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John Passant

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March 2010



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



We want all of our civil rights

Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism, is a leading figure in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual and Intersex movement in the United States. A campaigner for civil rights who has spoken across America, she has also written for publications including MRZine and New Politics. Socialist Alternative’s Louise O’Shea spoke to her about the fight for LGBTI rights in the US.

It was inspiring for us here in Australia to see the march of 250,000 on Washington last October for equal marriage rights. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – there’s been lots more organising going on around the country. What have been the strengths of this campaign?

Firstly, the movement that exploded onto the streets and even small towns around the United States as a result of the reversal of marriage equality in California has since morphed a bit as a result of the mass march on Washington. It has raised the bar and now calls for full federal equality. In other words, we want all of our civil rights. That’s the basis on which 250,000 people showed up in Washington DC.

When you say full civil rights, you mean with regard to the military, employment rights…

Exactly. In most states in this country it’s still legal to be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual as well as transgendered. Reversal of this is of course an enormous civil rights gain we need to fight for. So what we did with the march was say that we are not going to pick one of our civil rights – we want them all. This is the 21st century and this is unendurable that we continue to live as second-class citizens.

This has been a debate though hasn’t it? Some have argued that we shouldn’t be fighting for inclusion in institutions such as the military or marriage as they are conservative or objectionable. Why do you support these demands?

I think people have to grasp the fact that all struggles for reforms involve trying to change bourgeois institutions in some way, whether it’s in a workplace or stopping a war. Ending a war would not end imperialism; it would end the combat or the occupation of a country by a more powerful country.

So radicals are constantly fighting battles to reform bourgeois institutions. That’s what every battle in every workplace in every country on the globe is about. That is the battle for full civil equality in marriage and the biggest workplace in the country, the US military. So we have to be clear about that.

Secondly, we need to understand that it’s a caricature that certain radicals have created that the way a new left will be born will be when one side stands up and says: “we are for revolution” and the other side gets up and says: “we are for reaction” and the two sides go at each other.

The way a new left is born is often through the fight for more mild transformation. Whether it’s through the fight for a bathroom break at work or slightly higher wages, such struggles can spill over and raise the consciousness of those involved about the way the system operates and the need to tear it down.

In that sense, the fight for equal marriage rights is very much in keeping with fights throughout history for all sorts of civil equality. What Marxists do is make a distinction not about what we fight for, but the way we fight – the manner in which we fight and with what sort of politics. Luxemburg argues against reformism, not against reforms.

We stand in solidarity with people demanding equal rights, but we disagree with the corporate or Democratic Party-beholden forces that would like to achieve this through pleading with politicians or giving money to certain corporate entities in order to shift their policies.

We believe in the need for mass protest, for civil disobedience, for mass education, for propaganda expounding our views in order to win these kinds of demands.

The military is a big employer in the US. Demands relating to the military must then tie in with economic issues for workers, such as death benefits going to same-sex partners. Marriage too in the US, much more than in Australia, brings with it entitlements denied to unmarried couples. Is the fact that equal rights intersect with the bread and butter economics of people’s lives a big factor in the campaign?

It’s a very big factor. The reality is that in the US where we do not have a health care system where the state pays for people’s health care regardless of their relationship status – and I believe that all socialists should fight for health care access and relationship status to be separated and that health care should be accessible regardless of relationship status – it is nevertheless one of the main ways people get health care in the US, that is, through the workplace of a partner.

As long as that is the case, we need to fight for equity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people gaining that right. That is not a small reason why people get married or stay married in the US.

And the emotional desire people have to get married should not be spat on by the left either. Whatever one may think about marriage as an institution – and I don’t personally advocate it – but I do defend the rights of people who want to have that kind of relationship in their lives. There are reasons why it plays the particular role in US society that it does, but it’s not necessarily reactionary for people to want to get married in order to have their relationship given the same respect as a straight couple’s.

There have been a few set backs in the campaign, such as marriage rights being overturned in California and Maine. How has the campaign responded to this? Despair or has it been fuel to keep fighting?

This new movement is known colloquially in the US as “Stonewall 2.0”. Each of these setbacks has acted as propellers forward. Even after the Maine decision, which came after the big protest on Washington, there were large demonstrations across the country in response to the decision in what is a small and mostly rural state in the far north-east.

In some ways, Maine propelled forward the arguments for full federal equality and not relying on politicians to do it for us. Because unlike the Proposition 8 struggle in California, much of the strategy of the Maine referendum was much more explicit and unapologetic. So it was not necessarily the case they did it wrong, as they did in California where there was an extremely backward and conservative strategy which used euphemisms and didn’t mention the word “gay”.

What it did was expose the bankruptcy of these referendums especially in states with large rural populations where it’s virtually impossible to talk to people and to get an in because we’ll never have the money that the right wing has to project its noxious ideas. So this has been a curious, seeming contradiction of this movement – that every setback has become in some ways a catapult forward for progressives and has provided wind in the sails for movement activists instead of making people feel defeated.

There’s a parallel here with the civil rights movement: a national strategy was important in changing attitudes towards demands like interracial marriage, which was not widely supported at first. An active minority targeting their efforts towards the federal government can begin to turn around attitudes rather than waiting for the mass of people to be on your side before you can really demand any change – do people make that parallel, and has the civil rights movement been relevant to the campaign?

Very much so. The Black civil rights struggle in the US is obviously strategically posed as a model of sorts because it did win many enormous successes around employment and of course in relation to the military, as well as in terms of relationships between blacks and whites, which is at a much higher level today than it ever has been in the history of the US – they are openly accepted everywhere except the far reaches of reaction and bible-belt conservatism. So definitely that’s true.

I also think we have to understand that the new generation which has been raised with gay, lesbian and transgendered television characters and movie themes lives in a different world from previous generations. It would have been unthinkable even 10 or 15 years ago to see the kind of solidarity that the LGBT movement has among large swathes of the heterosexual population of the US. It is overwhelmingly popular to support civil rights for LGBT people. Even amongst many Republicans it seems ridiculous to deny basic civil rights, especially on the job, if not in marriage. So the government’s laws are well behind consciousness in the US.

Obviously a lot of people in America were inspired by Obama’s election and there were high hopes for change. Obama even said he would get rid of the Defence of Marriage Act, which prevents same-sex marriages in states where it is legal being recognised in other states. Has his lack of action created a rift within the movement between people have more hope in Obama and those who are a bit more realistic about what he actually stands for?

Well it’s a strange thing, because while Obama remains personally popular amongst most progressives his policies are widely hated. He has said repeatedly that he personally opposes gay marriage even though the political platform of his party, the Democrats, is to repeal the very legislation that the Democrats put into play. The Defence of Marriage Act was signed by the Democrat Bill Clinton, as for that matter was the military exclusion – the “don’t ask don’t tell” legislation.

So there is as usual in the United States a very funky contradiction between the base of the Democratic Party opposing most of what the party has actually done historically regarding LGBT people. And there is also this contradiction between what Obama has come out and formally said in a couple of speeches over the last few months, in which he is now talking about reversing these policies – but he does so very slowly with a great deal of caution always looking over his shoulder to get approval from the most right-wing corner.

This is really infuriating and frustrating and often confusing to a lot of LGBT activists, who do not understand why Obama is waiting for bigots to agree before granting LGBT people their rights. This is simply unacceptable but it doesn’t necessarily lead people to going after him, although people are definitely disgruntled with his policies.

And of course keep in mind this is happening amidst the most extraordinary economic collapse of my life time and of the life time of generations of people in this country – you would have to be in your 80s to experience anything like the degree of joblessness and hopelessness about the economy that we are currently experiencing. So this is part of a much bigger consciousness that is developing right now in the United States.

There have been people who argue against demonstrations and the sort of militancy you spoke about earlier – such as the Human Rights Campaign who prefer polite negotiation. Obama’s slowness to act must highlight the need to keep getting out on the streets and making LGBT rights an issue. Has that been much of debate or has the success of the demonstrations made that point to larger numbers of people?

The overwhelming majority of LGBT activists are won to the notion that protest is necessary. What kinds of protests, whether or not people want to do civil disobedience and get arrested, or whether people want to include electoral approaches like lobbying or supporting candidates, are really where debates often lie.

Those not convinced of the need for protest are those at the very, very top of the sort of HRC kind of structure, what I often refer to as Gay Inc. These are people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; they are wealthy, mostly white gay men who are interested in their own job security before anything else. If we win full federal equality their multi-billion dollar institutions will cease to have the same kind of charter that they currently have, and probably a lot of their funding will dry up. So there is a bit of self-interest here on the part of handfuls of extremely wealthy gay people who have been running what has been effectively a non-movement for the last couple of decades. They feel threatened by the activists.

But the overwhelming majority of activists on the ground are for protest. The questions have become: how much, what kind, how big, whether or not to combine electoralism, should it remain independent of the Democrats and now whether or not to cohere as a national grassroots network. This is an argument that I am advocating around the country – extending Equality Across America which is a sort of grassroots activist network forming out of this movement.

And that’s important because the movement seems to have sprung up in all kinds of far flung places, both in the US and here in Australia. Little country towns which have not had a demonstration in living memory suddenly have a whole lot of high school students out on the streets demanding same-sex marriage. This is probably a reflection of the fact it is more difficult to be LGBTI in these places and people are therefore more likely to want to get out and take a stand when the opportunity arises. A co-ordinated network would therefore be a real step forward for the campaign. Has this been the case in the US – demos springing up everywhere?

Yes. It’s pretty extraordinary – small towns in Texas as well as rural towns in upstate New York have LGBT groups today, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Of course there are also thousands of gay-straight alliances on campuses – there’s a group that began in 1989. It was unknown when I was in high school in the early 80s, it would have been unthinkable to be out in high school, and I grew up in New York – hardly a small town. That didn’t happen until the late 1980s. So all this is still a fairly new development, and the argument to begin to operate as a national grassroots network with common strategies and demands for equality is a very new idea.

The speed at which the campaign has taken off clearly refutes the idea that nothing will ever change or that people are apathetic, which is an argument you hear a lot today because we’re not used to seeing hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets. This campaign shows that people can be drawn into political activity rapidly, and provides a good example of how, even on a small scale, there’s hope the society can be changed.

Sure, and now you have the beginnings of a budget cuts movement developing as well. Once again in California, the state that keeps on giving – just last week there were tens of thousands of college and high school students as well as faculty and staff who walked out in a day of strike action against budget cuts and tuition hikes. It’s certainly clear that the interaction and integration of LGBT activism and budget cuts activism is there – some of the same people that participated in one movement are now participating in the other. They feed off and influence each other. But it’s still very new.

With the economic crisis in the US, and all the indicators suggesting it will get worse, there are likely to be more questions people will mobilise around and want answers to. This ties into my next question – you’re not just a LGBT activist but also a revolutionary socialist. What value is a revolutionary Marxist perspective to the campaign?

Unlike any previous period in my adult life – I’m 44 – there has never been this many people or this larger audience for radical ideas amongst LGBT people, or frankly anywhere else. So this is a very new development in American politics.

In part it is a result of the right wing attacking Obama as a socialist, which naturally comrade Obama is certainly not, but at the same time, the fact that socialists like myself and the International Socialist Organisation have thrown ourselves into this movement has created an opportunity for revolutionary ideas to be heard among people who are entering activism for the first time. We’re each meeting each other in these meeting rooms and in these protests.

People who get involved in a struggle over what appears to be a very tepid demand, come away, or some do, with a much broader understanding of the way the system works and have a larger critique and see the need to solidarise with workers’, immigrants’ and Black struggles.

My book, Sexuality and Socialism, came out totally by accident – I’m an accidental success here – it came out in the midst of all of this brewing, and is now in its second printing only months later because thousands of people see in this book not only a needed and accessible history of our movement, but also a political perspective that they feel they can’t find anywhere else. A Marxist perspective about how to take reform struggles forward and open up a larger question about the way our society works and why we need to weave in larger economic and social demands within our fight for sexual freedom.

That’s fantastic, especially since you often hear people say that radical politics alienate people, that we should just stick to the one issue etc. But the success of your book, and the desire you describe of people to grapple with a broader understanding of society, is an example of why radical politics are relevant and don’t alienate people. Have you come up against that argument?

That argument is just demonstrably false. I’ll give you an example: Dan Choi is the most prominent gay soldier in the US. He came out on a popular news show and was immediately targeted for dismissal under “don’t ask don’t tell”.

This is a guy who is pro-military, arguably pro-war. He comes in contact with my book and with me as a result of organising for the march, and finds himself surrounded by radicals and people to his left. Now he is grappling with much larger ideas about what is US imperialism, what is the purpose of the US military, why he was sent to fight and more.

I won’t pretend that Dan is won over to being the new Smedley Butler – i.e. the radical militant anti-imperialist soldier of his day – but he is grappling and debating within himself and with others about such ideas and frankly, he is not alone. This is happening among a large swathe of people who never conceived of themselves as being radicals or even activists but have been forced to think about the way our society runs as a result of fighting against “don’t ask don’t tell”, for equal marriage rights or whatever it is.

And I imagine other organisations can’t provide those answers. Lastly, I wanted to ask about the issue of transgender rights. In the long-running battle to pass the laws to end employment discrimination on the basis of sexuality, the Democrats have put pressure on the campaign to drop any reference to the rights of trangendered people on the basis that the issue of transgender rights goes too far and alienates people. Why is it important to take a stand against this?

It would be outrageous for the LGBT movement not to embrace our trans brothers and sisters as full, important and key members of our struggle. The issue of gender identity is inseparable from the question of sexual oppression.

Part of the way that the oppression of lesbian gay and bisexual people plays out in all societies has to do with the way they present themselves, their gender identity – whether it’s men that are considered to be not masculine enough, whatever that means, or women who are not feminie enough – whatever that’s supposed to mean. So really the notion that people can strip these issues apart is just false.

There’s also the fact that transgendered people have been at the heart of this movement from the very beginning. They were at the Stonewall rebellion, and were fighting years before that in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in riots known as the Compton Cafeteria riots in 1966.

Finally I would say that trans people are among the most oppressed. Because of the prejudices of gender identity and bourgeois notions that deny the fluidity of gender and sex, it has meant that discrimination on the job, in housing, in education and in every aspect of life is extraordinary when it comes to trans people.

One of the things I will be writing about soon is a soon to be released study – the first one ever in the US – of thousands of transgendered people who discuss their oppression in American society. It makes it very difficult to fight and agitate when you don’t actually know what the status of a group of people is. For the first time we have numbers – 97 per cent of trans people have been discriminated against on the job, 42 per cent have attempted to kill themselves. The numbers are through the roof in terms of every level of oppression.

It is absolutely inconceivable to allow liberals or other forces to throw our trans brothers and sisters under a bus. We must stand full square for their advancement along with all the rest of us.

Louise’s interview with Sherry first appeared in Socialist Alternative online on 12 March.



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Time March 18, 2010 at 5:06 am

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Comment from Black Economic Empowerment
Time March 19, 2010 at 6:34 pm

ins and other activities of students in the struggle for civil rights. Black Economic Empowerment

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