This piece was originally written for the student newspaper of the London School of Economics, The Beaver.
Some areas of our society are persecuted every day because of how they choose to live their lives.
Racial, gender and sexual discrimination are rife within our society even today. Several countries around the world still outlaw homosexuality, punishing those who are “found out” with the death penalty. Fascist organisations like the British National Party and English Defence League are growing in number and strength, peddling messages of hate and denying those who don’t conform to their nazi-esque vision the right to even exist. The battle for equality and freedom from oppression is far from over.
But sometimes, it takes one person, or a group of people to challenge the way that people think. The Gay Liberation Front was one of those groups. As a radical and revolutionary force, the GLF challenged social norms and threw the prejudices of the 1970s out in the open, taking the first steps of a journey that is still being taken today.
The GLF found its roots in late 1960s America in the wake of a riot that would come to symbolise the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer liberation. The Stonewall riots saw the first true resistance to institutional oppression of LGBTQ people; a routine police presence in a well known gay bar escalated into violent protest against state oppression of civil liberties. Democratic principles teach us that all people are created equal under the law but in 1970s America liberty and freedom of expression applied to some more equally than others and Stonewall soon became synonymous with gay liberation.
On both sides of the Atlantic, movements were stirring, riding the wave of enthusiasm that another society was possible. A society free of oppression.
The first meeting of the UK arm of the Gay Liberation Front was held in a dusty basement classroom of the London School of Economics in 1970. Only a dozen people turned up to the inaugural meeting, but little did they know that this would be the start of one of the most high profile, radical, revolutionary, and ultimately short lived organisations is gay rights history. At the height of the movement, the organisation was regularly hosting hundreds of attendees in the LSE’s New Theatre and coordinating action on a massive scale.
The GLF was more than just a pressure group. It was a movement. And it was more than just a gay rights organisation. The GLF allied itself with the women’s and black movements, and any movement that was struggling to fight against societal norms to gain equality. The organisation saw itself as more than a one trick pony and more than just a reformist group.
At the core of GLF’s vision was a genderless society. It was gender that oppressed LGBT people and only through the destruction of those gender structures could they be free. Reformation was not the goal of the GLF, their goal was revolution. The structures of society were set up so that men were masculine; they sought attractive women and dominated them and women were their subordinates. In such a society, anyone who challenged these norms were outcast. The GLF’s mission was to free society from this oppression.
This oppression had to stop and the worldwide GLF movement would stop at nothing to ensure they achieved their mission. In 1971 the organisation published a manifesto.
“We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights. If this involves violence, it will not be we who initiate this, but those who attempt to stand in our way to freedom.”
The message was clear. Expect the unexpected, expect to be challenged and don’t expect the voices of oppressed minorities to go away. The GLF would try anything to shock society into a new world order and spark the structural revolution they so desperately craved. Idealistic, passionate and determined, these revolutionaries would not be deterred by anything.
Perhaps the most well known and inspiring action that the GLF took was an action at the Festival of Light; an event that was organised and backed by Christian groups. The church had long looked down on homosexuality – and still does to this day – and that made it a prime target for the GLF. To highlight the absurdity of the churches opinion, and the rigidity of the gender structures it reinforced, the GLF organised for dozens of protestors to dress in drag, infiltrate the event and pair off in same sex kisses throughout the crowd. The movement grabbed headlines and media coverage around the world with it’s innovative methods and strong political methods to such an extent that the effects are still felt today.
But for all it’s campaigning success, the movement came to an untimely end. Factions were numerous within the GLF, and they all disagreed about which direction the movement should travel. Both the US and UK arms of the GLF disbanded only a few years after their inception, the UK arm splintering into organisations that still exist today. Organisations like Stonewall and OutRage! only exist today because of organisations like the Gay Liberation Front. Their tactics may be more reformist, but these organisations continue to push the envelope in 21st century.
The GLF is probably one of the most revolutionary movements of our time. But it’s effect on society was not as profound as we might expect. Where the civil rights movement gained legal equality for black citizens, and the suffragettes – also based at LSE – secured the right to vote for women, the gay rights movement has had little impact on the day to day lives of LGBT people across the world. Whilst no longer an illegal act, the major barriers to society today for gay people are not structural but psychological. There is still a stigma to being homosexual in our society; there still exists a problem with people’s perceptions about the gay community; bullying is still rampant in schools and discrimination is still rife across all levels of our society.
The GLF catapulted the 1970s into questioning it’s approach to the question of gender and it’s very existence meant that today, people like me have a voice in society, but the job is far from finished.