Transnational Solidarity on the Gay and Lesbian Left: An Interview With Emily Hobson

Aaron Leck­lid­er: The title of your book is Laven­der and Red: Lib­er­a­tion and Sol­i­dar­i­ty in the Gay and Les­bian Left. Could you tell us a bit about what the book is about and in par­tic­u­lar what the rela­tion­ship is between lib­er­a­tion, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and sex­u­al­i­ty?

Emi­ly Hob­son: The book is a his­to­ry of the gay and les­bian left in the Unit­ed States, cen­ter­ing on the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area from the end of the 1960s through the depths of the AIDS epi­dem­ic and the end of the Cold War, from 1968 to 1991. The book traces not sim­ply gay and les­bian peo­ple who hap­pen to be involved in broad­er rad­i­cal strug­gles, but also the cre­ation of a left­ist gay and les­bian pol­i­tics – efforts by activists to explain the pre­cise rela­tion­ship between sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion and anti-racist, anti-impe­ri­al­ist, inter­na­tion­al­ist left sol­i­dar­i­ty. So, in regard to the rela­tion­ship between lib­er­a­tion, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and sex­u­al­i­ty: gay and les­bian left­ists saw sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion and rad­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty as inter­de­pen­dent. First, they held that rad­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty was incom­plete with­out a com­mit­ment to sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion. Sec­ond, and per­haps more sur­pris­ing­ly, they argued that sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion would only be achieved by act­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er move­ments to win a soci­ety that was anti-impe­ri­al­ist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist, and fem­i­nist.

AL: The his­to­ries of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and the left are deeply inter­twined, yet these his­to­ries are often not put into con­ver­sa­tion. What might his­to­ri­ans of the left learn from your cen­ter­ing of gay and les­bian pol­i­tics with­in that his­to­ry?

EH: One les­son is that it has not only been a his­to­ry of hos­til­i­ty or response to that hos­til­i­ty. It’s not only, here’s an indi­vid­ual per­son who suf­fered because they could not voice their sex­u­al­i­ty in a move­ment that might oth­er­wise accept dif­fer­ence. That’s tend­ed to be a dom­i­nant way that peo­ple have talked about the rela­tion­ship between homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and the left. There are impor­tant his­to­ries to be told through that frame – the expe­ri­ences of Har­ry Hay and oth­ers in the CPUSA, as Bet­ti­na Apthek­er has writ­ten about, or of gay and les­bian rad­i­cals in the ear­ly Vencer­e­mos Brigades to Cuba, as Ian Lekus has dis­cussed, or of gay and les­bian mem­bers of the KDP, as Trin­i­ty Ordona has ana­lyzed. But one of the lim­its of that frame is that it tends to repeat the notion that the left and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty are fun­da­men­tal­ly sep­a­rate and nat­u­ral­ly in con­flict. What I focus on instead is how queer rad­i­cals didn’t just work to win accep­tance, but actu­al­ly changed the mean­ings of anti-cap­i­tal­ist and anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle to incor­po­rate sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion – pre­cise­ly because cap­i­tal­ism and colo­nial­ism depend on rigid sex­u­al reg­u­la­tion. Cen­tral exam­ples of this include gay and les­bian involve­ment in social­ist fem­i­nism and in the Chilean and Nicaraguan sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ments. Prob­a­bly the best known sin­gle orga­ni­za­tion or doc­u­ment that rep­re­sents this is the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive, but since I am focus­ing on the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, I look at oth­er groups includ­ing Bay Area Gay Lib­er­a­tion, Gay Peo­ple for the Nicaraguan Rev­o­lu­tion, Somos Her­manas, and the Vic­to­ria Mer­ca­do Brigade. I also put some­what less empha­sis on the­o­ret­i­cal state­ments than on prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion in orga­ni­za­tions, cam­paigns, and build­ing a polit­i­cal cul­ture of the gay and les­bian left. As your work also shows, Aaron, there isn’t a fun­da­men­tal oppo­si­tion between the left and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. In fact there has been a queer­ness to the left, and queer rad­i­cals have under­stood that and have tried to explain that, both to oth­er left­ists who were straight and to oth­er queer peo­ple who maybe only view the left as a site of hos­til­i­ty. 

AL: In the book you dis­tin­guish between the gay left and “gay nation.” Can you talk about how that dis­tinc­tion mat­tered to the activists that you study? 

EH: Absolute­ly. This is some­thing that came up as a dis­tinc­tion pret­ty ear­ly on in gay lib­er­a­tion. I intro­duce it through the his­to­ry of a fan­ci­ful gay lib­er­a­tionist scheme to estab­lish what some activists called a colony in Alpine Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia, which is this rur­al, East­ern Sier­ra coun­ty, the least pop­u­lat­ed coun­ty in the state. The Alpine project was not real­ly a project of the gay left, but rather a project with­in the larg­er gay lib­er­a­tion move­ment that gay left­ists felt that they need­ed to dis­tin­guish them­selves from. The Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front in Berke­ley, for exam­ple, came out against the Alpine project, cri­tiquing the lan­guage of colo­nial­ism and gay nation­al­ism that was used by Alpine project back­ers. One of the rea­sons they were crit­i­cal of that lan­guage was because that lan­guage tend­ed to assume the gay com­mu­ni­ty was a mono­lith­ic whole that was prin­ci­pal­ly white, mid­dle class, gay men. They also shared a cri­tique of gay nation­al­ism as being sep­a­ratist and aligned with cap­i­tal­ism. It’s impor­tant to know that this cri­tique was devel­op­ing at the same moment that the Black Pan­thers were becom­ing much more clear­ly invest­ed in social­ism, inter­na­tion­al­ism, and mul­tira­cial coali­tion build­ing. There were a broad range of left­ists mov­ing away from more sim­plis­tic nation­al­ism. So gay left­ists reject­ed the idea of a gay nation crys­tal­lized around white, mid­dle class, gay men who were under­stand­ing gay­ness through their own expe­ri­ence but not as inter­sect­ing with the strug­gles of peo­ple of col­or, of women, of trans folks, of work­ing class peo­ple. Anoth­er cri­tique that was raised was that gay nation­al­ism aligned with U.S. nation­al­ism and lib­er­al rights. Gay nation­al­ists would say things like, “we are just like every­one else in the Unit­ed States and what we want is equal­i­ty in rain­bow hue,” rather than, “we want a fun­da­men­tal, whole­sale trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety that might not even look like a nation, or the U.S. nation as we have already under­stood it.” 

AL: One of the most inter­est­ing fea­tures of your book is the way you bring togeth­er transna­tion­al­ism, which is pri­mar­i­ly a schol­ar­ly inter­ven­tion, and inter­na­tion­al­ism and anti-impe­ri­al­ism, which are polit­i­cal move­ments. Can you talk about that rela­tion­ship?

EH: As you described, inter­na­tion­al­ism is some­thing that gay and les­bian left­ists were pur­su­ing, and specif­i­cal­ly in the con­text of the Cold War. Transna­tion­al­ism is a schol­ar­ly approach that I use to try to think about the polit­i­cal and social exchanges that were hap­pen­ing across bor­ders, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the chap­ters where I deal with les­bian and gay involve­ment in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment. I try to use a transna­tion­al approach to look at mul­ti­ple sides of one con­ver­sa­tion. Gay and les­bian left­ists under­stood them­selves as res­i­dents, and usu­al­ly cit­i­zens, of par­tic­u­lar nations, work­ing in coop­er­a­tion with each oth­er to sup­port the self-deter­mi­na­tion of par­tic­u­lar nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ments. This became espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment, for exam­ple, where peo­ple in the Unit­ed States were work­ing with Nicaraguans who were part of the San­din­ista rev­o­lu­tion. The San­din­ista rev­o­lu­tion was a nation­al move­ment that was meant to rep­re­sent the Nicaraguan peo­ple. So you saw cit­i­zens of two clear­ly defined, bor­dered nations work­ing in coop­er­a­tion with each oth­er. But, through sol­i­dar­i­ty activism, they cre­at­ed a kind of exchange that kind of super­seded those bor­ders and was more transna­tion­al. Transna­tion­al and not inter­na­tion­al, because it includ­ed peo­ple in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can dias­po­ra, such as Nicaraguan exiles, who were liv­ing and work­ing out­side Nicaragua; as well as U.S.-born sol­i­dar­i­ty activists who trav­eled to and lived in Nicaragua; and Cubans, Mex­i­cans, Cana­di­ans, Euro­peans, many oth­ers. And also transna­tion­al and not just inter­na­tion­al, because they were oppos­ing a con­tra war that linked the U.S. gov­ern­ment with the right wing in Nicaragua, in the Nicaraguan dias­po­ra, in Hon­duras, and so on. Both the left and the right in this con­flict oper­at­ed beyond nation­al bor­ders, even while the San­din­ista Rev­o­lu­tion was defined as a pro­gram of nation­al lib­er­a­tion.

AL: And does that link up with an anti-impe­ri­al­ist project?

EH: Absolute­ly. Activists expressed a left inter­na­tion­al­ism that was crit­i­cal of var­i­ous kinds of impe­ri­al­ist projects, but in par­tic­u­lar for activists in the Unit­ed States, crit­i­cal of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism and of U.S. sup­port for oth­er lega­cies of impe­ri­al­ism. Impe­ri­al­ism was defined fair­ly broad­ly, to include things that in our more con­tem­po­rary lan­guage we might define more as glob­al­iza­tion. 

AL: One of the loca­tions that recurs in your book is sol­i­dar­i­ty work around Nicaragua. Can you talk about why that becomes such an impor­tant locus for the gay and les­bian left?

EH: One rea­son is sim­ply the longevi­ty of U.S. inter­ven­tion in Nicaragua and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca more broad­ly, in par­tic­u­lar across the late 1970s into the 1980s. Anoth­er rea­son is the over­lap between U.S. politi­cians sup­port­ing inter­ven­tion in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and those U.S. politi­cians oppos­ing gay and les­bian rights – in gen­er­al, the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, but even before that, fig­ures such as Cal­i­for­nia State Sen­a­tor John Brig­gs. As the 1980s con­tin­ued, these politi­cians con­tin­ued to oppose exten­sive gov­ern­ment research and fund­ing to com­bat the AIDS epi­dem­ic. The Unit­ed States was fund­ing Nicaragua’s con­tra war: some­times open­ly, some­times secret­ly. And the same politi­cians who were sup­port­ing the con­tra war and oppos­ing the Nicaraguan rev­o­lu­tion were going after gay and les­bian rights, and push­ing eco­nom­ic cut­backs, push­ing all kinds of anti-fem­i­nist goals. A third rea­son that Nicaragua is impor­tant is because of the book’s over­all focus on the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, where Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty became par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to gay and les­bian move­ment. The Bay Area was home to large num­bers of Cen­tral Amer­i­can immi­grants and refugees, and the first Nicaraguan sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions in the Unit­ed States start­ed in San Fran­cis­co, specif­i­cal­ly in the Mis­sion Dis­trict. The Mis­sion Dis­trict is right next to the Cas­tro, which was becom­ing an increas­ing­ly impor­tant site of gay men’s life. Fur­ther, the Mis­sion Dis­trict itself was becom­ing an impor­tant site of les­bian fem­i­nist com­mu­ni­ty, which includ­ed many white, les­bian fem­i­nists, and of gay and les­bian Lati­no and Lati­na com­mu­ni­ty as well. So there was a direct over­lap hap­pen­ing in the neigh­bor­hoods. For gay and les­bian peo­ple, to become involved in Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty was to take action on an inter­na­tion­al issue; on a nation­al issue, because of the role of the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion; and on some­thing that was very local, to build the kind of mul­tira­cial com­mu­ni­ty that they imag­ined gay and les­bian com­mu­ni­ty could be. Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty became, in part, an effort to bridge some of the gaps, dif­fer­ences, and ten­sions that were emerg­ing between what was rep­re­sent­ed to be – and often was – a pri­mar­i­ly white gay and les­bian com­mu­ni­ty, and what was rep­re­sent­ed to be an inher­ent­ly straight Cen­tral Amer­i­can or Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ty.

AL: What would you want read­ers with an inter­est in anti-impe­ri­al­ist move­ments to take away from Laven­der and Red?

EH: Queer rad­i­cals, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the 1970s and 1980s, were think­ing about impe­ri­al­ism and anti-impe­ri­al­ism at mul­ti­ple scales. One of the con­nec­tions that gay and les­bian left­ists sought to build between sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion and inter­na­tion­al­ist sol­i­dar­i­ty was to think about empire not only as a tan­gi­ble, mea­sur­able, bound­aried, polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ship, but also as a metaphor for think­ing about many kinds of oppres­sion, includ­ing oppres­sion at the lev­el of the body. They were often describ­ing lay­ers or scales of impe­ri­al­ist rela­tions that would be between nations, by way of eco­nom­ic sys­tems, and also some­thing that you could see at the lev­el of urban neigh­bor­hoods, some­thing you could see at the lev­el of people’s indi­vid­ual bod­ies, or our own rela­tion­ships with our bod­ies, and even with­in our sex lives. Although the metaphor­i­cal approach can have its lim­its, such that it can be stretched too far or used too loose­ly, it has tremen­dous mobi­liz­ing pow­er.

I think in broad terms one of the lessons that I began to real­ize about the book as I was fin­ish­ing it, was that one of the things the gay and les­bian left tells us is that iden­ti­ty can be a pow­er­ful medi­um for change. Both left cri­tiques of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, and fem­i­nist and queer cri­tiques of rigid con­cep­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al iden­ti­ties, have made many of us reluc­tant to claim iden­ti­ty as pow­er­ful. Of course iden­ti­ty has to be under­stood as chang­ing, and rigid def­i­n­i­tions of racial, sex­u­al, gen­der, or class iden­ti­ties have to be tak­en apart. But at the same time we can’t deny that the gay and les­bian left, and many oth­er social move­ments, have gained pow­er pre­cise­ly from their con­tin­u­al rework­ing of iden­ti­ty. The gay and les­bian left did the exact oppo­site of claim­ing one sin­gle iden­ti­ty as most impor­tant, or as iso­lat­ed from struc­tures of race or gen­der or class. They rede­fined gay and les­bian iden­ti­ties, over and over again, through sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er caus­es. They pushed peo­ple to think about why a wide range of caus­es, includ­ing pos­si­bly dis­tant caus­es, real­ly mat­tered to them at an indi­vid­ual lev­el. For those of us who are inter­est­ed in build­ing social move­ments, we have to begin by draw­ing peo­ple in. My book is a his­to­ry of many dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions and cam­paigns, some of them real­ly small. But it’s also a his­to­ry of how those orga­ni­za­tions and cam­paigns were part of a far-reach­ing polit­i­cal cul­ture, a whole net­work of music and book­stores and polit­i­cal posters and poet­ry read­ings – bad poet­ry and good poet­ry. That, to me, reflects the util­i­ty of think­ing about impe­ri­al­ism from so many mul­ti­ple scales. No mat­ter how smart an analy­sis of an eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy or polit­i­cal rela­tion­ship, it’s nev­er going to hold emo­tion­al res­o­nance, or draw in peo­ple who aren’t polit­i­cal­ly expe­ri­enced, as a polit­i­cal cul­ture that helps us under­stand how rad­i­cal change can trans­form our own lives.


Authors of the article

is a historian of radical movements and LGBTQ history in the postwar United States. She serves as Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as incoming co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016), and is developing a new book on activism to confront HIV/AIDS in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s United States.

is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture (Penn Press, 2013) and Love's Next Meeting: Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.