|« Just Dance, It'll Be Okay||Don't Forget: Blagojevich Allegedly Tried to Shake Down A F*&%ing Children's Hospital »|
GLBT Tue Jun 01 2010
At October's National Equality March for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Washington, DC, a tall, fit woman with a quantity of curly gray hair strode to the microphone and gripped both sides of the podium.
"I hope Glenn Beck is watching," she began in a powerful voice, "because for the record, my name is Sherry Wolf, and I am a socialist!"
Her name was not as well-known to the crowd of 200,000 as some of the day's other speakers, like NAACP chair Julian Bond and pop star Lady Gaga, and her proclamation of socialist politics was not echoed in the day's additional speeches.
But much of the crowd would not have been present without this socialist's efforts. Sherry Wolf, a Chicago author and LGBT activist, was an organizer for the first mass gay rights march in a decade and the first mass protest to pressure President Obama to act on his campaign promises on any issue.
Despite her lack of name recognition, Wolf's activist history for LGBT equality and socialism spans the course of several decades. As gay and lesbian interests become institutionalized, she remains firmly outside the LGBT establishment -- and that's the way she wants it.
Photo by Jared Rodriguez
GIRLS CAN BE GAY, TOO
Sherry Wolf, 44, grew up on Long Island, New York, and has the accent to prove it. Before she ever became an LGBT activist -- or even came out of the closet as a lesbian -- she remembers the homophobic slurs slung at her from early on.
In high school, she once arrived at her locker to find the word "dyke" scrawled across it. She says she had no idea what the word meant, and thinks the incident was a response to her self-confidence as a young woman rather than an attack on her sexuality -- "unless they knew something I didn't," she laughs.
"There was no way to conceive in middle or high school that anyone would be out. People would've been mercilessly pilloried." Besides, she remembers, she didn't even know lesbians existed.
"Even though I was in a very cosmopolitan area, and knew gay men, it didn't even occur to me that girls could be gay, too," she recalled.
After graduating high school, Wolf chose the Chicago area for college, attending Northwestern. It was here that she met socialists for the first time, and discovered her own identity as a lesbian.
In the winter of 1985, she saw an ad in Northwestern's student newspaper for a lesbian discussion group. Attending the meeting, however, was no simple task.
"You had to be vetted," she remembers. "You had to call a number, and if you were deemed to be sufficiently female, you'd be told an address. It was like entering a 1920s speakeasy. Someone would look through the closed blinds before you'd be allowed in."
The atmosphere locally and nationally at the time was thick with the threat of violence against gays and lesbians. At Northwestern, Wolf claims the university baseball team showed up with bats to a gay dance. But standing between the attendees and the players "as a kind of defense brigade" were members of the International Socialist Organization.
"It was a rare individual who would stand out in solidarity with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters on campus -- on any campus," Wolf said. The ISO members did -- and Wolf was impressed, and became an active member.
"I had never met people who had a broader analysis of the way society worked," she said.
THE "GAY GHETTO"
After graduation, Wolf returned to New York, staying involved with the socialists and organizing with fledgling gay activist groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with AIDS.
Wolf emphasizes the grave backdrop of her years with ACT UP.
"It was quite common to turn on the TV or radio and hear that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality," she explained. "It was an atmosphere of heightened, repression, fear, and closetedness."
ACT UP became active at a time when Wolf saw friends dying of AIDS on a regular basis.
"There were weekly meeting of hundreds of people that often began with the reading of the names of people who died the previous week. So there was no avoiding the harshness and the urgency of what we were doing."
The organization's high-profile actions -- including a 4500-person demonstration at a New York Catholic mass against the church's stance on AIDS, condoms and homosexuality -- left an influential legacy followed by gay and other leftist groups. But Wolf wasn't satisfied with their approach.
"There was hostility to trade unions, police brutality -- whatever was happening outside the gay ghetto. There's this idea that we have competing oppressions, that they need to be ranked."
Now, Wolf works to connect the fight for LGBT liberation to other issues, like union and immigrant struggles. One of the final chapters in her book, Sexuality and Socialism, gets its title from the old union slogan: "An Injury to One is an Injury to All."
SOCIALIST AGITATION IN THE WINDY CITY
In 2000, she returned to Chicago to become an associate editor of the International Socialist Review, a publication of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), headquartered in Chicago.
The ISO started in 1977, beginning as a faction ejected from another socialist body, the International Socialists. The group is one of the larger American socialist organizations, and avoids some of the fringe positions advocated by some Marxist groups such as uncritical defense of the Soviet Union or Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Assessing an organization like the ISO is tricky. Many on the Left and Right paint broad strokes across all socialist groups, deriding their politics as desperate attempts to revive ideologies long proven wrong and dangerous at best, and apologetic for outright authoritarianism at worst. Since President Obama's presidential campaign, the Far Right has revived the great American tradition of sniffing and snuffing out Communists (real or imagined) in every nook and cranny. And the Radical Left has never abandoned the tradition of passionately attacking fellow leftist groups whose analysis they deem incorrect with a startling vigor.
Regarding the latter, the ISO has certainly had its hand in sectarianism over the years. (For example, an attempt to provide a concise history of the organization can prove somewhat maddening, as the organization's splits, leadership changes, and expulsions make for confusing, somewhat boring reading.) And online rumblings on authoritarianism within the organization are somewhat plentiful.
But it doesn't seem plausible to level similar accusations at Wolf. In conversation, she is thoughtful, answering only the question posed to her; she seems uninterested in self-aggrandizement and tirades. She speaks less about establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat and more about winning gay marriage and ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And, in keeping with her defiance of Marxist clichés, she never once attempts to sell me her organization's newspaper.
Not to say that Wolf shies away from her anti-capitalist politics. She cites recent research indicating increased support for socialism. It's easy to see why, she says.
"We're living through the greatest economic dislocation in 80 years, and most people are terrified. The notion that a system based on profit and greed is a good idea doesn't seem to hold water for increasing millions of people. So an alternative that talks about sharing the wealth, the rich not getting everything, good jobs for all, good education, ordinary people having control of their lives instead of billionaires -- all of these ideas make a lot of sense to people."
BUCKING THE MAINSTREAMING OF GAY RIGHTS
In recent decades, a number of large nonprofits and lobbying organizations have developed to further the cause of gay liberation. Human Rights Campaign is the largest, claiming 725,000 members. Since its inception in 1980, the organization has become a political force to be reckoned with, mobilizing public support and lobbying politicians for pro-gay legislation.
But as the influence of HRC and organizations like it has grown, so has criticism of their mainstream strategy -- and few are more critical than Wolf. She terms the approach "Gay, Inc."
"In pure pragmatic terms, Gay Inc. doesn't work," she stated. "I'm not a part of it because I don't agree with corporate priorities."
In her book, Wolf argues that while society-wide attitudes towards LGBT people have become more and more favorable, gay-friendly legislation has not kept pace. She blames groups like HRC for this, who, she says, have substituted "assimilation" for struggle. Pro-gay lobbyists have cozied up to Democratic politicians and have repeatedly been told to wait on codification of rights in law. Gays have been given a niche market -- instead of marriage, they've received "Will and Grace."
HRC, she says, is "trying to cater their message to people who are less movement-oriented. But we don't need assimilation. We need to go after power."
Needless to say, Wolf is not seeking a position within Gay, Inc.
"I'd take a job with them, but so far they haven't offered one," Wolf joked.
THE DEMOCRATS AND THE LGBT MOVEMENT
While groups like HRC have tried to woo the Democrats, Wolf was part of a group of 13 activists recently arrested for sitting in at Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) Chicago office as a part of the Chicago Harvey Milk Week of Action. Durbin is a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. The group wanted Durbin to sign a pledge adding gender identity to the bill. The provision, intended to protect transgender people, has been a tough sell to Congressional Democrats who worry about alienating moderate voters. Wolf doesn't care.
"We're not going to let [politicians] throw transgender people under the bus as they did in 2007. No way. That's not a compromise -- it's a slap in the face," she said.
Durbin was in Washington at the time, and an aide said he does not sign pledges.
The action built on the organizing that came out of October's National Equality March, which drew 200,000 to Washington, DC, to demand full equality for LGBT people under the law. Wolf was on the march's executive committee, and spent months organizing for the event with longtime gay activist Cleve Jones (whose early LGBT organizing work with Harvey Milk in San Francisco was portrayed in the 2008 film Milk) and others. Unlike other LGBT events, like the annual Pride Parade in Boystown, no corporations helped put on the National Equality March -- and that's the way Wolf wants it.
"We had no corporate sponsorship -- none at all. The march was not going to be brought to you by Miller Beer and Citibank. It was a march, to make a protest, to put a set of demands at the seat of power, to win some gains."
Wolf called the march "phenomenally successful."
"Now," she says, "we have to make a movement."
Despite devoting most of her waking hours to winning LGBT rights, Wolf says gays' unequal treatment does not define her life.
"I've lived in three major cosmopolitan cities. And discrimination because of my sexual orientation has not been a big feature of my life."
Chicago, she says, has been a good place to live and organize for LGBT rights.
"It's a very comfortable city to be openly gay in," she said. "As American cities go, it's about as gay-friendly as you can be."
But even in one of the LGBT-friendliest cities in the country, Wolf was arrested in a senator's office for transgender rights. In another such city, she helped lead a march of 200,000 demanding full legal equality for LGBT people. It will undoubtedly require a few more great leaps forward before she's ready to call it quits.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.