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Emma Goldman and the forgotten cause

May 14, 2015

(This article was originally written for The Huffington Post, which declined to publish it.)

On this day seventy-five years ago, the first American gay rights activist died in Toronto.

Today’s gay rights movement would almost certainly relegate Emma Goldman to the background as a mere “ally.” As a straight Jewish woman and a Russian immigrant, she’d make a very unlikely poster child for the HRC and its fellow organizations, which pride themselves on promoting an ideal type of American queer. But in the early twentieth century, Goldman herself was the entire gay rights movement. Her voice was one of only a few raised in defense of homosexuality worldwide, and the only one at all on the western side of the Atlantic.

Goldman’s interest in gay rights was probably first aroused by Oscar Wilde’s trial, which later led her to remark that “no daring is required to protest against a great injustice.” Throughout World War I, she delivered regular lectures on homosexuality across the country, often prompting gay and lesbian listeners to share their stories with her in a way that predated the It Gets Better project by a century. When her correspondent Magnus Hirschfeld suggested that one of her fellow social activists was a lesbian, she retorted, “Had Louise Michel ever manifested any type of sexual feelings in all those relationships with people whom she loved and who were devoted to her, I would certainly be the last to seek to cleanse her of this ‘stigma’…Far be it from me to seek to evaluate these people as inferior, less moral, or incapable of higher feelings and actions.” Her advocacy for homosexuals was seen as even more radical than her arguments in favor of contraception, and it made her the frequent target of obscenity prosecutions.

But in spite of her spirited advocacy, and her unique place in LGBT history, Goldman is largely overlooked by LGBT scholars and gay rights activists today. Why?

The answer lies in the work for which Goldman was better known: as one of the most prominent anarchists in the United States, and indeed in the overall history of the anarchist movement. Her hostility towards the state does not resonate with modern activists, but for Goldman, it was her anarchism which informed her attitude towards homosexuality when she called for defiance of “the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code.” Rather than calling for legal reform, or an expansion of civil rights, she adhered to the view that government was “not susceptible of purification,” and therefore could not be used as a tool to remedy social injustice.

Eventually, Goldman was to sum up her attitude towards the state in a single sentence: “All forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.” This is a position which carries no weight with the gay voters of today, who, far from disapproving of the state’s monopoly on violence, see an opportunity to turn that monopoly to their own ends.

Goldman’s philosophy, and the ideological problem it poses for the gay rights movement, were both echoed in a Libertarian Party policy paper dating from 1976. After calling for the national legalization of gay marriage almost forty years before it would become reality, the author extended his reasoning in a way that does much to explain why, in practice, this position would not lead to a wave of LGBT support for the Libertarian platform:

Our principles compel us to say that bigotry and prejudice, so long as they do not involve coercion, must also be tolerated. What justifies our freedom, justifies that of anti-gays as well…When one has been brutally, systematically oppressed, there are certain relationships of trust and dependence which it would be improper and demeaning to enter into with one’s oppressor. For many centuries now, as we have seen, the mortal enemy of homosexuals and of the gay in all of us has been the State. To have been savaged by the state and its agents for so long, and yet to have come this far, should tell us that we can and should make the last part of the road on our own, without calling in that old blood-stained Hangman now to do the job on anti-gays.

These sentiments were not shared by the contemporary gay community. By the beginning of the 1980s, the battle cry had already changed. Prominent activists like Larry Kramer were no longer shouting “Smash the church and smash the state!” at rallies, they were instead demanding that the state intervene on their behalf to punish AIDS denialists, anti-gay police departments, and anyone who refused service to gays and lesbians on the grounds of sexual orientation. This marked the beginning of a rhetorical and policy trend that has continued down to the present day, replacing the broader, more inclusive demands for fewer laws and limitations made by the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

In short, the gay community wants protection. The gay community wants revenge. The only organization which can provide it with those things is the state. And that’s why Goldman is conveniently forgotten now. A woman who called for the abolition of the very institution which is poised to finally give the LGBT community what it wants will never be called a hero by that community. Her courage will be ignored; her reputation will be neglected; her story will go untold, her ideas untaught. She stood for the individual. Today’s gay activists stand for a desire to integrate, to assimilate into a society that they prize above the individual. They have no use for her, regardless of what she did for them. Her history is inconvenient, and they’ll be only too happy to forget it.

After all, don’t practical concessions matter more than inherent rights? Or, to paraphrase Dr. King, isn’t order more important than justice?


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