Elevate Difference

Smash the Church, Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation

Like all good memoirs of the 1960s and early ‘70s, Smash the Church, Smash the State! takes readers back to a time when revolution seemed imminent. Change was in the air and the fifty-one essays comprising Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s important anthology vividly capture the heady exhilaration of queer activists on both U.S. coasts as the possibility of being out-and-proud became increasingly tangible.

The book is both a look back and a look forward. Its wide-range includes biographies of several unsung LGBTQ heroes as well as a retrospective of community rebellions—including Stonewall—that presaged the contemporary gay rights movement. Other entries run the gamut, from poetry to manifestoes. There’s an analysis of the persistent racism and sexism that dogged early organizing efforts and an incisive look at the mainstreaming of LGBTQ concerns that ultimately dampened the ardor of queer liberationists. Several essays also offer mournful reflections on the withering of pro-LGBTQ socialist and anarchist groups in favor of political organizations that are less challenging to the social order.

In the book’s first section, "Out of the Bars and Into the Streets," contributors conjure their anticipated liberation from racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and middle-class dreariness. It’s hard not to envy the energy, passion, and daring of thousands of queer activists who challenged authority and brought a constantly evolving understanding of sex and gender into everyday life.

So what happened? The post-Stonewall liberation movement, writes contributor Doug Ireland, was a celebration of otherness, an affirmation that it was okay for queer values and concerns to be different from those of straight society. That sensibility began to wane, he writes, when a swath of the community began arguing for marriage equity and the right to bear and raise children. Many LGBTQ folk also expressed a yearning for spiritual acceptance by the religious bodies they’d been reared in. Some opted to become preachers, lay pastors, or religious educators—and raised a ruckus when they were denied admission. Still others wanted simple domesticity, complete with home ownership, a new car every couple of years, and a family pet. Ireland calls this faction “the gay citizenship movement” and concedes that it edged out the radicals, as if the two poles could not possibly co-exist.

This unresolved tension continues to rankle, and Smash the Church, Smash the State! does a good job of laying out the conflict. At the same time, the essays do little to engage LGBTQ community members who see the American Dream as their birthright. Unconcerned with the issues that galvanized gay liberationists, they want to live conventional lives without being hassled for whom they love.

The activists writing in Smash the Church, Smash the State! are distressed by this, angry that so many LGBTQ people are politically unaware and/or disinterested. I understand their concern and agree that opposition to militarism, war, and the isms that restrict us needs to be disseminated to the widest possible audience. At the same time, when we say we favor non-conformity, it means we support people’s right to make decisions we hate, whether it’s joining the military, becoming a police officer, or moving to the suburbs. The existence of queer Republicans and soldiers may befuddle progressives, but we have no more right than Focus on the Family to dictate who can do what when.

Worse, it’s a losing battle since no one can stop this assimilation. Instead, it behooves those whose lives exemplify the culture of difference—lives beautifully heralded in Smash the Church, Smash the State!—to proudly strut their stuff. What better way to honor the rainbow that has come to symbolize diversity?

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, September 28th 2009