Saturday, December 05, 2009

Echoes of a past life: A Matter of Life and Death

This week's disappointing vote in New York State over marriage equality, and the resultant gloating by right-wing anti-gay forces like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), set me to look again in my files at an earlier age of activism. I found a flyer I wrote for the Revolutionary Socialist League in 1981. It was distributed at a memorial protest. I've also found my account of its distribution. This is from the internal "BULLETIN of the RSL National Office" Vol. 9, No. 7, Pt. 1, December 4, 1981:

"On Thursday, November 19, the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights (CLGR) sponsored a memorial service and candle-light march for the first anniversary of the shootings at the Ramrod last year. We drafted a leaflet for the events, and [me, Steve Rose, Albert Torres and Michael Botkin from Chicago--ish] attended for the League...The organizers of the Memorial Service kept insisting to us that the event was not political, therefore they didn't appreciate us passing out our leaflet, and we were forced to distribute it downstairs from the Gay Synagogue where it was being held. The main speakers for the service didn't show up, however, and those who did speak (mainly from the CLGR) again and again said 'This is a political issue.' During the march we were hassled by Steve Ault, Eleanore Cooper and Betty Santoro of the CLGR for being too political (we had two of our flags). At one point CLGR tried to force us out of the march, but their attempt was feeble and we stayed in. We said it was our right to mourn with red flags rather than candles if we chose. This 'non-political' march wound up marching to Mayor Koch's Village apartment for a pep-rally for the City Gay Rights Bill, which would be coming up in the City Council the next day..."

That makes me laugh: incompetent and dishonest activist leadership wasn't invented yesterday! Anyway the leaflet isn't signed by was an official RSL publication, but it's pretty clearly in my voice. It gives me great pause to see that in this completely pre-AIDS slice of ephemerata the issue of right-wing haters facing off with the gays remains front and center. But it also needs to be said that its fiery "fight-back" rhetoric, echoed today by a different generation of activists (albeit without the Leninist sheen) seems as generically well-intentioned as it is empty of specific actual prescription, and that doesn't seem to have changed. Today's gay community's frustration with President Obama's seemingly incomplete intentions conjures up for me this same kind of enraged powerlessness, but with the perspective of having seen it all before.

For all that hasn't changed, it should be said that a lot has. There weren't openly gay TV talk show hosts back then; no queer eyes for straight guys; heck the New York Times didn't even actually use the word "gay." I'm really pained that people would actually vote against the civil right of marriage for gays, but frankly, I don't feel all that oppressed. I mean, outside of the current economic crisis' terrifying and painful seige of my career and standard of living. There are a lot of terrible things happening in the world, but I feel free to kiss my boyfriend casually on the street without having to conjure up even the slightest bit of "fuck you if you don't like it." Maybe the world needs more revolutionaries like I was at the tender age of 23 when I wrote this, or maybe the world keeps on spinning whether or not we urge it on, eventually getting some things right.

There's a lot in this leaflet that makes me cringe. There's a painfully inept attempt at sarcasm; there's the trademark left-wing equation-building on questionably-generalized fear-mongering evidence of the inexorable efforts of the "system" to keep the "oppressed" down; there's the Leninist didacticism, even filtered through the RSL's attempt keep its message accessible. But anyway here's the text of the leaflet I wrote, it's certainly food for thought:


A Matter of Life and Death
by the Revolutionary Socialist League
undated (December 1981)

It's been one year since two gay men were machine-gunned to death in front of the Ramrod by a right-wing bigot. One year since Jiog [Jorg --ish]Wenz and Vernon Kroenig died simply because...they were gay, and happened to be in the wrong place (Christopher & West Street!) at the wrong time. Crumpley, the assassin, said at the time, "I want to kill them all. I'll kill them all, the gays. They're no good. They ruin everything." Crumpley was there at the wrong time too: he had planned to go on his spree on the weekend, when more gay people would be hanging out on the street where he could shoot them. But he was so impatient he couldn't wait for the weekend.

One year ago, the lesbian and gay community marched with candles and flowers. Tonight, the lesbian and gay community pays its respects and remembers its dead with candles and prayers. But these are not enough. Our lives are at stake here: our right to be open about who we are; our right to walk the streets, our right to live without fearing attack. The candles did not prevent the Nazis from visiting West Street last spring to celebrate. Candles will not prevent other deaths, other attacks. Unfortunately, Wenz and Kroenig were not the first gay people to die for being gay; and unfortunately, as long as we place our trust in candles, they will not be the last.

The fact us, all over the country oppressed people have been coming under attack. And while many lesbians and gay men may not feel oppressed -- after all they're not "sick" like transvestites, transsexuals, prostitutes or those into cross-generational sex -- those who hate us do not distinguish between us; we are all "perverts," and we all do not "deserve" to exist as we do. A year ago Black children were being murdered in Atlanta, Black people were being murdered in Buffalo, Klansmen were going on shooting sprees in many places throughout the country. This kind of racist violence continues, a year later. A year ago, Ronald Reagan had just been elected with the help of the Moral Majority, a force which believes it holds the supreme right to dictate how people live. A year later, the Moral Majority prospers under Reagan's government. The Moral Majority seeks to make biogotry respectable, and seeks to use its influence in government to make its views law. The Moral Majority also believes our lives are at stake here. Dean Wycoff of the Santa Clara California Moral Majority said, "I believe in capital punishment -- and I believe homosexuality is one of the things that could be coupled with murder and other sins." Anti-abortion legislation, the Family Protection Act, and other right-wing government lobbying efforts are just the beginning of what we can expect. The Moral Majority is only part of a general atmosphere in this country; when people begin to say they believe gay people should be killed, then we should hardly be surprised when people begin to act upon that belief.

What can we do to protect ourselves? Many in the lesbian and gay community (in New York, and elsewhere) believe that if only we can pass enough pro-gay legislation in government, then we will be creating safeguards and protection; that we can end discrimination and bigotry through "gay rights bills." Certainly it would be good if such bills were passed. But there is a problem. Murder is illegal in this country; but there are many this fact didn't help. The murderers of Harvey Milk, Jiog wenz and Vernon Kroenig didn't let that fact bother them (and in fact, both these murderers got off easy). The Klansmen who killed leftists in North Carolina two years ago didn't think twice about murder laws, and they got off scott-free. It is a safe bet that any law is only as effective as the ruling class, who enforces it, wants it to be. And since there's no way the ruling class can keep itself in power without racism and bigotry, those laws aren't going to do a hell of a lot of good. In order to survive, capitalism --the system in the U.S. today --need to keep the vast majority of the people divided against each other. Racism and bigotry are thus fundamentally ingrained into the way the system works.

Some people, including those of us in the Revolutionary Socialist League, believe we have another answer. We believe there is a way to protect our lives and our rights. We believe it's time to fight back.

Fighting back means building a movement that stands for the freedom of all those attacked by the system and the bigots who support it. Fighting back means uniting oppressed and working people around the cause of human liberation: lesbian and gay liberation, women's liberation, Black liberation; the liberation of Latino, Asian and other "ethnic minorities," the liberation of young people. Fighting back means organizing ourselves, making it clear that we, as the oppressed, are not to be messed with. Fighting back means militant struggle: both responding to government threats with shows of strength and showing willingness to defend ourselves against attacks from bigots. Fighting back means standing up for ourselves, fighting for what we need and not waiting for someone else to save us. And fighting back means overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with one that serves our needs and guarantees our freedom.

The closet that many of us left stands with its doors wide open, waiting for us to return. But it doesn't have to be that way. Nor do we have to pay for our openness with our lives. Even if we are forced back into the closet, the general social attack on the oppressed will not stop -- there are no closets for Black people and others. Sooner or later, when the right-wing bigots finish with the others on their hit list, they'll find us behind those closet doors. But by then it will be too late -- we will be divided and alienated from the other oppressed people, with whom, united, we could have resisted. It's time to fight back now -- it's a matter of life and death.

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