What Happened to Queer Anarchism?

When I was writing A Queer History of the United States, I began to formulate the argument that some of the major impulses inspiring the LGBT movement had roots in American anarchism. I was surprised by this at first, but then it began to make sense. Mid-19th century political thinkers such as Ezra Heywood—a social utopian who argued passionately that the state had no right to dictate people’s personal, emotional, or sexual lives—argued for frank public discussions of sexuality as indispensable for attaining personal and sexual liberation.


Writers such as Stephen Pearl Andrews, another social utopian who also participated in the free love movement, argued that any state regulation of personal relationships, particularly through state-controlled marriage, was unethical and damaging. Andrews also co-wrote Victoria Woodhull’s famous 1872 speech “The Truth Shall Set You Free” in which she delineated a free love doctrine and claimed it as her constitutional right. Self-described anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman—as they resisted state control over the individual—called for a repeal of all laws criminalizing homosexual behavior and explicitly spoke and wrote about the political and social oppression of homosexuals.


Clearly, so much of the LGBT movement—especially from the 1950s to the mid-1970s—was about getting the state out of the sexual and emotional lives of lesbians and gays. As a political philosophy and strategy, this dovetailed with anarchism’s demand for complete individual liberty. Some of anarchism’s basic tenets helped shape the ideas behind the homophile movements of the 1950s and the Gay Liberation movements of the 1970s. But why hasn’t there been more written about it? The one exception is Terence Kissack’s lively and highly informative Free Comrades: Anarchists and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917.


While some aspects of anarchism—particularly the insistence that the state had no business dictating an individual’s personal or sexual choices or actions—clearly informed LGBT politics, broader anarchist theories never really took root. This is, in part, because anarchism, despite its tapping into longstanding ideals of American individualism and freedom, has never become a vital political influence in the United States. While these ideals emerged and resurfaced in 19th century utopian communities—such as New Harmony and Oneida with their complex systems of political beliefs, sexual behavior, and radical ideas about individual freedom—they were almost always on the fringe of American culture and society.


The Mattachine Society (one of the earliest homophile organizations) was founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay in 1950 (who was forced to leave the CP because of his homosexuality) whose far left views and strict ideas about political regimentation informed early Mattachine politics. Other early homophile groups retreated into assimilation politics that demanded acceptance, not radical social change.


A similar pattern happened in the late 1960s. The politics of the Gay Liberation Front were predicated on the anti-war, anti-militarist, pro-civil rights, and anti-government positions of the New Left modified by ideas from the Black Power movement and second wave feminism. The youth counter-culture of drugs, sex, and rock and roll—all of which displayed anarchistic tendencies—also had an effect, but it was contextual rather then political. As in the 1950s, the LGBT groups that emerged in response to this radicalism—beginning with the 1970s Gay Activist Alliance to such groups as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign—were reformist and assimilationist.


In the late 1970s, there were a few groups and publications that espoused a union of Gay Liberationist ideas within an anarchist context. The second issue of Gay Anarchist Tide (Gay Pride Day, June 1978) stated: “Have you ever gone to a gay pride demonstration and felt that there was no group you could identify with? Are you tired of gay politicians and straight Gay politicians? There is an alternative to NGTF conservatism and Trotskyite ‘radicalism.’ We feel that a strong anarchist influence within the gay movement is essential.”


In 1979, issues of the Gay Anarchist Bulletin, the newsletter of Gay Anarchist Tide, contained collaborative work with the Anarchist Feminist Conference, the Association of Libertarian Feminists, the Gay Atheist League, as well as other groups. There is a note about a May Day rally against the reinstitution of selective service with the War Resisters League and other left groups.


A spokesperson for the group read a statement that began: “200 Thousand Gay People in the 1940s were killed in the concentration camps of national socialism. Today, as 1984 approaches, we do not intend to be sacrificed in the concentrations camps of national service…. As Gay Anarchists we totally reject the ideology that our lives belong to the state…. ”


Issues of Gay Clone, published in June 1977 by the Gay Men’s Alliance at New York’s Hunter College, contained articles on anarchism, political analysis, poetry, and the gay community’s boycott in response to the Anita Bryant Save Our Children crusade. In “May Day Gay Anarcho Statement” the editors note: “May Day has been an annual event which commemorates the victories gained by the working class in their struggle for liberation. Gay people share the struggles and joys of this working class holiday. We are an integral part of the world’s working class, and we are part of the revolutionary social movement that challenges all forms of human oppression. We demand complete liberation and sovereignty for the individual and particular lifestyles. Gays have made great strides in advancing these goals.”


The Storm! A Journal for Free Spirits, also based in New York, was published during this time and was dedicated to an anarchist analysis and history. Using the slogan “Anarchy is free love;  gay freedom now,” the editors state in the sixth issue: “In all areas of life The Storm! advocates non- authoritarian, non-hierarchical, voluntary association. Upon the basis of individual sovereignty, anarchists in the past have advocated free love, the abolition of compulsory marriage. This idea is just now coming of age. The logical implication of free love is sexual anarchy, the overthrow of all social regulation of voluntary sexual interaction. Hand in hand with sexual anarchy goes the concept of psychological androgyny. That is…considering no psychological or personality trait as inherently characteristic of either sex.”


In “Where We Stand,” the editors write: “Government creates, and the government permits, the existence of fictitious “person” called corporations. These privileged collectives control the natural resources and financial opportunities upon which we as working individuals must depend for our lives and liberty. Corporations are state, not private, institutions and it is naive or hypocritical for libertarians to talk about a corporation’s rights of free association and private discrimination.”


In the late 1970s, the Anita Bryant crusade—with its specter of child molestation and sexual abuse—pushed the LGBT movement into a more defensive position that reinforced its most conservative tendencies. Looking for social acceptance, rather than wide- scale social change, the movement coalesced around socially acceptable goals. Most discussions of economic justice were also lost as the increasing visibility of lesbian and gay life became consumerized.


In 1981, when the AIDS epidemic began, LGBT organizing efforts were channeled into caring for the sick and dying and fighting massive social and institutional discrimination against people with AIDS. These social and political forces steered the movement away from its radical inclinations.


What has been lost these days—when marriage equality has become the main focus and the repeal of Don‘t Ask Don’t Tell has replaced earlier calls of anti-militarism—is the presence of voices and ideas that offer alternative visions.


Michael Bronski is senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His books include A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press).