The Gay Liberation Front and queer rights in the UK: a conversation with Jeffrey Weeks
What was the Gay Liberation Front? What were its aims and modes of action?
I should tell you a little about my own background. I was born in a mining village in South Wales, in a working-class community. I realised I was gay – although we called ourselves “queer” then, which is different from “queer” now – and I went to London to university. I went to London partly because I wanted to go to that university, and partly because I needed to escape the Valley I came from. I loved my family and my family loved me but it was a very difficult place to be gay, to be different in any way.
I mention my background because by the time I went to London as a student, I already knew that I was gay, although we didn’t use that word then, and I was sexually active the first few years I was in London. I began to develop a circle of friends and so on. There was no sense in which my gayness was denied in London in the late 1960s; it was supposed to be swinging London, there was supposed to be a new attitude towards sexuality. There was certainly a greater willingness to discuss sexuality after the law was liberalised in 1967 ((The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between male individuals. This law only extended to England and Wales.)) – a very modest change in the law but nevertheless symbolically very important. So I could have a queer life in London without too much problem. But I was completely dissatisfied with my way of life, and in particular with the realisation that this was something absolutely essential to my life that I couldn’t be open about. It was impossible to be openly gay. When the Gay Liberation Front started in October 1970 at the London School of Economics, where I had started working, it was a transformative moment for me.
My involvement in the Gay Liberation Front changed my life absolutely. I met new friends, I learnt a new political vocabulary, I changed my political position, I changed my home and I met my first lover. All within the first month of my involvement with the Gay Liberation Front. In every sense, it was a transformative moment. It’s not simply because I met new people, but because of the particular elements of what Gay Liberation Front was at that moment. It was obviously influenced by the Gay Liberation movement in the United States, post-Stonewall, but it also had many British characteristics. What it did represent was a total view of the position of gayness in our society. We saw ourselves, for the first time, as an oppressed minority; we saw our identity as something we needed to affirm, something we needed to be proud of – “Gay is good” – and we saw ourselves as part of a much larger political movement, influenced by feminism, black liberation and civil rights movement. We saw ourselves as part of the Left. That heady combination made the Gay Liberation Front, for a very brief period, a sort of magical experience. If you talk to members of my generation now, they look back at that moment as a magical moment, a utopian moment when everything seemed possible. And if you meet younger militants today – and it’s particularly the case in Britain – they look back nostalgically at this period as well, even though they were not born at the time, because it seemed a movement where there were no limits to what was achievable. In many ways, it was similar to the 1968 movement in France, although the roots of it were quite different.
In those early years I became an openly gay activist, and that was central to my life, but I also became a writer. I struggled in the early days to write some gay journalism – it was unfamiliar to me – but eventually, over the next four or five years, I began writing books, and I’m afraid I never stopped. The aim of those books was, in the first place, to try to understand my own experience, to try to understand the changes going on around me in attitudes to sexuality, attitudes to gender, to the family and the ways they related to wider social movements: the movement for socialism that I was involved with, the movement to challenge restrictive values and norms. It was an important moment for the wider culture and it has been enormously influential. It was important for me because it reorientated the intellectual work I wanted to do. I trained as a historian of political ideas; I was going to be a political theorist. I became instead a gay theorist, for better or worse. I hope that I was able to bring to bear the strengths of more traditional scholarship in writing about gay and lesbian history and wider sexual history and that I was able to contribute to a transformation of the way we see sexuality in society – not as a private thing, which historians shouldn’t be bothered with – but actually as something that was moulded in society, shaped in history, changed by struggles and forms of resistance, forms of positive identification and positive affirmation of our sexualities, and indeed our different genders. The history was, at first, a part of my activism, and my first solo book was actually on the history of the movement.
Eventually, I suffered the fate of all militants who write, I became an academic and a professor. I like to think that my work, as it developed, was an important contribution, not just to my academic career but also to the movements, the ideas and the struggles I believed in.
You mentioned Stonewall: could you remind us what it was?
We are actually in the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, [which took place in] New York City in June 1969, and which is usually seen as a starting point for a new wave of gay militancy and the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement. What was Stonewall? There are lots of different myths around it and historical interpretations […]. There was a riot at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City. The bar had been raided many times by the police, and on this particular occasion, which happened to be the night of the death of Judy Garland, the faggots and the queens in the bar fought back. There were several nights of riots and the police were essentially outnumbered, and that was the symbolic starting point of a new militant movement. The Gay Liberation Front in New York City was founded soon after. It is worth saying that it did not come out of anywhere: there had been a new militancy in the gay world in America throughout the 1960s, and even the phrase “Gay is good” was being used before Stonewall. But the way the historical memory works, we much prefer to see a symbol of what happened. The image, the myth of Stonewall inspired a host of movements, first of all in neighbouring countries like Canada, then in Britain in 1970, moving to Australia and New Zealand. There was already in France a militancy which had come out of 1968 – FHAR ((The Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire is a movement founded in Paris in 1971 by lesbian feminists and gay activists.)) represented that – and the full impact of gay liberation came later in Paris. By 1972-1973, there was an international network of gay liberation movements. Not all tracing back to Stonewall, but making use of the image, the myth of Stonewall as a mobilising factor.
I mentioned Judy Garland because there is something symbolic - and historians have seen something symbolic – about gay liberation starting in effect the night she died, because Judy Garland represented a particular queer consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s. She was always a great heroin, certainly in Britain, of queers. And the fact that on the night she died, something different began to happen, has a certain poignancy at the very least, and a certain symbolic significance.
I very carefully used the word “queer” about what happened before Stonewall. “Queer” represented a term of abuse: it was a term that most of my generation had internalised, and we used it in a self-mocking way. The new term, with Gay Liberation, certainly in the English-speaking world, was “gay”, of course. “Gay” represented something new: language is always very important in sexuality, and the language we use signifies the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. The use of a different word, of “gay”, which had had a subculture influence in America and England before that, represented something new. Now of course what confuses the issue is that “queer” is used today in a quite different sense from the way it was used before 1969. I try very carefully to use the language that was used at the time, and I’ll try not to confuse you when I switch from one to the other.
[…] What do I mean by social constructionism? It’s not a phrase I particularly like, it has a harsh, mechanical tone about it. It’s a word that was imposed upon me; I was described as a social constructionist rather than originally defining myself as a social constructionist. But labels are labels, and we adopt them or we reject them. Essentially, what I meant by social constructionism was the idea that sexual identities, sexual concepts, sexual beliefs are formed in particular cultures: they don’t belong to the realm of nature, they belong to the realm of history. My mention of the change in language is a prime example of that, because the way we see ourselves is reflected in the language we use about ourselves. The move from “queer” to “gay”, and back to “queer” in a different sense for the last fifty years represents a really dramatic change in the way we see sexuality: we see sexuality and genders as concepts shaped in history, and we see them as the basis for self-identification and collective identities. The social aspect of constructionism, the emphasis on the social, which I prefer to the construction, is actually simply saying sexuality is a historical phenomenon, not a natural phenomenon. The importance of saying that is that if you believe sexuality is simply a natural phenomenon, then we are fixed in nature and no change is ultimately possible. If you recognise that the way we see ourselves, the way we identify, the way we conceptualise sexuality is shaped in history, then you can recognise that something that is invented in history can also be changed in history. A social explanation, historical explanation opens the way to understanding the role of sexuality in society, and the way that changes over time.
One of the disadvantages of being a historian of the contemporary world and a contemporary sexuality is that it is impossible to disguise the fact that one is much older now than one was then. I’m talking in many ways about the history of my life, which is an odd thing to be a historian of. Of course, I have done research in other periods and that is very important in understanding sexuality, but I do think that I’ve been fortunate enough to live through a period of extraordinary change in attitudes towards sexuality and gender and a host of things associated with that. What I have always been anxious to do is to develop the intellectual tools and the political understanding – I think the two go together – to understand these remarkable changes that I have gone through. But the fact that things have changed so rapidly in my lifetime is an important insight, I think, into the ways in which things have changed in the past. There is no reason to think that the changes we have gone through are unique in history. You can look at different historical periods and see tremendous changes in relationship to the way sexuality is organised, controlled, regulated and lived. That insight into the mobility of sexuality is a crucially important thing that the historian of sexuality needs to understand.
Who participated in the Gay Liberation Front ? Lesbians, trans people, middle-class homosexuals?
It is a very good question. I think it is impossible to write a history of Gay Liberation without writing about the individuals who made it up. But the truth is that Gay Liberation, by its nature, was a movement which avoided, even rejected, leadership. There isn’t a long list of famous names; it was a grassroots movement. Grassroots by definition means it’s a social movement which erupted from civil society. It’s emerged within civil society. It had people who came to identify as gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex… [As to] social backgrounds, most people who were active in the very early stages tended to be from middle-class or low middle-class backgrounds. They tended, certainly in England, to be first-generation university [students] – so there was a large number of [people who were] university educated, and a large number of student – [and] people in the early stages of careers, who needed university applications. There were artists, librarians, doctors… There was a whole mass of individuals.
[…] Stonewall was a bar in Greenwich Village whose clients included gay men, transvestites and transsexuals, some butch lesbians… It was very ordinary, as a bar in New York City at that time. […] It was a bar that was protected by the mafia, like other bars in New York City at that time – in other words, the bar owner paid the mafia to keep trouble away, and also keep the police away. The police were bribed not to raid it – but occasionally, they raided it, just to show they were still in the game. [Stonewall] had been raided many times, and on this particular occasion at the end of June 1969, the clients fought back. It lit the torch on grassland which was already dry, ready for a fire. I think all the preconditions were already there in New York City: the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, the legacy of the new black militancy, the beginnings of the women’s movement, the opposition to the war in Vietnam – all these were already radicalizing a particular section of young people, and they were the ones who essentially were inspired by the moment in June 1969, and the Gay Liberation Front followed from that. And it was similar in Britain, in the sort of people involved.
It seems that the Gay Liberation Front has been somewhat idealised: it sounds like everyone participated in the movement. In New York, the Gay Liberation Front was founded, among others, by lesbians, but they quickly left the movement. There were also trans women of colour, who were also sex workers, such as Syvlia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, but they left to create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The same thing happened in France with the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire, which was in part founded by lesbians, who then went on to create their own group. Has the Gay Liberation Front in Britain had the same problems?
I am not sure I quite agree with your analysis but it does not matter, because in England there was a similar, but slightly different dynamic. Right at the start, the Gay Liberation Front in London was dominated by men. Not entirely white men, but largely men. There was a number of lesbians involved and they were important members. There was one or two trans people involved. For the first two years or eighteen months, we all muddled through together with lots of tensions. Towards the end of the second year, women actually formally left, because they felt the movement was too dominated by men, and especially white men – and that was indeed the case. Many of the lesbians then got involved in the women’s group, or had already started being involved in the women’s group, and in a sense they moved their activism entirely into the women’s group. But some women stayed in the Gay Liberation Front until it dissolved and there always has been mixed groups in the Gay Liberation Movement in Britain. I have to say that there continued to be rousing disputes over many years about the dominance of men in the movement, about the resistance of men to change, about the difficulty of the movement – and this comes from men and women – to accept trans people, difficulty to accept bisexual people, because they were not one thing or the other, which was the argument put forward at the time. The tensions were always there, and I think they continue to survive in many of the LGBT organisations today. I’m involved in an organisation called “Opening doors London”, I am chair of the trustees: we are an organisation for older LGBT people, and we have representatives of all elements of the LGBTQI coalition. But the fact is that two thirds of the people who come regularly to meetings are men. The women happily work with men on many things but they often feel the need to meet separately. But within one organisation, there can be tensions because some object to women meeting separately from men, and some women don’t like having men present at meetings. There is the question of trans women [because some wonder if they are really women]. All these debates that you know exist in wider society about sexuality and gender exist even in the best-intentioned small organisations. So we’re not free of those tensions. It’s an ongoing struggle: an ongoing conversation at best and at worst it can be a sort of civil war. I like to think the organisation I’m involved with has ways of managing this. But that’s leaving aside, of course, the whole question of the representation of minorities, particularly of minorities of colour, and faith minorities. We’re all familiar with the debates, and I think that in a complex, pluralistic society, the gay world, the LGBT world, is bound to reflect that pluralism and the conflicts that sometimes arise from that.
The Gay Liberation Front had an existence that was very brief, both in New York and in London. The name survives in some quarters, and in Britain there has been a revival of the use of the name, encouraged by young militants. But historically, the Gay Liberation Front represented a particular moment in LGBT history, where everyone in a sense felt they were part of the same struggle. There were inevitably different elements, ideas, ideologies, beliefs, and within two years, there was a whole profusion in Britain of different organisations. There were socialist groupings, Marxist groupings, there were conservative groupings, labour groupings, faith-based groupings, Christian and then later Muslim and Jewish groups. There was no natural affinity between them, except the fact that they were LGBTQ. Those terms which we use today were not used then, and the fact that we use them today is in itself a signal of profound change, about the need both to affirm your individual identity and sense of self – gay, lesbian, bi, trans – and also the need people feel to work together in a sort of coalition of different identities.
All of which raises the question: what do LGBTQI people have in common? What is it that links us? Because we don’t necessarily have the same beliefs, we don’t have the same social experiences, we don’t necessarily have the same ethnic and racial backgrounds, we don’t have the same faith backgrounds… We don’t even desire the same things, sexually or emotionally. On the surface at least, it seems an accident of history that we have things in common. I think the answer to my own question is that we have two things in common: the first is we want to have something in common, we work to make something work in common, and we have done this over many years in different ways and different times: that is about an active, collective will and an active, collective identification. But beyond that is I think something more fun, that we don’t easily see or talk about, and that is the fact that sexuality and gender are not personal preferences alone, they are not simply about private life, they are actually social experiences. Sexuality and gender [are] social structures and these social structures include some and exclude others. I think what unifies LGBTQ people – or whatever people want to call themselves, [like] queer people – is a recognition that we are all in a sense created as outsiders, as different by the dominant sexual order and structures, the dominant gender order. Sexuality and gender are very closely linked together. There is a natural unity caused by the social structures within which we form our subjectivities and identities.
What do you think of the Sharia law in Brunei?
You’re talking about the new Sharia law introduced in Brunei which allows for stoning to death of men who commit anal sex or women who have lesbian relationships ((Since this recording, following international backlash, Brunei has decided not to enforce death penalty for homosexuality. More on this: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/06/world/asia/brunei-gays-stoning-execution.html)). It also involves cutting off the hand of people who were caught in theft. I think it’s an act of barbarism, of terror, and I think it’s an infringement of human rights. I think that to try to justify it on the arguments that different parts of the world do things differently is a complete abandonment of any universal humanistic principles. I can find no justification for it whatsoever. The scandal of it is that my own government is in a sense complicit in this because we armed the state, the ruler of Brunei is a close friend of our royal family, we have a naval base in Brunei, the Sultan of Brunei has huge investments in Britain, including luxury hotels. And so far the British government hasn’t said or done anything. I think it’s a gross infringement of human rights and human sexual rights. Having said that, I’m not going to make any excuses, but before I came here tonight, I heard someone being interviewed on the radio about it who said that in practice, it’s likely to be entirely symbolic, because the new law requires that four witnesses have to have seen the sexual act that is being condemned. It’s highly unlikely that in most cases an act of anal sex would be seen by four people. It probably has more to do with the Sultan’s need to accommodate to his own religious leaders in Brunei than to actually carry it out. But still, regardless of that, as I have said, it is an abomination, and we should condemn it.
What were the actions taken after the introduction of Section 28 in the UK, especially since it came after the success of the Gay Liberation Front? And how would you explain the banning of the teaching of homosexuality in British schools today, in reference to a recent incident?
I’ll try to answer that in two parts. First of all, just to tell you exactly what Section 28 was: it was introduced in the House of Commons in 1987 by a right-wing backbencher, not a government member, but the government then accepted it as part of the Local Government Act of that year. What it did was to ban the promotion of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” in public schools. It was a strange thing to do, because there was not a lot of promotion of homosexuality in public schools at that time but it was nevertheless tremendously significant in that it had an immediate effect in squashing any discussion of homosexuality in schools for the next fifteen years. As a law, it was never put into operation, but its very existence inhibited discussion on it. It was a move by a right-wing government, not so much to make homosexuality illegal but to say in effect “thus far, and no further”. In other words, they weren’t going to repeal the legalisation of homosexuality but they were going to prevent it going any further. […]
[…] You’ve got to remember that the 1980s was the decade of HIV and AIDS, and this had fed into a backlash against the achievements of the 1970s in mobilising the LGBT community. So it was tremendously important. […] As I have said earlier, it had effects in what went on in school. However, it had exactly the opposite effect of what the government intended: instead of squashing debate, it actually led to a new boost of militancy in the lesbian and gay world. And indeed lesbians played a central part. For the previous six or seven years, militancy had effectively died down in Britain and lots of the activism had gone into combatting the AIDS epidemic. But there was such outrage at Section 28 that it brought men and women together, for the first time in ten years really, and new ways of militancy developed out of that. In many ways, the changes that happened from the late 1990s into the 2000s stem from the militancy of that period. My message on that episode is that the unintended consequences of government action can be more significant than the intended actions. It was in many ways completely counterproductive. […]
The model of Section 28 has been used elsewhere: Putin’s law of four or five years ago was very similar in banning the promotion of homosexuality, which allows reactionary regimes to say in essence: “we’re not banning homosexuality, we’re allowing people to live their lives but we don’t them to spread their propaganda”. That’s been a very potent message in the sexual reaction and the new fundamentalism in many parts of the world. So it is dangerous. However, the example you cited about recent controversies in Britain is a bit more particular because the British government has actually accepted the need for the teaching of personal and sexual health, which includes the rights of LGBT people. That’s government policy, it’s enshrined in law and even this Conservative government supports it. What happened in the particular case you mentioned is that a head teacher in a school in the Midlands developed a progressive program for […] primary age students, and the parents objected. The government policy is to allow parental say in the development. Everyone has to have sex education, and all sex education [includes] the equality of LGBT people, but it allows each school to do it in a different way. What happened in this particular case is that the parents in a particular school objected to a particular teacher, largely for religious reasons. It was largely a school attended by Muslim students and that’s obviously a crucial part of the difficulty and the tension around it. The headmaster has withdrawn the lessons and that’s where we are at the moment. But it hasn’t affected national policy, which is continuing to be on the grounds of equality of LGBT people. And that’s a result of the forms that occurred in the first decade of this century and under the last Labour government which enshrined in law the former equality of LGBT people.
What do you think about the LGBT history month, which is held every February in Britain, and what are your views on the subject in your work as a historian?
I’m a strong supporter of LGBT history month. The one in Britain this year had 1700 events across Britain and [was based] largely [on] grassroots activism and historical activism, oral history presentations, poster presentations, lectures and a whole host of […] different activities.
In Britain [for] the last five years, that’s been followed by a series of conferences across the country called ‘Out in History’ and since the beginning I’ve participated in the history month and the following month in the ‘Out in History’ conferences. Right at the beginning when I began writing gay history, I believed in the importance of that history linking with the communities and movements I was writing about, and I tried to get grassroots activity going with others but it didn’t really take on. What’s amazing over the last 10-15 years, has been the amazing explosion of historical activism. That’s not just because I’m a historian that I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing for all of us that we are preserving our memories, creating our memories, constructing links between past and present and future, because identity is based on links to the present, links to the past and links to the future. We live history, we are history, we are historical creatures, we’re made through and in history and it’s very important that we understand where we came from, what we are, how we made ourselves. The lesson for me is always about the importance of grassroots history, grassroots activity, making ourselves in history. I think LGBT history month celebrates that.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Jeffrey Weeks, "The Gay Liberation Front and queer rights in the UK: a conversation with Jeffrey Weeks", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2019. Consulté le 02/10/2023. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/the-gay-liberation-front-and-queer-rights-in-the-uk-a-conversation-with-jeffrey-weeks