Living My Life: A Tale of Blood, Sweat, and Anarchy
Interview with Robin Isaacs
Robin Isaacs is a long-time queer anarchist who has lived in Toronto for the past 30 years. Over the course of a lifetime of political activity, Isaacs has been involved in a variety of activist projects including the anarchist publication Kick It Over, the 1988 “Survival Gathering” in Toronto, Anti-Racist Action, Queer Nation, AIDS ACTION NOW!, Limp Fist, and the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists. This interview was conducted by Dale Altrows in February of 2007 in Montreal, Québec. The complete text of this interview was over 20,000 words, and, due to space restrictions, we have excerpted sections to run in this issue of the journal. We have made the complete interview available on the Autonomy & Solidarity website at http://auto_sol.tao.ca.
How did you become politically active?
I was born in 1955 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a working class family consisting of an assimilated, Lithuanian-Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. My father worked on the line for Bristol Aerospace and my mother worked in various sewing sweatshops. A number of times before that, in between and before my father’s unionized job at Bristol, we had been on “relief” – then the equivalent of welfare. My family was not religious but extremely morally conservative, mostly due to ignorance, and it caused my father no end of consternation that I was a very effeminate little boy. I remember those lonely teenage years I spent thinking that I suffered from a disease so horrible I could never tell anyone about it – the love that dare not speak its name. In junior high I looked up “homosexuality” in a book on psychiatry in the school library, which characterized it as a mental illness. Being obviously gay meant that high school was hell for me, and I suffered every conceivable homophobic abuse – so much so that I was often afraid to leave the house.
I was radicalized by coming out of the closet in 1977. I was desperate for someone to talk to and so joined a coming-out group called Gays for Equality (GFE) that held weekly meetings at the University of Manitoba. In those days, “gay” was an umbrella term, almost like “queer” is today, and in GFE I also met lesbians and a transsexual woman for the first time. It took me weeks to work up the courage to go to a meeting. That was the first gay rights group I ever joined, the only one in Winnipeg at the time. Once I came to terms with my sexuality and gained confidence in the coming-out group, I jumped with both feet into all aspects of the gay liberation movement, as it was called at the time. Back then, it was heavily affiliated with the left.
What attracted you to anarchism?
A friend gave me an issue of The Storm: A Journal for Free Spirits, which was a little photocopied zine put out by queer anarchists, containing an article about Emma Goldman and another about Mikhail Bakunin’s homosexual relationship with the young social revolutionary, Sergei Nechayev. I read some of Goldman’s essays in Red Emma Speaks shortly after coming out, but I didn’t understand them completely because I lacked a comprehensive knowledge of ideological anarchism. That came later. The gay liberation movement in Winnipeg courted all sectors of the left but especially looked to the New Democratic Party (NDP), which was very strong in Manitoba back in the day and ruled the province for years. So, in the beginning, I followed suit and voted for them, although I never became a party member.
When I first came out, I found gay men intimidating. They seemed shallow and superficial to me. It was only later that I discovered the joys of being a gay male. I initially bonded with my lesbian friends, who were radical lesbian separatist feminists. They seemed to have a sense of community, a consciousness of sisterhood that men lacked, and were much more politicized. A lot of misconceptions, willful disinformation, and just plain bullshit was – and is – spread around about lesbian separatists. It’s not true that they are castrating misandronists who won’t talk to men – they talked to me, but that’s because I made it evident that I was willing to learn. In the years to come, of course, I would learn of their weaknesses – around trans issues and sex trade work, among other things – as a result of which many of them today are no longer separatist. But I still appreciated and appreciate their strong points. As Jewish lesbian feminist Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz wrote in The Issue is Power, there “are different forms of struggle, and separatists are often in the vanguard, creating a strong identity and consciousness for the whole community, including those who are not themselves separatist.” That this is true was made evident by the fact that lesbian separatist political analyses began to trickle down and appear in non-separatist feminism, even in straight feminism. Hell, even the anarchists of both genders began to spell “woman” w-o-m-y-n and to pluralize it w-i-m-m-i-n. The separatists started that.
Chris Vogel of GFE told me that, when gay men first come out, they go through their adolescence again. That was certainly true of me, although my low opinion of gay men and men generally at the time had me looking for emotional support from the separatist dykes, who took me under their wing and taught me everything they could. Thus I spent my “gay adolescence” being raised by lesbian separatists. For them, the feminist revolution would necessarily be a socialist revolution – although they had no use whatsoever for what they termed “the male left.” So I bypassed Marxism entirely and learned political analysis from them.
Fast forward to Toronto, where I moved in 1980 to participate in gay activism in a larger community. Here I finally managed to connect with some men. In 1983, at gay pride day, I was introduced to my future boyfriend, Bob Moore, who hung out with anarchists in Ottawa. He introduced me to the anarchist scene, which was replete with peaceniks and anti-war activists, punk rockers, anti-prison activists, anti-civilisationists, individualists, anti-poverty and anti-psychiatry activists, anti-organizational anarchists, anarcha-feminists, eco-feminists, environmental activists, primitivists, squatters, queer activists, anarcho-syndicalists, green anarchists, deep ecologists, animal-rights activists, First Nations activists, and just plain generic anarchists, among others. If not for my long-distance relationship with Bob, who died from AIDS in 1986, I might never have become an anarchist.
Through the anarchist community, I rediscovered Emma Goldman. I got her autobiography, Living My Life, which I followed with “Toward an Anarchist Manifesto” published in Cienguegos Press’ Anarchist Review. I also read Alexander Berkman’s What is Communist Anarchism?, which is virtually my bible. After that, I was determined to be a lifelong anarchist – as Goldman once said, “to my last breath.” I was heavily influenced by Goldman and Berkman and conclude with them that communist anarchism is, in Berkman’s words, “the best and justest of systems.” It’s what expresses anarchism best for me. I began to search out the anarchists in Toronto, whom I finally found in the Anarchist Free University meeting regularly at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
What groups have you been involved with over the years?
I got involved in the anarchist magazine Kick It Over (KIO). The early 1980s witnessed an explosion of anarchist publications across the country. There was Strike! which came out of St. Catharines, Ontario. There was also Reality Now, Anti-Authoritarian News Network, Bulldozer/Prison News Service, and Ecomedia, all from Toronto; Bevy of Anarcha-Feminists (BOA) and Demolition Derby, both from Montreal; No Picnic and Open Road from Vancouver; and too many others to name here.
KIO’s orientation was very anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist – perhaps all the more because one collective member was an ex-Maoist. That suited me just fine. Marxism was, and to a certain extent still is, my bête noire, although I do acknowledge that Marxism and anarchism share a great deal of analysis in their critiques of capitalism. There is no anarchist equivalent of Das Kapital I, which is a work of genius – something even Bakunin acknowledged. Where anarchists and Marxists disagree most is in the area of solutions, the role of the state, which will always come between us as and constitutes an insurmountable obstacle. Marxists want socialism by way of the state. Anarchists want it by abolishing the state. These positions are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable. As with lesbian separatism, so with Marxism: I appreciate the strong points and know the weaknesses.
I helped organize the Anarchist Unconvention in 1988, then left KIO a year later to participate in Queer Nation (QN), which was the last expression of mass queer radicalism in Toronto’s LGBT community. In a climate that was still hostile to us, QN actions targeted overt homophobia wherever we found it. QN was not an anarchist organization but there were anarchists involved. And its consensus decision-making process had much in common with anarchism.
I got involved in the Anarchist Town Hall meetings resulting from the Unconvention. We held monthly meetings to discuss strategy and consider actions, and there were big annual meetings with anarchists both from and beyond Ontario at Dragonfly Farm up near Bancroft. I also got involved in the Anarchist Men’s Anti-Sexist group and Anti-Racist Action (ARA), both of which I’ll discuss a bit later.
I was involved in organizing the first Toronto Anarchist Book Fair in 2002. Modelled on the Montreal original, the book fair featured a weekend of literature tables, workshops, and entertainment. Finally, and most recently, I spent two years in the North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC).
Was the anarchist scene in Toronto an almost entirely white political tendency, or were people of colour involved?
Unfortunately, while in the 1980s it wasn’t entirely white, Toronto’s anarchist community suffered and still suffers from the problem that is endemic to North American anarchism generally: a dearth of people of colour in the movement. This is a weakness that anarchist communities consistently fail to address. In my opinion, this is because anarchism continues to use what I call a secular religious model, a hangover from the French Revolution. Many born-again firebrand French revolutionaries were ex-clerics and gave social revolution a secular religiosity which has invariably worked against the left, both Marxist and anarchist. Many anarchists seem to think that all they have to do is preach the good word of anarchy, and everyone will flock to our doorstep.
People of colour rightly want to know what anarchism has to offer them. But all our comrades seem to be able to offer is the anarchist gospel, as if that alone were sufficient. “Come join our group, we have the correct line!” Indeed, why wouldn’t people of colour be alienated by white people taking an approach like this? It’s just more of the same – white people telling people of colour what to think and what not to think. It’s like the missionaries at first contact saying, “We’re gonna show those ignorant pagans how to worship God!” or the European settlers saying, “We’re gonna show those ignorant savages how to be civilized!” or Lenin saying, “We’re gonna show those ignorant workers how to be Socialists!” or Stalin saying, “We’re gonna show those ignorant peasants how to collectivize!” So, when white anarchists come along and say, “We’re gonna show those ignorant authoritarians how to be free!” it just antagonizes and disaffects people of colour who will just think we’re nothing but another bunch of racist white people. And, unless we change our approach, they’re right.
Anarchism in itself is something that will appeal to a wide variety of different groups of people as they struggle for their liberation. In recent years, I have been heartened to see the formation of a specifically anarchist people of colour network, which has arisen both to advance the struggles of people of colour in anarchist ways and as a reaction to the racism within the historically very white-dominated anarchist movement in Canada and the US.
In terms of how white anarchists can concretely relate to movements of people of color, I think that it is important that we make contributions where we can, but also avoid pretending that we have all the answers to how other people should fight for their struggles. If a white anarchist wants to contribute to the struggles of a racialized community organization, then I would suggest that they approach the group and say, “I want to support your struggle any way I can. Give me some work to do.” And you do work, any work – sweeping floors, licking envelopes, anything you can get, no matter how menial. And you work hard, harder than anyone else, and longer hours, too. And you don’t mention you’re an anarchist, not yet. For now, you shut up about that. And no matter how much work you do, you always offer to do more, to work harder, and for longer hours. And when you build up some credibility with them, you wait for the conversation to turn to politics.
You don’t bring it up yourself; you don’t preach. You wait for them to bring up the subject, and then – and only then – do you mention that you are an anarchist. And when they see how hard you work, and they know you’re an anarchist, then maybe they’ll begin to wonder, “Well, if this white guy works so damned hard for us, and he’s an anarchist, maybe there is something to this anarchism after all. Maybe we should ask him about it.” And this is one way that white anarchists can start to build better relationships with the struggles of people of colour.
What noteworthy actions or events helped to shape the Toronto anarchist scene?
In terms of actual campaigns, the chief focus in the 1980s would have to be the US cruise missile, the guidance system for which was being manufactured in Canada by Litton Industries in Toronto. These actions were organized mostly by Against Cruise Testing – better known as ACT for Disarmament – a group with lots of anarchists in it. ACT and other sectors of the peace movement organized huge street demonstrations against cruise missle testing where thousands of people took over Yonge Street. Everything culminated in the bombing of Litton Industries by a group of comrades, popularly known as the Vancouver Five. They carried out bombing and firebombing campaigns under the names Direct Action and The Wimmin’s Fire Brigade – there’s that lesbian separatist influence again! And they were successful: Litton lost the contract for the guidance system because of it. But the comrades were eventually arrested and imprisoned.
The other chief focus was First Nations Peoples’ liberation and the war of attrition being waged by North American governments and multinationals like Daishowa, which was logging on Native land. Anarchist or mostly anarchist groups, like Friends of the Lubicon, worked on that. There was, as well, the campaign to achieve justice for Leonard Peltier, a First Nations activist framed for murder and wrongfully imprisoned by the US government – a situation not unlike that of Mumia Abu Jamal, another US political prisoner. Anarchists were very involved in all aspects of prison activism, including working for prison abolition. There were also various animal rights actions and campaigns, which some times culminated in direct action against furriers and slaughter houses. Another noteworthy event was the Anarchist Unconvention known as the Survival Gathering.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the Survival Gathering?
The Survival Gathering was an Anarchist convention that took place in Toronto from July 1 to 4, 1988. There were about 800 participants – mostly from North America but some from around the world. Toronto anarchists got together to organize political events, films and workshops, entertainment, and food as well as housing. Everyone who attended was billeted and fed, and I believe that a very good job was done of meeting their needs.
The Toronto media – especially The Toronto Sun – got wind of our plans and did its best to scare the hell out of the public with completely bogus reports of “15,000 white supremacists and skinheads” descending upon the city. Because of this, we lost the use of High Park and had to content ourselves with Scadding Court Park, which was a little cramped but fine. Unfortunately, much of the public took the media’s lying bait. They had no idea that the 800 people coming to Toronto were fighters for social justice in the tradition of Emma Goldman and Noam Chomsky – the exact opposite of the characterization in the media’s smear campaign. We printed 1,500 copies of the Unconvention’s program, which included 63 workshops across two days – many of them at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
The first day was devoted to orientation and a large general assembly. Both the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) – who were tabling outside the community centre with anti-anarchist literature defending the Kronstadt massacre, among other things – and CITY TV wanted in. But the general assembly, whom the organizers allowed to make the final decision, gave them the boot. The two days of workshops were as diverse as those who attended them.
MDC, Scream, Failsafe, and others provided musical entertainment. Day three was devoted to networking. On this day, Sunday, July 3, the US shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. That set the tone for the next day, the day of action. On Monday, we were 800 strong voicing our anger outside the US consulate. We confounded the cops by fighting back when they charged us, running in all directions, graffiting everything in sight, burning flags and defacing war memorials in protest of US militarism and imperialism, and generally taking over the streets. Approximately 30 people were arrested. The action received international coverage in the anarchist media.
The 1980s saw many radicals experimenting with alternative forms of living often referred to as “lifestyle anarchism.” Was lifestyle anarchism integral to anarchism in this period or was it strongly critiqued by other anarchists?
So-called lifestyle anarchism has always been a choice – it has never been integral to anarchism. If anything, lifestylists formed a large minority. Anarchists like Murray Bookchin in Social Anarchism Or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm and Sam Dolgoff in The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society would have you believe that lifestyle anarchists are detrimental to the movement. To me, they beg the question, does lifestylism interfere with the quantity and quality of work and the meaningful contributions made to the movement? I would answer no. Many of the lifestyle anarchists I knew put their bodies on the line, did direct action, got arrested, were active in organizing, worked just as hard if not harder, and contributed just as much if not more than comrades who did not embrace lifestyle anarchism.
For lifestyle anarchists, the personal is political, and many wanted to live the way they thought they would live after the revolution. It is true there were some comrades who were lifestyle anarchists and nothing more, as if that alone was all that was necessary to engage in the struggle, but even that does not mean they were completely useless to the movement. If nothing else, they would still swell the ranks of street demonstrations and actions when numbers were sorely needed. It’s wrong to say that just because someone is a lifestyle anarchist, she or he isn’t going to work as hard. How do they differ, say, from the Marxist who lives communally and refuses to purchase products that aren’t union-made or that contribute to environmental destruction? Is this not also lifestylism?
Did the anarchist scene have any major assets at the time that it has since lost?
In the 1980s, consciousness-raising around oppression within the anarchist community was as important as fighting in the streets. For example, the Men’s Anti-Sexist group did a supportive action for Take Back the Night and distributed our anti-sexist literature to men at street bars and talked with them about sexism. That complemented our weekly meetings where we’d work on our own sexism and that of others within our community.
This changed, however, with ARA. As one of the comrades related it to me, ARA came into being when a comrade went to Europe and worked with the German Antifas and the autonomists. This influenced the platform on which ARA was organized. Upon return, he approached two of the major Trotskyist groups from Toronto, the International Socialists (IS) and Socialist Challenge (SC) , and the uneasy coalition that formed the original ARA was born. Shortly after this, the focus on consciousness-raising was lost in favour of fighting in the streets. The entire anarchist community seemed to be focusing on action over and above anything else.
Can you describe ARA and a typical action?
ARA was founded in September, 1992, in response to a two-pronged strategy by organized white supremacists in Toronto. One prong was a massive recruitment drive by the Nazis and their fellow travellers. The other was an attempt by racist groups like the Heritage Front to put on a “respectable” face by distancing themselves from Nazis, fascists, and the KKK and trying to appear like a mainstream “white rights” group. In reality, all these groups were working together hand-in-glove, and their goal was to establish a significant white-supremacist presence in Toronto.
Every action was different depending on the requirements and conditions specific to it. My favourite action was against Nazi and Heritage Front member Gary Schipper. We fooled the police by initially organizing at a community centre and then instead of going out and marching to our destination, which is what they expected, we got on streetcars and went to Schipper’s neighbourhood. The cops weren’t prepared for that. We walked down Schipper’s street carrying placards and passing out literature to expose Schipper’s racist and fascist connections and then assembled in front of his house.
What I liked most about the action was that anti-racists were in sufficient numbers to allow peoples of colour and other oppressed people – who had been direct targets of the hate propaganda and violence of the Heritage Front – the safety of the crowd to fight back by attacking Schipper’s house and vandalizing it. The media, ever a source of misinformation and disinformation, said that we had planned to trash the house. We didn’t. It was entirely spontaneous. But when we saw what was happening, we were determined to protect those who were fighting back against their oppression the only way they could. That’s what made it for me the quintessential anarchist action; it allowed oppressed people to take the sort of direct action against their oppressors that, under normal circumstances, they would be unable to do without fear of reprisal or arrest. Although arrests did come out of this action, ARA won in the courts.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of ARA? And are you still involved with the group?
ARA’s greatest achievement was that it managed to break the Heritage Front, an openly racist above-ground organization in Toronto. ARA was the only group that showed any effectiveness in fighting racism and fascism in Toronto at that time and, without, ARA the Heritage Front would have gone virtually unopposed.
As to the weaknesses of ARA, I’ve already touched on the internal consciousness raising I felt was lacking in contrast to the anarchist community of the 1980s. Other weaknesses were vanguardism and the personal and political divisions that erupted. The Trotskyists were asked to leave the group. They wanted to debate every aspect of every agenda item to the point of hairsplitting. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. I believe that the longer you take to make a decision, the more thought you give to it, the more options you consider, and the more carefully you weigh them, the better the result. But this was an action group, and if the Nazis are marching on the streets, you don’t have time to do that. You have to give each decision all the thought that you can within reason and then compromise with the need to act quickly. The Trots were impeding our effectiveness.
There also began to be problems that ARA must have picked up either from working with Marxist-Leninists or from the influence of the European Antifas and autonomists, or some combination thereof. Suddenly, there was all this jockeying for the limelight and for positions of prominence in the group. There was never anything like that in the 1980s. But now personal and political fights between people ended up with individuals and groups refusing to speak with each other. I would not say any of these conflicts were without legitimacy. The real problem is that there were no tools for constructive problem solving, conflict resolution, and consciousness raising like the Anarchist Town Hall meetings we used to have. That vital instrument was gone. Members left ARA in droves.
I wimped out because I had friends on both sides of an argument, and they had been my friends for too many years for me to choose between individuals and groups. I’d loved them all so much for so long, so how could I? Not wanting to be caught in the crossfire, I just kind of shrivelled up and disappeared from the scene. ARA and the anarchist community generally became more internally and externally adversarial. But maybe I’m just being naïve. Maybe the cracks in the community were there all along and tensions within ARA split them open. I do know that it was a time of emotional turmoil for me, and I missed my old community. I really loved everybody – more than any member of my biological family – and it broke my heart when it fell apart.
How has the anarchist community dealt with the question of homophobia?
The community of the 1980s dealt with sexuality and homophobia in a sort of off-handed way. The anti-organizational anarchists told me when I entered the community in 1983 that, since bisexuality was ubiquitous, there was no need to organize around sexual rights – which is absurd. Most bisexuals in the community agreed that queer liberation had to be organized around. But that was only in my first days in the community. As I said before, the attitude toward homosexuality was very matter-of-fact. I got nothing but support from my comrades for being gay and for living with AIDS. More people identified as fag or dyke then, and there were always more dykes – lots of them! – than fags in the anarchist community.
Today, it’s very different with the presence of trans people and lots of bisexuals but almost no fags, although the dyke percentage seems roughly the same. Then there are the so-called queer anarchists. Some anarchists have told me they identify as queer inasmuch as, while they insist on having their meaningful relationships with someone of the other gender, when it comes to being horny, they’ll fuck anyone. This doesn’t speak to my experience of being gay, of gay liberation, or of gay oppression. While people in the anarchist community usually go out of their way not to behave in oppressive ways, they don’t seem to be able to get inside the head of someone who’s dealt with homophobia since childhood. For them it’s something totally different. Maybe it’s a generational thing. There are organizations like gay/straight alliances in high schools now, unheard of in my day. And while kids still grow up with homophobia, it’s not as virulent as when I was a kid. There’s a greater degree of acceptance now, at least in Toronto.
In the old gay liberation movement, I got used to having close emotional relationships with other gay men. We called each other “sisters” to differentiate ourselves from the men we had sex or relationships with. Even if gay men today are politically fucked, emotionally they have a lot more to offer than today’s “queer” anarchist men do. They’re capable of a degree of male-on-male emotional depth and platonic physical intimacy that today’s so-called queer anarchist men seem incapable of. The “queer” anarchist men of today could never be my “sisters – they’re just way too hetero. It’s like they’re aliens from another planet. Or, more probably, I’m the alien. In which case, I say, “ET, deliver me from this hostile, identity-appropriating, hetero world to one where I can be with my own kind!”
The problem is that anybody can claim the identity “queer,” no matter what their sexual orientation is. After all, who’s ever going to be called upon to “prove” it? And so it provides a nice loophole for privileged white men. It reminds me of when Black anarchist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin came to Toronto to speak. During question period, all these white male anarchists who had never been anything but WASPs, suddenly felt queasy about their privilege and miraculously began to find Irish roots that had never existed previously! Straight anarchist men identify as queer so they can say they belong to an oppressed group. That way, they don’t have to take responsibility for their privilege. And then they don’t have to work as hard unlearning their oppressive behaviors. How convenient!
White heterosexual male anarchists should know that there is nothing wrong with them being the way they are – provided they’re willing to take responsibility for their privilege, to use it for the benefit of oppressed people when and where they can, and to unlearn all the ways they can be oppressive. But they are being disingenuous and appropriative when they try to jump on the queer or Irish bandwagon.
You’ve lived with AIDS since 1983. How has the activist community reacted to AIDS during that time?
Generally, the activist community has been very supportive. The anarchists’ attitude was similar to the one they held with respect to my being gay: very matter-of-fact. The only strange reaction I remember was when a member of ARA, upon learning that I was HIV-positive, acted as if I should behave like I had just been diagnosed. By then, I had been living with AIDS for years and had been through all of Kübler-Ross’ stages of death and dying. Nevertheless, this comrade plied me with questions like “Doesn’t it make you sad?” “Don’t you want to cry?” “Does it make you want to scream?” “Does it make you frightened?” These are all things I’d already dealt with. He seemed more devastated then I was. But it’s like any disability. Eventually, you incorporate it into your life, and you get used to it. It’s not like you have a choice.
You have been a regular participant in Toronto’s Gay Pride. Have you noticed changes in the event since you first attended?
Shortly after 1986, when the first gay rights legislation was passed in the province of Ontario, I noticed that the character of the Lesbian and Gay Pride Day had changed. It became a cultural event instead of a political one, and it got the nod from City Hall, with the mayor eventually proclaiming Gay Pride Day and even marching in the parade. There was a huge loss in terms of the activist contribution to Pride Day. When you have the imprimatur of the city and the province, and it’s a public event, of course cops are going to be part of that, too. So, the year after the legislation passed, there were more police at Pride than I’d ever seen. Beforehand, in the 1980s, Pride had always taken place without a permit. We marched and had our own marshals to protect us because the homophobes and/or the police might attack. So you had to have your guard up every moment you were in the march. And, if the police looked like they were going to be a threat, the marshals would form a barrier between the police and the activists.
All this was normal for me. When I went to the Pride Day after the legislation was passed, there were all these cops there, and I couldn’t stay very long because I couldn’t stand it. Once Pride became acceptable, it started looking for corporate sponsors. They responded enthusiastically to this new market and completely deprived Pride of whatever political legitimacy it had left. Pride became thoroughly sanitized. Now, instead of floats of naked dancing fags and dykes, we have trucks pulling condo ads. It took years to get used to the idea. But, even now, I can’t bring myself to attend, so I don’t.
And then there was that memorable day in August of 2000 when my comrades and I were kicked out of Montreal Pride. It was totally unexpected, given that we did what we had always done for years since Pride began in Montreal. Proudly displaying our banner – “We fuck who we want. We’re fucking anarchists” – a handful of us anarchists inserted ourselves into the parade. We were dumbfounded when the Pride marshals reported us to the cops and the cops escorted us out of the parade, telling us that it was a private event, and we weren’t welcome.
Privatized Pride! How do you like that? To think that, in the old days, Pride would have been so desperate that its organizers would have begged anyone to march with them, just to have strength in numbers against the homophobes and the cops. And now Montreal Pride throws out the very activists who gave them Pride in the first place. What irony! The mainstream queers have stolen Pride from the activists who created it and handed it over to their toadies, the cops and corporate sponsors. Pride doesn’t need us any more. The lesson to be learned from this is that, as soon as an oppressed community gets some legal rights and protection, the first thing they do is to purge their community of activists and marginals in order to look acceptable to the mainstream.
What you describe seems to be just one example of a very broad shift in queer politics. What implications do you feel these changes will have on the queer community down the road?
I’ve heard more than one activist of my generation comment that gay rights as a vehicle for change has been exhausted and should be abandoned in favor of looking to a broader sexual agenda. I agree with that statement. There are still lots of marginalized sexualities crying out for liberation that we need to priortize.
I can’t think of anything better to illustrate this than something I read shortly after I came out in the 1970s. In After You’re Out: Personal Experiences of Gay Men and Lesbian Women, Black gay activist Thomas Dotton argued that:
No matter how loud or proud they might shout in the streets, white faggots are doomed to fail. As the movement is structured at this writing, the most they might achieve for us is more of the same with faggots rehabilitated into middle-class society’s faithful. If their goals are attained, by becoming normal, they will join forces with the oppressive elements in our culture. One of gay liberation’s implicit statements is, ‘Because I sleep with a man, that doesn’t mean I’m not middle-class.’
All of that has come true with a vengeance. Dotton was truly prophetic, wasn’t he? That was thirty years ago, and he knew exactly what was coming. Pure genius, really. And that’s the way I’ve always felt.
It’s disappointing because I used to really enjoy organizing in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. I enjoyed it when we were really militant. I was terribly disappointed when the community achieved some level of acceptance and didn’t want to be radical and revolutionary any more. I guess that’s the trade-off you get when an oppressed group gets more rights within a capitalist society: they become much easier to assimilate. In the 1970s and 1980s, we still felt like pariahs. It seems to me that the gay community in Toronto and elsewhere has a very convenient form of amnesia. Before we got gay rights, the police were the implacable enemy and we hated them. They beat us up or they took us out to Cherry Beach, near Scarborough West in Toronto, and made us suck them off before bashing our heads in. Then after gay rights legislation, suddenly the police are just fine in the eyes of the gay community. They are on our side. And we’re told that we should be working to get more gays into the police force. The police go from being absolute enemy to bosom friend. Dotton hit the nail squarely on the head. Gays have indeed become normal and joined forces with the oppressive elements in our culture.
What’s your take on the radicalism coming out of trans politics and activism? Do you see that as a new point for liberation and radical organizing, or are there some limitations to trans politics?
I don’t know enough about trans politics and activism to offer an informed or intelligent comment. If the gay rights movement is a measure of what’s down the road for trans activism, and if trans activism follows the same course – not that it’s going to, but if it does – then the implicit assumption may well be, “Because I’m a transsexual, that doesn’t mean I’m not middle class.” It all depends on whether trans activism follows the path of “rights” – in which case Dotton’s conclusion may well apply – or of “liberation,” in which case the result may be something more radical and revolutionary.
In the beginning, the gay liberation movement was revolutionary and wanted to change society. We wanted to abolish the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy, and the age of consent. We wanted nothing less than complete and unrestricted sexual liberty for all. Socialism was a necessary part of that vision. Now, gay rights groups want to force queers to accommodate themselves to society, to become respectable middle-class people, to become “straight” enough for the white male capitalist Christian patriarchy to accept them. For this reason, we call them “accommodationists,” or “assimilationists.” They hate those terms and try to deny them, but that’s just an attempt on their part to refuse responsibility.
If transsexuals end up choosing accommodation, then Dotton’s view prevails. If, on the other hand, transsexuals choose revolution, I’ll be fighting alongside them.