Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left by Emily K. Hobson
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 309 pages. $29.95 paper 2,092 words
Reviewed by Margaret Cerullo
Emily Hobson’s compelling book recovers the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s and 1980s in a particularly iconic and dense site of activism: the San Francisco Bay Area. (Hobson uses the designation “lesbian and gay” as it was understood by radicals at the time, with a greater attunement to the intersections of race, class, gender, and nation than later critics of “essentialism” often assume. Radicals, she says, generally did not, however, incorporate bixexual and transgender identities; these were not claimed politically until later.)
More than a simply local story, Hobson’s reconstruction of this history sets out to challenge larger narratives that acknowledge only two really dramatic moments in the history of US gay politics: the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and the emergence of the direct action/civil disobedience/street activism associated with ACT UP in the late 1980s and 1990s. In this scheme, the 1970s and 1980s were the doldrums: gay and lesbian politics supposedly divided into “separatism,” associated with lesbians, and “liberalism,” the assumed politics of gay men, which focused on rights and assimilation. However, among other things, this narrative erases the gay and lesbian left. Hobson asks why. Why are certain stories written out of history, and what are the cultural frameworks that make it almost impossible to write them in? Are we in a historical moment when the forgotten freedom dreams of the gay and lesbian left—dreams of a radical end to oppression of all kinds—might again become legible?
Hobson characterizes the gay and lesbian left provocatively, by the way it viewed sexual liberation and radical solidarity as interdependent. Leftists, she writes, “defined gay and lesbian identities not only as forms of desire, but as political affiliations that could create the conditions of possibility to set desire free.” If liberation was the theory, she proposes, solidarity was the practice. New York’s Gay Liberation Front, the first post-Stonewall gay organization, took its name from the National Liberation Fronts of Algeria and Vietnam, underlining the fact that early activists defined gay and lesbian politics through identification with other liberation struggles. These activists, from the Vietnam War generation, influenced by feminism, theorized that normative constructions of masculinity underlay violence and imperialism. Excluded from the draft, radical gay men proclaimed that homosexuality could be a means to resist the Vietnam War. One slogan advised “Suck cock to beat the draft”; another, in a riff on Muhammad Ali’s explanation for his draft resistance (“No Vietcong ever called me nigger”), proclaimed “No Vietnamese ever called me queer” (which became the title of a Gay Liberation Theater production).
Hobson’s book ends in the 1990s, at a moment when segments of the LGBT movement sought freedom by identifying with, not against, the state—embracing inclusion into the military and celebrating the inclusion of police contingents into annual LGBT pride celebrations (leaving older gay and lesbian liberationists to insist that “the military is not a jobs program for young people but the muscle behind US imperialism,” and to recall that Stonewall was a riot against police violence). Through such disruptive reminders, Hobson unsettles the progress narrative of gay and lesbian history—from Stonewall to marriage and the military.
She tells several important stories that capture the vibrance and diversity of actions, arts projects, alliances, and commitments—in short, the politics and counterculture—that characterized the apparent doldrums of the 1970s and the 1980s. The life and death of Harvey Milk; the fight against the 1977 Briggs Initiative that would have banned lesbians and gays, and possibly supporters of gay rights, from working in the California public schools; the Coors beer boycott in gay bars—these activist histories are barely known to younger LGBT people, except perhaps the story of Harvey Milk, because of the film Milk (2008).
In a major contribution, Hobson argues that framing 1970s lesbian activism as “separatist” has completely erased radical lesbian politics, which she characterizes as a politics of collective defense. Rooted in a critique of state violence and a belief in the right to self-defense learned from the Black Panthers, lesbian communities harbored political fugitives from the radical underground and refused to cooperate with grand juries in revealing their whereabouts, at considerable risk of police harassment and imprisonment. (The most famous case was that of Susan Saxe, accused of participating in a bank robbery in Boston to raise funds for the Black Panthers, in which a policeman was killed. On the run for five years, Saxe turned herself in in 1975 to stop attacks on the lesbian communities that sheltered her.)
Lesbian collectives also extended shelter to women accused of killing their rapists or abusers, which activists viewed as acts of self-defense. Feminists in the Bay area, many of them lesbians, organized support for Inez Garcia, who killed one of the two men who raped her. The Free Inez Garcia Committee and the Inez Garcia Defense Committee ultimately achieved Garcia’s release from prison. However, in a harbinger of things to come, conflict emerged between these committees and the newly formed San Francisco Women Against Rape, which did not join the campaign to free Garcia for fear of alienating the San Francisco Police Department, with which they were developing a working relationship.
In Hobson’s discussion of these developments her historical imagination is evident. She takes as her subject not an organization or a campaign but a particular kind of space—the lesbian collective household of the 1970s—whose importance she recovers from archives and interviews. These spaces functioned as shelters against state and male violence, political meeting places to plan actions and organize projects, and community centers, that might include an abortion clinic, a café, or a library.
In a central contribution, Hobson brings to the fore the significant lesbian and gay presence in the Central American solidarity movement. This was perhaps especially visible in San Francisco, for several reasons. Most important was the existence of “barrio transnationalism”—relationships and mutual influences among Latin American refugees, immigrants, and exiles, and the Latino/a and other marginalized and poor populations living in the Mission district. Gay and lesbian Latino/as and Latin Americans were a key part of this mix; they readily made the connections between their own local organizing around poverty and housing and revolutions happening in Latin America that were promising profound transformations in people’s material lives.
Moreover, while the straight left counselled lesbian and gay solidarity activists to tone it down in order to not offend Nicaraguan sensibilities, gays and lesbians in Nicaragua had been coming out in the militias and the literacy and health brigades, and were eager to make contact with gay and lesbian solidarity activists. In a chapter called “Talk about loving in the war years,” Hobson draws on activists’ memories to communicate the ways in which all kinds of desire circulated in these encounters. Together, these activists built transborder lesbian and gay community, queering barrio transnationalism and furthering radical sexual politics in both places. Overall, it would seem from Hobson’s account, that solidarity activists had greater success in appealing to lesbian and gay communities to stand in solidarity with Nicaragua and against US intervention than they did in convincing the straight left of the relevance of sexual politics to revolution.
Hobson demonstrates that by 1987, Central America solidarity work had begun to influence US AIDS activism. In 1986—eight months before the formation of ACT UP in New York—San Francisco activists organized the AIDS Action Pledge (AAP), modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, an emergency response network to resist US intervention in Central America. Opposing arms shipments to Central America from California military bases, AAP called for “Money for AIDS, not for war,” and “Condoms not contras.” Hobson argues that in making these connections, activists reframed AIDS. Rather than perversion, deviance, or even disease, the AIDS epidemic was about human needs. This framing may also have contributed to a more broadly based understanding of health care as a human right—something the activists had learned from their solidarity work with third-world revolutions, particularly Nicaragua’s.
Hobson’s book makes several important contributions. In interrogating the reasons why the story of the gay and lesbian left has not been told, she identifies several culprits. One is the loss of so many of a generation of radical activists to AIDS, and with them, the loss of their memories and histories. Another is the dominance of the liberal inclusion narrative described earlier. While she doesn’t say this explicitly, there is not only a white but a male centric bias in this narrative. Finally—and this is a critical contribution to US gay and lesbian history—Hobson indicts the narrow domestic, nation-state focus that has characterized US gay and lesbian histories, and that makes invisible the importance of Central American solidarity work to lesbian and gay activism in the 1980s—and, she reminds us, of Palestinian solidarity work to the queer movement today. However, what Hobson doesn’t emphasize is the responsibility of the wider left, whose histories (and memories) generally erase gay and lesbian contributions to left movements, often as part of a reductive critique and dismissal of “identity politics.” In any case, Hobson reveals how much had to be defeated, forgotten, and lost for there to emerge as dominant the idea of gay and lesbian identity as cut off from any wider commitments and imagination.
It is striking that Hobson does not pay much attention to questions of class, either in the movements she studies or in her analysis. I wondered about the class position of the activists she discusses, how they survived, what they did for work. What kind of economy supported a radical counterculture of collective households, whose members had the free time to devote to political and related creative pursuits? Are these spaces of collective possibility increasingly a casualty of gentrification, as Sarah Schulman has provocatively suggested in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012)—and in a larger sense, of the neoliberal reordering and fragmentation of our lives?
Lavender and Red surfaces the gay and lesbian left’s creative, intersectional analyses of US militarism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and state violence, and its efforts to think about these systems through the lenses of gender and sexuality. Another of the book’s principal contributions is to provoke reflection on the politics of alliance and solidarity—and for this we need all the help we can get, in this historical moment when solidarity is ever more difficult and necessary. Her intricate and nuanced discussion of lesbian and gay solidarity with Nicaragua helps us to understand its specifics and its difficulties, missteps, miscommunications, risks, and occasional profound connections. Emphasizing the way Nicaraguans actively directed solidarity, Hobson points not only to the exchange of ideas, but to the silences and gaps in communication that structured their relationships with US activists. For example, gay and lesbian targets of a Sandinista crackdown in Nicaragua did not share that information with their US counterparts, since they didn’t want to jeopardize the Americans’ political and material support for the Nicaraguan revolution—or their joint projects of AIDS education.
I end this review with two reflections because these concerns point to future work that will reframe the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s by putting race and class at the center. The first is the whiteness of so much of the gay and lesbian left. Despite the movement’s deep critiques of racism and imperialism and its development of intersectional analyses of racist sexism—for example in its discussions of the case of Inez Garcia—the gay and lesbian left almost always remained overwhelmingly white. Hobson is tentative here; she doesn’t directly ask why this was so, though she does point out that the movement’s whiteness was challenged by lesbians and gays of color. The lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker, for example, criticized the Inez Garcia campaign, angrily protesting that white lesbians seemed to think this work “took care of racism,” while failing to bring women of color into the leadership of the campaign or to reach out to women of color networks or groups.
All this suggests how much we need a history of the third-world gay and lesbian left (to use the language of the time), including, in the Bay Area, such groupings as the Third World Gay Caucus, which split off from Bay Area Gay Liberation; the Latino Gay Alliance; and the women of color lesbian groups who show up in Hobson’s chapter on the Nicaragua solidarity brigades and elsewhere. How would the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s through the 1990s look if it began with the politics and activism of these people of color groups and others, such as the Combahee River Collective? That is the principal challenge with which this thought-provoking book leaves us.
Margaret Cerullo teaches feminist studies, Latin American studies, and political theory at Hampshire College. She was active in Boston’s gay and lesbian left from the 1970s through the 1990s.