FROM ITS BEGINNING in the 1990s in the United States, a “queer” activist current has gradually spread to other countries, including in recent years in Western Europe. In decades when the prevailing trend in LGBT movements has been to orient to legal reforms by parliamentary means, queer activism has constituted a third wave of sexual radicalism,  emphasizing visibility, difference, direct action, refusal to assimilate to the dominant culture, and the fluidity and diversity of sexual desire.
What are the social origins of queer? Does this current have a vision — whether implicit or explicit — of sexual liberation, and if so, what is it? What is its relationship to such emancipatory projects as feminism, antiracism, global justice and socialism?
I come to these questions as a socialist, whose own socialist activism and LGBT activism have been linked for 30 years. The year I came out as a gay man, 1978, was also the year I became active on the socialist left — more specifically, the socialist-feminist left. The two things were closely linked in my mind and in my life, and still are. So the questions I bring to queer activism are very much the questions of a socialist and feminist gay man.
They are also, for better or worse, the questions of an outsider. Although I was active in ACT UP, the milieu from which the queer current first emerged, in San Francisco and New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this current didn’t exist in the Netherlands when I moved here in 1993. In recent years, when a queer activist current has emerged, I have related to it as a sympathetic observer and occasional supporter, but not as a real participant.
I would like to emphasize that the questions I’m posing really are questions. I don’t claim to know the answers; I’m not sure anybody has definitive answers yet. I think queer activists will have to come up with the answers as their politics continue to evolve. My hope is that asking the questions will help stimulate discussion on them within the queer current.
Another point I’d like to stress is that my questions concern queer activism, not the body of largely academic thought that’s called “queer theory.” My impression is that queer activism emerged a few years before the key works of queer theory were published. In later years some queer activists have been influenced by queer theory; but many queer activists are not particularly theoretically minded, and those who are can be influenced by other approaches.
Queer theory is itself a complex, contradictory, evolving body of thought, on which I don’t have any claim to be an expert. I do think there are criticisms to be made of queer theory,  but I don’t think they all necessarily apply to queer activism.
Although queer activism has emerged only recently in the Netherlands, internationally it is almost 20 years old. The first queer group, Queer Nation, was founded in New York in 1990.  In fact the first wave of Queer Nation groups in the United States rose and receded within a few years. Only a few groups, like OutRage! in London (founded only a month after Queer Nation in New York) around its controversial leader Peter Tatchell, have managed more or less to survive through the intervening years. Some of the most active queer-identified groups today are in Southern Europe, like the French and Portuguese Pink Panthers, and have emerged only in the past decade.
Lack of organizational continuity makes the current hard to pin down. Although there are various international queer events, like the “queeruption” that took place annually from 1998 to 2007 in a different country and city, the queer current is also very decentralized, with no permanent national or international structures or decision-making bodies.
Many queer activists define themselves as anarchists, leaning towards the tendency within anarchism that is suspicious of organization; DIY (“do it yourself”) is widely seen as a queer principle. This too contributes to the difficulty in defining queer politics. Finally, queer-identified activity sometimes raises the question of how “politics” should be defined, since much of it consists of cultural and sexual events that make little or no effort to reach non-queer-identified people.
The shape of queer activism probably has something to do with its social origins. Before discussing the strengths and limitations of queer activism, therefore, I would like to analyze the emergence of the queer scene more generally.
The emergence of queer can be explained to a great extent in class terms, I think, starting from John D’Emilio’s analysis of the emergence of gay identity under capitalism.  Roughly following his analysis, I would argue that modern lesbian and gay communities are largely a product of the development of capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, and on a mass scale particularly a product of the long expansive wave of capitalism from 1945 to 1973.
It is by now nothing new to link the rise of what might be called classic lesbian/gay identity to the rise of a “free” labor force under capitalism. This has developed over the course of centuries, and historians have generally looked at it as a long process. But gay identity as we know it, particularly on a mass scale, is in fact amazingly recent, more a question of decades than of centuries.
On closer examination the emergence, consolidation and spread of gay identity took place to a large extent during what some Marxist economists refer to as the expansive long wave of 1945-73. It emerged gradually from the waves of political and social repression (in Europe fascism and Stalinism; in the United States the aftermath of Prohibition followed by McCarthyism)  that had begun with the 1930s depression. Gay identity was dependent on the growing prosperity of the working and middle classes, catalysed by profound cultural changes from the 1940s to the 1970s (from the upheavals of the Second World War  to the mass radicalization of the New Left years) that prosperity helped make possible.
This means that gay identity was shaped in many ways by the mode of capitalist accumulation that some economists call “Fordism,” specifically by mass consumer societies and welfare states. After 1945, working-class living standards in capitalist countries went up dramatically under the Fordist order, in which increases in labor productivity were matched to a large extent with increasing real wages that sustained increasing effective demand, and many forms of social insurance cushioned the blows that hit working people during dips in the business cycle.
As a result, for the first time masses of working-class people as well as students and others were able to live independently of their families. Working-class family structures and gender roles also changed. For the first time since the family wage became a cherished ideal, and sometimes a reality, for broad working-class layers in the mid- to late-19th century, World War II made waged work at least temporarily normal for even respectable working-class and middle-class women.
This transformation made a dent in the pronounced gender polarization that had been characteristic of both working-class heterosexuality and homosexuality in the first decades of the 20th century. Higher funding for education and expansion of a social safety net (in the imperialist countries at least) decreased people’s economic dependence on parents to support them as students or young people, on spouses to help pay the rent, and on children to save them from poverty in old age. Rapid growth of service and leisure industries in developed countries created more jobs, for men if not for women, in which gender expectations were in some cases less rigid than in blue-collar sectors.
The combination of increased economic possibilities and more questioning of gender roles helped many more people in the 1950s and ’60s defy convention and form lesbian/gay couples and communities. What remained to prevent people from living openly lesbian/gay lives were the constraints of the law, police, employers, landlords, and so on. The lesbian/gay movements of the 1960s and ’70s rebelled against these constraints, inspired by a wave of other social rebellions: black, youth, antiwar, feminist, and (at least in some European countries) working class.
The second wave of feminism was key in virtually finishing off (or at least driving underground) the butch-femme patterns that were still largely hegemonic in 1950s lesbian subcultures. The first lesbian/gay legal victories in the 1970s made mass, open lesbian/gay communities possible in the imperialist countries for the first time in history.
The conditions that initially shaped emerging lesbian/gay identities did not last. The depressive long wave that began by 1974-75 was met by the late 1970s with a neoliberal offensive. This offensive has included (to be incredibly schematic): a shift to “Toyotist” production techniques and to “lean production” generally; economic globalization, liberalization and deregulation; an increase in the wealth and power of capital at labor’s expense; an increase in inequality among countries (through the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies) and within countries (through regressive tax and welfare “reforms” and attacks on unions), and luxury consumption that has increasingly replaced mass consumption as a motor of economic growth.
This offensive has among other things fragmented the world’s working classes. Big differences have grown up between better- and worse-paid workers, permanent and temporary workers, native-born and immigrant, employed and unemployed. The relatively greater homogeneity of national working classes in the 1960s, which was the backdrop to the rise of lesbian/gay identity, is a thing of the past.
Like the rise of Fordism, its decline has had implications for LGBT identities, communities and politics. There is of course no one-to-one correspondence between economic and social developments and shifts in sexual, cultural and political identities. In lesbian/gay communities, as in the world at large, there is a whole set of institutions that produce (among other things) lesbian/gay ideology and identity and mediate the underlying class and social dynamics. But there are some trends that correspond to changing class dynamics in lesbian/gay communities and are expressed in a shifting relationship of forces within them.
On the one hand, commercial gay scenes and sexual identities compatible with these scenes have advanced and been consolidated in many parts of the world. Particularly among some middle-class and upper-working-class social layers that prospered in the 1980s and ’90s, especially but not only in the imperialist countries, commercial gay scenes continued to grow, continuing to undergird lesbian/gay identity. 
Market-friendly lesbian/gay identities have prospered in commercialized spaces, in the construction of two-income households among better-off gays and to a lesser extent lesbians, and in the tolerant public space fostered by gay rights victories. Many relatively better paid lesbian/gay people who have benefited from both economic success and gay rights reforms have some cause to be contented with the progress they have made: “Inside a cozy brownstone, curled up next to a health-insured domestic partner in front of a Melissa Etheridge video on MTV, flipping through Out magazine and sipping an Absolut and tonic, capitalism can feel pretty good.” 
The ideological and cultural sway of gay identities in LGBT communities extends beyond the more privileged social layers in which people’s lives most comfortably fit these identities. In the imperialist countries, despite the proliferation of websites and zines defining identities and subcultures for minorities within the minorities, the most widely circulated books, periodicals and videos tend to be those most closely linked to the new, predominantly middle-class gay mainstream. Even poor transgender and queer people, whose lives are most remote from the images of the gay mainstream, often incorporate aspects of gay mainstream culture into their aspirations and fantasies.
Three aspects of the lesbian/gay identity that stabilized by the early 1980s fit well with the increasingly conservative social climate: the community’s self-definition as a stable minority, its increasing tendency towards gender conformity, and marginalization of its own sexual minorities. A higher degree of gender conformity among lesbian/gay people has fit with their incorporation into a neoliberal social and sexual order.
Lesbians and gay men’s self-definition as a minority group expressed a profound social fact about lesbian/gay life as it took shape in the 1970s. To the extent that lesbians and gays were increasingly defined as people who inhabited a certain community (went to certain bars, bathhouses and discos, patronized certain businesses, and in the United States at least even lived to some extent in certain neighborhoods), they were more “ghettoized” than before, more clearly demarcated from a majority defined as straight.
The tendency of many early theorists of lesbian/gay liberation to question the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality, emphasize the fluidity of sexual identity and speculate about universal bisexuality tended to fade away with time as the community’s material reality became more sharp-edged. The lesbian/gay rights movement accordingly ran less risk of seeming sexually subversive of the broader sexual order.
The decline of butch/femme role-playing among lesbians and of camp culture among gay men also contributed to normalizing lesbian/gay identity. The drag queens who had played a leading role in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion found, as social tolerance of lesbians and gays in general began to increase in the 1970s, that social tolerance for gender nonconformity in many queer spaces if anything decreased. Drag often seemed anomalous and even embarrassing in the context of androgynous imagery that was in vogue in the early 1970s.
Despite growing levels of consciousness and self-expression among transgender people, lesbian/gay communities increasingly defined themselves in ways that placed transgender people and other visible nonconformists on the margins if not completely out of bounds. The decline of Fordism was accompanied early on by a shift among gay men from the largely androgynous imagery of the early 1970s to the more masculine “clone” culture that took hold by the early ’80s. Feminine forms of self-presentation that lesbian feminists once frowned on, using the label “lipstick lesbians,” had become more common and acceptable by the 1990s.
Commercial scenes, however, have not been equally determinant for the lifestyles or identities of all people with open same-sex sexualities. In the dependent world many poor people simply have a hard time taking part in commercial gay scenes. In the imperialist countries, while commercial scenes are more accessible to even lower-income queers, growing economic inequality has meant increasingly divergent realities in lesbian and gay people’s lives. Criticism has mounted among LGBT people of the over-consumption increasingly characteristic of many aspects of the commercial gay scene, which inevitably marginalizes many LGBT people and alienates many others.
Alternative scenes of various sorts (not always less commercial) have proliferated, creating space for queer identities more or less outside the mainstream commercial scene. Contrary to much right wing anti-gay rhetoric, the prosperous couples focused on by glossy lesbian/gay magazines were never typical of queers in general. Data gathered by the U.S. National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey in the 1990s suggested that lesbian and bisexual women were still far less likely than other women to have professional or technical jobs and more likely to have service or craft/operative jobs, while gay and bisexual men were more likely than other men to have professional/technical, clerical/sales or service jobs but less likely to have managerial jobs. 
Whatever the causes (less ability or willingness to meet gendered job expectations, migration to more competitive job markets, discrimination), the net result (contrary to unfounded claims made not only by anti-gay ideologues but also by some gay publications) was that at least in the United States, both gay men and lesbians were and are underrepresented in the higher-income brackets (with family incomes of $50,000 or more), while gay men in particular are over-represented in the lower-income brackets (with family incomes of $30,000 or less). Another set of data showed that after taking differences in education, age and other factors into account, gay and bisexual men earned 11-27% less than comparable straight men. 
The expansion of queer communities centred on gay commercial scenes has not improved the situation of lower-income queers. Particularly in imperialist countries like the United States and to a lesser extent Britain, the welfare state has been shredded by Reaganism and Thatcherism, unions have been very much weakened, and inequality has grown rapidly. Economic inequality is presumably as characteristic of LGBT communities as of the broader societies within which they exist.
Lower-income queers, transgender people, street youth and queer people of color have been under assault in various ways, as attacks on poor people and minorities have become more prominent in politics and society generally in recent decades. Queers are also more likely to be cut off from broader family support networks and, as the social safety net has frayed, inequalities resulting from wage differentials have affected queers with particular intensity.
A queer social milieu has grown up since the mid-1980s, made up to a large extent of young people on the bottom of the unequal social hourglass that resulted from economic restructuring. One aspect of the underlying social reality is that the lower young queers’ incomes are and the more meager their job prospects, the less on average they identify with or want to join the lesbian/gay community that has grown up since the 1960s and ’70s.
Particularly in English-speaking imperialist countries — the ones where social polarization first took flight in the 1980s — young queers resisted disco culture and a bar-centred ghetto. In some ways English-speaking queer scenes have been echoed by queers in squatters’ milieus in continental Western Europe. This generation had also grown up in far more diverse and changeable family structures, which made the notion of modelling lesbian/gay households on traditional straight ones all the more implausible for them.
Economic marginalization and cultural alienation were closely interlinked in the emergence of a queer milieu, making it hard in many cases to say to what extent poverty was a cause of alienation, to what extent the choice for a queer lifestyle contributed to more or less voluntary poverty, and to what extent some queers are middle-class gays dressing and talking like down-and-outs. But the correlation between lower incomes and queer self-identification seems unmistakable.
As we have seen, the dominant trend during the 1980s and ’90s, based particularly on the reality of more prosperous lesbian/gay people’s lives, was for the lesbian/gay community to define itself as a stable and distinct minority, tend increasingly towards gender conformity, and marginalize its own sexual minorities. By contrast, the nonconformist same-sex identities that have grown up among more marginalized layers have tended to identify with broader communities of oppressed or rebellious people and to resist dominant gender norms.
Queer identities defined by marginalization on the basis of age, class, region and/or ethnicity overlap with the growth or persistence of various subcultures that have been marginal in the commercial scene because they constitute (sometimes extensive) niche markets at best and illicit ones at worse. The relationship between queer identities and marginalized sexual practices is elusive, but there does appear to be some kind of correlation. There are of course many queers who limit their sexual rebellion to the safety of a particular brand of bar. But the more attached people are to their sexual identities, the more reluctant many of them become to give them up at work or in public.
Not coincidentally, the more visible transgender or leather people are, the less likely they are to get one of the well-paid, permanent, fulltime jobs that have become scarcer and more coveted commodities in post-Fordist economies. Moreover some people are virtually or entirely incapable of hiding aspects of their identities, particularly effeminacy in men or butchness in women, that are often rightly or wrongly associated with queer sexualities. Voluntary or involuntary, tell-tale signs of sexual deviance often lead to management’s excluding people from professional or service jobs or to fellow workers’ hostility that impels people to avoid or flee certain workplaces.
The result is not a straightforward correlation between queer identity and working class affiliation; on the contrary, working-class lesbians and gays have sometimes reacted against self-defined queer groups when such groups demanded visibility of them that would make their lives more difficult in particular workplaces or communities. But there does seem to be a correlation between queer identities and particular sectors of the working class — on average younger, less skilled, less organized and lower paid — that have expanded since the 1970s.
Part of the younger queer generation has taken up and to some extent recast claims for stigmatized sexual practices that were made during the sex wars of the early 1980s. For example, younger transgender people seem more likely to take on gender identities that are difficult to subsume at all under existing feminine or masculine roles. These more flexible and ambiguous forms of transgender associated with queer milieus contrast with the forms of transsexuality promoted by a wing of the medical establishment.
This account of the social roots of queer can help us understand several positive aspects of queer politics as well as some of its limitations. To begin with the positive aspects:
• Reflecting queer alienation from the ghettoized lesbian/gay mainstream, queer politics is anti-assimilationalist, inclusive and diverse. It refuses to fit into any model of gay or lesbian respectability. It is a space where many of the LGBT people who are least welcome in other LGBT spaces — such as trans and intersexed people, bisexuals and SM practitioners — are welcome and visible. Queer is not seen as a single way of being, but rather as a dissident stance with great respect and room for difference.
• Queers do not have any of the access to the political power structure that the lesbian/gay establishment has built up over the years. So when they take political action, they do so militantly, keeping up the tradition of direct action pioneered by ACT UP (and to a great extent borrowed, though rarely acknowledged, by the global justice movement).  They do not engage in the kind of lobbying and parliamentary work that has come to predominate in mainstream LGBT political groups, but instead use more confrontational and creative tactics. Peter Tatchell’s attempt to do a citizens’ arrest of homophobic Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was an internationally notorious example. The early Queer Nation groups applied these kinds of tactics at the most local level, for example by highlighting the dictatorship of the heterosexual norm by holding same-sex kiss-ins in non-gay bars and responding to homophobic violence with the slogan “Queers bash back!” (though as far as I know this remained at the level of a slogan). My impression though is that there have been fewer such militant queer actions in recent years.
• Rejecting ghettoization, queers reaffirm the fluidity of sexual desire and identity that was proclaimed by the pioneers of lesbian/gay liberation in the 1960s and ’70s — what was then often defined as a universal bisexual potential or an aspiration to universal “polymorphous perversity” (a Freudian term picked up by Herbert Marcuse).  Queers therefore reject the vision of lesbian and gay people as a fixed, static minority of the population, which some of the most moderate currents in lesbian/gay movements take as the basis for their claim for equal rights (“we can’t help it, we were born this way, so it’s not fair to discriminate against us — and not necessary to discriminate against us, since there won’t be any more of us if you tolerate us”). Queers also refuse to let their sexual difference and visibility be confined to a gay ghetto, insisting that the whole world should be — as the expression goes — “queered,” that is, opened up to queer possibilities.
• Reflecting the international character of the neoliberal offensive that gave rise to the queer scene, queer politics is in principle internationalist. The list of the 10 queeruption sites from 1998 to 2007 give a sense of the scope and limits of this internationalism, however. Five of the 10 were in Europe, three in North America, one in Australia and one in Israel. That is to say, they all took place in the richest one-fifth of the world. Six of the 10 took place in cities where the dominant language is English. This is in fact a narrower geography than the geography of the open, visible LGBT world; many Latin American countries have vibrant, visible LGBT communities and movements, as do South Africa and several Asian countries.
• Like its internationalism, the geographical limits of queer are probably no accident; they reflect the fact that sexual dissidence takes very different forms in imperialist and dependent countries. For example, the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004 showed that thousands of India’s transgender hijras identified with the global justice movement’s rebellion against neoliberalism, and were prepared to resort to militant tactics similar to European and North American queer activists’; but they did so on the basis of the subculture that they had been developing over the course of decades or even centuries.
So what are the factors that make it harder for queer activists to link up with many of the other rebellious LGBTs in the world, let alone with labor, feminist and other movements?
The sexual conservatism of other social movements clearly makes it difficult for queer activists to ally with them. In many countries the labor and even feminist movements reflect the open heterosexism of their societies. In other countries where open anti-LGBT prejudice is less accepted, mainstream social movements often link up with middle-class, moderate lesbian/gay organizations rather than with radical groups.
This sexual conformism can dovetail with the political and social moderation of mainstream leaderships. LGBT activists in broader social movements sometimes adapt to those leaderships’ moderation and sexual conservatism; as noted above, working-class LGBTs, LGBTs of color and other specially oppressed LGBTs sometimes feel obliged to downplay their own sexualities in order to blend more easily into broader communities. This makes many LGBTs hesitate to associate themselves with queers. Moreover, in many cases queer groups simply do not have the size or institutional weight to make them interesting as allies for big social organizations.
There are other factors isolating queer activists that sometimes reflect their own political limitations. For example:
• The anti-organizational, DIY leanings of some queer groups can reinforce their social homogeneity. Spontaneous, informal styles of action are easier to sustain when activists have roughly similar backgrounds, lifestyles and social situations. When people need to unite in action who face different forms of oppression and lead very different lives, they need structures to help them discuss their differences in depth, make joint decisions and carry out their decisions over the longer term. More structures mean a greater risk of bureaucracy and authoritarianism; but the way to minimize these risks is to consciously make structures as grassroots and democratic as possible, not to avoid structure altogether. 
• The social marginality that queer people experience sometimes seems to lead queer activists to choose political marginality, cutting themselves off from other LGBT people who might sympathize with queer politics if they encountered it. For example, the commercialization and depoliticization of lesbian/gay pride events help explain the allergy that many queer activists seem to have to them; but staying away from pride marches can deprive queer groups of access to a big potential audience. Pride marches of hundreds of thousands of people in several countries helped put the issue of same-sex marriage and civil union on the political agenda.
• Again, many queer activists’ allergy to the institution of marriage and the assimilationism that the demand for access to it can reflect may be understandable and even justified. But thousands of working-class and poor LGBTs have very practical concerns that lead them to demand equal access to marriage. Failing to address these concerns is another way that some queer radicals may cut themselves off from a potential base of support. 
• Queer political activism can flow almost imperceptibly into subcultural events. This can be a source of strength, inasmuch as the politics is rooted in the life of a community. But it can sometimes lead queer activists to stress the aspects of LGBT identity that are cultural and chosen, rather than those that are socially constructed and involuntary. Many of the most oppressed LGBT people do not feel that there’s anything chosen about their identities. This is reflected, for example, in the differences between queer-oriented transgender people, who may say that they transcend gender, and more traditional transgender people who strongly identify with a gender different from the one they were assigned to as children. This is one way in which queer activism sometimes takes on the suspicion of identity practiced by queer theory. It is important to recognize that an identity can be fluid and malleable and yet at the same time very strong and stable — and essential as the basis for a movement. The emphasis on cultural rather than material aspects of identity may also make queer politics less appealing to some LGBT blacks and immigrants, who are more likely to contend with material oppression in their daily lives. 
• Queer activists rarely seem to have a very well worked out vision of the society they would like to see. This is understandable, given that the decades in which queer politics emerged were ones in which traditional conceptions of socialism seemed largely discredited. But given that queer politics expresses a deeply felt rebellion against the lives that queer people are forced to live under patriarchal capitalism, it seems incomplete if it does not include an explicit rejection of patriarchal capitalism. This suggests that radical queers should take up and develop the analyses that an earlier radical generation made during the lesbian/gay liberation movement, of the roots of gender and sexual oppression in the capitalist family and the way it helps reproduce labor and authoritarian social hierarchies.
The use of the words “some,” “sometimes,” “can,” “tend to” and so on in these remarks is not simply an attempt to soft-pedal criticism. It reflects the real diversity of queer activists. For every group that shares these weaknesses, there may be another one somewhere that has overcome them, or is at least trying to. This is a reason to hope for the emergence of a radical queer current that is better organized, more oriented to the broader range of LGBT people, more ethnically diverse, more genuinely global in its politics, more materialist and profound in its analysis — and that thus can lay the basis for a powerful queer anti-capitalism and feminism.