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Gay Liberation and the Carceral State

Recovering a vision of solidarity with incarcerated people may be just what people disaffected by the gay rights movement need today.


The contemporary national gay rights movement in the United States has been relatively silent on issues of incarceration, prisons, and the criminal legal system itself. It has, for decades, vigorously fought against laws that criminalized same-sex activity and crossdressing, as well as against ordinances that allowed discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, employment, health care, family law, and inheritance. Yet national and state organizations promoting gay rights have had very little to say about systemic injustices in the carceral system. On the contrary, through its continued uncritical support of hate crime legislation—which often mandates longer (“enhanced”) sentences—the gay rights movement has played a small but meaningful role in creating more incarceration. And, symbolically, through its endorsement of such solutions, it has sent the message that the carceral state has the backing of—or at least can be useful to—queer people. This cooperation between policing and gay rights is enshrined most famously in the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Before gay rights existed as a distinct entity, however, this merger was not a fait accompli. Most readers probably don’t know that the gay liberation movement, which preceded the gay rights moment, had a radically different analysis of prisons as well as of many other aspects of state power. Gay liberation came into existence in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion and grew out of the same social and political impulses of other radical social change movements of the late 1960s. Questioning state authority was intrinsic to the very fabric of how these early queer activists thought about the larger oppression of homosexuals. This oppression did not happen in isolation but was linked to the oppression experienced by other marginalized groups subjected to capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Gay liberation activists sought to build solidarity with feminists, the Black Power movement, Indigenous rights activists, global anti-colonial revolutionaries, and incarcerated people everywhere.

Many young queer people today are recovering a vision of solidarity with incarcerated people. Some may be doing so without an awareness that the queer movement had previously shared that vision. What follows is some of the history of gay liberation that highlights the history of such solidarity. My hope is that it may provide a sense of grounding in queer history for people today who feel that their politics are badly served by the gay rights movement. The way forward may involve recovering some of the radical liberationist politics of the past.

Gay liberationists understood the harm that the criminal legal system did to queer people. Same-sex-loving people in the 1960s and ’70s continued to be imprisoned and institutionalized for engaging in same-sex acts, faced arrest and harassment for simply being in a gay bar, and could be fired for even being suspected of being queer. But gay liberationists’ solution was not simply to pass or repeal laws, but to question the prison system itself.

I was a member of Boston’s Gay Men’s Liberation (GML) from its earliest days. An anarchist collective, we published the gay liberation journal Fag Rag, and many of us engaged in a broad range of projects that addressed the—what we now call intersectional—issues stemming from how different kinds of oppression (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.) can interlock. Our activities included consciousness raising, public engagement, direct action, and publishing radical literature.

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In the group’s 1972 list of demands, GML’s members declared:

All lesbians and faggots now imprisoned for any ‘sex crime’ (except rape) should be released immediately from brigs, mental hospitals or prisons. They should be compensated $2.50 an hour for each hour of their confinement and all records of their incarceration should be destroyed.

While GML’s manifesto didn’t explicitly call for the abolishment of the carceral system, it did demand the disbanding of all “secret police (FBI, CIA, IRS, Narcotics squads, etc.) and uniformed police”; and “the return of all United States troops to within the United States border as the most effective way to end American imperialism.” We also sought “an end to any discrimination based on biology,” including the state’s collection of racial and gender data. In sum, we had a deeper critique of the carceral state than articulated in the gay rights movement’s aim of pursuing legal reform of specific anti-queer statutes.

Even within the generally progressive 1960s, these demands were radical. But they were also not unprecedented. We were deeply influenced by the New Left, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the emergence of the Black Power movement, all of which had radically redefined concepts of political power in the United States as well as globally. And like many of the New Left, gay liberationists viewed the most oppressed, and those with the least access to justice, as the vanguard of the movement. Gay men in prison—on whatever charges—were among those.

Taking a cue from the Black Panther Party—as well as other national and international liberation and resistance groups—we viewed incarcerated homosexuals as political prisoners who were living under a form of colonial rule. The Black Panther Party’s list of demands in its Ten-Point Program includes as number eight: “We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held in Federal, State, County and City Prisons and Jails. We believe that all Black People should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.” The cries and posters of “Free Bobby Seale,” “Free Angela Davis,” and “Free All Political Prisoners” resonated deeply with gay liberation, even as we understood that race, sexual identity, and other factors produced profound differences in how, and to what degree, oppression was experienced.

The carceral state figured prominently throughout gay liberation, not just in Boston. For example, the eleventh point in the 1970 manifesto of the Third World Gay Revolution, a working group of gay Black and Latino New Yorkers, reads: “We want the abolition of capital punishment, all forms of institutional punishment, and the penal system. We want the establishment of psychiatric institutions for the humane treatment and rehabilitation of criminal persons as decided by the people’s court.”

One of the most profound impacts that gay liberation had was through its publishing. Several of the largest gay liberation chapters published magazines and pamphlets, which ended up being circulated globally. Fag Rag, Gay Sunshine, Come Out!, and RFD all featured articles on the plight of incarcerated gay men and anticarceral sentiment featured prominently. All also offered free subscriptions and other reading materials to incarcerated readers.

The first issue of Fag Rag (June 1971) had multiple references to incarceration and prisons as sites of state control, but mainly in the context of homosexuals participating in antiwar and anti-government political protests. By Fag Rag’s second issue, published in the Fall of 1971, the journal took on the question of the carceral state forthrightly. In an article called “Behind Bars,” written by a draft resister who had been sentenced to four years in prison, the author writes about his coming out in prison. The article describes both the inhumane conditions of the prison as well as the community of other gay men the author found there. The article wraps around a photo of Black Panther George Jackson and a sidebar about the Attica prison massacre of 1971 that left forty-three dead. The article begins:

George Jackson was killed in San Quentin and a week later [43] people died in Attica. These events concern gays because in the eyes of Amerika we are ‘sex’ criminals. Many of our brothers are suffering under the conditions which led to the explosion in Attica.

The same issue also contained a call to incarcerated people to write their stories and send them to Fag Rag to be published.

By the ninth issue (Summer of 1974, the fifth anniversary of Stonewall), which was published in collaboration with Gay Sunshine, we were featuring prison columns with notes from incarcerated people looking for pen pals. These columns and notes from prisons would become recurring features for both Fag Rag and Gay Sunshine for the remainder of their runs, along with offering to send free issues of the publications to incarcerated people who requested them. Funded though support by readers, this outreach was a lifeline to many men in prisons. Gay Sunshine’s twenty-fifth issue, for example, featured a letter from an incarcerated reader saying that he had really enjoyed the previous issue, and asking if anyone could send him the previous two issues so he could read the first installments of an article that was being serialized.

As important as these projects were, they were not always easy to enact, and frequently met with resistance. Many prisons censored gay publications—or outright banned them “for the safety of prisoners.” Complaints and lawsuits were continually being filed to make sure that this censorship was stopped, or at least challenged, but it often meant that the distribution of gay liberationist publications inside prisons and jails were in a state of limbo.

Early issues of Fag Rag were produced in the basement office of the Red Book Store—a radical bookstore and meeting place in Cambridge (Boston’s across-the-river neighbor) where the Prison Book Program was also founded by leftists with the mission of supplying incarcerated people with political reading materials. Eventually a specifically gay prison book project emerged from this intersection and moved to the offices of Gay Community News—a progressive national, Boston-based paper which itself included a prison pen pal project and engaged in prison advocacy work.

Gay liberation’s vision for the connection between queer struggles and prison advocacy was not shared by more mainstream gay publications, which increasingly reflected the burgeoning politics of the gay rights movement. Some, such as the Advocate, went so far as to run editorials warning gay men not to correspond with incarcerated people as they might be straight men pretending to be gay to solicit money.

This was reflective of a broader change in the movement. As gay liberation eventually morphed into a more socially conservative gay rights movement—with an emphasis on respectability politics as well as the idea of the consumer-oriented “gay lifestyle”—concerns about incarcerated people became not only less urgent but nonexistent. The success of this mainstreaming is evident to me in my college classrooms. The undergraduates I teach now were all born after 2000; few, if any, have ever seen the Black Panthers’ list of demands, let alone those of gay liberation. If they’ve ever even heard of gay liberation, they don’t realize how distinct it was from the gay rights movement. They are often surprised by the demands on each of the manifestos—and shocked when it becomes clear that, with very few exceptions, none of the demands were ever met. (The U.S. war against Vietnam did end; that is pretty much it.) But they are also intrigued—even moved—that so many of these demands resonate with their own political concerns and actions. This is, in part, because they grew up with Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and various reproductive justice movements which all prize direct action. But, also, they understand innately that the world of gay rights, or even the broader queer politics they have inherited, does not encompass their broader vision of social justice. (They are obviously too young to have memories of ACT UP and other HIV/AIDS-related direct action radical movements, which would likely also feel kindred to them. For them, HIV has always been a treatable condition.)

The larger question here is not what younger activists do or do not do, but how we all can learn from the past. New, deeper and broader visions of social justice emerge at historical moments in which larger connections can be made—the 1960s and early 1970s is a perfect example. Today may be one of these moments as well. It is for this reason that it is most important to remember the past and what activists believed was possible then.

Image: Matthew Ball/Unsplash