Life

When the Bashed Bash Back

The Stonewall riots are easy to celebrate because they’re in the past. But the need for queer insurrection is hardly history.

Bash Back! protest in downtown Minneapolis in 2009.
Bash Back! protest in downtown Minneapolis in 2009.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tony Webster/Wikipedia Commons.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

This month, D.C.’s Newseum is proudly boasting an eye-catching, orange-and-pink banner commemorating Stonewall. Stonewall was, as the slogan goes, a riot. The kind of riot where drag queens reportedly threw rocks at cops in the street and smashed their car windows. As I walked past the building, I was struck by the irony of such a reverent, respectable tribute. Many of the sorts of people responsible for Stonewall—especially “street kids,” trans people of color, and queer sex workers—are still harassed by D.C. police and would face harsh consequences for fighting back today with the same tactics their forebearers chose in 1969.

Of course, rebelliousness in distant times isn’t a threat to anyone’s status, power, or the fabric of society in the present. This is why moderates celebrate events like the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall uprising but accuse modern radicals of damaging their cause. “What are you trying to accomplish?” they demand. “You are hurting the movement! You are just as bad as the other side!” They wring their hands about protesting in the street rather than the sidewalk, or yelling “oink, oink” at cops, and then buy tickets to a nice exhibit about a riot.

For a recent example of queer insurrection that hasn’t (yet) attained the warm glow of historical distance, consider the case of Bash Back!

A relatively obscure network of self-identified criminal queer anarchists, Bash Back! arose out of anti–Republican National Convention and anti–Democratic National Convention organizing (including actions like queer-led street blockades) and existed from 2007–11. Out of that initial organizing work, Bash Back! chapters formed across the country, from Chicago and Denver to Philadelphia and Seattle, and beyond. The group’s model was a nonhierarchical autonomous network based loosely on agreed-upon points of unity, like fighting for queer liberation rather than heteronormative assimilation, and respecting a diversity of tactics (including an individual’s autonomy to participate in actions deemed illegal by the government).

The group’s anthology, a collection of communiques and essays, explains its central ethos:

Understandably we needed a reason to get excited. We needed a chance to position ourselves as a force. We needed to feel strong. Above all else, we needed to find one another that wanted the world’s head on a platter—we needed folks to dance with atop the rubble.

Naturally, Bash Back!’s efforts were not appreciated by all. According to “Dorothy Barker,” a self-described radical queer poodle and former Bash Backer! who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, “the nastiest reactions we got were from messing with Pride. I mean we did everything from hucking shitloads of dead fish at the HRC float to a group of like 40 of us blocking the Wells Fargo float and stopping the parade because Wells Fargo funded the prison where a black trans woman named CeCe McDonald was incarcerated for self-defense against a Nazi. The white gay cis-dude gym rats on the float literally started beating us with sticks.”

Pride was not the only Bash Back! target. Chapters attacked the homes of heterosexist murderers, organized dance parties in the streets, beautified cop cars with glitter and paint, engaged in public sex and orgies, “glamdalized” Army recruiting centers, disrupted transphobic politicians’ speeches, discussed theory, and wheat-pasted images of fisting onto bank windows. Dorothy told me that they “trashed the ever-loving shit” out of the Human Rights Campaign store on the anniversary of Stonewall in 2011. It was an “everyday culture of attack,” as a Bash Back! essay put it. Much of what the group did never made it into mainstream publications, but some actions were covered locally.

Bash Back!’s culture of attack included physical fights against transphobes. At a gay bar in Lansing, Michigan, a trans man, “Dru,” risked using the men’s bathroom. As Dru tried to leave, a man blocked him from the exit and said, “I know you’re a bitch!” Bash Backers! ultimately exchanged punches with the man. According to the anthology, which collected the story, “the man eventually ended up pinned to the floor of a stall with Dru on top of him bashing back! And another queer stomping him between the legs!” The transphobe yelled “OK OK IM SORRY CAN WE BE FRIENDS?”

Churches the group viewed as homophobic were among their most provocative targets. Mount Hope, a Michigan megachurch that has organized Halloween-season “hell houses” featuring queers and women who get abortions as “the horrors,” got a visit from about 30 Bash Backers! in 2008. According to the anthology account and In These Times, one subgroup organized a diversion protest outside chanting “Jesus was a homo!” to draw police and security, while others were scattered throughout the pews in their “Sunday best.” When the time was right, the undercover operatives sprang into action, declaring themselves fags, throwing thousands of flyers, unfurling a banner in the upper pews that read “It’s Okay to Be Gay! Bash Back!,” pulling the fire alarm, and making out in front of the pastor. Within minutes, they escaped.

The backlash against the Mount Hope action was particularly harsh; the group received death threats and was successfully sued by the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund. Bill O’Reilly, who weirdly lumped Bash Back! with mainstream gay marriage activists, remarked on his show at the time: “Yeah, I don’t think it does them any good. I agree that there is a backlash now, and those who were sympathetic to gay marriage and gay civil rights, they see conduct like this and, ya know, a lot of people are going, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ ”

Moderates, even queer ones, didn’t disappoint O’Reilly. The Michigan State University Alliance program director also condemned the action: “While Alliance of LGBT Students disagrees with Mount Hope’s hurtful stance that homosexuality and transgenderism are sins, we categorically condemn the actions of Bash Back! which not only disrespected the congregation, broke the law and put people in physical danger, but are also not beneficial to the LGBT movement.”

But Bash Back! had no regrets. This was a special demonstration for many involved. Some disruptors had attended Mount Hope, or similar churches, during their childhood. One goal of the action, as noted in the anthology, was to “show the youth [they] are not alone! … [W]e wanted to send a message of acceptance and understanding. We realize that thinking you might be queer in a church like that is terrifying.”

If Bash Back!’s confrontational tactics make you uneasy, consider that attacks against homophobic churches disrupt normalized violence that is disguised as religious rhetoric. Discriminatory beliefs perpetuated by the church lead to homophobia, which can, ultimately, lead to physical attacks, murder, and suicides. Bash Back!–style sabotage can make it more difficult for bigots to spew their bigotry, and at a certain point, the spewing can become more trouble than it’s worth.

Indeed, within the past several years, sabotage tactics have proved to be effective in the anti-fascist movement. Notably, Richard Spencer halted his college tour last year and admitted, “Antifa is winning.” He continued, “When they [his talks] become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun.” Likewise, the bathroom bully transphobe might think twice before harassing another trans person if he’s afraid of getting harassed himself.

Violence was never a moral issue for Bash Back! Queers face daily violence in a multitude of ways, from homophobic slurs to the AIDS genocide, to the criminalization of sex work. “Queers are marked as victims while violence is understood to be only the tool of the masters,” Bash Back! wrote in the anthology. The project was “first and foremost a refusal of victimhood and a reclamation of the violence taken by progressive ideology and used against us by queerbashers and the State.”

Anti-fascist and Bash Back! actions, which lack “respectability,” have pissed off liberals and conservatives alike. Bash Back! Pride disruptions were generally not welcomed by the larger LGBTQ community. Horrifying a homophobic pastor obviously won’t convert conservatives into allies. But then, neither did legislators decriminalize homosexuality the moment a parking meter was turned against a police barricade at Stonewall.

What’s important is how these fearless actions transformed the actors, their circles, and sympathetic spectators. They certainly affected Dorothy: “The Bash Back! network changed me insofar as it exposed me to a lot of the radical, antisocial, militant as fuck queer and trans politics that have come to define my approach to organizing against fascism: Being a combination of openly militant and flamboyantly stylish.” Participation in moments full of meaning, collective power, and camaraderie—like public demonstrations of rage or glamour—can provide sustaining fuel to the otherwise disengaged, unorganized, or victimized.

Without mass support or understanding of militant tactics and theory, radical movements are subject to co-option. Bash Back! abolished itself, in 2011, once liberally-minded elements infiltrated the network, per the group’s anthology. Its ultimate goal was to build a network of queer anarchists, and that goal had been achieved.

But the world’s head isn’t on a platter yet. Despite decades of uprisings and organizing, queers still face deadly threats. In 2018, 26 transgender people were violently killed, a majority black women. In 2019 seven have been killed, all black trans women. Between 50 percent and 66 percent of transgender people have been raped. The head of the Office of Civil Rights at U.S. Human Health and Services, Roger Severino, is openly homophobic and leading the charge to allow insurance companies and healthcare providers to discriminate against transgender people. Underground networks of far-right militias, who celebrate the murder of queers, are growing.

Each act of experimental, creative resistance against discriminatory violence is a gift to future queers seeking liberation. Like Stonewall, Bash Back! not only transformed the people involved, but bequeathed energy to the actions of all future revolutionaries. The next phase of queer liberation will learn from their struggles, and the next from theirs, until all people are able to reach and explore their full human potential.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.