3 min

Gay liberation and the ambivalent left

Debating the value of gay comrade-ry

In the same way that archaeology is more spoon and midden than bullwhips and wide-brimmed hats, historical research has its barren stretches. These usually come in the form of primary source materials such as police records, which do not provide unalloyed excitement as a reading experience.

However, from tedium comes discovery. This proved to be the case with an online resource I recently came across, The Socialist History Project: Documenting the socialist revolutionary tradition in Canada. As someone who loves history, I warm to any attempt to preserve our past, even when it takes one into the murky waters of would-be revolutionary political movements.

I have always harboured feelings of amused respect for the various factions of the Canadian left — Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist, Maoist and Marx knows what else — that were such a feature of campus life in the early seventies. These true believers spoke a language peculiarly their own, fought the good fight and prepared for the day when the revolution finally came; rather like waiting for the Messiah. In the meantime, they kept busy with political infighting and with analyzing new social movements in an attempt to place them in the revolutionary scheme of things.

The website documents one such bout of infighting between members of the League For Socialist Action (LSA) over gay liberation. It began in 1971 and ran for six years.

This is of interest to gays and lesbians for a number of reasons: In the late 60s and early 70s, there appeared to be a natural convergence of many different strains of social protest into one large movement, and gay liberation interested the socialist movement (what one might call the hard left) in Canada; some members of the hard left were active in the Vancouver gay community, including Stuart Russell, a prominent voice in the LSA debate; and finally, these documents let us appreciate that the hard Left’s reputation in some quarters for homophobia is not altogether deserved.

Although both sides supported gay liberation, there was disagreement over the nature of homosexuality.

Under the guise of keeping science and the pursuit of knowledge free of political or ideological interference (Stalin’s baleful example vivid in the memories of this Trotskyite movement), the more “conservative” elements of the LSA hesitated to adopt a position on homosexuality. They claimed that, since no one really knew enough about human sexuality and the directions it might take in a post-capitalist world, more research was required.

The dissidents, who were careful not to call themselves that but comrades seeking clarification, argued that the LSA should align itself fully with gay liberation’s “Gay is good” slogan and all that it implied.

Reading between the lines, one senses that some (possibly most) of the membership was having trouble coming to terms with homosexuality and that the “conservatives” were buying time. In the end, the amendments did not pass, and the LSA remained neutral on the essential character or value of homosexuality.

The LSA still desired to work with gay liberation movements, ultimately with a view to organizing and leading them when the time was right, because “ending gay oppression requires gays to join the struggle for socialism.”

This was a difficult political debate then, particularly within a rigid ideological framework. But because these were intelligent, highly analytical people having the debate, their take on gay liberation, the women’s movement and the role of the family in the oppression of gays, to name three, gives a valuable snapshot of the political environment of the 70s.

The gay movement was seen as centred around the civil liberties of gay people and part of the growing radicalization of the Canadian people. The movement was expected to grow, but its potential scope was seen as limited: “Certainly the perspective of masses of gay people coming ‘out of the closets and into the streets’ is not at all likely.”

The women’s movement was seen as having a greater “potential ability to mobilize masses of women into action.” The women’s movement was seen as a powerful radicalizing force pointing to the necessity for socialism, in a way that gay liberation had yet to demonstrate.

The discussion on arriving at a correct position on the role of the family in the oppression of gays was particularly lively, with the dissidents arguing that gays, like women, required the destruction of the nuclear family in order to gain their freedom.

In hindsight, their analysis of these three topics only proves that politics — like life — never quite turns out the way you think it will.