Queer without Fear

Torvald Patterson


At the end of the 1980s, the idea of 'queer' politics suddenly took hold of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists and academics in North America and some other places. While Queer Nation and most similar organizations are gone, it represented an important change in LGBT activist politics and continues to influence how we organize and think about our struggles and communities.


US LGBT activists mobilized hundreds of thousands to March on Washington in the fall of 1987, around a series of demands for guarantees of equal rights and a serious response to the AIDS crisis. Motivated by the march and brought together in Washington to discuss the crisis, activists felt that the urgency of the AIDS crisis and the US government's refusal to deal with the problem demanded more than the gay establishment's approach, which amounted essentially to community service and political lobbying. These activists came together to organize local AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) groups, using more militant, confrontational and direct methods.


Queer Nation was born when activists in ACT UP began to apply the militant and radically democratic (if often disorganized) methods they had used against AIDS to fighting heterosexism, in the first place responding to the rising tide of anti-queer violence, and then later to a broad range of fights for justice and against hypocrisy by queer/LGBT people and other oppressed groups.


Adopting the name 'queer' marked a rejection of the dominant politics of most lesbian/gay leaders. Instead of seeking to be just like everybody else -- and pretending that 'everybody' means white, middle-class conservative heterosexuals -- queer politics mean demanding respect and equality for whatever way of living suits different people best. By taking up a label that emphasized a unified experience of rejection by the mainstream of society, Queer Nation sought to subvert the politics of assimilation, while trying to mobilize and unify queers. "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," was the key slogan of the movement.


Queer Nation borrowed ideas from the Black Power and feminist movements: individuals and communities can and must demand respect rather than earn it by accomodating to the majority. Queer Nation also borrowed from feminist and various left experiences of bottom-up, radically decentralized organizing.


Queer Nation also grew from a generational conflict. Most QN activists had grown up in late 1970s and '80s; in their experience, the lesbian and gay (and to a lesser extent bisexual and transgender) movement had always existed. The visibility of our movements and the institutionalization of AIDS education, even to the partial degree that it had reached, meant that young people often came out as LGBT younger and with a stronger sense of their right to respect and equality.


On the other hand, the increasing middle-class dominance of LGBT and AIDS organizations and politics meant that younger people just coming out were less likely to see their interests represented by the gay establishment, and less likely to see themselves working in the established organizations. Economic changes, too, meant more part-time and contract work, especially for young people, which left many unable to see a place for themselves in the by then established gay middle class.


Queer Nation came and went very quickly, from the first Queer Nation group organized in New York in 1989, followed by a wave of about 70 new groups in large and small cities and college towns across the United States and Canada, with some similar groups in Britain and elsewhere. By 1993 almost all had shut down, to be followed by most of the similar Lesbian Avenger groups. In part, the groups' too-radical democracy often left them unable to make choices, trying to take on every project and consequently failing at some of what they took on and burning out activists. In part the political project simply wasn't clear enough to accomodate all the different agendas various people brought to it.


But the Queer Nation experience remains, having engaged a layer of activists, many of whom continue to do political work, and influencing how North American queers/LGBTs think and talk about and organize our community and movements. The best of the experience has much to offer today's and future lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.