When the Bashed Bash Back

via slate

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

This month, D.C.’s Newseum is proudly boasting an eye-catching, orange-and-pink banner commemorating Stonewall. Stonewall was, as the slogan goes, a riot. The kind of riot where drag queens reportedly threw rocks at cops in the street and smashed their car windows. As I walked past the building, I was struck by the irony of such a reverent, respectable tribute. Many of the sorts of people responsible for Stonewall—especially “street kids,” trans people of color, and queer sex workers—are still harassed by D.C. police and would face harsh consequences for fighting back today with the same tactics their forebearers chose in 1969.

Of course, rebelliousness in distant times isn’t a threat to anyone’s status, power, or the fabric of society in the present. This is why moderates celebrate events like the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall uprising but accuse modern radicals of damaging their cause. “What are you trying to accomplish?” they demand. “You are hurting the movement! You are just as bad as the other side!” They wring their hands about protesting in the street rather than the sidewalk, or yelling “oink, oink” at cops, and then buy tickets to a nice exhibit about a riot.

For a recent example of queer insurrection that hasn’t (yet) attained the warm glow of historical distance, consider the case of Bash Back!

A relatively obscure network of self-identified criminal queer anarchists, Bash Back! arose out of anti–Republican National Convention and anti–Democratic National Convention organizing (including actions like queer-led street blockades) and existed from 2007–11. Out of that initial organizing work, Bash Back! chapters formed across the country, from Chicago and Denver to Philadelphia and Seattle, and beyond. The group’s model was a nonhierarchical autonomous network based loosely on agreed-upon points of unity, like fighting for queer liberation rather than heteronormative assimilation, and respecting a diversity of tactics (including an individual’s autonomy to participate in actions deemed illegal by the government).

The group’s anthology, a collection of communiques and essays, explains its central ethos:

Understandably we needed a reason to get excited. We needed a chance to position ourselves as a force. We needed to feel strong. Above all else, we needed to find one another that wanted the world’s head on a platter—we needed folks to dance with atop the rubble.

Naturally, Bash Back!’s efforts were not appreciated by all. According to “Dorothy Barker,” a self-described radical queer poodle and former Bash Backer! who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, “the nastiest reactions we got were from messing with Pride. I mean we did everything from hucking shitloads of dead fish at the HRC float to a group of like 40 of us blocking the Wells Fargo float and stopping the parade because Wells Fargo funded the prison where a black trans woman named CeCe McDonald was incarcerated for self-defense against a Nazi. The white gay cis-dude gym rats on the float literally started beating us with sticks.”

Pride was not the only Bash Back! target. Chapters attacked the homes of heterosexist murderers, organized dance parties in the streets, beautified cop cars with glitter and paint, engaged in public sex and orgies, “glamdalized” Army recruiting centers, disrupted transphobic politicians’ speeches, discussed theory, and wheat-pasted images of fisting onto bank windows. Dorothy told me that they “trashed the ever-loving shit” out of the Human Rights Campaign store on the anniversary of Stonewall in 2011. It was an “everyday culture of attack,” as a Bash Back! essay put it. Much of what the group did never made it into mainstream publications, but some actions were covered locally.

Bash Back!’s culture of attack included physical fights against transphobes. At a gay bar in Lansing, Michigan, a trans man, “Dru,” risked using the men’s bathroom. As Dru tried to leave, a man blocked him from the exit and said, “I know you’re a bitch!” Bash Backers! ultimately exchanged punches with the man. According to the anthology, which collected the story, “the man eventually ended up pinned to the floor of a stall with Dru on top of him bashing back! And another queer stomping him between the legs!” The transphobe yelled “OK OK IM SORRY CAN WE BE FRIENDS?”

Churches the group viewed as homophobic were among their most provocative targets. Mount Hope, a Michigan megachurch that has organized Halloween-season “hell houses” featuring queers and women who get abortions as “the horrors,” got a visit from about 30 Bash Backers! in 2008. According to the anthology account and In These Times, one subgroup organized a diversion protest outside chanting “Jesus was a homo!” to draw police and security, while others were scattered throughout the pews in their “Sunday best.” When the time was right, the undercover operatives sprang into action, declaring themselves fags, throwing thousands of flyers, unfurling a banner in the upper pews that read “It’s Okay to Be Gay! Bash Back!,” pulling the fire alarm, and making out in front of the pastor. Within minutes, they escaped.

The backlash against the Mount Hope action was particularly harsh; the group received death threats and was successfully sued by the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund. Bill O’Reilly, who weirdly lumped Bash Back! with mainstream gay marriage activists, remarked on his show at the time: “Yeah, I don’t think it does them any good. I agree that there is a backlash now, and those who were sympathetic to gay marriage and gay civil rights, they see conduct like this and, ya know, a lot of people are going, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ ”

Moderates, even queer ones, didn’t disappoint O’Reilly. The Michigan State University Alliance program director also condemned the action: “While Alliance of LGBT Students disagrees with Mount Hope’s hurtful stance that homosexuality and transgenderism are sins, we categorically condemn the actions of Bash Back! which not only disrespected the congregation, broke the law and put people in physical danger, but are also not beneficial to the LGBT movement.”

But Bash Back! had no regrets. This was a special demonstration for many involved. Some disruptors had attended Mount Hope, or similar churches, during their childhood. One goal of the action, as noted in the anthology, was to “show the youth [they] are not alone! … [W]e wanted to send a message of acceptance and understanding. We realize that thinking you might be queer in a church like that is terrifying.”

If Bash Back!’s confrontational tactics make you uneasy, consider that attacks against homophobic churches disrupt normalized violence that is disguised as religious rhetoric. Discriminatory beliefs perpetuated by the church lead to homophobia, which can, ultimately, lead to physical attacks, murder, and suicides. Bash Back!–style sabotage can make it more difficult for bigots to spew their bigotry, and at a certain point, the spewing can become more trouble than it’s worth.

Indeed, within the past several years, sabotage tactics have proved to be effective in the anti-fascist movement. Notably, Richard Spencer halted his college tour last year and admitted, “Antifa is winning.” He continued, “When they [his talks] become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun.” Likewise, the bathroom bully transphobe might think twice before harassing another trans person if he’s afraid of getting harassed himself.

Violence was never a moral issue for Bash Back! Queers face daily violence in a multitude of ways, from homophobic slurs to the AIDS genocide, to the criminalization of sex work. “Queers are marked as victims while violence is understood to be only the tool of the masters,” Bash Back! wrote in the anthology. The project was “first and foremost a refusal of victimhood and a reclamation of the violence taken by progressive ideology and used against us by queerbashers and the State.”

Anti-fascist and Bash Back! actions, which lack “respectability,” have pissed off liberals and conservatives alike. Bash Back! Pride disruptions were generally not welcomed by the larger LGBTQ community. Horrifying a homophobic pastor obviously won’t convert conservatives into allies. But then, neither did legislators decriminalize homosexuality the moment a parking meter was turned against a police barricade at Stonewall.

What’s important is how these fearless actions transformed the actors, their circles, and sympathetic spectators. They certainly affected Dorothy: “The Bash Back! network changed me insofar as it exposed me to a lot of the radical, antisocial, militant as fuck queer and trans politics that have come to define my approach to organizing against fascism: Being a combination of openly militant and flamboyantly stylish.” Participation in moments full of meaning, collective power, and camaraderie—like public demonstrations of rage or glamour—can provide sustaining fuel to the otherwise disengaged, unorganized, or victimized.

Without mass support or understanding of militant tactics and theory, radical movements are subject to co-option. Bash Back! abolished itself, in 2011, once liberally-minded elements infiltrated the network, per the group’s anthology. Its ultimate goal was to build a network of queer anarchists, and that goal had been achieved.

But the world’s head isn’t on a platter yet. Despite decades of uprisings and organizing, queers still face deadly threats. In 2018, 26 transgender people were violently killed, a majority black women. In 2019 seven have been killed, all black trans women. Between 50 percent and 66 percent of transgender people have been raped. The head of the Office of Civil Rights at U.S. Human Health and Services, Roger Severino, is openly homophobic and leading the charge to allow insurance companies and healthcare providers to discriminate against transgender people. Underground networks of far-right militias, who celebrate the murder of queers, are growing.

Each act of experimental, creative resistance against discriminatory violence is a gift to future queers seeking liberation. Like Stonewall, Bash Back! not only transformed the people involved, but bequeathed energy to the actions of all future revolutionaries. The next phase of queer liberation will learn from their struggles, and the next from theirs, until all people are able to reach and explore their full human potential.

There are 8 Comments

But how does being trans equal being queer, gay, lesbian, bi or radical? In my experience typical trans behaviour/presentation reinforces, and actually most often is, "heteronormative assimilation" or at least heteronormative confirmation- its almost exclusively modelling and fetishizing sexist stereotypes. I haven't been able to locate any convincing writing that links being trans, in the sense of 'i am literally a woman in a male body", with sexual liberation, genuine self-creation, queer insurrection, anarchic experimentation, etc.

Does anyone actually think that right now trans people are more heteronormative assimilation than cis queers or am i replying to a troll?

Queer assimilation p much means assimilation into institutions like police, the military, marriage, etc. Cis gays and lesbians are fully assimilated into these institutions. Cis queers are making zero momentum away from that. The people who were into that in 2009 gave up and a decade passed. Maybe Desert is right and cis queers will unassimilate when civilization collapses from climate change.

For trans people. Theyre banned from the US millitary. You could probably count the openly trans cops in the US on your fingers and toes. Same or more so with trans screws. Most trans people's identity is not recognized by the state and when it is they have trouble getting new copies of papers like passports/banking that are routine for non trans people. Jails and prisons put them in adseg. Eugenics based coerced sterilization is still a thing in the US, parts of europe, parts of south america, and especially so in Japan. In many places, trans people are being barred from institutions, not entering into them. almost al the institutions associated with assimilation dont have trans ppl assinilated into them.

Most trans people would say assimilation isnt even possible right now even if you pass.

Pretty much no trans person says "woman in a man's body". So thats why, deapite your ernest tries, you were unable to locate any convincing writing that links being trans, in the sense of 'i am literally a woman in a male body", with sexual liberation, genuine self-creation, queer insurrection, anarchic experimentation, etc.

With all the dog whistles you crammed in there Id guess you think its stil 1970 and butches and politcal lesbians are some anti gender role force lol.

And no trans person whos been on hrt for more than a week has ever said that "man trapped in a woman's body" stuff. So youre googling the wrong things when youre so very ernestly trying "locate any convincing writing that links being trans with sexual liberation, genuine self-creation, queer insurrection, anarchic experimentation, etc."

I guess a mad seeming rant with typos and a repeated paragraphs is what I get for trying to use the mobile site.

“Cis” is just another ideologically invented box to confine and other those not in the ideological camp. You use it like it’s an objective, politically neutral term. It isn’t. You did nail me though as I am from the 70s and part of my beef with trans activism is that while I wasn’t at Stonewall, I was around the scene on the east coast and contrary to official trans activist mantras, “trans” , as the term is used today, were not at the forefront of the “struggle”. All us queers were, especially gays and lesbians who were numerically the largest. That’s just transwashing history, as is increasingly common. In all my years there I met like one person who believed that they were “literally a woman”. We used women’s names, women’s clothes, played up displays of femininity, etc., but none of us ever thought we had pink souls or would ever have condoned the snitching to the state/employers, the punching old feminists in the face, the bullying our way into and the colonization of female spaces, the uncritical embrace of capitalist Pharma, the incessant labeling with smears of anyone we disagreed with, the violent sexualization of our conversations ( choke on my lady dick bitch) and on and on and on.
I just read an article by a trans activist that explicitly argues that being gay is merely a consolation prize for males who are afraid of coming out as trans. So it isn’t that far off to claim that these ideologues are fine with gay and lesbian eugenics through puberty blockers. But to look critically at puberty blockers makes one a transphobe so we are forced to silently watch as gender non-conforming children are hooked to a pathologized and medicalized set of chains for their entire existence and a potentially “thalidomide” like tragedy unfold (and continue to throw women and children under the bus....)
The comment that trans is a form of heteronormative assimilation refers to the fact that I see no exploration or rejection of gender or a commitment to self-creation throughout a lifetime, but an insistence that there are only two possible genders and these are permanent in everyone- man and woman, one consists of make up, fish net stockings, long hair, and the other beards and plaid shirts. Whichever one you are born into you can use the marketplaces of capitalism and ideology to become the other if you are unhappy or confused or curious- for the rest of your life.

I once felt proud and brave and wild for publicly refusing the gendered box I was forced into by history and paid a big price for it at a time when it was illegal and considered immoral and sick to do so. Maybe I am just an old fart, but I don’t see the connection between that individual insurrection and relying on the state and bullying tactics and shaming with smears and politics to impose an ideological agenda that looks a lot like patriarchal phallus centering, a celebration of capitalism, a desire to be integrated in every aspect of the social order rather than rejecting it and conformity more than liberation of any kind.

Trans activists need a healthy dose of critical observation from queer rebels, not a sycophantic walking on egg shells yes sir/ma’am to every claim and action that comes from them.

““Cis” is just another ideologically invented box to confine and other those not in the ideological camp. You use it like it’s an objective, politically neutral term. It isn’t.”

It’s not “another ideologically invented box”, and it’s not used like a “politically neutral term”. It’s a recognition of the “ideologically invented box”es of gender, politicized against them.

“I once felt proud and brave and wild for publicly refusing the gendered box I was forced into by history and paid a big price for it at a time when it was illegal and considered immoral and sick to do so.”

So do they, and so have they.

Why is it such a leap for your imagination?

One would think that considering what you’ve lived, that you would get it.

What’s your beef?

That some trans people are “problematic”?

Like that can’t be said of people from all conceivable categories.

What’s up with you purity politics?

All trans that ever existed have to be inscrutable by your standards in order for you to veto their existence and approve of their struggle against the particular forms of oppression and injustice that they suffer?

You didnt see trans people there because cis gays were liberal activists and they didnt have time for that bs. Trans women in groups like STAR were busy squatting buildings and doing jail support. Sylvia Rivera gave a speech about it at one pride of the early prides she said, "The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class white club. And that’s what you all belong to!"

But its neat to see you vomit up stereotypes. Maybe next time try thigh highs instead of fish nets and add in anime memes and cam girls and end of gender politics/anti police stuff ;). That way you wont seem so out of touch/unfamiliar with trans people.

Why be against blockers? Luprons been in use for children and adolescents for decades now and has tons of research around it. GnRH agonists are very well understood. I was on it in the 90s for stuff not related to gender. It'd have been in experimental stages in the early 80s or so. I currently work in healthcare and it is considered very low risk. Why not let people do what they want with their body? Seems weird.

"But how does being trans equal being queer, gay, lesbian, bi or radical?"

no 1 sed it =

"I haven't been able to locate any convincing writing that links being trans, in the sense of 'i am literally a woman in a male body", with sexual liberation, genuine self-creation, queer insurrection, anarchic experimentation, etc."

u think it don't, but it do

u don't deser a berer anser

das al u git

now i got questions 4 u:

notice all the letters in LGBTQ?

did u know what they're all prone to face discrimination due to their sex and/or gender or combination there of?

r u stoopid or jus transphobic? cuz i kno is both get rekt suka i hope my speling gav u cansir fuka

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