Queer solidarity smashes borders: a history of LGBT+ solidarity activism

Words: LGSMigrants

In 2014 the film Pride was released, bringing to the big screen and popular consciousness a story which has achieved mythic status in the LGBT+ community. It dramatises the support given by queer solidarity group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) to a mining community in South Wales during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. 

LGSM raised over £20,000 for the striking miners’ communities, organising regular collections from gay venues and, most famously, the ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit concert. Its members made regular visits to the Dulais valley and forged important bonds with the community there. In turn, in June 1985, the mining communities of South Wales, as well as the National Union of Miners (NUM), came to march alongside LGSM at Pride. 

That autumn, at the Labour Party Conference, the NUM voted as a bloc to ensure that a resolution committing the party to lesbian and gay rights passed. Acknowledging their common oppression by the state, LGSM and the mining community came together to support each other in their struggles. The story is a moving testament to the importance of queer solidarity.

What do we mean by queer solidarity? The term is often misused to describe sympathetic feelings not backed up by supportive actions. Meaningful queer solidarity means supporting and taking action alongside other oppressed groups. It requires a recognition of the intersection of identities and the interconnectedness of struggles. LGSM understood themselves as oppressed by the police and state as queer people, but also as workers. They understood that Thatcher was trying to break the unions and the devastating impact that that would have on communities across the UK. 

Likewise, today, it’s the responsibility of the queer activists to support the fight against other systems of oppression. We are oppressed as LGBTQIA+ people, but also as workers, as people of colour, as migrants, as women, and as such, we must stand for the liberation of all.

In this article, we’re going to explore concrete examples of solidarity from the LGBTQIA+ community with other oppressed groups to show the power and necessity of acts of solidarity for collective liberation.

The 1970s and 80s were a febrile time for solidarity organising. In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in New York raised $500 for the Black Panther Party (BPP) by hosting weekly community dances. They also supported BPP activists Angela Davis and Joan Bird during their time in prison, taking part in vigils outside the building in which Bird was awaiting trial, and in the autumn of 1970, Huey Newton, co-founder of the BPP, announced the Party’s support for gay and women’s liberation. 

The relationship between the two groups was complicated, and the GLF were by no means the sole LGBT+ group to offer support to BPP – the Third World Gay Revolution in Chicago and the Black Gay Caucus in New York were also crucial allies. Nonetheless, these actions were an important recognition of the common oppression of the two groups. 

Later, the Coors’ Boycott was organised in San Francisco in solidarity with the employees’ struggle against anti-union biases and discrimination in the company. Organisers coordinated with Harvey Milk to petition local gay bars to stop selling the beer, and in return, the Teamsters union committed to hiring more openly gay drivers. 

The widespread boycott lasted a decade and was highly effective: from 1977 to 1984 Coors’ market share in California dropped from over 40 percent to 14 percent. Coors announced a non-discrimination policy in 1978. The boycott proved that labour and queer rights could be fought for simultaneously, on the same terrain.  

Anti-imperialism and anti-war activism has also been a regular feature of queer solidarity work. A variety of LGBT+ solidarity groups in the US worked to oppose military intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Their involvement forged important relationships with queer activist networks in the countries themselves and dispelled the suggestion that queer identities were not relevant to Latin American experience. 

In Ireland, Gays Against Imperialism (GAI) formed in 1982 to unite the struggles for queer and national liberation. They marched under the banner ‘Lesbians and Gays Against the H-Block’ and linked their persecution and criminalisation to that of political prisoners being held in the Maze. These movements demonstrate the importance of internationalism in queer activism, and present a stark contrast to liberal assimilationist approaches.  

Today, we seek to build on this radical queer history of solidarity activism. Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants formed in 2015 in response to the rising tide of racism, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment and legislation in the UK.

The reasons behind queer-migrant solidarity are twofold. 

First, there is the scale and nature of the oppression the migrant community is facing. Western foreign policy and European border regimes are in many ways responsible for creating the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, but in the 2010s, the UK home office was on a mission to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants. This policy’s explicit aim was to exclude undocumented migrants from the essentials of an ordinary life. 

The parallels between present migrant and historic queer oppression were clear. Both communities have been deemed ‘illegal’ and denied rights to exist openly in public space. Today we see immigration raids in workplaces (most notoriously when Byron entrapped its employees in 2016), but it wasn’t long ago that police were raiding queer venues. The gay sauna Brownies was the last raided in the UK, in 1988.

Second, there is the right-wing co-option and weaponisation of LGBT+ rights against migrants. Despite the UK’s very recent history of criminalising the LGBT+ community – only in 2017 was the last explicitly homophobic law repealed by the Merchant Shipping (Homosexual Conduct) Act –  the right-wing press has presented LGBT+ rights as part of fundamental ‘British’ or ‘European’ values to which migrants, particularly Muslim migrants, are a threat

The toxic nature of this homonationalism (a term coined by academic Jasbir K. Puar to describe this phenomenon) is demonstrated by the English Defence League offshoot Gays Against Sharia. This organisation aimed to co-opt LGBT+ causes to stir up Islamophobic, anti-migrant sentiment. LGSMigrants formed to fight against queer identities being falsely used to bolster nationalistic rhetoric.

LGSMigrants’ support for migrants takes several forms. Like the original LGSM, a core part of our work is fundraising for migrant organisations. Monthly bucket-shakes in Soho, selling T-shirts and organising parties (called ‘Planes and Perverts’ as a nod to ‘Pits and Perverts’) allow us to materially support the migrant community and to foster greater awareness of the importance of solidarity. 

We have also regularly engaged in non-violent direct action. Taking inspiration from groups like ACT UP, LGSMigrants aim to draw public attention to the issues migrants face through media stunts and protests. In March 2016, LGSMigrants glitter-bombed the headquarters of Serco – the security firm which is responsible for running the Yarl’s Wood detention centre – garnering attention for their inhumane treatment of migrants and detention of LGBT+ asylum seekers. 

A year later, activists from LGSMigrants, Plane Stupid and End Deportations prevented the departure of a deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana by chaining themselves to the wheel of the plane. This was the first time that this kind of direct action had successfully stopped a deportation charter flight. In June 2018, Virgin Atlantic, in response to LGBT+ campaign pressure, announced they would end involuntary deportations on their flights.

With this victory as precedent, LGSMigrants has an ongoing campaign to get BA to drop their Home Office deportation contracts. Despite their involvement in deporting LGBT+ migrants, BA is also a sponsor of Brighton Pride. This pinkwashing (a process by which corporations give their organisation a progressive veneer by paying lip-service to the LGBT+ community) provides an opportunity for LGBT+ activists to point out the hypocrisy of their actions and demand better: we can weaponise our own queer identities in order to put pressure on public-facing brands. 

In 2018, LGSMigrants made headlines by ‘ad-hacking’ the adverts on the London Underground and replacing them with infographics on how to stop deportations as a fellow passenger. 14 LGSMigrants activists infiltrated and protested the Airline UK Annual Dinner the following January, storming the stage to make a speech which criticised commercial airlines’ involvement in deportations and handing out 200 aeroplane sick-bags emblazoned with the slogan ‘deportation contracts make us sick’. We marked Valentine’s Day 2019 by creating a Tinder bot to give information out on how to stop a deportation. 

Last year, BA celebrated their centenary with a publicity campaign called ‘BA 100’, which featured a curated list of 100 people who represented ‘the values we want to celebrate and make Britain the creative, open-minded, pioneering and welcoming place it is today.’ In response, LGSMigrants created their own BA 100 letters from migrants, BA staff and customers which called on them to prove how ‘open-minded’ and ‘welcoming’ they are by ending deportations. 

The campaign to stop deportations is ongoing. 

History, though not without its cautionary tales, has shown the power of queer solidarity. It has raised money, affected policy and legislation, ended contracts, forged relationships and changed minds. At its best, it has energised a unity among marginalised groups that is necessary to take on the structures of oppression – all of them. This history of radical solidarity organising is inspiring. It is a call for us to continue the work now, and in the future. Solidarity is not an intention: it is an action, and it must keep being done.

learn more

  • BOOK: Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats – Maya Goodfellow
  • FILM: Pride (2014)
  • BOOK: Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times – Jasbir K Puar

LGSMigrants are a queer solidarity group formed in 2015. They support the migrant community through campaigning, fundraising and direct action. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.