Friday, February 18, 2011

What lessons can we learn from Queer DIY activism?

By Anton Johnson

AS GREATER London Association of Trade Union Councils LGBT Officer I get to go to a wide range of LGBTQ events in London and I am constantly impressed with the innovation and energy of the Queer DIY events. These events have the origins in the DIY and party scene of the early 1990s and have evolved with each new generation of participants.
The Queer DIY scene in the early 1990s gave rise to groups such as OUTRAGE! and ACT-UP London which did not sit easily with the more traditional Lesbian & Gay campaign organisations at the time, such as the then Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (LCLGR), while others such as Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Action collapsed into OUTRAGE! I straddled the divide as LCLGR community officer in the early 90s and a working relationship was developed where the skills of both types of work were recognised.
These approaches worked within the National Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition that was set up to resist attacks on Lesbian and Gays in 1991 by John Major’s government – attacks that spanned the Operation Spanner to fostering regulations in Paragraph 16.
In 1992 the NLGRC organised a conference bringing together LGB / Queer activists together – to learn from each other in order to work together for liberation. The conference had speakers from LCLGR, UNISON, Lesbian & Gay Anti-Racist Alliance, Feminist Library, Queer Anarchists, Socialist Outlook now called Socialist Resistance and the then called Socialist Organiser and was supported by the then National Communications Union. This conference brought together LGBQ activists from different traditions in some joint working. With the NLGRC shutting down in 1993 that formal link ended.
Over the years connexions have been made between the formal LGBTQ labour movement organisations and the DIY activists that has worked well. From 1999 – 2002 Queer activists were involved in the high profile Freedom to be Yourself Campaign – the right to go naked – these activists marched naked at the London Pride in 2001 and supported LCLGR initiatives in the early 2000’s. Those same activists are still involved and linked to Left Front Art through their involvement with Q&A café and Behind Bars and other LGBTQ art events.
Queeruption that started in Brixton in 1998 and grew to be a successful gathering in different cities around the world till 2008 was a great example of LGBTQ grassroots activism that worked with the formal LGBTQ Labour movement – I attended the ones held in London and Amsterdam in 2004.
Today we see the large Behind Bars events and the smaller but incredibly creative clubs such as KAOS and Antagony bringing young LGBTQ people into activism – though a different activism – one that requires practical participation, one that says everyone’s voice is valid and heard, one that addressed racism, one that allows Queers to be themselves but be involved in political activism, one where there are no “leaders” but collective action and people are accountable – all the things union broad lefts state as an intention.
Some involved loosely label it as anarchism yet this is not how the majority label themselves – not at all in fact. What it does allow them is to be involved and fuse their activism with other areas – art/music/discussion/pleasure/sex. Behind Bars events in London and similar in other cities such as Berlin and Barcelona attract thousands of predominantly young LGBTQ people.
The organisers of these events are not hostile to trade unions or organisations as such – they are in fact members of the GMB but they do feel alienated from the structures, which they rightly see as overly hierarchical, not supportive of grassroots activism or their sexuality and culture.
The events such as Behind Bars are brought from nothing – simply an empty building – those skills and creativity go on to inform LGBTQ events such as ACTART and the annual Sertuc LGBT Network event in February. These activists have regular jobs – teaching, shop work, public services and so on. Yet they are able to inspire and mobilise people from their communities, which the traditional labour movement struggles to do. Why is this? For whatever reason many in the LGBTQ communities do not feel comfortable in the traditional labour movement structure. As stated many see it as a vehicle for opportunist careerists.
So how do LGBTQ activists in this area achieve the sort of working approach that union broad lefts aim for but fail to achieve in many cases? It could be that those Queers are shaped by their experiences and the struggles they faced from discrimination and possible alienation from their families and they have put into practice the ideal of collective working and creation of safe spaces.
The negatives that I have observed over the years are that quite often people in this scene revert to an individualist positioning and adopt a libertarian approach in other areas of life – end up in fact a Tory of the worst kind. Look at how many former 1970’s hippies now adopt assertive management policies to attack workers terms and conditions.
Though there are opportunities to exchange and for learning with the new onslaught from the Con-Dems we are seeing LGBTQ grassroots groups spring up all over the country in opposition to the Con-Dem ideologically driven cuts. In Brighton, London, Bradford and Manchester creative actions such as the recent one by Queer Riot in Manchester are coming together under Queers Against the Cuts, which now meets at TUC Congress House. Ronan McNern of Queer Resistance spoke at a anti-cuts rally organised by Lambeth TUC – since that rally he has decided to join the union covering his workplace.
There is a good exchange of ideas going on at the coal face – through the positive work being done. With Queer DIY activists joining trade unions, organising the unorganised, there is now an organising list set up by a GMB activist of over 200 male sex workers in London and they will be having meetings at Bonnington café in Vauxhall soon. A group of Queer activists is setting up a rural commune in Europe over the coming year.
Through initiatives such as Prolecult we have materials for the TUC National demonstration and regular Morning Star stalls and the New Worker at Queer DIY events.
Rank and file labour movement activists can learn the practical skills and new ways of communicating and of working while showing by example what communism means.
With the resistance against the Coalition government growing, if you have a Queer anti-cuts group in your area, include them. You will find they are very open to working together.
The Queer DIY scene gives a fresh injection into the practical aspects of communism and this allows for an exchange.

Thierry Schaffauser from Left Front Art will be one of the speakers at the New Worker public meeting on the Paris Commune in March.
The next Queers Against the Cuts meeting is on Monday 21st February 2011 – 7pm at TUC Congress House London WC1.


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