Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in post-war Britain. How the personal got political

This is a fun book to read. Being a non-British citizen, I was very pleased with this overview of gay men and the left. It raises many interesting issues, the main being at one hand the rather unsuccessful turn to the left by many gay men and at the other the continuing rejection of homosexuality by the left culminating in recent times in the acceptance of gays by Labour as long as they behave normal and make nice couples. The book describes the long struggle between gay revisionism and queer radicalism which the first group clearly has won for the moment. The main argument concerns the change at the Left from economic to personal concerns, from work to identity politics. The Left was from the 1960s to the 1980s resistant to sexual including gay issues but embraced them since the 1980s – with the gradual disappearance of blue-collar-workers and the rise of Aids. In the footsteps of women’s lib the gays had declared the personal political, and they got it. Their desire to unite with the trade unions met little support, sometimes even outright rejection, but in the long run gays and lesbians not only took away the objections of the left, they even became a group pampered to vote for Labour that slowly lost its original constituency of blue collar workers and was in desperate need of new voters.

The book has some odd features. The first is that this study written by a woman has so little to say about lesbians who were apparently largely absent in this gay lib history. Maybe because they focused on feminist movements or because homophobia affects men in this time frame much more than women? I would have liked to hear a bit more on this issue. The other oddity is that the book queerly personalizes gay left history of the fifties by starting with some biographies of leftist leaders who happened to be gay, but sometimes had no homosexual politics because they were still deeply in the closet. At the end when the personal has indeed become political there are no biographies any more. The stories of Labour chairs Tom Driberg and George Binham are confronted, the first rising to gay fame thanks to his posthumous autobiography Ruling Passions (1977), the second lost in oblivion notwithstanding his sensational death through murder by a young man he tried to seduce to share his bed. But the leaders of the gay left of the post-1969 period don’t get personal stories.

The second stage of this history is the sexual law reform in 1967 under the Labour government of Harold Wilson that legalized homosexual practices in the private sphere but created an age of consent of 21 for homosex (at 16 for heterosex) and made it easier to prosecute gay men for soliciting and “gross indecency”. The number of arrests rose subsequently. Supporters of the law made clear that it was not their intent to legalize homosexual clubs, only private acts. So this step forward was still highly ambiguous.

Steamy gets the story when the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) begins to make history in the very short period from 1970-1972 (Robinson broadens it up to 1969-1973). A radical homosexual movement exploded and imploded as quickly as it started. Inspired by the Stonewall riots of queers against the New York police in 1969 and by the heat of the general sphere of youth revolt gays and lesbians started to organize, demonstrate and formulate demands that were often radical: against discrimination in heteronormative institutions like family, church, psychiatry, law, work, education, defending sexual variation and “gender-fuck” but also including a critique of self-repression. Some leftist gays even sympathized with terrorism and its main English exponent, the Angry Brigade. In the court case against supposed members, “the Stoke Newington Eight”, two lesbians of the GLF stood trial, but were acquitted. The GLF imploded because of its diversity: men and women, young and old, different sexual variations, hard-line leftists who put first the socialist revolution that had many versions, while others were more reformist or preferred personal politics in communal life or in drag. Others started the march through the institutions with the aim to change them from the inside.

All variations of leftism had their different attitudes regarding gay liberation, and often started to be quite critical because homosexuality was alternately seen as a private affair, as capitalist decadence or only as a secondary issue in the class struggle. In the end most organizations became more or less accepting. The left changed from being dogmatically Marxist to realizing there are more issues than only those of workers. Nevertheless the relations between working class and gay world mostly remained tense, exceptions excluded such as with the strikes of the miners in the mid-eighties when the queers created a special group “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”. Warm relations existed in the Greater London Council between the movement and Mayor Ken Livingstone who was the first to subsidize gay and lesbian activities until Thatcher dissolved the Council in her attack on the “loony left” and the gay movement. And the Iron Lady went after this success on with Clause 28, the article that forbade local authorities to “promote homosexuality”. It is hard to believe how recent this homophobic gesture was, only in 1988. Red Ken had lost but his “New Labour” was more supportive of gay life than Blair’s version 15 years later.

In the footsteps of gay liberation other groups joined in, including the pedophiles. In the times of GLF, not only communal living, “gender fuck” or sadomasochism was defended, but also intergenerational relations. After GLF dissolved, first the Paedophile Action for Liberation (PAL, 1974-1975) but more famously the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE, 1975-1985) came out of gay liberation and asked understanding for pedophile interests and identities. Although gay liberationists first supported PAL and PIE, once the media started to demonize these groups and justice to prosecute them, the gay lib stopped defending them. When the leader of PIE Tom O’Carroll was sentenced to 2 years in prison for the absurd claim of corruption of public morals, few came to his defense. It is sad to see how the themes these groups raised most importantly the sexuality of young people since disappeared completely from the gay and left agenda due to the demonization of intergenerational contact. It was a first sign of the limits being set to gay emancipation as soon the Spanner case would define a similar boundary for kinky sex while the persecution of public “indecencies” continued unabatedly. Back in the fifties they used the word homophile because sexuality was not the defining element of queers like in “homosexual”. Must we ask ourselves half a century later whether gay liberation has not ended with homophile instead of homosexual emancipation – the respectable same-sex couple being the way to rip gays of their queer sexuality that still is stigmatized?

There are many comparable issues and several point in the same direction like the complete defeat of Peter Tatchell in the Bermondsea by-election of 1983 where he lost as official candidate of Labour a secure seat due to machinations from all sides. A radical queer deserved no place in the mainstream left. The organization whose most visible leader he soon became, OutRage! (1990), was equally outrun by reformist Stonewall, founded in 1989 to combat Clause 28. Tatchell raised stirs in the press, and one might question his tactics, but that is no reason to denounce his real anger about the meager results of gay lib or criticize his lack of activist maturity and professionalism.

Lucy Robinson puts this all nicely in the perspective of a development from labour to identity politics, and shows that the gay movement’s legacy shrank into “the minutiae of personal experience”. Gays and transgenders can now participate in the show world of Big Brother but on the conditions of the media that demand fun, not politics. Cynically one might say the world moving aims of gay lib ended in the bed of the same-sex couple – in the past illegal and marginal, now like marital. The final notes of Robinson are on the importance of intersecting politics and culture, but I had rather seen the focus on this so British concept of sexual citizenship that bridges the political, cultural and personal. That offers queer activism a new tool to struggle a society that went from the marital to the heterosexual norm. It offers radical sex movements new practical theories to come out of the bedrooms into the streets to counter once more the growing worldwide puritanism.

Gert Hekma, Sociology, University of Amsterdam