Faerie Fire — On Revolutionary Queer History: Part One

Militant queer demonstration, 1969.

Comrade Val

To say that “Stonewall was a riot” has become something of a cliche in the last ten years amongst LGBT people. What began as an earnest attempt to re-inject some radical energy into a community that had long been co-opted for empire has now become as meaningless and co-opted as the rainbow flag itself. Figures such as Marsha P Johnson and Silvia Rivera, rejected by their contemporaries while they were alive, are now cynically reclaimed by the same hollow opportunists who left them to die in the first place. While organizations such as Gay Shame, No Pride In Prisons/People Against Prisons, the DeGenderettes and others do the necessary work of combating the cult of the respectable queer settler, most queer white people were bought and sold a long time ago, and those who haven’t been (white trans women, for example) seem hell bent on selling out into the cult. Indeed it would seem, at first glance, that aside from a few spectacular moments when our rage spilled over into anti-police violence (Compton’s Cafeteria riot, Stonewall, the White Nights riots) that our movement was always fighting for a place in the empire, rather than against it.

This seems to be the case, but it is far from the truth. While the early queer movement (defined for the sake of this piece as LGBT activism in the decade or so after the Stonewall rebellion) involved such embarrassments as the Gay Activist Alliance, who split from the Gay Liberation Front because of the latter’s support for the Black Panthers, it also contained numerous other, more revolutionary currents and figures. From the Combahee River Collective to the George Jackson Brigade and beyond, the history of queer liberation is full of revolutionary alternatives to the suburban settler cult that calls itself the Queer Community. It is our responsibility as revolutionaries, queer or otherwise, to understand these currents and their histories so we can do the difficult work of building a revolutionary, anti-imperialist, communist movement within our communities and combating the gay settler ideal.

A Note On Language

There will be some who object to the use of the term “queer” in this piece. Recently, amongst younger and more separatist oriented lesbians in the online community, this term has come under fire as erasing the specificities of lesbian identity and community, as well as being a slur that not everyone is comfortable reclaiming. As a lesbian (well, a dyke, but for the sake of argument we’ll say lesbian) with a background on the periphery of trans lesbian separatist spaces, I am sympathetic to this point of view, even if I ultimately disagree. It is the duty of any good revolutionary to sink roots amongst the masses and not to condescend to them. Using the language of the masses and not using overly academic jargon (and lesbian separatism, let’s be clear, is an entirely petty bourgeois academic phenomenon) is an essential part of that task. In my experience, most working class queer people use the term “queer” to describe themselves to some degree, so in the interest of reaching as many proletarian homos as possible this is the language I will use.

The Combahee River Collective

Formed in 1974 after the 1973 regional conference of the National Black Feminist Organization, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) was founded to give a more radical black lesbian voice to women’s liberation. Named for the 1863 Combahee River raid led by Harriet Tubman, they chose this event in history not just for its anti-slavery importance, but also because the Combahee River raid represented the first military strategy designed by a woman. The collective’s statement, released in 1977, condemns capitalism-imperialism, patriarchy, and the white women’s movement that demanded women reject men entirely and come together regardless of race or class. This explicitly Afrocentric lesbian feminism represented the bleeding edge of revolutionary feminism in the 1970s in the so-called USA, and it maintains that position to this day.

   The Combahee River Collective Statement is perhaps best known, for better or worse, for coining the term “identity politics.” This term has become something of a bogeyman on the left, with the red boy’s club deriding identity politics as one of the biggest problems the left faces today. When we actually read what the collective wrote about identity politics however, we find a politics that is considerably different from the strawman constructed by the white left today. The collective defines identity politics as such:

“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.”

   The leftist boys club of today would do well to dig into just how many movements their predecessors destroyed by demanding a focus on an extremely narrow conception of class. This focus on white men as making up the bulk of the working class is as wrong today as it was wrong in the 70s, the 20s and before. Even Lenin, twisted and turned into the favorite father of the white men playing at being communists today, decried socialists for focusing on the upper strata of workers, the labor aristocracy, reminding socialists that “it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.” The Combahee River Collective accurately identified themselves as amongst the lowest and deepest masses, so their decision to organize themselves without turning to separatism represents an anti-opportunist practice, not the “identity opportunism” that wannabe patriarchs charge black communists with today.

   The CRC Statement continues:

“We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.”

   This is a lesson that the settler communist movement, the redeemable section of it anyway, is only starting to understand thanks to authors like Butch Lee and Silvia Federici. The birth of capitalism was a gendered, racialized process that is inseperable from colonialism and the breaking of women’s power. As such, the proletariat is now and has always been made up of colonized and enslaved women, gender oppressed people, and men. In fact, men of oppressed nations have never been allowed the status of true (read: white) men, hence their derision as “boy” by settler pigs. This makes the CRC’s refusal of separatism that much more important. They recognized that, while it is important for white women to break with white men in order to end what they called white women’s “negative solidarity as racial oppressors,”​​​black women can and should build unity with progressive black men and struggle over misogyny with them in order to build black power and overthrow capitalism-imperialism. As they say in their statement:

“We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely race-less, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”

   The white lesbian movement never produced anything half as revolutionary. Content to hide ourselves away in settler communes in the Oregon wilderness or occasionally shoot Andy Warhol, the sections of white women’s and lesbian liberation that didn’t follow a reformist-careerist path largely followed an individualist, separatist one. Anuradha Ghandy, proletarian feminist theorist and leader within the Communist Party of India (Maoist) accurately identified this “radical” strain as equally reformist. The Combahee River Collective, on the other hand, represented the germ of a much more incendiary, much more revolutionary current within lesbian liberation and feminism in general. Far from narrow or bourgeois representation politics, the likes of which demands we support a diverse array of black cops and women drone pilots, the CRC saw their role as being the gravediggers of capitalism-imperialism whose oppression had yet to be adequately theorized and understood. It is the responsibility of all would-be revolutionaries, especially us queers, to study the CRC’s statement, to recognize it as an example of the best that black lesbian feminism of the 70s had to offer, and to learn from it in organizing our own oppressed communities. 

Bo Brown, Ed Mead, the George Jackson Brigade, and Men Against Sexism

   In 2021, with all the monday morning quarterbacking that 50 years of hindsight allows us, it is easy for communists to dismiss the small armed struggle groups of the 1970s. After all, what was the Weather Underground if not the negation of class struggle by white college hippies too scared to declass themselves? Even those of us who accept the necessity of an urban people’s war (revolutionary civil war, whatever you want to call it) reject these small armed struggle groups as ultra-left deviations. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in the heady days of the 60s and 70s, many working class militants picked up the gun because they thought that the revolution was right around the corner and that combat experience, not merely armed protest as Weather promoted, was going to be a necessity should they actually want to win.

   I say “working class” and not “student” because I am referring to the George Jackson Brigade. Formed in Seattle in 1975 by seven militants, the brigade was unique amongst armed struggle groups of the time because it was made up almost entirely of working class ex-convicts, was racially diverse, and was made up of over half women, half of whom were lesbians. The Brigade was also ideologically diverse, made up of both Marxist-Leninist communists and anarchists.

   Rather than seeing themselves as the armed vanguard of the revolution or attempting to inspire general insurrection through violence, the Brigade thought of themselves more as the armed wing of the revolutionary mass movement in general. As such they only targeted companies and government bodies that were already the target of mass movements and struggle. They bombed the Department of Corrections building in Olympia, Washington, resulting in the release of the Walla Walla Brothers from solitary confinement in Washington State prison. They bombed the Seattle utility company City Light in solidarity with striking electrical workers, who picketed the burned building and prevented scab labor from rebuilding it. They bombed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Solidarity with the American Indian Movement, a racist construction contractor in solidarity with black workers, and a Safeway in solidarity with the United Farmworkers union. The Safeway bombing was the only one that resulted in any injuries, and the Brigade released an apology and self criticism for this action, becoming the only armed struggle group in the US to do so.

   Two members, for the sake of this article, really set the Brigade apart from other small armed struggle groups at the time: Bo Brown and Ed Mead.* Bo and Ed were not the only queer members of the Brigade, but they are the most active. Bo Brown, a working class butch lesbian from Klamath Falls, first read George Jackson’s Blood In My Eye while serving time for stealing from the post office where she was employed. Gifted the book by a black sister-prisoner she knew only as Pearl, she was in the middle of reading it when George Jackson was killed. The black women in the prison called a day long sitdown strike in solidarity with the murdered Panther. Less than a month later, when the Attica prison uprising was drowned in blood, the black women sat down for a week in protest. Bo, who at that point knew little about revolutionary theory other than that the pigs were wrong and her sister-prisoners were right, would be forever changed by these events.

   Ed Mead was born to a self-described lumpen family near Fairbanks, Alaska. First incarcerated at 13, Ed would spend much of his young life in prison doing what he called “life on the installment plan.” Radicalized in the late 60s while still incarcerated, Ed was released in 1972 and moved to Seattle to “join the revolution” immediately after. After a failed attempt to join the Symbionese Liberation Army lead to a lesson in building piple bombs from a member of the New World Liberation Front (armed left groups sprouted up like weeds in those days), Ed, along with Mark Cook, John Sherman, Bruce Seidel, Bo Brown and others, would found the George Jackson Brigade in 1975.

   Up to this point, Ed, who had had gay experiences during his time in prison, still considered himself heterosexual. It was Bo who set him straight (no pun intended) during a long road trip. Bo, by this point a committed anti-imperialist, lesbian feminist, anarchist, and the Brigade’s primary bank robber (where she was termed “the gentleman bank robber” after tellers thought that the extremely butch Bo was a man) told Ed that she would under no circumstances make herself sexually available to the men in the Brigade as a matter of “revolutionary” sexual liberation (such “liberation” was common amongst groups like the Weather Underground). Bo insisted that if the men in the Brigade and the movement in general needed to fuck so badly then they should do so with each other and leave women alone to develop politically amongst each other. Thus, in an era rife with so-called political lesbians, Ed Mead became perhaps the first self-described political faggot, even going so far as to say that a man couldn’t be anti-sexist if he hadn’t gone down on another man. This “go gay for women’s liberation” demand became the relationship policy for the George Jackson Brigade soon after.

   Ed was captured in 1975 and sent to Washington State prison in Walla Walla for shooting a pig during a bank expropriation. There he immediately set about organizing a group to combat the widespread rape and abuse of prisoners, especially gay and trans prisoners. This group came to be known as Men Against Sexism. Carrying guns smuggled in by supporters and sporting long hair and lavender star earrings, Ed Mead spent much of his time in Walla Walla as a “pistol packing faggot.” Using smuggled in weapons, empty “safe cells” and the on-again off-again approval of the prison administration, MAS systematically crushed homophobic power in Walla Walla and completely redefined what it meant to be gay in prison.

   Bo was captured in 1978 and sent to the women’s maximum security prison in Alderson, Virginia. There she was cellmates with Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, perhaps the most well known woman political prisoner next to Angela Davis. Bo and Assata, being revolutionaries, faced threats and harassment in prison from the guards and the white supremacist Aryan Sisterhood. Assata affectionately referred to Bo as “Brownie” and would continue to write Bo after she was transferred and eventually escaped, after which Bo was locked down in solitary for a week. Bo would reveal in a 2017 interview that her and Assata had been lovers, so revolutionary history really is a lot gayer than you know.

Going Forward

   The revolutionary chapters of queer history are not hidden from us by accident. Any queer kid growing up in this country will at some point have to confront a system that hates them. If the only examples of queer activism available are reformist, legalistic ones, then this is where queer energy will be directed. It is in the interest of the state to obscure and twist revolutionary queer activity, lest those of us who find our bodies and lives constantly policed join with our oppressed siblings in overthrowing US empire. My goal with the Faerie Fire series is to do my small part in uncovering and popularizing that history with the hopes that my queer siblings, disenchanted and burned out, might come together to take a different path, a path out of the dying US Empire and into the revolutionary future.

-Comrade Valerie

*The other members, especially Mark Cook, the only black Brigade member to be arrested and the comrade to serve the longest prison stint for Brigade activities, deserve books upon books of their own. Mark Cook is a straight man, and therefore not the focus of this article, but his work as a Black Panther, a Brigade member, a prisoner, and now as a self-proclaimed Maoist prison abolitionist should serve as an inspiration to all aspiring revolutionaries​​​​​​​.   

Resources quoted and used in the research of this article:


The Combahee River Collective Statement

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Assata

Interview

Queering the Underground

2 thoughts on “Faerie Fire — On Revolutionary Queer History: Part One

  1. This text is fantastic and I wish I could share it with my francophone comrades. Would you be open to letting me translate it into French?

    Like

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