From Rainbow to Red

A member of the Gay Liberation Front holding a poster and under a banner.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

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.

Mark Horn joined the Gay Liberation Front—the first queer activist group to emerge after the Stonewall riots—when he was 18 years old, becoming one of the radical organization’s youngest members.* He discovered GLF at an anti–Vietnam War demonstration in 1970: GLF fought not only for LGBTQ rights but for intersectional causes. “If a corporation was supporting the war,” Horn told me, “or polluting the environment or redlining neighborhoods or discriminating because of race, then we were against them.” That same year, Horn marched in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March, New York City’s first Pride demonstration. “There were no corporate floats,” Horn said, “because there were no corporations willing to stand up and be on our side.”

This year’s Pride parade on June 30—where Horn, now 66, will join GLF alumni as one of the parade’s grand marshals—will look remarkably different: Where once homemade signs reading “Gay Power” dominated, it will now be floats for brands like TD Bank and H&M. Grumbling about the corporate takeover of Pride has become something of a cliché, the basic complaint being that the corporate presence is more lip service than real advocacy. But if this Pride season—where so many queer activists have partnered with brands—is anything to go by, the majority of LGBTQ people have embraced corporate sponsorship as a sign of ultimate inclusion, an end to our fight for equality. Not exactly what GLF, who organized the first march, had planned.

It’s worth noting that the current situation is a strange inversion of the hold capitalism had over queer people before Stonewall. In the ’60s, most middle-class queer people were afraid to come out for fear of losing their jobs; many were blackmailed with the threat of a public outing and paid to remain in the closet and keep their middle-class status. Because of this fear, the LGBTQ rights movement was initially populated with people who were already ignored by the status quo, including socialists and communists.

But those origins have been largely ignored or forgotten. Today, even when democratic socialism has more political momentum in the U.S. than ever thanks to figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, queer people are still largely in the thrall of our corporate “benefactors.” To be fair, this is not totally unreasonable: Of all modern economic systems, capitalism has arguably been the most welcoming to queer folks. Just look at the current ad campaigns featuring queer and gender nonconforming people, unquestionably a huge step for positive representation. But looking around at queer life right now, I’ve begun to worry that capitalism is shaping our collective consciousness in ways that should concern us. Capitalism infiltrates our entire sense of what we value, from our bank accounts to our bodies, where wealth and accumulation have become markers of queer progress and joy. We can do better than this. It’s time to return to the revolutionary roots of our movement, when queer people ignited actions for social reform and economic progress for all.

“GLF was a radical organization,” said Perry Brass, another early member of GLF who joined the group in 1969 when he was 22 years old. “Some of us were absolute indoctrinated Marxists, with the usual slogans like, ‘Property is theft!’ ” The presence of socialists and communists was the reason the FBI monitored GLF as a subversive organization in the 1970s. While Brass acknowledged that these leftist ideologies were imperfect (particularly when communist leaders showed hostility toward gay people, such as when Fidel Castro remarked that homosexuality was a capitalist disease), Brass valued the political ferment.

Unfortunately, these scrappy, revolutionary beginnings didn’t last. “By 1980,” Brass said, “the country did its 180-degree swing to the right and elected that turd Ronald Reagan, who couldn’t utter the word AIDS.” In the face of this conservative shift, the emergency of AIDS demanded that LGBTQ people be recognized and, to an extent, normalized into mainstream culture. Such inclusion was not a frivolous pursuit; it was urgent and led to significant legal victories for queer people. Yet, as the movement prioritized integration, the hopes for a more intersectional revolution were shelved.

This shift was mirrored by gay representation in the media, where advertisers slowly came to covet the untapped potential (read: disposable income) of the archetypal wealthy, childless gay couple. Advertisers helped shape the mainstream perception of queer lives, in turn welcoming queers into the American myth that consumer lifestyles bring happiness. Many queer people now propagate this notion themselves. In an article for GQ last year, Chris Azzopardi examined the trend of gay couples’ Instagram accounts, which feature fit couples pillow-fighting in luxury hotels and modeling designer underwear, for which the endgame is usually a sponsorship deal. Azzopardi summarized: “Happiness equals followers equals money.” Corporations benefit more from these sponsorships than queer communities themselves; they appear as allies without necessarily distributing money to where it’s most needed, instead reaffirming wealth (and usually whiteness) as cultural ideals.

One of capitalism’s most pervasive ideas is that individuals control their own financial destiny, deflecting any responsibility for systemic inequality. Martin Duberman, in his 2018 book Has the Gay Movement Failed?, called this idea “the false doctrine at the heart of American ‘liberalism,’ ” an idea responsible for “having sapped the strength of every movement for social reform in our history.” Most gay people, Duberman writes, “yearn to fit in, to belong, and to that end are happy to pledge allegiance to whatever the going institutional structure is and whatever official formula for happiness reigns.” By adopting this formula, the LGBTQ movement helped to “bolster the current system of social control and domination that distributes large rewards to the relative few.” If anything desperately needs a revolution in this country, it is wealth redistribution, yet for queer people, even with the community history to help lead such a charge, it appears we’ve stepped out of the fight.

In its earliest days, the queer movement was led by those resistant to societal norms. Frank Kameny, the co-founder of the Mattachine Society who fought the Supreme Court in the ’60s for gay employment rights, criticized pre-Stonewall gays, calling them assimilationists whose “lack of intellectual strength” meant that they’d rather adhere to the status quo than affect change for their own benefit. Sylvia Rivera, a trans activist and co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, took the microphone during a rally in Washington Square Park in 1973 to denounce white middle-class gays who had ignored the poor and incarcerated, and who had abducted the movement from its radical founders (during Rivera’s speech, the crowd booed and heckled her).

While those names and the politics they represented might seem like artifacts, there are organizations still fighting to keep the spirit of the original movement alive. On June 30, the Reclaim Pride Coalition will host an alternative march to the main parade, retracing the original 1970 route—from Christopher Street to Central Park—foregrounding political protest over corporate-sponsored extravagance. The organizers hope to remind people that gratuitous displays of financial wealth are not celebrations of queer progress nor are they tickets to happiness—and they have nothing to do with real queer liberation.

Perry Brass first discovered GLF after seeing an ad in the Village Voice for one of its community parties. “I had never seen that term, ‘gay community,’ ever, in my whole life,” Perry said. “I thought, this is just spectacular. Community!” That sense of real community, he said, has dwindled, and the blight of capitalism has played a large part in its erosion by isolating us from political life. As many banners over the past 50 years have declared, “Stonewall Means Fight Back,” and that fight should include calling out and remedying economic inequality. Luckily, there’s no better time than now to shift the focus of our movement back to the holistic social justice values upon which it was founded. Democratic socialism is back, and as Brass bluntly put it: “It’s about fucking time!”

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.

Correction, June 26, 2019: This post originally misstated Mark Horn’s age when he joined the Gay Liberation Front. He was 18, not 19.