Chicago-based lesbian activist Sherry Wolf recently released her pocket-sized book, Sexuality & Socialism ($12, Haymarket Books). It’s a primer that both re-conceptualizes the history of gay life and, looking to the future, presents a blueprint for liberation. We reached her at her home in Boston.
Read part one of our interview with Wolf. Part two follows:
Capital Xtra: You’ve got some harsh criticism for the gay rights establishment, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and especially the Prop 8 disaster. This might be an instructive question north of the border as well, but why are the big American gay organizations so conservative?
Sherry Wolf: Well, they’re not really organizations in the classic movement sense of the term. They’re lobbying outfits that exist on Capitol Hill that you don’t hear from much other than at election time, ordinarily. Now that’s changing. Even groups like HRC, on the ground — I can’t speak to their head office in Washington DC — even they are being challenged from below, from newly formed grassroots groups like the 100s of organizations that [came] together [to] push for the march on Washington in October.
I think the HRC, which is corporately controlled and has millions of dollars in its budget each year, is Democratic Party-slanted, all of their energy goes into lobbying senators and congressmen. And they pay people quite well. Their lives and their experiences are very much like the lives of other upper-middle-class people the world over.
It’s not just in Prop 8, where they threw 40-something million dollars into a totally useless and euphemistic campaign where they never even talked about civil rights or equality or put gay people on TV — because my god, that would have been too outré to even try out. They are so concerned with not scaring conservatives that they end up alienating the base of the American population, or just confusing people.
CX: Now that you have a Democrat-led Congress, Senate and Oval Office, it seems like things should be more straightforward, so to speak. But it’s not. So what can history tell us about the relationship between gays and the Democratic Party?
SW: You’ve got to build movements independent of social democratic parties in order to win genuine change. They are politicians.
It would be foolish to say there is no difference between the Obama administration and the administration of George W Bush, for example. Obviously, there are certain differences. However, Obama was elected to run the world’s largest empire. He leads the largest military and the largest economy on the planet. Without there being pressure from below, from working-class people, from unions and social movements, there will not be [lesbian, gay, bi and trans] civil rights won under this administration.
They are a political party, the Democrats, and they play by the rules of their game. And we cannot allow ourselves as activists to get caught up in playing by those rules. We need to assert our own priorities independent of them. We need to keep the pressure on. We need to keep up our actions in significant numbers. We need to be prepared for acts of civil disobedience, including arrest.
The Obama administration, as a power, has to confront us, rather than have us sit down and see them as our partners. Because the Democratic Party has never shown itself to be an honest partner to gays, blacks, women or any other oppressed minority.
CX: With wages going down and hours in the workweek going up, it seems like people are kept from protesting in the streets for economic reasons. Certainly here in Canada, university students often balance multiple part-time jobs and school work and don’t have the free time to be agitators. I wonder if that’s not a tool to keep us too exhausted to object?
SW: That’s a legitimate question. The real high points of organizing, like the 1930s for instance, where we won the weekend, where a lot of unions were formed, social security, and many of the things that have been whittled away since — this was a time when you still have formal Jim Crow segregation in the south, informal segregation in the north, where people were putting in 50-, 60-, 70-hour work weeks and earning pennies an hour.
I think that what is happening right now is that we’re at a moment where it’s certainly a real problem. People have more work hours and horrific commutes because we don’t have a proper socialized transit system in most of the United States. And then of course all of the other individual responsibilities: health care, child care, whathaveyou, added on top of that.
CX: There’s a model that says that we need people on the inside and we need people on the streets — that both are necessary. Is that a good model, or should we do away with gay political insiders altogether?
SW: I guess the way I see it is that they need us a hell of a lot more than we need them.
What is decisive at every moment in American history is what happens outside the seat of power. Whether it was getting rid of slavery, which took a bloody war, or whether it was civil rights, which took sit-ins and mass protests — that [outsider action] came first, and it was later codified in legislation.
What we do as social justice activists will be decisive in terms of determining what policy is. And then it’s these insiders that later on play this game of codifying it and making the language acceptable to people.
Look at recent American history — even the policies of a rightwing administration like the Nixon administration. They are arguably to the left of what we’re seeing under the current administration. And not because Nixon was a better person, and not because the Republican Party is a better party, but because the social struggles that have been taking place since the ’60s and early ’70s have led the government to push for things like an end to the death penalty and for abortion rights and Earth Day.
All of these kinds of things were won in the early ’70s — not because we had significant leadership, but because we had mass struggle. And that, I think, is the lesson I draw from American history. You need that kind of agitation, organization, politics and struggle to solve any sort of civil rights problem.