‘Revolution is for Us’: the left and gay liberation in Australia

revolution-is-for-usLiz Ross, Revolution is for Us: the left and gay liberation in Australia, Melbourne, Interventions Publishers, 2013, $Aus25; reviewed by Philip Ferguson

Many economically very right-wing people in New Zealand have been supporters of gay marriage.  They range from right-wing bloggers such as David Farrar, Cactus Kate and Cameron Slater to MP Maurice Williamson, a social liberal who holds some of the most right-wing economic views of anyone in the government.  ACT leader John Banks, a multi-millionaire Christian reactionary who had been a leading opponent of homosexual law reform in 1986, voted for gay marriage and expressed regret about his role in 1986.  And, of course, prime minister John Key, while not particularly on the right of the National Party economically, is one of the wealthiest people in the country and will remain a member of the ruling class after he ceases to be premier, supported gay marriage.

Yet a few decades ago their equivalents on the right ardently opposed any formal legal equality for gay women and men.  The gay liberation movement was seen as a threat to the very fabric of capitalist society – and no wonder this was so, as the movement was very specifically a movement of the left, with an anti-capitalist activist core.  This is a fact of which right-wing bloggers, who often tend to be socially liberal in New Zealand these days, would be blissfully unaware.  Over time, the left-wing origins of the gay liberation movement have been lost, replaced by a very establishment-oriented “gay community” with largely liberal pro-capitalist social views.

All this makes Liz Ross’ Revolution is for Us:  the left and gay liberation in Australia very timely.  (It should be noted, at the same time, that there is much more right-wing opposition to same-sex marriage in Australia, and the left remains an essential driving force in campaigning for equal marriage rights.)

Ross, a long-time Marxist and gay activist, focuses on the 1970s, but ends with a note on today and begins with a look at early socialist attitudes – the late 1800s and early 1900s – towards homosexuality and homosexuals and the period before the emergence of the movement in Australia in the early 1970s.  For instance, Ross notes a 1917 supportive review in the Westralian Worker of British socialist Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age, a book which included a chapter on homosexuality.  Ross’s Monthly, another leftwing paper, described the chapter on homosexuals as “very illuminating” and suggested readers would modify their views on sex and marriage by reading Carpenter’s work.

Early days

That these reviews appeared in 1917 is not surprising.  This was also the year of two revolutions in Russia, February and October, and the Bolshevik movement which took power in the October revolution swept away the Tsarist anti-homosexual law code and opened the path to free sexual expression, at least initially.  The newly-formed Communist Party of Australia would be affected positively and negatively by events in Russia.  For instance, in the Stalin era, the nuclear family was returned to the pedestal and the young CPA, following the line in Moscow, adopted more conservative views in relation to sexual freedom.

Nevertheless, Ross notes, there were contradictions in the CPA’s position.  The party tended to be “way out in front of the rest of society on the question of women and other oppressed groups” in terms of rights and equality, while failing to take up the cause of gay women and men.  Progressive attitudes, however, continued to be held by individuals within the CPA and it was a CPA member, Laurie Collinson, who made the first attempt to set up a homosexual law reform group in 1958.  The party included a number of literary figures and novelists in the party presented sympathetic portrayals of gay life as early as the 1930s. The CPA also maintained a fairly consistent position of opposition to the draconian censorship of books that was rigorously imposed in Australia until just a few decades ago.

The book provides a useful snapshot of past movement for gay rights, as far back as the Order of Chaerona in Britain in 1897.  The same year a gay rights organisation was set up in Germany to fight new anti-gay laws.  This soon developed into the largest homosexual law reform movement in the world in the interwar years, and drew particular support from the left before being crushed by the Nazis.  (Meanwhile the first member of parliament to speak up for the rights of gays was the great German Marxist revolutionary August Bebel, back in 1898.)

Why did a gay liberation movement emerge?

Ross notes that World War 2 and the Kinsey Reports helped open up things for gay women and men.  The war brought large numbers of people of the same gender together in circumstances where there was more possibility for same-sex sexual activity, while perhaps those who had fought in the war were less likely to accept second-class status after it.  The Kinsey Reports indicated something of the variety of human sexual behaviour and the widespread nature of same-sex sexual relations, activities which generally did not coincide with formal ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ identity.  In 1950, Harry Hay and several other members of the Communist Party founded the Mattachine Society for gay men in the United States.  Mattachine’s manifesto of 1951 recorded the purpose of the group as being “to unify homosexuals, educate homosexuals to see themselves as an oppressed minority and lead them in a struggle for their own emancipation” (Mattachine, cited on pp23-4).  In 1955, a lesbian group, the Daughters of Bilitis emerged.  One activist, calling herself Karla Marx, wrote a Lesbian Manifesto to try to get DOB to be more publicly active.  In 1959, over a decade before Stonewall, a gay riot took place in Los Angeles when young hustlers and drag queens resisted a police raid on a donut hangout, forcing the cops to retreat and get reinforcements.

In Australia, anti-homosexual prejudice was an important part of the right-wing Cold War ideology.  This was directed at both external and internal ‘threats’, with homosexuals being seen as part of the latter.  In 1958 NSW police chief Delaney even declared homosexuality to be the “greatest menace” (Delaney, cited p26).  Gay men became particularly liable for harassment and arrest.  In 1957 two men a day were convicted in NSW for same-sex activity.

However, in Britain, new winds were blowing.  Sections of the elite were worried about issues of state intrusion into private lives and figures in the idle and upper classes were talking about victimless crimes.  However, while the 1958 Wolfenden Committee recommended decriminalisation of male homosexuality, this did not occur until 1967, by which time old laws and practices were being undermined by the rise of the ‘permissive society’.

CPA and the beginnings of Australian gay liberation

In Australia, the CPA had begun to welcome a kind of cultural rebellion by teenagers in the 1950s against social conformity and then the more full-blown youth revolt of the 1960s.  In 1968, the CPA broke with Moscow, opposing the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Things began to open up considerably in the party as a result.  In 1969 CPA member and union activist Lance Gowland established a gay rights group in Goulborn, a town in New South Wales.  Organising was hard.  Goulbourn recalls, “The police were on to us and they were parked outside when we had meetings and they were raiding our homes” (p16).

In early 1971, the party’s paper, Tribune, published an article by Denis Freney, a party leader and himself gay, called “Gay Liberation”.  This was five months before the first explicitly Gay Liberation group in Australia had its first meeting.  This was an exciting period in Australia.  There had been a general strike in 1969, the anti-Vietnam War movement was developing to truly mass proportions, working class and student ferment was widespread, and the Aboriginal and women’s liberation movement were shaking up the existing order.  Moreover, across the world revolutionary struggles were rife.  And, in the United States, gay rights began to emerge publicly as a political issue from about 1965 onwards, helping produce the Stonewall riot in June 1969.

It was in this global and Australian context that the gay liberation movement emerged across the Tasman.  A homosexual law reform group was formed in Canberra in July 1969 and the Australian Lesbian movement emerged along with the wider women’s liberation movement which got off the ground in 1969-70.  CAMP, a combined group of gay women and men, was founded shortly afterwards.  Some leading figures in CAMP didn’t think it would be possible to take to the streets for another two decades, but the group soon found itself out on the streets in the country’s first gay protest in October 1971.

Ross quotes US Marxist Sherry Wolf on the difference between the movement that emerged in the wake of Stonewall and the gay groups and actions that had existed before: “What separated the Stonewall Riots from all previous gay activism was not merely the unexpected nights-long defiance in the streets, but the conscious mobilization in the riot’s wake of new and seasoned activists who gave expression to this more militant mood” (p57).


A cadre of activists from the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war and women’s liberation movement, along with a layer of seasoned leftists were key players in the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front groups that began forming globally after Stonewall.  The name GLF was taken from the National Liberation Front, which was the revolutionary movement in South Vietnam fighting against the United States government and its puppet regime in Saigon.  The gay liberation movement was immersed in leftism.  As Jim Fouratt, co-founder of Gay Liberation in New York, has put it, “There was going to be a revolution, and we were going to be part of it.”

In Australia, gay liberation groups spread rapidly in 1971 and 1972 and protests, although initially in the dozens rather than the hundreds, let alone the thousands, expanded.  The movement also won support from students and blue-collar workers.  The NSW builders’ labourers’ union put a ‘pink ban’ on building work at Maquarie University in Sydney in support of two gay students being discriminated against by authorities on campus.  Bob Pringle, a leader of the builders’ labourers and a member of the CPA, argued, “It’s the principle of the thing.  They shouldn’t pick on a bloke because of his sexuality” (cited in Ross, p65).  The Teachers Federation also proved supportive of gay rights.  In 1973 there was a gay contingent on the MayDay march in Brisbane.  The first Gay Pride marches were held later that year, attracting hundreds of participants.

Decline and renewal

While the activism reflected and assisted the development of more progressive public attitudes, all was not well within the movement itself.  As Ross indicates, gay liberation was the last of the ‘new social movements’ of that era and it was still in its infancy when the radical tide of the sixties went out from 1974/5 onwards.  The Vietnam War ended (with the defeat of US imperialism), the long postwar boom (which had allowed people to protest without suffering any particular financial costs) was over, Labor was in power and looking to contain dissent by offering jobs and careers to the dissenters, and contradictions within the movement were coming to a head.  Class politics and a class-centred approach to liberation was being undermined in unfavourable objective circumstances, replaced by radical feminism, separatism and identity politics.  Moreover, the CPA, which had played an important role in the emergence of the movement, was shifting rightwards towards a more feminist stance.  The rise of “anti-Marxist critique(s)”, such as radical feminism and socialist feminism, Ross argues, was matched by a more inward-looking stance among many gay activists, including some gay men adopting “Effeminism” in order to become “unmanly”.

As parts of the movement degenerated, however, new forces emerged.  In 1975 a conference of 600, followed by other successful gatherings, discussed campaigning around anti-discrimination policies adopted by the Australian Union of Students.  Several long-time gay and Marxist activists produced critiques of the slump that the movement had fallen into.  For instance, Lance Gowland produced a hard-hitting critique of  the gay liberation movement for its lack of support for struggles by blue-collar workers who had provided support when they needed it.  CPA members and members of several Trotskyist currents were part of the critical mass to reignite the movement, with a National Homosexual Conference being held in August 1975.  That conference saw the setting up of the first gay trade union support group.  Several Trotskyists put the case for a clear Marxist analysis of gay oppression and for working-class revolution, including unity between lesbians and gay men.  Ross reports on the corrosive influence of feminism in dividing gay women and men.  As she notes, it was crucial to fight sexism, but how to fight it is also crucial (pp77-78).  The Manifesto of the Socialist Homosexuals  in 1976 noted the need for unity on the basis of anti-sexism and a socialist outlook.  The Socialist Homosexuals group produced a newsletter called Red and Lavender, supported workers’ struggles in Australia and other countries and engaged in protests around gay rights and other issues.

Union solidarity with gay rights spread quite quickly beyond the NSW construction workers and the Teachers Union.  Moreover, a current affairs programme in December 1972 on homosexuality, featured a tram driver and storeman threatened with eviction if they appeared on the show.  The show did street interviews and went into a wharfies pub.  Their survey found very little hostility to homosexuals by workers in either place.  The major union councils had adopted anti-discrimination positions by 1976, long before employers and the state got round to it.  Indeed, employers were still wilfully discriminating and the state was prepared to use violence on the street against gay gatherings.  The Sydney gay Mardi Gras of 1978 was violently attacked by cops and 53 people were arrested.  Protests in support of the arrestees forced the state to back off and drop the charges and then repeal the hated Summary Offences Act; a new wave of pride and power was felt among gay activists.

From gay liberation to gay community

However, once again, all was far from well in the movement.  By the end of the 1970s, Ross points out, “revolution was no longer ‘in the air’ and the focus was on reform and providing welfare and legal services for a lesbian and gay clientele.”  Moreover, the gay liberation movement was being replaced by something much tamer and conservative – the gay community.  Ross notes, for instance, that it represented an abandonment of any sort of revolutionary politics and the triumph of working within the system.  The Sydney Mardi Gras, rather than being a militant representation of the fight for gay rights was set on the oath to being a harmless and respectable community festival, featuring contingents of cops and more and more capitalist advertising.

While the ‘new social movements’ are widely seen as products of the middle class, Ross argues that “Far from depending on a new middle class, the strongest social movements always had connections with the labour movement” (p92).  She notes, “A telling comparison is how quickly the organised working class took up gay rights, as opposed to members of parliament who dragged their feet, sometimes for decades, on homosexual law reform” (p93).  Marxists were there at the start of the gay liberation movement and, she points out, “it was Marxism – and the left political organisations – which brought all those issues into a coherent world view and outlined a strategy for change”, a strategy which “linked the fight of all the oppressed with class struggle against the system of capitalism” (p93).

Marxist currents and gay liberation

Ross briefly surveys the positions taken by the CPA, the Socialist Workers Party (later the DSP) and the International Socialists.  All three played important roles in the gay liberation movement from the start.  Socialist Alternative (SA), the group which Liz Ross is a leading member of, comes out of the IS tradition.  They have tended to put more emphasis on a critical view of autonomous organising.  Clinging to autonomous organising, as a principle, has often got in the way of developing effective radical politics and struggles.  Their tradition put a lot of emphasis on winning union support for gay rights, including through caucuses within unions, developing politically radical rank-and-file groups among workers and doing solidarity work.  At the same time, they have had a big focus on winning progressive students and have had some success in this sphere.

However, ideas often don’t win out at any point in time simply on their own merits.  Different objective conditions impact on how ideas are received.  The lull in workers’ struggles and the wider political downturn thus tended to strengthen support for theories of autonomy, identity and patriarchy.  Nevertheless, through consistent theoretical and practical work, including hard-hitting critiques of autonomy, identity politics and feminism, SA has managed to build up a solid core of gay Marxist activists and plays a major role in the Equal Love campaign, where it argues for radical action as opposed to petitioning and lobbying.

Ross’ book is an inspiring, must-read for people interested in the radical origins of the gay liberation movement and in understanding what happened to it and how it came to be killed off.  It also points to the ability of Marxism, when used creatively, to comprehend not only the nature of all forms of oppression but the nature of the struggle needed to end them.

See also our article on the 1986 homosexual law reform in New Zealand

Upcoming: look out for our coming interview with Liz Ross; in the meantime, you can see her speaking below:


One comment

  1. It’s interesting how different ruling classes, and fractions of ruling classes, have different positions on gay marriage. Here in the UK, the situation is like New Zealand, except there is probably a bigger aristo/bourgeois-reactionary faction in the Tory Party than in the National Party. They were implacably opposed to gay marriage, even though I can’t help suspecting that a lot of them must have engaged in some same-sex activity at Eton and other public schools. . .

    But there is a bourgeois-moderniser wing in the Tory Party too, and I think David Cameron fits into that. Like John Key, Cameron voted for gay marriage and said he did so because it fitted his beliefs as a Conservative and supporter of family values.

    In Aussie, things seem a bit different with Tony Abbot, and before him Julia Gillard, strongly opposed. Even so, I doubt Gillard and Abbot reflect majority ruling class opinion. Ruling classes, certainly in most of the capitalist west, don’t really care who is marrying who, as long as the next generation of labour-power is being produced and reared and taught to be good obedient labour-power. And two husbands or two wives can do that equally well as a husband and wife or a solo parent.


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