Gays Under Attack: Out of the closets and into the hospitals

Cover of Zero, anarcha-feminist monthly, No. 3This article, and others from the 1970s on this website, first appeared in often obscure and ephemeral publications that are now hard to find. They were written as polemical interventions in the debates of the time, and I might choose to say things differently now. But they represent a perspective often missing from accounts of that period, and contribute to the historical record of attempts to make links between anarchism, feminism, and sexual liberation. Such attempts, shaped by their historical context, are part of a process of activism and debate which predates the seventies, and continues today.

‘Gays under Attack’ was an attempt by Margot Farnham and myself to challenge what we saw as the indifference of the left, and the divisions between the Gay and Women’s Liberation movements, in the face of an increasingly violent anti-gay backlash in the mid-seventies.

This article was published in Zero No.3, October/ November 1977, pp. 8, 10. Zero was ‘an anarchist/ anarcha-feminist monthly produced by a mixed collective, mainly from East London’. (p.6)

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Key Words: anti-gay, backlash, freedom, gays, gay liberation, homophobia, international, lesbians, nineteen-seventies, patriarchy, self-determination, sexuality, violence, women’s liberation

Key People: Peter Benyon, Anita Bryant, Mary Whitehouse

Notes and References →

Gays Under Attack: Out of the closets and into the hospitals

‘Capital punishment for homosexuality — volunteers needed.’ This message appeared on posters in Los Angeles following the successful campaign in June by Anita Bryant and Save Our Children Inc. to dismantle gay rights legislation in Dade County, Florida. That same month in San Francisco, anti-gay propaganda culminated in a man being stabbed to death outside his home by four men shouting ‘Faggot! Faggot!’ The dead man’s mother intends to sue Anita Bryant for stirring up hatred towards homosexuals and provoking the murder of her son.

Since June an estimated 70,000 gays have demonstrated in the streets of major USA cities. In Los Angeles, 9,500 people marched down Hollywood Boulevard protesting against Bryant’s presence in California. The marchers included heterosexuals and representatives of ethnic minorities. In response to Save Our Children’s obsession with child molesters, some banners read ‘Anita, WE are your children’. One group carried the banner ‘Parents of gays join in the fight for your children’s rights’.

Although less lurid, Mary Whitehouse’s anti-gay activities in this country resemble Bryant’s both in the manipulation of religious emotion and in the puritanical emphasis on clean living and decent family life. Both women, too, are associated with right wing organisations which are unscrupulous in the methods they use to further their repressive aims.

The recent outbreak of anti-gay campaigning has recharged hatred and violence towards gays in this country. On the night of July 23rd, after leaving a gay disco in North London, Peter Benyon was beaten to death by a group of men using pieces of wood and crowbars. ‘He was on the ground and whenever he tried to move they just hit him again’, said an eye-witness. In South London, a woman may lose her sight after being hit in the face with a broken bottle in one of a series of attacks by gangs of young men lying in wait outside a weekly women’s disco.

Protesters carrying banner with slogan 'homosexuals fight back', and images linking Anita Bryant, Mary Whitehouse and Adolf Hitler.
Protestors assemble for the march. (Click photo for more images).

Two hundred gays took part in a silent march through the rain in North London the Saturday after Benyon’s murder. They were there because they recognised that these are not isolated, unconnected incidents, but are part of a general increase in violence against gays — a violence legitimised by the propaganda of such groups as the Festival of Light and also by the outspoken prejudices and hostility of many public figures.

Violence itself is nothing new. Queer-bashing is commonplace — but the popular press pays attention to such attacks only when murder can be linked with a juicy story of perverted sex. In most of the left-wing press — nothing.

Some violence is taken for granted, not recognised for what it is — it marks invisibly the boundaries of where we should be, how we should live. Gay men, prostitutes, and any woman out alone at night are thought to incite and invite violence simply by being. Such groups are trespassers by definition. The hate-filled men who physically attack us act as agents for a patriarchal state whose interest is in keeping all of us in our place. Raped women who are insulted, abused and humiliated by police, courts, and the press know this. So do homosexual men who are spied on and beaten up by the police, condemned by the courts, and often ostracised or raped by ‘straight’ fellow prisoners with the connivance of warders.

Those on the receiving end know all this. But many liberal sympathisers seem to think that since the 1967 Act which legalised sex in private between consenting adult men, there is no problem for homosexuals — apart from the occasional verbal insults by unenlightened people. (Lesbians — thanks to Queen Victoria — never had problems anyway, except perhaps having failed to meet the right man).

Such attitudes ignore reality and trivialise oppression in a way that is hard to forgive. There are more homosexuals than blacks in this country.* We are harder to see, but we are also oppressed and discriminated against, outsiders and scapegoats. And for many of us this oppression comes on top of what we experience through being female, working class, or black – a connection missed by those trade unionists on the Grunwick picket lines who shouted at a group of gay men coming to join them: ‘We don’t want no fucking queers here!’

Social and self-hatred is a subtle psychological weapon. From childhood, being gay is not allowed as a possibility. Favourite insults between children are cunt, bender, lezzie, pouf. The most common words for homosexuality are insults. If a child or young adult suspects it in herself, it is something to suppress. Being forced into such invisibility prevents us from loving and accepting ourselves and in turn being accepted by other people in all areas of life as ourselves — for being gay is an essential part of our selves. The feminist/libertarian idea that the personal is political means making connections between all aspects of our lives. It does not mean that what people do in their private lives is their business. Heterosexuals can afford to maintain their privacy in the knowledge that they are accepted and acceptable. For gays, privacy is no choice – it means enforced secrecy and secretiveness. Other weapons against us include job sanctions. Closet (concealed) homosexuals who are discovered may lose their jobs. In Inner London recently a residential childcare worker was forced to resign for this reason, though in less ‘sensitive’ jobs, discretion may mean that gayness is overlooked.

Being openly gay creates more problems. Recent cases include John Warburton, a schoolteacher who was sacked and blacklisted after discussing his homosexuality with pupils who had seen him on a gay demonstration; Louise Boychuck, sacked for wearing a Lesbians Unite badge to the office; a British Home Stores shop assistant who was sacked after appearing on a television programme with his lover. Veronica Pickles, a health visitor, was taken off her midwifery course, also after appearing on TV. She was reinstated after a vigorous support campaign, but first faced such humiliations as being followed on her rounds by the Area Health Authority, making sure she was behaving herself.

Homosexuals are considered a threat to children. Whether we are seen as potential child molesters or as inadequate role models, we are likely to be denied the possibility of working with children, or sometimes even living with or seeing our own. For lesbians involved in custody cases, it is one of the few occasions that the supposedly primary need of a child for its mother is outweighed. The most tolerant employers are reluctant to let gays work with children — if only for fear of public reaction.

We don’t want tolerance, but self-determined sexuality, freely expressed, as part of a transformation of sexual and social relationships. When we make this demand openly, the surface tolerance starts to crumble. Tory MP Ronald Bell recently condemned the state of affairs in this country when one can see ‘buggers and lesbians flaunting their vice under the impudent banner of gaiety … I voted for the Bill which allowed buggery between consenting adults in private. But now, wherever you go you see them flaunting it in the streets with demonstrations and stickers.’

The same point was made in the debate in the House of Lords this summer during Lord Arran’s unsuccessful attempt to get the age of consent for male homosexuals lowered from 21 to 18. As well as the usual talk of ‘the infectious growth of this filthy disease’, more liberal speakers expressed anxiety about how an Act which had been intended to ease the burden of men unfortunate in their sexual tendencies had been taken advantage of by people daring to think themselves normal. At least waiting till 21 gives young men a chance to get over it — maybe with the help of aversion therapy or hormone treatment. Meanwhile, men are in prison because their lovers were old enough to marry but too young for gay sex. Bill Walker is serving 18 months for buggery and gross indecency (i.e. having sex) with his 16-year-old lover.

The situation for lesbians is less clearly defined though associating with known lesbians can be enough to categorise a young woman as ‘in moral danger’, and liable to a care order. In general, though, even when lesbians are visible — we’re not seen. At a picket outside the Attorney General’s Office after the ‘Gay News’ trial, a passer-by began arguing with some of the men that we had no need to be so public and vocal with our badges and placards. When one of us joined in the discussion, she was told, ‘What’s a nice young girl like you doing here? You must have lots of boyfriends.’ When we make ourselves seen, we risk being beaten up for it — more risk added to the main risk of being a woman, especially a woman outside her proper place.

A real woman is safe in the home. And a real man is keeping her there. Women and men whose sexuality or way of living challenge this face all society’s techniques to straighten them out — or at least keep them hidden — from social work to psychiatry to prison to fists and knives and crowbars.

Lesbianism challenges the system in which women are forced to depend, economically, socially, sexually, on men — a dependence which props up the whole rotten patriarchal system. Male homosexuality isn’t essentially subversive, (think of Ancient Greece or some modern Arab states), but it can be if it questions the male/female power structure, or challenges the social repression of sexuality. In the USSR, for instance, male homosexual acts are seen as Acts against the State, punishable with up to 8 years’ hard labour and social ostracism. Lesbianism ‘doesn’t exist’.

China doesn’t admit to such problems. Homosexuality is mentioned only in the context of pre-revolutionary sexploitation. Sexual behaviour of any sort is controlled, and a popular textbook condemns masturbation as a dangerous activity which diverts energy from the Revolution.

In the right-wing military dictatorship of Bolivia, the Camba Civic Command has been formed, dedicated to hunting down and killing homosexuals, prostitutes and drug dealers. The CCC is modelled on Argentina’s Triple A political murder organisation — while in Argentina itself, an article published by the Ministry of Social Welfare called for male homosexuals to be exiled to forced labour camps, and lesbians to be jailed or killed (since they are not fit for childbearing).

The Right lays bare those ideas of women’s and men’s place which are shared by all patriarchal states. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the existence of repressive laws, even though seldom used, means gays experience constant insecurity. Last year, gays living in and around Belfast were intensively investigated and harassed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Twenty-five activists were arrested and interrogated, and files were seized. Charges were dropped as a result of an organised support campaign and sympathetic publicity, but the laws are still there, and can be used to intimidate individuals and damage the growing networks of politically conscious gays.

In England, institutionalised oppression is increasing, as in police harassment campaigns in Bradford and Cornwall, and this summer’s Jubilee cleanup of male and female prostitutes in London. Right-wing pressure groups such as the Festival of Light, The National Viewers and Listeners Association, The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, and The Responsible Society are mobilising support. Recent successes include the defeat of the Arran Bill, the ‘Gay News’ verdict, the increasingly frequent refusal of bookings of town halls and hotels to gay organisations — and the vicious publicity which provided the ideological justification for violence. The current attacks on abortion by these groups are part of the same backlash which is hitting gays.

The 60’s saw reforms motivated by liberal compassion for unfortunate individuals, the misfits; homosexuals, the unhappily married, pregnant women unable to cope. These reforms gave some real benefits. But once we come out and say we are not misfits or victims, that we are glad to be gay; that we are going to be open about, and enjoy, our own sexuality; that for women this means the right to have an abortion if she doesn’t want to be pregnant, THAT WE WANT CONTROL OVER OUR OWN LIVES — the backlash begins.

Campaign for Homosexual Equality banner on the march.
Campaign for Homosexual Equality banner on the march. (Click on photo for more images).

Gays are fighting back — for example, an Ad Hoc Committee formed at the time of the ‘Gay News’ prosecution has been co-ordinating pickets and marches. But the numbers involved are small, and it’s easy to feel isolated. Repression is increasing, and liberal indignation is not enough to stop it.

The suspicious contempt of the left for ‘unpolitical’ groups such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and publications like Gay News doesn’t help, either. In the end we are all affected by this repression.

In the Soviet Union, groups of young people who refuse to conform to the standards demanded by their society are called ‘unofficial livers’. Unofficial livers are a threat — to the state, to the patriarchal family, to existing power shapes and structures. Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation embody the threat of total revolution, transformation. And the right wing are often the first to realise this — and try to stop it.

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Notes and References

Information from: ‘Camp Times’, ‘Gay Left’, ‘Gay News’, ‘Lesbian Tide’, ‘Outcome’, ‘Peace News’, ‘Peoples’ News Service’.

* Note added by the authors in 2009: The point of this paragraph is about the invisibility of gay people in all social groups, so it is unfortunate that this sentence can be read as suggesting that ‘gay’ and ‘black’ are separate categories. The appeal to numbers was also unhelpful to the debate.