by Tim Corbett and rama (a.k.a. Charlie Hinton) with the help of the entire Magnus collective and with thanks to those people we interviewed.
originally published in Magnus #2, Summer 1977, under the title “Practice Makes Powerful: Can Gays Get It Together in San Francisco? A Political Analysis of Bay Area Gay Liberation”
This is the second of what we intend to be a continuing series of examples of political practice. In Magnus #1, the article "On Our Identity as Faggots" laid the basis for an anti-imperialist understanding of gay liberation. The following article explains how that understanding can be used to build gay liberation organizations.
On November 4, 1976, Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) split into two groups. After a three month organizational struggle, some of its members, including two of its original founders, left BAGL to form Gay Action. Magnus formed out of the BAGL Education Committee in April, 1975, and all our collective members have been involved in BAGL to some extent. We think the split raises extremely important questions for both the local and national gay (men's) movement. This article is an attempt to sum up BAGL's history and draw conclusions from it that are relevant for all of us. It is only through understanding our history and learning from our success es and failures that we are going to be able to build a movement for revolutionary social change.
The central question that resulted in the split is, "On what basis can a mass organization of gay men be founded?" The approach we’ll call the democratic rights/mass action approach maintained that the struggle for gay rights was the only issue around which great numbers of gay people could be organized. In practice, this approach seeks to unite all gay people around demands for gay democratic rights. The strategy is to attack, through mass actions, institutions that foster gay oppression.
On the other hand, the approach we'll call the anti-imperialist approach based its unity on the understanding that gay people can achieve liberation only by uniting with all other oppressed people in a common struggle against the system of imperialism. The strategy is to build alliances with national liberation struggles and women 's and workers' struggles to defeat the system of imperialism and build socialism.
"Imperialism" is a complex term, but put simply, it is a worldwide economic, social, political, and cultural system through which a small ruling class controls most of the world's land, resources, and people. This ruling class, which owns virtually all of society's productive forces, is composed mainly of heterosexual white men. Its center is in the United States, although it includes ruling elites in Western Europe, Japan, Israel, South Africa, Iran, Brazil, and other countries. White national oppression of Third World people, male and heterosexual supremacy, and the capitalist exploitation of workers are all connected under the imperialist system. Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Economically it is controlled by huge multinational corporations (Standard Oil, IBM, etc.) and banks that are more powerful than the national governments of countries in which they operate. Imperialist ideology is perpetuated through control of governments, criminal justice and educational systems, psychiatry, and the media. The United States is an imperialist power, and gay oppression is one tool the imperialists use to keep people divided and fighting each other instead of fighting the imperialist system itself.
BAGL was founded by people of the democratic rights/mass action tendency who constituted BAGL leadership during its first year. The opposing anti-imperialist group gained control during BAGL's second year. They won the split vote and are currently reorganizing BAGL under anti-imperialist principles of unity. The democratic rights/mass action group subsequently formed Gay Action.
Perhaps as much as 25% of San Francisco is gay. We are an emerging political, cultural, and economic force in the life of the city. Many of the contradictions that exist in all of imperialist society are becoming apparent in the gay community. Gay bosses rip off gay workers, and racism and sexism are deeply ingrained in much of the swinging lifestyle that touches the wallet of the Advocate. In fact, many white middle class gay men are gaining some power and privilege. For instance, this group is significantly changing housing patterns in San Francisco as they move into traditional Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods, fix up houses, and drive up rents (with the blessings and loan money of San Francisco's ruling elite). There are increasing antagonisms between gay middle class property owners and working class gay and Third World people. White middle class gay men are becoming vocal and powerful forces in several neighborhoods, and many other less privileged gay people are suffering as a result, so the premise that gay oppression is the one unifying force that holds us together is being seriously challenged.
At first glance these contradictions may seem unique to San Francisco (or at least unique in such an exaggerated form). But the class, race, and sex divisions among gay people that exist here are present in other cities, and will affect greatly the degree of unity possible among gay people in those cities. Therefore, it is in the context of the growing antagonisms among gay people in San Francisco that we should try to understand the BAGL split.
Illustration by Tom Till, from Magnus #2
Formation of BAGL
BAGL started out trying to unite "gay women and men of all races in common struggle against our oppression." We were not able to do that owing mainly to the fact that, as it appears now, it was the wrong strategy. Critical errors in our under standing of gay oppression, poor and inexperienced leadership, and an inefficient organizational structure were also contributing reasons. As of now, BAGL is an organization of gay white men, and has been predominantly so for its entire existence. BAGL, however, has been very successful in developing radical consciousness in hundreds of gay people and has had a tremendous influence on many levels of San Francisco's political life: gay and straight, progressive and—to some extent "Establishment." It has also spawned a variety of other groups united around national and racial oppression, class, effeminacy, spirituality, culture, and study.
BAGL history is part of the wave of gay liberation initiated in 1969 by the Stonewall Rebellion, in commemoration of which we celebrate Gay Freedom Day. On that occasion, patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York fought back against an attempt by police to bust the place. This led to three nights of street fighting between gay people and police. Puerto Rican street queens and other street people, tired of being oppressed and fucked over, led the rebellion.
A police bust in San Francisco was directly responsible for the organization of BAGL. On Labor Day, 1974, police busted thirteen gay men for "loitering" after 2:00 AM on Castro street, the heart of one of San Francisco's gay communities. Several hundred angry gay people attended meetings set up by the Police Community Relations Board (PCRB) to deal with the bust. At the same time the Board was preparing for the election of a new liaison with the gay community. The liaison at that time was a pro-police ultra-conservative Reaganite Republican. Gay liberals were trying to replace him with a more moderate person-and succeeded. This brings us to our discussion of the Revolutionary Gay Men's Union (RGMU), the organization that preceded BAGL.
The RGMU formed shortly before the bust and lasted for about six months. Its members spent most of the time trying to develop principles of unity and figure out what to do. They were involved to some extent in work around Inez Garcia and rape, solidarity work with the anti-dictatorship resistance in Chile, and busing in Boston. But mainly they talked. It is safe to say that most of the members had a very incomplete grasp of the nature of gay oppression and how to fight it.
They weren't set up to deal with any thing like the Labor Day bust, and when it happened they were divided as to what to do. A few people supported working with the PCRB elections, but the majority wanted nothing to do with them. Gradually two responses emerged as to how to proceed (or as Marxists say, a two-line struggle developed). In retrospect those two lines formed the thread that weaves through the entire history of BAGL. In their most developed forms to date, they are expressed in two principles of unity submitted to BAGL by the Progressive Gay Caucus and the Gay Action Caucus. Those papers were the basis of the BAGL split.
To return to the RGMU: Howard Wallace and Claude Wynne, the two strongest advocates of the democratic rights/mass action approach, grew tired of all the talk and decided it was time to organize a progressive, broad based gay organization focused around police repression. They thought the PCRB meetings were ripping off gay people's energy and they wanted to move while people were still angry. They claimed that, as gay revolutionaries, putting together such an organization was their most important task and urged RGMU to do so.
The anti-imperialist group opposed the idea. They wanted to form a smaller group with a relatively high level of unity that would work in, but not help organize, mass organizations. They felt that large groups with low unity would inevitably be liberal, reformist, and a drain on energy. Nevertheless Michael Novick, a leader of the anti-imperialist group, helped Claude and Howard work on the leaflet, "Can Gays Get It Together in San Francisco?" which was the call for the meeting out of which BAGL was organized in late January, 1975. People from the anti-imperialist group later organized the June 28th Union (J28U) as a small closed group in May 1975.
Boycott Coors beer campaign, mid-1970s.
Photo: The Bilerico Project
In setting up its program and structure out of its mass action/democratic rights approach, BAGL drew heavily on both the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front, two organizations that formed as a result of Stonewall in New York. The main program focus, like that of the GAA, was to fight gay oppression and to educate people, both gay and non-gay, about the struggle for gay democratic rights. BAGL had more class awareness of issues than GAA, however, and from the first endorsed specifically non-gay working class issues, like the Gallo wine and Coors beer boycotts and city workers' strikes in San Francisco. It believed gay people as workers should support other workers. Generally, it recognized the source of gay oppression in business, governmental, and social laws, in institutions like the nuclear family, and in mores that are anti-gay. The response to anti-gay laws and regulations was to fight for pro-gay laws and regulations. The focus was always on changing laws and rules, rather than on overthrowing the institutions that made the laws and rules. The program focus was likewise always external—towards understanding how gay people are oppressed by straight society. There was no attempt to look inward at how we oppress ourselves and each other, nor at how gay oppression is materially linked to other forms of oppression under the system of imperialism. These two differences became key points of contention between the Progressive Gay Caucus and the Gay Action Caucus.
Structurally BAGL was similar to the GLFs in that anyone attending a meeting was considered a member and could vote, regardless of how unfamiliar he or she was with the issues. There was no elected leadership. Committees formed as needed and anyone could attend their meetings. A coordinating committee met the night before general meetings, held twice monthly, to set up agendas and designate two chairpersons. Final policy decisions rested in votes of the entire membership—that is, whoever attended the meeting that a particular issue was voted on.
Initially BAGL was a tremendous success. Over 200 people—perhaps 10-to-20% of them women—attended the organizational meeting. The main task was to vote on a draft statement of purpose and choose the name. Several members of the anti-imperialist group came and attempted to amend the statement so as to give BAGL a more socialist character. They also tried to postpone the final vote of approval. Both efforts failed and the statement adopted was very similar to the draft statement. It clearly expressed the democratic rights/mass action approach. The anti-imperialists did manage to eliminate a reference to non-violence and to include a line about solidarity with specially oppressed gay and working class people. But that was all. After that they stopped coming to BAGL meetings for several months.
BAGL's First Year
One of the reasons BAGL was so successful was that Howard and Claude were experienced organizers. Howard was formerly a member of the Socialist Workers Party, a large nationwide Trotskyist organization, and had been involved in labor and anti war organizing for many years. Of all RGMU members, he had probably the clearest vision of what kind of organization he wanted to build. Claude had been active in GAA and the Young Socialist Alliance (affiliated with the SWP) in York. Together they were right in judging the mood of many gay men (but not of lesbians) in San Francisco. There was a strong need for a very visible, vocal and militant gay men's organization, and BAGL filled it.
Early on, BAGL sent large delegations to United Farmworkers rallies in San Francisco and Modesto. BAGL's first project was to initiate a campaign calling for an elected police review board. It was unsuccessful, but a demonstration against police repression drew over 100 people. BAGL really made its name, however, by working with the Gay Teacher's Coalition to force the San Francisco Board of Education to include teachers under the city's anti-gay discrimination laws. BAGL became too big a force to ignore. The momentum from the school board victory carried over into Gay Freedom Day in 1975. Thousands of people marched in the parade in the Stonewall Coalition, which BAGL helped organize. The gay men's left in Sari Francisco was back in business.
Gay Teachers became a force in San Francisco, seen here in 1978.
Photo: Cathy Cade
BAGL's first attempt to work in a leftist coalition produced a significant confrontation. Several of the anti imperialist RGMU members were among the organizers of the Solidarity Committee that formed in April 1975 to develop a program of solidarity with leftist causes. Their first and only project was to involve BAGL in an International Workers' Day Celebration (May Day) in Oakland, to be held on May 4th, 1975. While many of the RGMU members had opposed the formation of BAGL, they now entered the organization to work on this event. There were many leftist, socialist and communist groups planning the event, and although a few of these groups were known to have anti-gay politics, BAGL was assured full involvement in the celebration. The night before the event, however, the steering committee refused to let BAGL display a planned exhibit on the gay movement, because the exhibit was not ready in time for the steering committee to approve it. The next day over one hundred BAGL members showed up expecting to see the exhibit and were outraged to learn what had happened.
Subsequently BAGL members and representatives of the celebration's steering committee held two stormy sessions over the matter, but the issue was never fully resolved. The steering committee members most opposed to BAGL participation refused even to attend the meetings. However, some of the straight organizers grew to understand and respect the gay struggle.
Members of the democratic rights/mass action tendency supported BAGL's participation in the event, but had severe misgivings. They questioned the degree to which the autonomy of the gay movement could be subordinated to the left. Clearly interested in maintaining BAGL's independent nature, they supported the slogans of the celebration although they believed that this method of worker solidarity would not reap any benefits. They did not attend the event. The May 4th confrontation proved to be the first step in the polarization of the two RGMU factions inside BAGL.
Despite the negative effect we have described, the event had positive ramifications as well. It opened the door for BAGL participation in the anti-imperialist left in the Bay Area. Alliances were formed, especially with lesbians, and political analysis started to emerge that placed gay oppression in the context of anti-imperialism. BAGL proved that it could consistently turn out large numbers of people at events it worked to build. Dozens of BAGL members were radicalized by the experience. For many this confrontation was an introduction to leftist politics, and people's political awareness deepened significantly. The May Day conflict created a thirst for knowledge and struggle that BAGL eventually was unable to meet.
Those anti-imperialists who had helped organize the solidarity committee left it following May 4th. The committee fell apart. They left because they felt the need for a small autonomous organization with a high degree of political unity where they could work independently of BAGL. So in late May, they helped form the June 28th Union (J28U) which was "committed to fighting capitalism, imperialism, sexism, racism, and gay oppression, and to building a society organized on socialist and feminist principles." (Leaflet, J28U, May, 1975). It was composed of about a dozen men, mainly anti-imperialist ex-RGMU members.
The J28U formed in secret and remained so for over a month. Eventually it handed out a leaflet presenting itself at a BAGL meeting as a closed group that had more defined socialist politics than BAGL. Since J28U had formed out of a small circle of close friends, many people were angered and hurt at being left out. Resentments started to build from the first.
Their role in BAGL was contradictory. Many of them related to BAGL, if only superficially, but only about half of them were very active. Nevertheless, the aura of the whole union surrounded them. They had a lot of influence, not only because they were trying to develop an anti-imperialist approach to gay liberation, but also because they were the most politically experienced among those who opposed the mass action/democratic rights group. Several J28U members were leaders in the Progressive Gay Caucus, and played a very important role in helping to define the differences with the Gay Action Caucus during the split. One of them, Michael Silverstein, actually wrote most of the final draft of the PGC Principles of Unity.
In BAGL, J28U members continually raised issues of racism and national oppression and brought important leftist struggles to the organization. But they could have done a much better job of sharing their viewpoint and providing leadership. BAGL was an organization long on enthusiasm but short on experienced, knowledgeable, and capable people who could provide some direction. Instead of reaching out to really integrate themselves into BAGL and provide that direction, they pulled into their own small group, whose importance and togetherness they mystified a great deal.
The J28U disbanded in December, 1976. In retrospect, several of its members say that being similar in so many ways they only reinforced the worst aspects of each other and their political perspectives. They failed to provide the degree of anti-imperialist leadership in BAGL and gay anti-imperialist leadership in the straight left they had hoped to give. Ironically, people gave them credit for being more together than they actually were. Instead of bringing focus, clarity, and a sense of struggle to BAGL, they brought arrogance, sectarianism, and divisiveness. They were greatly responsible for the polarization that took place. Most of them were college-educated and were looked on as arrogant and elitist. They were not sensitive to criticisms of how they were alienating people, and they consistently did not deal with how their abstract intellectualizing was oppressive to effeminate men and people with less education. They did manage to collaborate with the mass action/democratic rights group on one occasion, however, in the Bar Committee.
The Bar Committee was an attempt to change the nature of BAGL by developing a concrete plan of action instead of just reacting to situations as they arose. It was the first attempt at such a plan since efforts to organize a police review board when BAGL first started. Both factions worked on writing a "Bill of Rights for Patrons and Employees of Gay Establishments." In the committee some people wanted to emphasize fighting racism and sexism in gay bars. Another group wanted to stress "quality of life" issues like fire safety and noise level. The Bill of Rights was BAGL's "Great Compromise." It placed its primary emphasis on fighting racism and sexism, but also stressed quality of life issues. It was posted all over the city and raised the consciousness of many people. The Bar Committee also organized a boycott of the Mind Shaft, a popular dance bar that had a discriminatory ID policy to keep out many women and Third World people. Two militant protests forced the bar to change its policy. Just as the Mind Shaft issue was winding down, however, BAGL literally blew up over the issue of whether and how to support Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich. All of the antagonisms that had been swept under the rug for so long exploded. BAGL never really recovered.
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Longtime activist Charlie Hinton describes his arrival in San Francisco in 1971 and his subsequent involvement in Left and Gay politics, including being a member of Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) from its founding in 1975 to its dissolution in 1979. He also covers the role of labor organizing, the Coors boycott, UFW solidarity, and the San Francisco Teachers' Union efforts to establish a gay curriculum. With a strong focus on anti-imperialist political organizing, Hinton describes the celebration at the 1975 fall of Saigon to the joy he felt in July 1979 when the Sandinistas triumphed in Nicaragua.
Problems During the First Year
Dissatisfaction grew as BAGL progressed. Many people had concerns that were not being addressed. BAGL had become an organization overwhelmingly composed of white men. Intellectual debate dominated the meetings. Generally the debate was polarized between the two factions, and most people felt caught in the middle. As we mentioned earlier, the democratic rights/mass action people did not deal adequately with the internal differences among BAGL members. They were also reluctant to discuss socialism or to identify BAGL, as part of a broad socialist or anti-imperialist movement. Many people identified as one kind of socialist or another and many more wanted to know about socialism, but there was never any attempt to educate people about what it meant. J28U members often presented socialist ideas, but in a way many people found rhetorical and alienating.
Women found it difficult to work in BAGL. Two women, who were also ex-SWP members, were among the founders of BAGL. They had tried to start a women's caucus shortly after BAGL began. They were unsuccessful, "partially due to illness and lack of time among the organizers: Other women had worked in BAGL from time to time, but it was very difficult for them. The male energy was overwhelming, and men tended to be very liberal, being overly nice to women and not criticizing them for fear of being sexist. A BAGL woman organized very successful lesbian's conference in October, 1975, and a small group of women tried to stay together afterwards, but it didn't work out. BAGL had supported and raised money for Inez Garcia and Joan Little, but there is a big difference between that kind of support and struggling to overcome deeply internalized male supremacist attitudes and behavior. BAGL did not encourage the latter, and in fact meetings were structured in a way that made it virtually impossible for that to happen. Neither did BAGL initiate any program to combat the oppression of lesbians or women in general.
In one case UNION WAGE asked BAGL to work on a coalition to fight sex discrimination against women workers. We endorsed it, but did not follow through with sustained support. At other times we were liberal or tolerant about blatant anti-women attitudes. We didn't struggle with the fact that some aspects of gay male culture—like cruising and role playing—are offensive to women. Instead of struggling with each other around our sexism we frequently tended to expect lesbians to confront us with it. A great failure of BAGL was its inability and unwillingness to struggle against male supremacy and for the liberation of lesbians and all women.
It was not just in relation to women that male supremacy existed. Effeminate men became vocal about the oppression they felt from non-effeminate gay men who refused to deal with the privilege that strong male identity allowed them. Also transsexuals came to meetings to ask for help on several occasions, but we just listened, applauded politely, gave them a little money and sent them on their way. When BAGL first organized, there had been an extensive debate over whether or not to support a bill before the California legislature that would have made job discrimination toward gay people illegal. A large minority opposed the bill, because there was not job protection in it for either drag queens or transsexuals. However, BAGL voted to endorse—indicating just whose rights we were organizing to win.
BAGL was somewhat more effective in confronting racism and national oppression than male supremacy, but its efforts were still inadequate. We endorsed and worked for a wide variety of national liberation and anti racist struggles. The Mind Shaft boycott was a first attempt to develop a program to combat institutionalized racism within the gay community. A Third World Caucus was able to form and got token support from whites. However, as with male supremacy, we did not struggle to see the very real differences between the needs of white and Third World gay people, most of whom felt as oppressed as Third World people as they did as gay, if not more so. During BAGL's first year, Gay American Indians and the Gay Latino Alliance organized completely independent of BAGL, indicating that Third World gay people had the need to organize autonomously. BAGL, nevertheless, could have done more than it did to combat national oppression, especially by promoting study and dealing more with our internalized white supremacy.
Class privilege manifested itself also, in an unfeeling, overintellectualized masculinist tone at BAGL meetings. Well educated, articulate, and assertive male-identified men dominated the meetings. People who were new to BAGL and unfamiliar with what was going on, shy people, people who had trouble verbalizing their thoughts and emotions, and effeminate men, grew increasingly alienated.
The first attempt to deal with these dynamics was a workshop organized by Tom Kennedy in late July, 1975, to examine where BAGL was going. It was a success and became the first of many workshops whose purpose was to bring BAGL members together in smaller groups and less threatening situations than those of the large general meetings. Later workshop topics included sexuality, health, working class oppression, and BAGL organizational issues. The only problem with the workshops was that many of the people considered responsible for BAGL's tone did not participate in them.
Culture and spirituality were two other aspects of our lives that BAGL did not address. We paid lip service to the need to develop our own culture and to cultural workers, but it was really difficult for people to talk of their spiritual needs. They feared being discounted by the intellectual heavies who did not understand spirituality or its role in gay history or for another example in Native American history. In Fall, 1975, a Faerie Circle formed to explore gay spirituality, but most of its members stayed away from BAGL.
To sum up what was happening: the organizational needs of BAGL were developing faster than the ability of the leadership to adapt to those needs. Although BAGL had no formal leadership, it did have people with relatively high levels of political understanding who should have been in touch with things enough to take steps to remedy the situation. But instead of being open to change, they reacted in the opposite way. The two tendencies became increasingly polarized and dogmatic, and most BAGL members grew more alienated.
The Matlovich Issue
The controversy within BAGL surrounding Air Force Sgt. Matlovich proved to be the last straw. Sgt. Matlovich was a model soldier awarded Distinguished Service Medals for his several tours in Viet Nam. And he was gay. After much deliberation, he came out to his commanding officer, but instead of asking for a discharge, he stated that he planned to remain in the military. His was to be a test case of the US military's policy disbarring homosexuals from military service. Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and he was courted and promoted by such prominent gay leaders as David B. Goodstein and Franklin Kameny. His case was unique; he was fighting not to get out of the military, but to stay in it.
Howard Wallace brought the Matlovich issue to the floor at BAGL's general meeting on December 4, 1975. The democratic rights/mass action leadership envisioned a leading role for BAGL, promoting Matlovich in the Bay Area and helping to schedule his tours. At the BAGL coordinating committee meeting the previous night, support for Matlovich seemed almost unanimous. Howard Wallace gave a detailed presentation at the general meeting, asking BAGL to unconditionally support the case. For many BAGL members, however, the issue wasn't so simple. Anti-imperialists claimed that uncritical support for Matlovich would in effect be support for the US military, since Matlovich wished to remain in the service. They claimed that Matlovich was honored for his distinguished service in Viet Nam and publicly stated his support for the war. How could BAGL support Matlovich, who was part of the war machine that killed Third World people who were fighting for freedom and national liberation? The democratic rights/mass action leadership remained firm in asking for uncritical support. They claimed there was no conflict between supporting Matlovich and opposing US militarism. Eventually, however, they agreed to accept an amendment opposing US militarism.
The controversy got very heated as both sides exchanged angry shouts. Many of an estimated 200 people at the meeting were very confused and undecided on the issue, but most of them would probably have voted for conditional support. Then, however, members of the Third World Caucus accused the membership, especially the Matlovich supporters, of blatant racism and walked out of the meeting. They shouted out that by discussing Matlovich for so long, BAGL was avoiding discussion of the Mind Shaft, which came later on the agenda, thereby demonstrating our racism. With that they left.
Finally a vote was taken proposing support for Matlovich but amended to state BAGL’s opposition to US militarism. The vote carried, but a re-vote to void it and table the issue was demanded and carried. Eventually the whole issue was dropped.
The Matlovich controversy raised several problems for BAGL. The struggle for gay rights is beset with severe limitations unless it can be elated to an overall anti-imperialist struggle. Gay rights struggled for in isolation from the class struggle are nothing more than reform measures granted by the system to appease gay revolutionary potential. “What the government giveth, the government taketh away." Gay rights will benefit mainly white middle class gay men who already have class, race and sex privilege in a white, male-dominated society. In other words, those who can better plug into white male privilege. In this society, those people who best conform to its standards benefit most. The securing of gay rights doesn't carry for women, Third World, and working class people even the shaky guarantees “promised” to white gay men who conform appropriately. This is because gay rights will do nothing to alleviate the racist and national oppression Third World gay people suffer, or the women's oppression lesbians suffer, or the economic exploitation we face as workers.
The Matlovich issue was a fine example of the difference between the two approaches to gay liberation. The democratic rights/mass action approach says that Matlovich should be supported unconditionally. The anti-imperialist approach says support him only as his struggle can be related to the struggle against United States imperialism and his oppression as a gay person can be linked to the oppression of Third World and working class people and women who are also oppressed in the US Armed Forces.
In regard to the avoidance of the Mind Shaft discussion, those who organized the agenda claimed that was not their intention. There was no new Mind Shaft business, only the announcement that the owners had signed an agreement not to discriminate. The organizers had saved it for later to encourage people to stay for the second half of the meeting.
However, organizing BAGL to support Matlovich would have taken a great deal of energy away from the Bar Committee, which was involved in fighting national oppression inside the gay community. It would have transferred this energy to organizing benefits for a man who was part of the war machinery that was trying to sabotage struggles for national liberation all over the world.
The Matlovich controversy was the most critical event in BAGL's history. The factionalism that had existed since the days of the RGMU was threatening whatever unity BAGL still had. This should have been the time for principled struggle between the two sides, but unfortunately the trust necessary for that to happen did not exist. Deeply held resentments and antagonisms surfaced instead. The whole community environment was filled with name calling and the unprincipled trashing of the democratic rights/mass action leadership by the anti-imperialists.
Howard and Claude were faced with three choices: stay and struggle, stay but take a back seat position, or pull back entirely for awhile. They chose to pull back to avoid a split and to put their energies into a Coalition to Defend Gays in the Military, a group working for civil rights for military gays.
A vacuum developed in BAGL. Having displaced the old leadership, the anti-imperialists could not manage to consolidate new leadership. June 28th Union members (and in fact the entire union itself) were generating lots of hostility. Whereas they led the attack against Claude and Howard, they never had a strategy for working within BAGL and acted individually rather than collectively in critical moments.
This crisis in direction and leadership triggered action in many people who had been feeling left out for so long. The two factions had become increasingly polarized with the Matlovich issue, and many people didn't like or identify with either side. The glaring inadequacies of BAGL's structure became obvious. There wasn't a vehicle created for people to air frustrations, so they left BAGL and flocked to caucuses and support groups.
The Third World Caucus disaffiliated completely, making BAGL functionally an all-white organization. A Working Class Caucus formed of people from working class backgrounds. They felt working class issues and their own needs as working class gays were not being addressed. They were mystified by, and unable to cope with, the abstract intellectualism of BAGL meetings.
A support group formed of effeminate men both inside and outside BAGL. Contrary to the old style of task-oriented committees, these new groups formed mainly to release feelings and pent-up emotions and for members to give each other support and validation. Willo, a member of both the effeminate men and working class groups, says this was the time "the people took over."
People who had not felt comfortable in BAGL up to that point began to take part more. In particular, they chaired meetings in a way that was more personal and less abstract and alienating than before the Matlovich controversy.
BAGL's Second Year
During its second year, BAGL didn't initiate a great deal of activity on its own, but it did respond to requests for support and solidarity from other coalitions and organizations. Although it was never stated, BAGL was functioning more as two separate organizations than as one.
Some people in the anti-imperialist group formed the Office Committee to coordinate the day to-day BAGL operation (fundraising, newsletter, schedule of events, publicity, correspondence). A culture collective organized and sponsored rap-style events to draw links between gay history, culture and politics.
BAGL's panicipation in two mass coalitions in 1976 is worth mentioning. BAGL anti-imperialists helped put together a May 8th Coalition to oppose the reactionary Supreme Court decision on the sodomy laws, a decision that upheld the rights of states to make gay sexuality criminal, even in private. The coalition demanded that the Supreme Court stop attacks on all oppressed people and drew links between the anti-gay decision and several other repressive court decisions, in an attempt to put the gay struggle into a broad anti imperialist perspective.
The July 4th Coalition, a nationally organized effort to stage mass marches and rallies across the country, received much gay support in the Bay Area. Partly in response to the government's Bicentennial celebration, the coalition demanded "Bicentennial without colonies" and supported national liberation struggles at home and around the world. The main demands were for Puerto Rican independence and sovereignty for Indian nations. It also raised demands for equal rights and a decent standard of living. Members of the June 28th Union were instrumental in getting the national coalition to accept a demand for full rights for gay people, which, although inadequate, was a start. The July 4th Coalition was in many ways the result of lessons we had all learned from the May 4th celebration the previous year. It indicated that the left in San Francisco was beginning to take responsibility for their heterosexual chauvinism and to develop an anti-imperialist understanding of gay oppression.
The democratic rights/mass action group was likewise active during this period. It reorganized the Bar Committee and mounted a successful campaign to force the Midnight Sun, a Castro street gay bar, to install fire door. It also organized a demonstration protesting discriminatory admission policies at the Club Baths. The Labor Committee (which had led the support of the Gallo and Coors boycotts) negotiated an agreement with the San Francisco Labor Council whereby the Labor Committee of BAGL would organize gay people to vote against several anti-labor propositions in the November, 1976 elections. In return the Labor Council agreed to add anti gay discrimination clauses in all union contracts.
People in both factions worked to build Gay Freedom Day, 1976, which drew over 100,000 people for a march and rally. But the rift within BAGL was evident in the parade since BAGL people marched in various contingents within the parade. Few chose to march under the banner of BAGL.
Even though its members were kept busy, BAGL was still very untogether. Enthusiasm waned, and attendance at meetings fell drastically. BAGL was just not working. Interest in BAGL was at its lowest. The Office Committee decided to initiate an evaluation that would lead to reorganization. The committee wrote an evaluation, distributed it at a BAGL meeting, and called a meeting to discuss it. Thirty-five people attended—including most of the leaders from both factions. At the same time anti-imperialist study groups formed to study socialist theory—something that should have been done long before. Enthusiasm for BAGL increased.
Soon, however, the Office Committee meetings became plagued with the same two-line struggle that had been going on for two years. The response was to organize two caucuses. The democratic rights/mass action group formed the Gay Action Caucus (GAC) and the anti-imperialists formed the Progressive Gay Caucus (PGC). It was decided that each caucus should present new principles of unity to a BAGL general meeting, and that the members would then vote to accept one of the two (or neither) as a basis for reorganization.
Some explanation of these groupings is necessary. While there were two definite political tendencies that existed in BAGL, many people didn't fully identify with either one. The leadership of the GAC was a core of eight people: Claude Wynne and Howard Wallace, plus people from the Bar and Labor Committees who believed in working for gay rights as their primary task. Ideologically it was the left wing of mainstream gay liberation politics and was influenced by the Gay Activists Alliance. As we mentioned earlier, Claude and Howard were strongly influenced by the Socialist Workers Party. The leadership of PGC was a core of about fifteen people, mostly from the study group circle that formed in July, and the June 28th Union. Ideologically it was influenced by the book Prairie Fire by the Weather Underground Organization, feminism, many national liberation movements, particularly the Vietnamese, and the Gay Liberation Fronts. PGC was able to appeal to the broadest range of political philosophies in BAGL. That didn't mean however that everyone who supported it agreed completely with its perspective.
Effeminate men were still alienated by a very intellectual and impersonal male tone. They found it difficult to participate comfortably in BAGL discussions and meetings. They supported the PGC because it understood the division that existed between "sissie-identified" and "butch-identified" gay men and made dealing with that issue a priority. Furthermore, some BAGL socialists felt the PGC position failed to understand and emphasize working class issues and the need to build a strong working class movement. They supported the PGC with serious reservations. Still others didn't identify with either side but were interested mainly in gay liberation and gay rights issues. They supported the GAC. A few people who either didn't want a split or who disagreed with the politics of both sides remained neutral.
BAGL held a workshop in October, 1976, to discuss the issues and explain them to people who were not clear about the differences. Some people thought the workshop unnecessary, because most people had made up their minds already. It was extremely helpful to organizers of the PGC, however, because it gave them the opportunity to work out more fully their understanding of gay oppression from an anti-imperialist perspective, and the kind of program needed to fight it. This was an extremely difficult process, because essentially the analysis was previously lacking. It was a different situation for the GAC, however, because their new principles were very similar to the original BAGL statement of purpose. The PGC put a lot more time and energy into the workshop than the GAC. They worked hard to hear criticisms of BAGL and to incorporate them into their proposed new principles.
Following the workshop, final drafts of both positions were presented to the membership on November 4, 1976 and the vote was taken: Progressive Gay Caucus 69, Gay Action Caucus 21, 8 abstentions. As a result BAGL began reorganization as a mass gay men's anti-imperialist organization—probably the first of its kind. Members of GAC left BAGL and formed Gay Action.
There were two main questions involved in the split. First, on what basis should a mass gay organization be formed? Second, what is the relationship between the personal and the political?
The Gay Action Caucus maintained that gay democratic rights is the only issue that can unify large numbers of gay people. Their strategy was to build a mass organization of gay people under a working class leadership and program to raise demands for gay liberation and gay rights. The sole unifying factor was gayness. Although several of its leaders are socialists, they did not raise the issue of socialism. Nor did they make explicitly socialist demands. They felt that building a gay socialist organization had its theoretical merits but in practice it didn't work, because of too many ideological differences between the factions. They said a gay socialist organization could only be formed if there is political unity around a particular ideology, and those conditions weren't there.
Their program was based mainly on confronting institutional forms of gay oppression. It neglected internal forms of oppression, culture, and spirituality. GAC believed in organizing gay people from a wide variety of backgrounds into one umbrella organization in a way that didn't emphasize the relationship between personal life and political work. On the contrary, they believed a political organization should exist only to do "political" work and that everyone's life outside that organization should be completely private.
The Progressive Gay Caucus stressed the need for gay people to unite with all oppressed people in a common fight against the system of imperialism. According to their analysis, the institutions that oppress gay people, like schools, psychiatry, churches, and the criminal justice system, are all parts of the same imperialist system that economically exploits us as workers and oppresses people because of race and nationality, sex, age, and gender identification, as well as gayness. So to achieve true liberation for all gay people, we should work to understand and attack the whole system itself, and not just its different institutions. The PGC strategy was to build a mass gay organization that would join in coalitions with groups of other oppressed people to fight the common enemy. For instance, people from several communities fighting against police repression or for housing and health care will be more effective than just gay people fighting alone. The PGC raised explicit demands for socialism as the only solution to imperialist exploitation and oppression. This approach to fighting gay oppression, they maintained, has the possibility for truly uniting and serving the needs of many more gay people than the democratic rights/mass action approach. It is an understanding of the oppression of the whole person under imperialism, and reaches people on many more levels than just their sexuality.
The connection between our personal lives and our political work is also crucial to the anti-imperialist approach. One of the ways gay people are most oppressed is through alienation which results in loneliness, self hatred, and self-destructive behavior. Building community to break down this isolation was an important part of the PGC program. They hoped to build an organization that would fulfill personal as well as political needs. It would also help people to confront and work through their differences, instead of pretending they don't exist. Through building the gay community internally by struggling to understand differences, they hoped to build a true fighting unity that would be powerful enough to effectively confront institutionalized imperialist power.
Criticism/self-criticism (C/SC) is the tool they proposed for working through personal and political differences. C/SC was developed during the Chinese revolution and it is being used more frequently in the United States both in radical therapy and in political work. C/SC can work only if the people using it have agreed to certain principles of unity establishing how they are going to work together. Only after that unity is established do people have a basis for criticizing themselves and each other's work and behavior. Using C/SC helps us confront others when we are angry or hurt, rather than internalizing those emotions which only increases our alienation. It also teaches us how to be more sensitive towards each other and towards group process.
Despite its numerous political errors, BAGL provided a vehicle for significant numbers of gay men who were previously unpoliticized to work and get involved with a progressive gay organization. It established a radical presence in San Francisco's gay community and became known and respected by many people for its militant activism. It provided an organizational structure, however inadequate, for gay activists to do political work. These were some of its strengths. Its lack of good leadership, strategy, structure, and failure to deal with internal differences were some of its greatest weaknesses.
Those of us in Magnus who have worked on this article are not impartial observers of BAGL. We have all participated to some extent in BAGL. Rama was one of the main organizers of the Progressive Gay Caucus, and the entire collective voted for the PGC principles of unity. Even so, we have tried to be as principled as possible in writing this article. We have tried to give credit where it is due, and to point out the positive as well as the negative aspects of different groups of people and events.
We are well aware that material conditions in San Francisco have made it possible for an anti-imperialist approach to gay liberation to develop here. Internal differences among gay people here are growing increasingly apparent as we noted in the introduction. It is much more difficult to be gay in most other places than it is here, and the needs of gay people will vary from place to place. We're presenting this analysis with the hope that everyone who reads it can learn something from it to apply to their own local struggles. We know BAGL is unique, yet we think that people in many different situations can benefit from our conclusions.
These are our conclusions:
1. An anti-imperialist approach to gay liberation is a more developed basis of unity than the democratic rights/mass action approach. Politics are the underlying aspect of any organization, collective or grouping. Composition, organizational structure, and program priorities and direction are all political decisions, even though most of us don't consciously relate to them that way. Any group of people that joins together, for whatever reason, will have a better chance of achieving its goals the more it can understand and develop its political unity.
An anti-imperialist approach does not rule out working for democratic rights by any means. Rather, it puts the struggles of gay people in the broader context of the struggles of all oppressed people for liberation. The ·history of BAGL clearly demonstrates that the political level of consciousness of the gay movement is vastly increasing. Gay oppression is different among different gay people depending on class, race, and sex. In other words, many gays face other forms of oppression than just gay oppression. To absorb this understanding is a significant political advance and is a better political formulation of what a mass gay organization can unite around than the mass action/democratic rights approach. These political understandings have tremendous relevance for gay organizations in other cities as well as for the entire gay movement.
2. There is still a need for autonomous gay political organizations, but their unity should be based clearly on anti-imperialist principles. We think ultimately the political struggle for gay liberation should be integrated into anti-imperialist socialist organizations of gay and non-gay people. However, at this time there is not much support from members of many leftist organizations to be gay. Until straight leftists begin to work in solidarity with the struggles of gay people and start to struggle against their internalized anti-gay feelings, there will remain a need for gay political autonomy.
3. Program areas of autonomous gay organizations should be based on a firm understanding of anti-imperialism and should be aimed towards uniting the gay struggle with the struggles of other oppressed people for socialism. It's important for gay organizations to develop ongoing programs as well as be able to react to issues that suddenly arise in the community. We need to develop programs that address the needs of the most oppressed sectors of the gay community. Internally we should put a priority on building a true fighting community that understands and tries to work through the many differences among us. We should also work to break down the alienation we feel with straight people by joining in coalitions whenever possible with mixed groups of straight and gay people who are fighting for similar goals. We will not achieve total gay liberation until we completely eliminate white and male supremacy. Therefore, it's particularly important for white gay people to get involved with Third World struggles and for gay men to involve themselves with the struggles of women. At the same time, we should be striving to build a strong working class movement.
4. The personal is political. If we work to build them, gay organizations can satisfy many of our needs for family and community. Through struggle and criticism/self-criticism we can learn to give each other the support and space we need to change oppressive and self-destructive attitudes and behavior. We should constantly try to understand how our personal lives are affected by imperialism. Through our culture, art, and spirituality we can rediscover our history that has been obscured by imperialist lies and reawaken our creative energies. We can do this through workshops, dance, theater, music and the many ways we share in each others' lives.
5. Gay organizations will be more effective if they have a defined membership, designated people in leadership roles, and well thought out structure that can adapt to change. Organizational structures are a key factor in carrying out successful political action, and the best ones will flow out of the organization's unity and program objectives. The experience in BAGL has taught us that it's important to have defined membership and voting procedures, as well as designated people in leadership roles. The leadership body should work together as collectively as possible and be composed of people who are sincerely open to struggle. It's important to develop the leadership capacities of all members and to rotate leadership responsibilities regularly. Our ability to organize ourselves effectively will ultimately be our best protection against increasing State repression.
6. Gay people need to develop a commitment to study. By "study" we don't mean study in an abstract sense, as in oppressive school situations. Instead we mean the gathering and sharing of information that will help us analyze our material conditions and organize to end our oppression. In BAGL neither side emphasized the need for study until the split had made it all too apparent. Study helps us to understand our oppression, the oppression of others, and how it is all interconnected under imperialism. It also helps us to examine all sides of an issue as thoroughly as possible before making decisions. Study groups are excellent ways for us to come together for mutual support and struggle. They can also combine techniques of consciousness raising and therapy with study to serve a variety of needs.
BAGL continued a discussion of how socialists should participate in mass gay organizations that starred in RGMU. It helped us understand a little better how that can and should be done. If we are going to build a movement for revolutionary change we are going to have to be able to organize literally millions of people. Future gay organizations should try to learn from BAGL's mistakes and organize in a way that will continue to advance the struggle further.
We also need to raise again many questions that BAGL was unable to answer:
1. On what political basis can white gay men develop practice with lesbians and Third World gay people?
2. What organizational form should this take? Mixed organizations of white and Third World lesbians and gay men? Several autonomous organizations united in coalitions based on anti-imperialist solidarity?
3. What is the role of gay (white men’s) organizations in the development of a mass revolutionary movement in this country? For gay Marxist-Leninists specifically, “What is the relation of gay anti imperialist organizations to the formation of a revolutionary communist party in this country?" And for gay anarchists, “what is the relation of gay anti-imperialist organizations to the struggle for self-management by workers and all oppressed people?”
People make their own history. BAGL is a very small example of a case in which people who were dissatisfied with the way things were going analyzed their situation and organized to change it. This is what socialist revolution is all about. The struggle is hard and it will take a long time, but it will win. We think it is in the interests of all gay people to study the system of imperialism in all its complexities and to analyze and sum up our experiences in order to learn from our mistakes. Armed with this knowledge, we can move forward to create a movement to defeat the system of imperialism and build a revolutionary socialist society in its place. We hope that this article is a step in that process.