In the following narrative, a participant in the worldwide anarchist gathering that took place in Saint-Imier, Switzerland in July 2023 explores political practices and discourse around gender and sexuality in the contemporary anarchist movement.
Lest the following text occasion any conflict with the residents of Saint-Imier, rest assured that any controversial details are surely exaggerated. For a discussion of how struggles around gender have evolved over the past two decades, you could start here. For a discussion of anarchist approaches to accountability, start here. The illustrations are by Aubrey Beardsley.
I have done some sleazy stuff in my life, sure. But hooking up with a stranger on a Zamboni in a dark hallway in an ice-skating rink amid a hundred other queer anarchists? That’s up there.
It almost didn’t happen. Don’t get me started on the weird rigidity of anarchist culture these days, especially with regards to the erotic. Sure, we’re all non-monogamous (are we?), everyone’s queer now (are they?), and we are serious about things like queer and trans liberation, positive consent, abortion care access, and so on. Well, as political issues, at least, if not as pathways towards transforming our actual lives.
Is this me being “lifestylist,” suggesting that how we live our lives today actually matters? And that sex is a terrain worth fighting on, that sexual liberation is worth fighting for? Or let me rephrase that—forgive my overly militaristic metaphors, you can chalk it up to the anarcho-patriarchy. Is sexual liberation worth living for? Living differently? Living as if our bodies and our pleasure really matter? Could breaking free from the stilted ways of relating that both our dominant culture and our counter-cultures are stuck in have the potential to open up broader forms of freedom?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To be clear, I didn’t come to Saint-Imier to find dates. Probably a lot of people did, and that’s perfectly valid, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s stop pretending that our motivations for participating in revolutionary struggle aren’t erotic, too, along with all the other things they are. But for me, I’m a little older than the twenty-something oogle romantics who made up a large part of the gathering. I came to get inspired again, to network with anarchists—especially queer anarchists, but really with anyone working on interesting projects—from all over the planet, to sling books and zines, to do the sort of serious grown-up anarchist stuff that we do at conferences and book fairs.
That’s who I am these days, I guess. In the workshop, behind the book table, in the breakout discussion, I am an earnest, serious anarcho-anarchist.1 I call people “comrades” unironically. When solicited, I express measured opinions on topics ranging from Ukrainian armed struggle to the excesses of appelistes and their critics. I salivate over first editions of Luigi Galleani in the original Italian. I’m on a first-name (or at least nom-de-guerre) basis with militants from Anarchist Black Cross chapters in over a dozen different countries. I fit in. I’m among my people, for better or worse.
I’m also a queer pervert, sure. I let my freak flag fly alongside the black one. But after many years of trying to integrate the queer/trans, collectively erotic, and anarchist aspects of my life, resulting in a few successes and more disappointments, I’ve largely let those spheres of my life diverge. When I’ve been on anarchist speaking tours, I’ve waited until all the other earnest comrades have gone to bed to sneak out to the leathersex club, returning at sunrise to snatch a couple hours of sleep before getting up to discuss publishing projects over breakfast. At the play parties, Faerie gatherings, and dungeon nights I seek out to scratch my itch for bacchanalian excess, I’m not usually comparing notes on Bakunin translations with my fellow revelers. To my chagrin!
While I wouldn’t say I’ve given up, exactly, these days I don’t prioritize trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice around anti-authoritarian sexual liberation. So when I came to St. Imier, my mind was on other things.
When I became an anarchist long ago in the anti-globalization days—remember those?—not many anarchists were queer, even fewer were trans, and the term non-binary wasn’t yet in circulation. Yes, you read that right. In the years before Bash Back!, before trans “tipping points,” before the onslaught of right-wing culture war laws targeting trans and non-binary youth, anarchist subcultures were pretty heteronormative, and if not exactly conventionally gendered, certainly not as expansive as they’d later become. Outside of a few urban centers and the mass mobilizations where “pink blocs” or queer affinity groups temporarily popped up, it could be pretty lonely to be a queer anarchist.
Today, the situation has totally changed. What I saw in Saint-Imier confirmed that. A few years ago, I began to notice that at book fairs and in other anarchist spaces, queer and especially trans and non-binary young folks were making up an increasing proportion of attendees and participants. Was this just a North American trend? Absolutely not, it turns out.
One of the most stunning aspects of the experience of being at Saint-Imier for me was seeing how profoundly and radically the spectrum of anarchist gender and sexual identities has expanded. Every space was full of visibly gender-non-conforming folks, creatively adorned with patches in many languages decrying patriarchy and promoting trans and queer liberation. There were workshops, discussions, meet-ups, social events, and campsites specifically themed around trans and queer experiences. While younger people predominated in the visible trans and queer blocs, as they did at the gathering as a whole, plenty of anarchists from all generations were creatively challenging gender and actively messaging around trans and queer themes.
For me, observing this all around me at the gathering was a constant source of joy and wonder. I can’t claim any credit for this shift myself, despite my modest efforts in my younger years, but it warmed my queer little heart to think that some of my lonely efforts to queer anarchism and anarchize queer scenes back in the day have finally bore some fruit. Or at least, that I have lived long enough to see them superseded by an assertive new anarchist generation that’s queering things up far beyond my wildest dreams at the time.
Well, let me dial that back a little. Just because so many people were visibly claiming trans/queer identities or challenging gender aesthetically doesn’t necessarily mean that my vision or version of queerness held any particular sway. That’s as it should be, of course—we’re all anarchists here—but in my view, there are limits to the dominant currents of queer and trans politics that seemed to be in circulation in Saint-Imier. Here are a few examples.
Navigating gender frameworks proved a difficult and illuminating part of the gathering, and an ongoing site of contestation. Translation was an ongoing challenge, both between and within languages as well as between overlapping and clashing frameworks for understanding gender. The acronym du jour, courtesy of the German contingent, appeared to be “FLINTA”—roughly translating to women, lesbians, intersex, nonbinary, trans (not sure if they asterisk in German), and agender folks. In other words, not cis men, more or less. A variant, “TINA”—apparently coined by someone not versed in North American gay drug slang—excludes all cis people, including women and lesbians. A complex array of interventions into the gathering’s infrastructure were intended to ensure “non-mixed” (that’s originally a French term, I believe) spaces and times, including certain sleeping areas, workshops, and toilets.
I arrived at the shower space with towel and soap in hand one morning to find that, according to a handwritten sign by the doorway, I’d have to wait half an hour unless I claimed membership in the FLINTA category. Now, I’ve done my time in the mines of gender dysphoria, and I can check the right boxes if necessary. But I was exhausted in advance by the idea of having to assess everyone else assessing me and my naked body to determine whether I qualified properly for that year’s acronym. I’ll stick to the occasional hours when there’s no gendered gatekeeping in the shower, thank you. And—unpopular opinion here, but whatever—I actually find it quite pleasant to be around naked, dripping cis men, so that works.
I wasn’t involved in the organizing, so I can’t speak to how these arrangements were made. Some were certainly imposed by fiat via the time-honored anarchist tradition of taping up a piece of cardboard with a message scrawled in marker on it that then becomes collective policy, at least until the next act of autonomous initiative in which someone tears it down or writes over it. Personally, I wish we could have had broad, inclusive conversations about the different gender frameworks we were bringing from our home territories; some of my most interesting conversations during the gathering centered on struggles to translate our ideas about gender and liberation into the various languages we speak, as well as the practices we prefer in our collective spaces.
Some workshops were on the schedule covering some of these topics, including one specifically on the “FLINTA” framework, couched in apologetic language that led me to guess that critiques had already been levied. But alas, I couldn’t make it.
It seems that these hard conversations about gender, safety, inclusion, identity, and organizing are happening everywhere in the world, and unsurprisingly there’s no anarchist consensus on how best to approach them. While not all of the practices I saw in Saint-Imier engaging with gender and space resonated with me personally, it was encouraging to see us all collectively wrestling with them, debating them with each other, and trying out different things. I’m especially interested in the process by which we make collective decisions on the fly around unavoidable questions relating to bodies, space, and collective organization. How can we respect individual initiative in proposing or insisting on certain approaches—Yaas queen, put up that cardboard sign!—while also recognizing that, like it or not, other people aren’t bound by our decrees?
A couple of days into the gathering, another cardboard sign went up on the walkway leading to the food service area declaring that if people wanted to be served, they would need to be wearing a shirt, per demands of the kitchen crew. It explained that, since we live under patriarchy, which imposes different consequences for different genders when they go shirtless, everyone had to keep their shirts on if they wanted to be fed.
Indeed, patriarchy is still a force in our society, and in any case, the kitchen crew who worked so hard to feed thousands of us for those days could make whatever demands they want, as far as I’m concerned. But I scratched my head at that approach. To me, as an anarchist, there are two kinds of privileges in a hierarchical society:
- things that are a problem because no one should be able to do them but some people can (for example, taking up disproportionate space in conversations or feeling entitled to the labor of others)
- things that are a problem because everyone should be able to do them, but not everyone can (for example, walking around safely at night or being taken seriously in meetings).
These different kinds of privileges call for different strategies: the former requires abolition, while the latter requires generalization. I think going around shirtless should be in the latter category. Coming out of a queer/trans experience, it has been profoundly liberating to be in spaces where people of all bodies, not organized by gender, can move freely with or without clothing as they please. Seeing folks with chests of different shapes, top surgery scars, no nipples, tattoos and piercings of infinite variety, bras or binders or tank tops or nothing at all, all bared to the sun—this has massively expanded my sense of gendered possibility. I know it has been even more liberating for folks who’ve historically been prevented from or punished for doing so.
Of course, as you’ll likely have gathered already, this analysis comes from—or to use the hegemonic identity politics formula here, I am speaking as a—non-binary male-assigned faggot anarchist with aspects of transfeminine experience. I’m eager to center the needs and experiences of women, femmes, and FLINTAs that differ from my own in this regard, though I like to be part of the conversation when I can. But I’m hopeful that as general principles, maximizing freedom and autonomy and pointing towards prefigurative and transformative horizons might take priority in our approaches. Strategies that impose further regulations on how we use our bodies, in addition to contradicting those principles, are also less likely to succeed, even when they’re well intentioned: nobody likes being told what to do, least of all anarchists, and (as I saw in Saint-Imier) people are likely to disobey or at least mock rules they disagree with and had no part in determining. Also, even though the Swiss nights got pretty cool, in the afternoons, the sun blazed and it was extremely hot standing in those lines waiting for plates of bread and shredded carrots.
In this environment, even as I wound my way through days of earnest anarcho-anarchist chatting and networking, I wondered how sexuality might or might not figure in the gathering. In my experience in anarchist conference and mass mobilization settings, the primary focus has been on prevention and response around sexuality weaponized or gone wrong, chiefly via discussions of consent and infrastructure for response to people who assault or cross the boundaries of others. This is critically important, and in Saint-Imier, an active but beleaguered care team was on hand to address a wide range of conflicts as well as issues relating to sexual assault and consent. So many other challenging issues arose that by the final day of events, the care team went on strike in protest against their overwork and mistreatment by the other participants in the gathering.
Anecdotally, I didn’t hear of issues arising at the gathering around consent or assault, though in many conversations with comrades from various regions, I learned that the conversations that have been a staple of North American anarchist scenes for many years around transformative justice, accountability, and consent are widespread across the global movement as well.
Also, at Saint-Imier, anarchists identifying as asexual were becoming visible and making efforts to network and organize. Asexual critiques of compulsory sexuality and its consequences have proved an illuminating challenge to notions of sexual liberation (anarchist and otherwise) that don’t pay careful attention to how sex and power actually work in our world. Asexual meetups and workshops took place alongside a handful of workshops on perennial questions of anarchist interest: polyamory and non-monogamy, struggles over abortion and DIY approaches to sexual health care, etc. But these themes were fairly minor relative to other concerns in the programming.
Despite a substantial presence on the landscape of queer/trans identities, it might have seemed that the focus of earlier anarchist generations on sexual freedom and liberation just wasn’t on the agenda in the same way.
But—with so many kinky, flirty queers wandering around for five days, perhaps it was inevitable that other currents would come to the fore. To the organizers’ credit, ample space was available for autonomous initiative, and in addition to the pre-arranged program, a tremendous amount of self-organized activities took place on the fly. I didn’t have the bandwidth to pull something together, but a fierce non-binary weirdo with whom I chatted about mutual queer anarchist interests mentioned that they were planning a queer cruising space at the gathering. I kept my eyes open and my expectations moderate.
Then it appeared: a handwritten sign—of course!—near the food line declaring that a queer party would be taking place Friday night. At 20:00, a sort of meet-and-greet, chill hangout space, followed at 22:00 by… I forget the euphemism, but some sort of more intimate relating. You could read the sign and totally miss that this was intended to be a sex/play party. But still, it was a call to converge—the seed had been planted. I couldn’t wait to see what would unfold.
I turned up around 21:00 after wandering to and fro in search of the appointed place (“next to the church,” I’d been told—kinky, right?). There was a building where film screenings and child care had been taking place, outside of which sat a little square full of stone steps and benches… and it was swarming with people! In a dozen different circles and clusters, people were chatting with each other. Can all of these anarchists be queer and here for the party? I wondered. If so… wow.
Asking around, I learned that this was a semi-structured icebreaker; people had broken up into groups and were discussing some questions. I’d been in discussions all day and wasn’t so keen on this, so I decided to double back to the social center where a Colombian anarcho-punk band was slated to play soon, figuring I’d head back for the sexy part of the evening.
Ears ringing and suitably pumped up, I stepped out of the mosh pit an hour or so later ready to ramble. As I arrived back at the little square between the church and the film screening building, I saw that throngs of people were walking past me in the direction I’d come from. There were still some knots of people sitting around chatting in the square, but the building was locked and dark inside. Where was the party? I looked around in vain for someone I knew. Then I saw—yes—a handwritten sign taped to the wall of the church: “KINKY QUEER CRUISING BEHIND THE CHURCH 0:00.” Sounds good to me. I looked at my watch. It was midnight.
Feeling the tingle of erotic anticipation, I wandered around the centuries-old stone church to a dimly lit stone walkway flanked by a grassy slope, where I found… nothing. No one. Totally deserted. Hmmm. Did I misread the sign?
I wandered back to the square, where only a handful of people remained, smoking and chatting. The sign was still there. I lingered a while, lurked around a bit, feeling a bit creepy in a not-so-fun way. Well, what now?
Back in front of the church, I ran into a friend who had been one of the organizers of the event. They gave me an anguished update. Tons of people had turned out, great energy, lots of conversations, then they had gone into the building to take the party to the next level, but—there had been a misunderstanding with the organizers, “Sorry, the space is closing now, everyone’s got to go.” People complied, and before long the building was locked up and the queer cruising party was locked out. A proposal to cruise around/in the church was floated, the sign was posted, but others thought it might be disrespectful to the local community (well, yeah). So everyone had drifted off, and now—my agitated friend concluded—“I don’t fucking know! Aaargh!”
I commiserated. We wandered in a little knot of queers back down the hill towards the ice skating arena where the book stalls were housed. As we walked, I chatted with folks from various countries about how the anarchist scenes where they live engage with eroticism, collectively and politically. The conversation was interesting, but I could notice my body shifting as I retreated into the comfortable, familiar register of political discussion and away from the embodied, sensorily attuned, tense and tingling mode I’d slipped into in my failed effort to cruise around the church.
Down by the rink, we stood in a knot, chatting and camping it up and lamenting our woes as would-be sexual liberationists all dressed up with nowhere to go. We considered throwing an orgy in the showers—high-school locker room fantasies, anyone?—or just going to bed.
Just then, another knot of people found their way into a back room inside the arena and started putting up impromptu decorations, tweaking the lighting, finding a speaker for music. I shuttled between groups of people outside, hyping up the new location. By the time I stepped back inside, the little space had transformed. Dark electronica was pulsing under dim mood lighting. Whatever chairs or boxes were lying around had been pushed to the side and a throng of queers was dancing enthusiastically in the middle of the room. Somehow, a mattress had appeared towards the back of the room, and on it two people writhed enthusiastically in the darkness, next to the wheelchair in which one of them had arrived. I grinned. From the jaws of defeat, we’d managed to snatch a weirdly sexy queer victory.
The fairly sizable room offered space for chatting, flirting, dancing, and so forth, plus a few dark nooks. But at the back of the room, a doorway and a wooden ramp led down into a dim corridor where the cruising intensified. The narrow hallway led into the bowels of the ice rink, only a few feet wide; on the right-hand side, under a sloping ceiling beneath the rink’s bleachers, piles of gym mats were stacked under dusty tarps. Here in this musty darkness, pairs and clusters of bodies filled the space with moans. In this space, a big queer paint marker had crossed out the familiar coordinates of gender, sexuality, and identity; here, we redrew the map, scrawling onto terra incognita new landmarks of bodies and desire.
In the larger room, I strode through darkness that crackled with the night’s electricity, the pent-up eroticism of the past days surging through my veins, my pores exuding black flag pheromones. A lovely trans creature who’d been part of the group with whom I’d walked down to the arena smiled across the darkness at me. I grinned back. We stepped towards each other. Our hands extended. Our mouths met.
Fingers twined, we passed through the threshold into the dark corridor. We passed a dozen bodies writhing in various combinations, identities indeterminate, pleasuring each other in infinite combinations. Finding an unoccupied nook, we slithered up onto the pile of mats and pressed our bodies together. “Does that feel good?” “Yum!” “Can I sniff your armpit?” “Oh, fuck.” “Not quite so hard. That’s… there, that’s perfect.” We rolled and pressed and sniffed and snarled and laughed, taking pleasure in each other and in the sounds echoing along the corridor from the nooks nestled throughout the darkness.
Minutes, hours, days passed. At some point, a lovely stranger was pinning my wrists to the mat and whispering into my ear while I purred and arched my back. At another point, seeking a bit more space in the increasingly crowded cruising zone, I wandered to the back of the corridor and found a little storage area with a Zamboni. I straddled the machine while another lovely stranger straddled me. Not exactly a lifelong bucket list fantasy, but where else would I get the opportunity? Listening to the sounds of comrades from countless nations growling in the darkness in many languages, smelling sex wafting through the Swiss skating rink, feeling my body shudder with pleasure as I leaned back against the yellow plastic seat of the Zamboni, I thought to myself: Now this is anarchy. This is the anarchy I’ve been waiting for.
There are so many questions to debate about sex, gender, sexuality, identity, safety, care, and much more. We’ll never come to a consensus, but we can keep struggling together, learning from each other, and doing better. Yet for all the different approaches and priorities we bring from our different cultures and political perspectives, I believe—I insist, I demand—that collective eroticism is a critical part of what anarchism can be. May our desire for freedom and our desire for each other intertwine, each nourishing the other. The secret is to really begin. Let every skating rink host a secret orgy. To change everything, start anywhere—even on a Zamboni in a dark corridor with your anonymous comrade.
Your humble author was once at Bound Together Books in San Francisco as a shy young anarcho-queer, looking at the star-shaped enamel pins on display and fingering the black and pink one, while a grumpy, wizened older man in a black T-shirt with a plain black cap watched from his perch behind the counter. “And that’s another thing!” he ejaculated, unprompted, with his arms folded. “All these hyphens these days! I can’t take it! Anarcho-syndicalist, anarcho-primitivist, anarcha-feminist, anarcho-queer, anarcho-this, anarcho-that.” His eyes rolled to the ceiling, his voiced soured with mockery. “And each one has to have their own color, their own flag for their own little niche. Well, not me!” he thundered, pointing a thumb at himself to emphasize his point. “Me, I’m an anarcho-anarchist! My flag is black on black!” He nodded fiercely, refolded his arms, and settled back into his chair. Chastened, amused, but not convinced, I bought the black-and-pink pin, but I’ve thought of him many times since. ↩