Bash Back! Is Back


Reviving an Insurrectionary Queer Network: An Interview

In 2007, in the course of preparations for actions against the 2008 Republican National Convention, an insurrectionary network of queer anarchists formed under the umbrella Bash Back! Over the following three years, this network participated in a vibrant array of confrontations, organizing efforts, and publications, expanding and intensifying the struggle against sex and gender normativity. Today, as fascists and other bigots renew their assault on queer and trans people and anarchists fight back, there is an urgent need for renewed coordination and innovation. In this context, participants in the original Bash Back! network have called for a new Bash Back! convergence in September 2023.

As they put it,

The intervening years have been marked by intensification—of crisis, alienation, loss, and struggle. The right wing no longer hides behind euphemisms: they want to exterminate trans and queer people. The left offers only false solutions: vote, donate, assimilate. A decade of representation, symbolic legal victories, social media activism, and mass-market saturation has left us worse off by all metrics. Our fair-weather friends won’t save us from the consequences of their strategy of empty visibility. The inescapable conclusion is that we must come together to protect ourselves.

History confirms the queer legacy of building connection in a world that hates us, the legacy of riotous joy—the legacy of bashing back. The attacks will continue on our nightclubs, forests, story hours, and siblings. To hold on, we need spaces—underground if necessary—to re-encounter each other, spaces to remember, build, share, and conspire.

To explore the legacy of Bash Back! and what it has to offer today, we conducted the following interview with previous participants in Bash Back! who are helping to organize the upcoming convergence.

Tell us about the gathering in September. What can people do to participate or contribute?

The 2023 Bash Back! Convergence will be taking place in Chicago from September 8-11. We’re inviting all of our queer comrades for a weekend of building connection, learning from each other, and developing new strategies and tactics to fight against the social order. We are organizing this because there have been so many inspiring examples of queer people bashing back against bigots—for example, the reactionaries who try to shut down drag shows. However, there is still a need for increased cohesion and strategizing, especially in light of the escalating attacks against queer and trans people across the country and across the world. Of course, these attacks come in the context of a deeply-rooted and escalating crisis of capital more generally and a climate crisis that deepens with every passing day.

More specifically, there is an obvious need to build anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and anti-assimilationist militant queer tendency. The liberals and leftists have pushed assimilation so that queer and trans people can be used as political pawns, to be sacrificed when electorally convenient. Any gains in the culture war have led only to the subsumption of queerness to the logic of capital and the false freedom of consumer politics.

In terms of what folks can do to participate or contribute, the main thing right now is that we are looking for folks to propose programming for the convergence. We’re accepting proposals until June 20. Beyond programming, the biggest thing that people can do is to start building relationships and affinities with people in their communities. That’s always been the essence of Bash Back!; it’s never been a centralized organization but rather a network to share ideas and camaraderie.

Bash Back! originated in the run-up to the 2008 Republican National Convention. Did the fact that it began largely in the Midwest rather than on the coasts influence its character and the way that it developed?

Bash Back!’s origins are rooted in a context that, a decade and a half later, seems worlds away. Two things, I think, were central to the political climate that gave rise to Bash Back!: the summit-hopping method of protest and a surge in the popularity of insurrectionary anarchism within the anarchist/radical milieu at the time. By summit-hopping, I mean the large demonstrations against the gatherings of capitalists, such as the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999 and the meetings of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, G8, and G20 throughout the 2000s. In hindsight, these protests were dramatic and high-profile, but largely symbolic. Then you had insurrectionary anarchism becoming more popular—especially, I think, with people who had been politicized or radicalized by the anti-war movement but also saw that movement for the utter failure that it was. In terms of tactics, the focus was on affinity groups and black blocs.

In that context, the original idea for Bash Back! came out of the organizing that was going on to disrupt the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota) in 2008. A strategy session in Milwaukee in 2007 gave rise to the idea of a queer/trans blockade of the RNC, and Bash Back! grew from that initial idea.

One of the most significant things about the original iteration of Bash Back! is that it was largely a product of anarchists from the Midwest. At the time, a lot of the more visible “radical” or progressive queer activism was coming from the coasts, with established activist scenes that often stifled new ideas or were under the stranglehold of the ideology of non-violence. There was also a degree of cultural elitism, in which the assumption was that being a “radical queer” had to happen in the big, liberal, coastal cities. So Bash Back!, coming out of the Midwest and not beholden to any established “radical queer” scenes, opened up new possibilities for militance, especially in direct resistance to the extremely anti-queer churches, politicians, and other assorted gay-bashers of that time.

Recount some of the major events, struggles, and court cases in the first phase of Bash Back!

This is a tough question to answer, because there was so much that happened across the country because of Bash Back! But a few things that I think are important to highlight:

  • DNC/RNC 2008: the nascent Bash Back! network was involved in protests in Denver (for the Democratic National Convention) and the Twin Cities (for the Republican National Convention)
  • Pittsburgh 2009: Bash Back! held a rowdy march in Pittsburgh during the G20 Summit.
  • Mt. Hope Church: In November 2008, Bash Back! people disrupted a Sunday service at a notoriously anti-gay megachurch in Lansing, Michigan. This led to a lawsuit by the Alliance Defending Freedom against Bash Back! that, after a several-year legal fight, resulted in a permanent injunction against church disruptions.
  • Avenge Duanna campaign: In February 2008, Duanna Johnson, a black trans woman, was beaten by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. She was murdered in November 2008, presumably by the cops that beat her months prior. This sparked a campaign in Memphis to avenge her death.

Participants in Bash Back! Lansing, interviewed in Details magazine after disrupting the service at a homophobic mega-church.

In addition, Bash Back! organized three convergences:

  • Chicago 2008: this focused on planning actions around the DNC/RNC in the summer of 2008.
  • Chicago 2009: this focused more on developing Bash Back! as a tendency, building connections, and sharpening our attacks on the social order. A street march in Boystown, the gay neighborhood in Chicago, was attacked by police. This caused a bunch of conflict within the convergence between those who fought back against the police and liberal/identity-politics types who pushed for non-violence in the face of police violence.
  • Denver 2010: this was the last convergence of the original iteration of Bash Back!; the same liberal/identity politics vs. queer insurrection divide was the elephant in the room for this entire convergence. These tensions were as palpable as they were insurmountable, and so Bash Back!, in its original iteration, was declared dead.

However, these highlights do not even scratch the surface of what Bash Back! did. Chapters across the country were involved in countless acts of vandalism, numerous street confrontations with police, protests against assimilationists and exterminationists, physically bashing bigots, and innumerable acts of propaganda. These things are the legacy of Bash Back!

Promotion for the 2010 Bash Back! convergence in Denver, Colorado.

Tell us how Bash Back! worked from existing identity politics frameworks in the late 2000s, but also pushed against them.

When Bash Back! was starting, the ideology of non-violence had a stranglehold on the activist milieu. In terms of identity politics, there was an assumption among many of these liberal/“radical” activists that any confrontation was inevitably pushed by macho, middle/upper class straight white men and thus was racist/sexist/homophobic because queer/trans people, women, and people of color would take the brunt of police repression and violence. Bash Back! pushed directly against that narrative; that was a big part of the drama around the Chicago 2009 convergence. Some people really could not believe that queer/trans people, poor people, women, and people of color had agency to fight cops or be more confrontational. Part of Bash Back!’s appeal was that marginalized people were unapologetically fighting back in a concrete way. In a very practical sense, Bash Back! was pro-violence, and people were not used to hearing this perspective from marginalized groups.

Further, Bash Back! always took a stance against assimilation and liberal identity politics that saw social/political/economic representation as an end goal. So back when issues like gay marriage and military service were the big issues for mainstream LGBT organizations, Bash Back! was firmly opposed to this, and even targeted groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Stonewall Democrats for being assimilationists or for selling out trans people for political gain.

A Bash Back! poster opposing the assimilationist campaign to make the military more inclusive.

On a more abstract level, I think that competing approaches to identity were actually a central part of why the original iteration of Bash Back! dissolved. There was a spectrum of views about identity in Bash Back! On one hand, you had a tendency influenced heavily by queer nihilism and insurrectionary anarchism; for this camp, queer identity was an identity of opposition to the capitalist social order and its heteronormativity. Then, on the other hand, there was a more positive approach to queer identity; positive in the sense that it was not based on political opposition to the social order but instead more tied to an individual’s experience of gender/sexuality. Because Bash Back! was an identity-based organization, these competing understandings of queerness led to competing visions for Bash Back!, which ultimately dissolved the network.

What has changed since the heyday of the original network? What does the Bash Back! model have to offer today?

The original Bash Back! started just before the economic crisis in 2008. It feels like we have been moving from crisis to crisis since then—and on top of that, the crises are intensifying. I think that’s probably the biggest change since Bash Back! first started; the permanence of crisis and the sort of hopelessness about the future hadn’t really set in at that time. It used to be controversial to say that things were going to keep getting worse and that we effectively had no future; now, that’s the common understanding of the plight of millennials/Generation Z. Between the seemingly permanent crisis of capitalism and the ongoing climate disaster, things seem bleaker now than they did before.

Bash Back! participating in anti-fascist action at a time of lower social conflict.

But on the other hand, I think that many of the ideas that were being popularized not only in Bash Back! but also in the anarchist milieu more broadly in that era have gained traction in a way that opens up a lot of potential. For example, the concept of prison abolition and the idea of mutual aid have spread into the broader discourse. Labor organizing has also grown in sectors that seemed unreachable previously, and it seems like that has led to a rise in class consciousness as well. More along the focus of Bash Back!, the idea of people being non-binary or genderqueer has also moved into the mainstream in a way that I at least would not have anticipated, given the social climate that Bash Back! originally existed in.

Without diving too much into dry economic analysis, I think it’s indisputable that the contradictions of capitalism have become more glaringly obvious in recent years. And history pretty clearly shows us that crises in capitalism translate to an increase in reactionary politics and repression. Historically, we can look to the example of Magnus Hirschfeld, who was an early advocate for queer and trans people in Berlin in the 1930s. People know that Nazis burned books; what’s often lost is that they burned the library of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which was perhaps the first organization specifically advocating for and supporting queer and trans people. So there is a clear history of queer and trans people being the first targets during reactionary moments in history.

A poster for the first Bash Back! convergence in 2008.

Ultimately, that’s what makes the current moment so important and where I think that we can draw on the lessons from the initial era of Bash Back! I think that the fundamental strength of the Bash Back! network was that it was focused on building power not only outside of but in staunch opposition to the state and capitalism. This is really important, because the selling point of the Democratic Party in recent years has been that things will be even worse if Republicans are in control. And that covers up the fact that the Democratic Party is ultimately a party of capitalism; they have no capacity or will to make things better for people. All they will offer is a sort of managed descent into fascism, and the price is assimilation. The alternative, of course, is the outright exterminationist approach of the Republicans.

Bash Back! rejected the assimilationist, statist, and capitalist politics of the mainstream LGBT organizations at that time and focused on queer people building community among comrades, practicing mutual aid and solidarity, and attacking the state, capitalists, and reactionaries. It’s the unapologetic and uncompromising militance that was, I think, the most important contribution of Bash Back! and should be the focus going forward.

How can people get involved? What are some tactics and strategies people can employ in their own communities on an ongoing basis, so this will not just be a convergence but the emergence of a new wave of momentum throughout the continent?

It’s hard to say exactly how to get involved with Bash Back!. Obviously, we want people to come to the convergence and share ideas, make connections, and build bonds of solidarity. But in terms of how to get involved, there is no really easy answer. Part of what made Bash Back! so important was that it was a fairly loose network with autonomous chapters doing what made sense for the people involved in those chapters to do locally.

But generally speaking, Bash Back! has focused on confronting bigots, mutual aid, self-defense, and propaganda. Fundamentally, there has to be an understanding that the state is not going to protect us, that politicians will not protect us, that we have to build solidarity within our communities as a matter of survival. For that reason, building trust and camaraderie is essential. Confronting those who would destroy us is essential. And in a world that seeks to keep us miserable, expressions and celebrations of queer joy are essential.

As for guidance, the old Bash Back! Points of Unity are a good starting point:

  1. Fight for liberation. Nothing more, nothing less. State recognition in the form of oppressive institutions such as marriage and militarism are not steps toward liberation but rather towards heteronormative assimilation.

  2. A rejection of capitalism, imperialism, and all forms of state power.

  3. Actively oppose oppression both in and out of the “movement.” Racism, Patriarchy, Heterosexism, Sexism, Transphobia, and all oppressive behavior is not to be tolerated.

  4. Respect a diversity of tactics in the struggle for liberation. Do not solely condemn an action on the grounds that the state deems it to be illegal.

You too can be Bash Back! Organize a chapter and take action in your community!

Further Reading

As reported by conservative fossil Bill O’Reilly, in November 2008, participants in Bash Back! disrupted a Sunday service at a notoriously anti-gay megachurch in Lansing, Michigan.