegiance from the dominant culture and denying it moral legitimacy.
Self-reliance does not mean that we retreat into our own separatist ghetto, give up the campaign for equal rights, or reject working with others suffering discrimination. On the contrary. It simply means that we make lesbian and gay self-help and community empowerment our priority. From a position of strength, we will be better able to make effective alliances with others fighting discrimination and to bargain with straight society for meaningful legislative changes.
In other words, a well-organised, powerful queer community is more difficult for the heterosexual establishment to ignore, and more able to offer useful solidarity to other communities which are waging similar battles against inequality.
If we choose to focus primarily on self-reliance for lesbian and gay advancement, then our own efforts become crucial to our success. This dependence on community self-help means that we also need to be more critical of our community and more willing to challenge its flaws and failings. We need to get our own house in order.
This highlights another reason why we should put community improvement first and law reform second. Many of the everyday problems faced by lesbians and gay men are only indirectly related, if at all, to legal discrimination. They are problems largely of our own making, and of our own solution.
Although the post-Stonewall era has seen some remarkable self-help achievements, our community also has its share of faults: unfriendly venues, alcohol and drug dependence, bitchiness, excessive emphasis on youth and beauty, unsafe sex, and domestic violence within relationships. While the hedonistic and promiscuous gay scene can be enjoyable, many people find it alienating and unfulfilling. Removing legislative inequality won’t change that.
Some of our so-called “community businesses” exclude lesbians, lack disabled access, and charge prices beyond the pocket of low income earners. Others won’t display posters about safer sex or equality campaigns, refuse to allow collections for lesbian and gay rights groups, and give a pittance to the Pride Festival and AIDS organisations. A few exploit their staff, paying them low wages because they know many people are desperate to work in a gay-friendly environment. Some have gone bust leaving their customers stranded without compensation, as happened with the Gay Lets accommodation agency, Man Around travel company, and the Camp Pink holiday weekend. Arguably, a more critical attitude to the way the London Lesbian & Gay Centre was run might have stopped the rot earlier and saved it from closure.
On the campaign front: there is a great deal of political fragmentation, rivalry and sectarianism within our movement. We have no national lesbian and gay rights organisation to co-ordinate local efforts to maximum effect. Few activist groups have any worked out strategy of how we can best overturn discrimination and win equality. Instead, most of our campaigns are reactive and defensive, rather than agenda-setting. Effective use has never been made of the economic power of the pink pound or the electoral power of the pink vote. The number of people involved in the fight for human rights is pitifully small (about 2,000 regular activists out of a lesbian and gay population of four million).
We cannot blame all these failings on heterosexuals and homophobia. None of these faults will be resolved by law reform. Equal rights won’t make us treat each other better. Only we can do that.
We’ve therefore got to start changing ourselves and our community, as well as changing society. Indeed, sorting out our own mess is a precondition for successfully challenging homophobia. As Malcolm X argued: a self-critical and self-reliant community is an intelligent and powerful one. It’s an idea worth bearing in mind as we consider new ways to queer advancement in the 1990s.
Gay Times, April 1993.
See Also “Staying out in the cold is the way to keep warm,”
Observer, 19 June 1994