The Radical Queer Quest for a Hetero-Free Nation

Since Stonewall, various fringe groups have attempted to establish a queer nation where LGBTQ people might finally, truly be free. Are they just hungry for press, or do they make a good point?

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Jul 1 2017, 6:05pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

In Australia's capital city, Canberra, a familiar flag hangs in the lobby of the Department of Finance: the rainbow banner first devised in the late 70s by the late San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker. It's likely most visitors to the government building recognize it as the six-striped symbol of LGBTQ pride—save for one conservative lawmaker, who sees it as the icon of a "hostile nation."

This February, Australian Senator Eric Abetz went on an obscure tangent during a finance hearing—questioning the criteria by which department officials select the flags to display in their foyer.

Abetz had an agenda, one that appeared to have little to do with flags. As other Western democracies increasingly legalize gay marriage, Australia still languishes due to political foot-dragging, in spite of polling that indicates more than 60 percent of Australian voters support marriage equality. An outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, Abetz suggested that the flags of anti-gay groups like the Marriage Alliance should also hang alongside the rainbow flag, which he described as an activist symbol of a "political campaign." However, it was the bizarre comment he made next that scored headlines.

"By way of some slight humor on this issue, this particular flag, you will realize, is the flag of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands," said Abetz, smirking as he shuffled a stack of papers. "It's the flag of a hostile nation—if we are to believe them—having declared war on Australia."

The senator was referring to a ragtag troupe of radical gay activists who, in June 2004, claimed an archipelago of tiny uninhabited islands as their newly formed kingdom—a vast, 300,000-square-mile external territory of Australia that's just off the coast of Queensland.

Led by their emperor, Dale Parker Anderson, they set out on a ship dubbed the "Gayflower" and sailed for 200 nautical miles to the Coral Sea Islands Territory. Upon landfall, Anderson and his comrades planted the rainbow flag, their chosen national emblem, on tiny Cato Island, where they set up a post office, erected a monument and selected Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am" as the national anthem. The kingdom's economy relies on its sole industry: selling collectable stamps.

By September, the fledgling kingdom had declared war on Australia for its failure to recognize same-sex marriage.

No citizen of the kingdom inhabits its territory. And it has no formal recognition from the United Nations or any country on earth. Even so, the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom may in fact represent the first territorial claim of sovereignty by an LGBTQ group for an independent gay nation.

It'd be easy to write this seemingly absurd independence movement off as a creative brand of direct-action protest—a silly stunt to garner press for the cause. But when taken out of the context of Australian politics, the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom stands as one quirky example of what some have termed "queer nationalism." As UCLA Political Science professor Brian Walker wrote in a 1996 paper about the phenomenon, it's the notion that the LGBTQ community forms a distinct people, separate from religious- and ethnic-based nationalisms, due to their shared culture, history and common traits.

It's a diffuse concept that has not received much serious consideration, save for a few academics and historians. Yet it's a line of thought that has existed in LGBTQ liberation since its earliest days, manifesting in everything from a radical proposal to take over a California county to lesbian-only communes to little-known groups presently lobbying for an independent gay state.

And as longstanding tension within the LGBTQ community between social assimilation and separatism—that is, the debate over whether queer people should try to blend in with the rest of society or reject society outright—continues to churn, the roots and history of queer nationalism seem as relevant as ever.

One of the cornerstone examples of a queer nationalist state is known informally as Stonewall Nation, a 1970 plan to establish a separatist gay community in Alpine County, a mountainous and rural corner of northern California, which, at the time, had 384 registered voters.

Activist Don Jackson argued that it'd only take 400 gays and lesbians relocating to constitute an electoral majority, eventually leading to gay control of every elected office in local government. "I imagine a place where gay people can be free," Jackson said at a 1969 gay liberation conference in Berkeley. "It would mean a gay government, a gay civil service, a county welfare department which made public assistance payments to the refugees of persecution and prejudice."

Proposed mere months after the Stonewall uprising in New York City, the idea of taking over Alpine County initially received tepid support. Historian Lillian Faderman, author of the comprehensive gay liberation overview The Gay Revolution, told me that some supporters genuinely yearned for a sort of gay nation within a nation; others saw it as a press ploy to demonstrate that the gay and lesbian movement had teeth.

"Straight people in the 1970s were very upset about the notion that gay people could take over a town and just establish their own government there," Fadermen told me. "Who knew where they might do it next!"

After the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, a radical queer protest group, released their detailed plan to take over Alpine County in a press release, newspapers across the US ran the story. But the plan eventually fizzled, in large part due to increased scrutiny that followed the media coverage, which stoked fear among Alpine County residents. The idea also garnered little support within the LGBTQ community itself.

While Jackson never realized a gay-majority Alpine, his plan shares a separatist logic with other radical LGBTQ projects that have proceeded it. Faderman, who has written more than a half-dozen books on lesbian feminism, draws a connecting line to lesbian communes in the 1970s.

These loosely affiliated movements were rooted in a utopian notion known as "lesbian nation," a term coined by Village Voice writer Jill Johnston in her book of the same name. An archetypal cultural critic, Johnston argued the only way to effectively survive the patriarchy was for lesbians to cut themselves off from men and free themselves from all male-dominated institutions—i.e, capitalist society at large. An immediate way to put theory into practice was to establish women-only, lesbian-only communes. Thousands of women hit the road.

"I think many lesbian feminists came from a personal history of radicalism in the 60s; some of them were a part of the hippie communes," said Faderman. 'The idea for lesbian-only communes soon spread all over the country—there were lesbian feminist communes in the mountains, the forests, everywhere that lesbian feminists felt that they could get away from the patriarchy and start over again."

Communes weren't only found in remote, rural areas, Faderman explained. One of the earliest urban communes was a cluster of adjoining apartments in Washington, DC known as The Furies Collective. Though short-lived, it served as a sort of cocoon to a resolute band of young women who would go on to work as academics, artists, documentarians and in other influential positions in their communities. While fewer than twenty women lived there, they collectively published a newspaper, The Furies, which was distributed nationally and helped popularize the separatist ideals of rejecting mainstream society.

And while The Furies focused narrowly on the wellbeing of the Ls, leaving the GBTQs out of their utopian vision, Faderman sees common threads between the commune movement and Stonewall Nation, direct-action groups like Queer Nation in the 90s, and even recent political protests at pride parades this year across the US.

"With the 1970s impulse to separate, it seemed to radical people that it wasn't enough to have a piece of the pie when the whole pie was rotten," said Faderman. "I think that's always been behind these radical movements—to make a protest of assimilation in mainstream society. I think the same thing is true with radicals today who see pride parades as overtaken by corporations and police forces."

Radicals often saw separatism as a necessity, something crucial for the survival of LGBTQ people. You can see this reasoning in the way activists framed the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom's declaration of independence from Australia. Much of their website is a trove of silly curiosities and factoids, including a biography claiming the emperor is distantly related to all of Europe's major royal houses. But the declaration of independence itself is a largely sobering survey of atrocities gay people still endure around the world. "In countries where we have lived for centuries, we are still cried down as strangers," it reads. "In the world as it is now and for an indefinite period … I think we shall not be left in peace."

Of course, a desire for separatism, broadly speaking, and a desire for an independent queer state are not one and the same. A separatist ideology might underpin contemporary radical activism in the LGBTQ community, though maybe only the tiniest sliver of those activists might be aware of a nationalist movement. But it's a lingering hunch that LGBTQ people might never fully transcend discrimination and prejudice that keeps the far-fetched dream of an independent queer nation alive in the minds of a few.

Though the Coral Sea Islands may never be the place. Despite seldom activity on the kingdom's Facebook page, activists haven't made any progress toward settlement or international recognition in the past decade. Instead, they've mostly made headlines.

"The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom experiment failed for various reasons, but it deserves credit for reviving interest in gay nationalism," Viktor Zimmermann told me. As the Cologne, Germany-based executive officer of the Gay Homeland Foundation, which he describes as a "think tank" for queer nationalism, he's made headlines of his own for promoting the idea of an independent gay state.

What precisely would such a state look like? Zimmermann paints with broad strokes, drawing comparisons to ideas in early Zionism: An independent nation might offer citizenship to LGBTQ people everywhere, he suggests. It'd be a territory that could welcome refugees from countries where their lives are threatened. A utopia a la Jackson's Alpine, but on an even grander, more ambitious scale.

But Zimmermann acknowledges that his cause has its share of challenges. "The project of the gay state is mostly unknown in the gay community worldwide," he said. "Interestingly, since acceptance of gay people has increased, there is much less internalized homophobia among young people, thus also more readiness to see the positive potential of the project."

He recognizes that the viability of any such campaign depends on awareness building, which is the present focus of the foundation.

Thankfully, there's a proven PR method in the queer nationalist's bag of tricks: board the Gayflower, blast Gloria Gaynor and sail straight into the Sunday pages while belting out the words of the anthem: "Why not try to see things from a different angle?"

Follow Jon Shadel on Twitter.

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