The struggle for sexual freedom - 1991 NAMBLA Conference

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Digested by: Alan Davis

Part of NAMBLA's 1991 Membership Conference was public forum titled "The Ongoing Struggle for Sexual Freedom." Advertised in gay newspapers and by fliers on telephone poles, the forum was attended by conference participants. A number of people from the community came as well. The speakers were Eileen Scheff, a Detroit lesbian/gay rights attorney and activist with the Revolutionary Worker's League; Tom Reeves, a founding member of NAMBLA; and Bill Andriette, editor of the NAMBLA Bulletin. The following are highlights from the statements by the speakers, as digested by Alan Davis.

Eileen Scheff

Sexual liberation will not be achieved in the courts or through legislative reforms. Victories in the courts can only be won when backed by mass struggles in the streets. This lesson is evident from the recent protests in Michigan against the homophobic Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. Long known for its racism and union busting, Cracker Barrel in January 1990 opened attacks on queers by refusing to employ lesbian and gay men, and firing at least 12 suspected queer employees. When the firm, based in the South, announced that it was opening a new location outside of Detroit, a coalition formed to fight the expansion. The coalition was organized around the goals of fighting racism and anti-gay bigotry by using militant demonstrations and not relying on the cops or courts. The connection of racism to anti-gay bigotry was recognized as central.

Since the organizing was taking place 30 miles from black, working class Detroit, fighting Cracker Barrel was an opportunity to create a racially integrated lesbian/ gay movement. That prospect led Cracker Barrel and the government to do everything they could to smash the new movement. Along with the Klu Klux Klan, right-wing fundamentalists (who carried signs like "Kill HIV positives"), over 100 cops from 18 districts lined up to protect Cracker Barrel's racism and bigotry. Mass arrests, beatings, macings, and threats of court injunctions were used to intimidate people. The right-wing "leadership" of the local lesbian/gay movement attempted to silence the more militant youth and to separate the fight against homophobia from that against racism. Finally, the coalition was split.

Despite all this, the militants still have the potential to bring Cracker Barrel to its knees. The coalition needs to bring in more black youth by raising its demands and backing them up by fighting in the streets. We need unions which have real power to shut down Cracker Barrel. We need defense guards to defend ourselves against attacks from gay bashers and militant anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue.

The gross betrayals by Democrats/Republicans have driven more and more people into poverty, taken back past gains such as affirmative action and abortion rights, kept lesbians and gays from getting basic civil rights, driven women back into the nuclear family, increased sexual repression, and placed youth even more under the thumb of parental and legal repression. We must built a movement that breaks with the Democrats and Republicans, a movement based on unions and organizations of the oppressed - women, blacks, gay people, and gay organizations such as NAMBLA. That movement needs to connect our struggles in a mass organization, a workers party. This would not only give us an alternative at the ballot box, but could coordinate our struggles in mass demonstrations, strikes, and occupations. Only by standing together can be begin to win our struggles.

Tom Reeves

Tom Reeves began by quoting Wilhelm Reich, who said that "There can be no freedom while a sex-negative character structure prevails in the individual or in society." He went on to describe how a few years ago he had picked up a 15-year-old hitchhiker who wanted to have sex. They drove to an isolated spot, but Tom wanted to talk first, so they discussed the boy's family, his life, and his hatred of school. The boy then pulled out a knife and said, "See this knife? I'm supposed to stab you with it. That's what guys I hang out with do to queers and faggots, but I got to thinking as we were talking that after me and my friends gang-bang a chick, I go home, put on my mother's panty hose and think about me being the girl being fucked, and if that isn't queer, I don't know what is. If I've got to stab you, I've got to stab me too."

In recent years there has been an increasing rash of attacks on sexual freedom, and the rights of youth and children in particular. Sex is at the core of the human character and identity. At the core or political and cultural repression is sexual repression, just as sexual freedom is at the root of liberation.

The US has gone a long way toward sexual fascism and unfreedom. Just leave the country and you'll discover how bad it is here. Two examples: a Canadian video game where the boy protagonist turns and winks at you when you win, and who loses his clothes when you lose. The boy is anatomically correct - something unthinkable in the US. Or consider an ordinary street scene in East Berlin a few years ago: a naked, 7-year-old boy standing in line for a sausage on the sidewalk before rejoining his mother who was nude-sunbathing in the park across the street.

The issues of child sex and pornography have been systematically used to roll back general freedoms of Americans over the past 10-15 years, freedoms "guaranteed" by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

For example, statutes of limitations for sex crimes are being rolled back in state after state, or even abolished. The right of defendants to face their accusers, or to cross examine them in court is being taken away. Rules of evidence in child sex and porn cases are being relaxed. The RICO statute, originally designed for organized crime, can now be automatically applied in sex and porn cases, so that the property of the accused is seized. Freedom of speech and press does not apply to images of children. It goes further than this: states already require people like teachers and social workers to report any suspected sex between an adult and a minor, but some states are passing legislation to apply this requirement to any citizen, making it for the first time a felony not to report the "crime" of another person. In Massachusetts, it is now against the law for therapists, ministers, or anyone "in authority" to have sex with their adult charges. There is also a law on the books making intent to have sex with a minor a crime! At least one man is serving a five-year sentence because he committed the thought-crime of having an erection while in the presence of a child.

Man/boy lovers have much to offer the struggle for sexual freedom, and some unique insights for heterosexuals and other homosexuals. We fundamentally challenge a number of orthodox notions about sexuality: monogamy, exclusivity, the permanence of relationships, the patriarchal family, children as property, and age segregation.

Bill Andriette

Bill Andriette spoke about what he contended was the new consensus over sexual morality emerging in the last 10 years and its implications for man/boy lovers. Sex has become an area of intense political struggle in mainstream institutions, resulting in pitched battles over art and censorship, the family, abortion, rights for homosexuals, lesbians and gays in the military.

But through all the fire and smoke one can see anew mainstream consensus emerging over sex, that will resolve or dull many of these conflicts. That consensus, reflected in the rhetoric of both conservatives and liberals within American politics - even where they disagree - is "liberal," in the philosophical sense of relying on a language of rights and respect of individual autonomy.

This new "liberal" consensus replaces an old blatant moralism, which was attacked head on since the 50s and significantly defeated, but not supplanted by a stable ideological configuration. Under that moralism, homosexuality, pre- and extra-marital sex, and pornography were condemned, and gender roles were blatantly enforced by institutional power. Yet deviance was often tolerated so long as it was quiet and did not threaten the legitimacy of the moral system it contravened.

Family arrangements and sexual life in the US have undergone massive changes since the 50s due to the intensification of capitalism and market relations and various social liberation movements. The changes are familiar: women leaving the home for the workplace, the imperative that heterosexual men treat women as equals and share in domestic responsibilities, the threat to heterosexual identity by the new public status of gay people and an awareness of the real diversity of sexuality, as sexual minorities of all stripes come out of the closet. The culture has undergone massive change in a tiny period of time.

While homosexuality was the main devil in the old regime, sex involving children (who, according to the new ideology, are "children" even if they are 17 years old) is the new devil. Ideologically, the changes that have happened in American sexual culture have been justified by appeal to liberal rhetoric - that people have the right to choose their own sexual and family arrangements. But liberalism's tolerance extends uneasily to children, since according to liberal theory, children are nonrational and of dubious personhood. Whereas sex involving minors was previously lumped into the forbidden zone of taboo sex, along with homosexuality, adultery, and so forth, the replacement of sexual moralism by a "liberal" regime has made these others more acceptable, but given sex involving minors a uniquely illegitimate status.

Rapid cultural change generates anxieties that have to go somewhere. Sex involving minors has become a tempting target for projecting anxieties over the massive changes in American sexual mores. The result has been the panics over pedophilia, erotica involving minors, and day-care sex, cases with which we are all familiar.

Flush with a sense that they are the standard bearers of historical progress, "liberal" reformers have created a dystopia of sex police and sex prisons, directly involving likely hundreds of thousands of people in the US, and encouraged endless discussion of "sexual abuse" in order to solidify the concept as meaning any sex involving a minor, consensual or no. All of the "light" thrown on "sexual abuse" has revealed genuine abuse, but at the same time eliminated the safety zones where forbidden sex could previously gain some protection from bigotry.

The new regime leaves boy- and girl-lovers in a contradictory position. On the one hand, we face a new and profound marginality and life-threatening oppression, as we are the evil against which the new ideology of sex consolidates itself. On the other hand, pedophilia and child/adolescent sexuality have taken on a conceptual centrality; they are the blind spot into which the new "liberal" regime packs its most explosive anxieties, doubts, and contradictions. Just as homosexuals succeeded in capitalizing on their conceptual centrality under the old regime, by reformulating many of the strategies used to control and oppress them into instruments of organizing and liberation, we have a related opportunity to transmute the oppression we face into something else.

source: Article 'The Struggle for Sexual Freedom - 1991 NAMBLA Conference'; Digested by Alan Davis; NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 1; January/February 1992