Queer History

Intersectionality and the New York Gay Liberation Front

In recent years, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality has become central to left-wing discussions around feminism, race, and other social issues. Intersectionality, as a framework for understanding power, recognises how different aspects of a person’s identity overlap to create modes of privilege or discrimination. Intersectionality offers an invaluable lens through which to make sense of contemporary politics. It prevents us from ignorantly throwing our weight behind present-day liberal-centrist politicians like Hillary Clinton solely because she is a woman and instead recognises that other parts of Clinton’s identity interact with her political outlook. An intersectional lens encourages us to consider how Clinton’s white Western privilege might coincide with her neo-imperialist foreign policy and track record, while her class interests as a millionaire might be a factor in explaining her largely capitalist values and far-from-radical economic policies. At the same time, intersectionality has been vital to diversify liberation movements such as Gay Pride and to the thinking behind the All Black Lives Matter movement, where people including Black women, Black trans people, and Black disabled people called for greater inclusion.

Given the contemporary importance, it is difficult to imagine a time when intersectionality was not something that any respectable left wing activist considered essential to their activism. But just how long has it been around? Certainly, many on the left are familiar with the work of Crenshaw, the Black feminist legal theorist who coined the term in 1989 in her pathbreaking essay. Derived from her experiences as a Black woman, as well as her research as a legal scholar, Crenshaw’s thinking identified a problematic “tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience” which left Black women, who fell subject to sexism and racism, theoretically – and often, legally – erased. Such was the necessity for a framework that recognises the multidimensionality of experiences and identities. Crenshaw’s theory has had a huge impact on academic discourse. It also allows us to understand the past differently and recognise instances where intersectionality was ‘practiced’ in its fullness even before it was named.

I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on New York City’s Gay Liberation Front, a gay rights organisation that formed in the wake of the famous Stonewall Riots in 1969 and lasted for around four years. Despite the group being set up first and foremost to tackle homophobia, I was struck by their recognition of all oppressive structures and nuanced understanding of identity and privilege. Enshrining the idea that ‘no one is free until we are all free’, the Front preoccupied themselves with all manner of leftist struggle. Throughout their publications, including their newspaper Come Out!, they branded the United States “Amerikkka” for its entrenched anti-black racism and attacked its “male heterosexist” patriarchy that had long oppressed women and gender non-conforming folk. There were also many examples of the GLF engaging with other liberation groups on the Left. Members of the GLF congregated outside of New York’s Women’s House of Detention, where they called for the release of Black Panther political prisoners who were being held there. On another occasion – recorded in Come Out! – GLF members met with the Young Lords, an organisation of Latinx anti-racist liberation fighters, as a gesture of solidarity and to exchange protest tactics.

You may well have seen a widely shared photograph of a woman holding up a placard reading “Gay Power / Black Power / Women Power / Student Power / All Power to the People”. While her own relationship to each of the identity categories listed on the poster is not known, we do know that she was attending a march with the GLF and some historians argue that she was a fully-fledged member herself. Whatever the extent of her involvement with the group, her placard clearly articulates the way that GLF members and their sympathisers were eager to tie various fights for liberation together and unite.

Yet even more revealing was the GLF’s recognition of intersecting privileges. Carl Wittman, a gay man from San Francisco whose work featured in many of the GLF’s publications, noted that “many of us have mixed identities, and have ties with other liberation movements”. Sharing this belief, offshoot groups within the GLF formed in the early 1970s that catered to specific identities. One such group named themselves the Third World Gay Revolution – the term ‘Third World Gays’ being used to refer to homosexuals of colour. In their mission statement published in Come Out!, they claimed that “third world gays suffer an oppression which is not shared by our white sisters and brothers, one which they could never really feel.” Another subgroup named Gay Jewish Revolution was made of homosexual Jewish activists. Writing in Come Out!, these activists boldly related the “ghetto oppression” that Jews had faced for millennia with the “pogroms” that gay people faced in 1960s New York through homophobic housing policies that they claimed prioritised nuclear heterosexual families and discriminated against unmarried gay people.

Former GLF members Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera marching in New York in 1973. Picture by Gary LeGault. [Wikimedia Commons].
When reflecting on the formation of these sorts of groups and the GLF’s work with feminists, Black Panthers and other radical groups striving for liberation, former member and lifelong lesbian-feminist activist Karla Jay later declared that the group “invented intersectionality.” Of course, a white person claiming partial credit for having ‘founded’ intersectionality appears, at best, ill-informed. Yet she made this point after describing the GLF’s efforts to prioritise and work with activists whose identities straddled numerous intersections – from the now famous Marsha P. Johnson who self-identified as a ‘drag queen’ and founded the groundbreaking street activist organisation Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to the less well known Salsa Soul Sisters, a group for lesbians of colour. Indeed, my discussion of the group highlights how the Front were a diverse cohort who knew of this diversity and worked to better the lives of all members. By no means were the Gay Liberation Front the only group practicing intersectionality before the word entered the mainstream. But their work offers one example of the tireless efforts of activists that came before us, activists who were ‘intersectional’ decades before scholars were given the language to identify and describe it this way.

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