Gay Left: An Overview by Jeffrey Weeks
A particular moment
Gay Left encapsulates a particular moment in lesbian and gay history, and in the lives of its editors and writers. It was a moment that was politically, culturally and emotionally potent, but the circumstances that made it have now passed irretrievably. It feels like another age. Yet there is still a great deal of interest in the work that we set out to do, and this website, holding all ten copies of the journal, is a response both to a need to engage creatively with our history , and to recurring debates in what is now a vast, diversified and international community.
The journal first appeared in the autumn/fall of 1975, though the members of the initial editorial collective had been meeting for a year before this discussing the project, and some of us had been in gay Marxist discussion and reading groups together for even longer than that. The first flush of gay liberation energy had to a certain extent dispersed, but it was a period when gay ideas nevertheless were spreading electrically into a huge variety of areas – writing, film, art, theatre, television, history, the academy, trade unions, education, even mainstream politics - in the context of an unprecedented explosion of the gay and lesbian community. The opportunities seemed endless, despite, possibly because of, the frequent setbacks lesbian and gay people encountered For it was also a period of intense political polarisation, as the optimism of the previous decade hardened into a grim resilience under the impact of high inflation, growing unemployment, international tension and a real sense of an end of an era. There was a feeling that this was a time to stand up and be counted, and for many of us who had come of age in the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the early 1970s, and had seen our view of the world transformed by the explosive emergence of gay politics, that meant positioning ourselves firmly with the left.
Five years later, as the editorial collective announced in GL 10 a pause in publication to enable a think about what we wanted to do next – 10 issues and an edited book (Homosexuality: Power and Politics published in 1980) proved an exhausting if exhilarating journey together – the climate had changed dramatically, and in fact we soon dissolved as a group. What had seemed in the mid 1970s an inevitable movement to the Left had by 1980 become the triumph of a new sort of Right, marrying, with what turned out to be varying success, a harsh economic liberalism with a social conservatism, whose search for a return to Victorian Values (in Thatcherite Britain) or the values of the old frontier and old time religion (in Reaganite USA) captured the zeitgeist and created the basis of a new hegemonic politics in which the Left was increasingly marginalized. It was also, though we did not know it at the time, just a year or so before the HIV/AIDS crisis transformed the conditions of gay life for ever. New times demanded new urgent responses, and our earlier preoccupations often seemed redundant.
A longer term perspective tells us something different. Despite the setbacks, pain and loss of the 1980s and early 1990s we can now see that under the surface of events, dramatic changes in sexual and intimate life were taking place, a sort of grass roots revolution, that have transformed the possibilities of LGBTQ lives. These were not necessarily in the ways we anticipated or even consciously wanted in the mid 1970s. Many of our analyses have dated, inevitably. But what now strikes me on re-reading these 10 volumes for the first time in a long time, is how well we captured the dreams and realities, hopes and frustrations of gay and lesbian lives during the 1970s, and the extent to which you can see in these pages the shape of the dramatic political and cultural changes that decisively ended the long 1960s, and brought about a new political era.
The Gay Left Collective
The collective that came together in 1974 to plan what was not then known as ‘Gay Left’ (the title came at the last minute after long and anguished discussions) consisted of nine people. The group that produced the last issue five years later consisted of eight people. In between there had been a considerable churning of membership (15 people in all served on the collective), but a core of us had been with the project throughout. We were a group of men – a fact that was to prove controversial – and white men at that – something that was not especially controversial then but now stands out as a real weakness. We were London based, though in fact only one of us was born and bred in London: like most lesbians and gays we were migrants to the big city. Most of us were in our 20s or early 30s, of working class backgrounds but generally highly educated. Several of us were still students, or soon became students, most of the rest of us were first generation university graduates, characteristically working as researchers or teachers in schools, colleges and universities, but we also had two potters, a filmmaker and a lawyer. Generally we were fairly insecure in our careers at that stage. We all regarded ourselves as on the left, though our experiences had varied enormously, from membership of small leftist groups to mild anarchism and armchair Marxism. Crucially, all of us in one way or another had been radicalised through our experience of the gay movement.
What unified us and brought us together in Gay Left was a double concern: to enter a dialogue with the gay movement about socialism; and to confront the socialist and labour movements with the ideas of gay liberation. We declared in GL 1 that we were attempting to develop a ‘Marxist theory of sexuality’ and a ‘materialist analysis of sexual oppression’, and whatever the twists and turns of our efforts, that remained a consistent theme. The main vehicles for this were the collective statements we wrote for each issue. In these we attempted to work together on a specific topic – reading, discussing, arguing, and finally writing, collectively, in endless drafts. These statements probably took up most of our time, which may seem a little disproportionate when they characteristically took less than a fifth of the total contents. But they were crucial to our political and intellectual development, and to establishing the particular ethos of the journal. It is worth stressing that these were genuinely collective statements. Everyone took part. Every paragraph, sentence, phrase and word was chewed over before we produced an agreed way of saying what we wanted to say. Through this collaborative activity we helped each other, learnt from each other and grew together.
Engaging with struggle
But though this theoretical work was crucial we also sought to tap into ongoing struggles in the world around us. Alongside more historical articles like ‘Where Engels Feared to Tread’ (GL 1), which traced the evolution of Marxist attitudes towards sexuality and gender, were articles on struggles in the workplace like ‘Gays and Trade Unions’ in GL 1, ‘The Gay Workers’ Movement’ (GL 2), ‘All Worked UP’ (GL 3), ‘Gays at Work’ (GL 6 and 7), and ‘Work Place Politics: Gay Politics’ (GL 10); and pieces on the attitudes of leftist organisations towards the gay issue, such as ‘A Grim Tale’, about the International Socialists’ Gay Group (GL 3) or ‘Communists’ Comment’ (GL 4).
This dialogue between ourselves and with a growing range of readers inevitably shifted our perspectives. By GL 5, in our collective statement ‘Why Marxism?’ we were trying to articulate a more flexible theoretical position, open to new trends within Marxism (the growing influence of Gramsci, for example) and other social theories - the recognition of the importance of psychoanalysis (especially via the writings of Juliet Mitchell), and of the work of Michel Foucault were particularly important - see the articles on ‘Politics and Ideology’ in GL 5, and Foucault in GL 8). Other issues saw the publication of articles on key developing themes and theories, for example on the state and sexuality (GL 6), Guy Hocquenghem (GL 9) and on developments in socialist feminism (GL 10). At the same time, we were attempting to reflect the growing crisis on the left as the political climate became increasingly polarised. GL 5 carried a piece on ‘Gays and Fascism’ which began a crucial debate (see response in GL 6). We were also alive to the significance of the swing to the right not only politically but culturally (the collective statement in GL 8 referred to the election of Margaret Thatcher, which proved to be a decisive moment in British politics).
Our political commitments provided the spine for Gay Left in its five years of existence, but as a group of gay men we were also firmly located in the developing gay community and culture, with all their burgeoning concerns. Gay politics was still at heart a personal politics, and the bridge between the personal, social and political was an abiding preoccupation. In our second editorial statement, ‘Within these Walls’ (GL 2) we cast a critical look at our own community. But we also tried to show how central a sense of community was to coming out. ‘From Latent to Blatant’ by Angus Suttie (GL 2) movingly demonstrated that, and was a first example of highly personal articles which at the same time raised wider issues: for example, ‘Divided We Fail’ (GL 3), ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’ (GL 6), ‘Living with Indecency’ (GL 8), and ‘Personal Politics - Ten Years On’, which gave members of the collective an opportunity to reflect on what had changed.
One of the key issues that came back again and again was the undeniable fact that we were a collective of white gay men. We were up-front about this from the start by declaring in GL1 that this was ‘a socialist journal produced by gay men’. That was not a boast but a bare statement of reality, though we also felt that there were advantages to remaining a closed group of men. We said we could ‘best explore our sexual attitudes most truthfully in an all-male group’, and in many ways we did indeed operate as an awareness or conscious raising group as well as an editorial collective. Our regular weekends away together to plan the journal were always shaped around intense personal discussions. In the spirit of the times, we wanted to change ourselves as well as the world around us. But our maleness and alleged exclusivity was a major source of controversy. Sue Bruley launched a vigorous broadside against the collective, ‘Women in Gay Left’, in GL 3, followed up in GL 4 by a series of responses. Although growing numbers of women contributed to the journal (and to our book) over the years that followed, and we worked closely with a number of lesbians over specific projects (such as the ‘What is to Be Done?’ conference in July 1977) the collective remained all male for the duration. We did, however, attempt to explore masculinity, including our own, as best we could, and this was reflected in several articles. The defining moment for us as a group was the work we did on our collective statement for GL 4, ‘Love, Sex and Maleness’. More controversially, we also entered the debate on paedophilia and inter-generational sex. The collective statement in GL 7, ‘Happy Families’ aroused a considerable debate in GL 8. Similarly, pornography proved a hot topic in GL 6 and 7. These issues were to prove to be immensely divisive topics in the next decade.
The fact that we were all white men was apparently less controversial at the time than the fact we were all men, but in retrospect it appears more of a problem. ‘Gays and Fascism’ in GL 5 did refer to racism, and Errol Francis in GL 10 specifically raised the issue, but there was no in-depth discussion of race, ethnicity and sexuality, which was of course to become a major theme in the 1980s, after GL left the scene. What you can see in the pages of the journal is an attempt to see gay liberation in an international context – see, for example, ‘Gays in Cuba’ in GL 1, and ‘Gay Liberation in Central America’ in GL 10. Despite this, what is not explicitly addressed in the journal is what has now become a dominating theme: the diversity of the lesbian and gay world, and though the issue of rights was a key if implicit concern, we did not anticipate the rise of the discourse of human rights as crucial to international LGBT politics. It is also necessary to note that we did not engage fully with bisexual or transgender issues. Our sense of what constituted a valid sexual and gender politics was still in evolution.
In other ways, however, Gay Left was a leader in exploring gay culture in its broadest sense. Gays in film formed a continuous theme following a ground- breaking article by Richard Dyer in GL 2, with regular reviews (for example, of Fassbinder in GL 2), and coverage of Ron Peck’s attempts to make his film, ‘Nighthawks’ (Ron was then a member of the collective and other members were involved in the film making). Andrew Britton challenged ‘Camp’ in GL 6, and there were pioneering articles on ‘Gay Art’, the gay singer, Tom Robinson and the theatre group Gay Sweatshop in GL 7. Dyer’s article ‘In Defence of Disco’ in GL 8 was one of the first to take disco seriously as an expression of the new gay consciousness. Mandy Merck explored Gay TV in GL 10 at the start of what proved to be a revolution in the ways in which lesbians and gays were represented.
There were many other themes for which Gay Left provided a forum, from the emerging gay history to sexual pleasure. The journal was continuously expanding its coverage, adapting to the rapidly changing climate, and to our own personal changes, in life circumstances and political outlook. By the time we ceased publication in 1980 the kaleidoscope had been shaken again and new, yet more intricate patterns were emerging. We went our separate ways. But it’s fair to say that we have not lost the inspiration we found together in the days of Gay Left, nor have we stopped engaging with the themes we began to elaborate in the 1970s. Most of us have gone on writing in various forums, and between us we have clocked up a considerable list of books - on film, culture, history, sociology, art, photography, ceramics, the media, AIDS. And perhaps most importantly, with one exception, we are all still alive. Angus Suttie, a founder member of the collective died of AIDS in 1993. He is still much missed.