Before reading this essay, it may be helpful to read or revisit my article on Identity Politics, which provides a more general theoretical framework for understanding the issues presented below.
There are times when a myth becomes so pervasive as to cloud all analytical thinking or historical investigation. Such is the myth of Marxism’s supposed blind spot concerning questions of queer oppression and queer rights. It is argued that Marxism ignores queer oppression or refuses to analyze it. In this essay, I want to argue that the opposite is true. It is only through Marxism that queer communities can be fully liberated.
It is worth noting at the outset that Marxists have never ignored the question of queer oppression. Rigorous theoretical works on the subject include Capitalism and Gay Identity, by John D’Emelio and The Roots of Gay and Lesbian Oppression: A Marxist View by Bob McCubbin. I will lean heavily on these two works in the analysis detailed below.
It is important here to recognize, at this point, the difference between behavior and identity: while behavior transcends time and location, its significance varies in each time period and each place. For example, a man having sex with another man meant something very different in ancient Rome than it does in modern-day San Francisco. By saying that capitalism has created contemporary gay and lesbian identity, D’Emilio-and other Marxists-are not saying that gay and lesbian people only arose with the development of capitalism. Rather, we claim that the demarcation-the line between straight and gay identities-arose in this context. Homosexual and gender-nonconforming behaviors have existed as long as humans have, but these behaviors were not always identifying characteristics. D’Emilio writes, “What we call ‘homosexuality’…was not considered a unified set of acts, much less a set of qualities [used in] defining particular persons, in pre-capitalist societies….Heterosexuals and homosexuals are involved in social ‘roles’ that pertain to a particular society, modern capitalism” . We see, then, that there is a distinction between homosexual acts and homosexuality as an identity. One is trans-historical, while the other is the result of a process that occurred at a specific point in time.
An important fact to keep in mind in light of this distinction is that queer oppression has not always existed. Indeed, historical evidence shows that what we would now call queer people were successfully integrated into many pre-capitalist and pre-class societies. Many Native American nations, for example, have historically recognized more than two genders. People who filled both masculine and feminine gender roles were known as “two-spirit” people. To quote one article on the subject,
“The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few. As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa .”
Another example is Ancient Greece, in which sexual relations between men and boys were celebrated as a form of love . “Variant gender identities” and “alternative sexualities” have not always existed as categories, let alone categories that were marginalized or subjected to oppression and exclusion.
It is difficult to imagine a society in which the nuclear family was superseded by collective child-rearing institutions, but the evidence shows that it was actually quite common. In the Amazon, the Kohlena believed that fetuses were formed by the accumulation of semen. Many men were involved in the literal creation of a child, and a number of women would nurse the child after birth . Both the development and sustaining of the child was thought of as a collective process, owing to the fact that there was no division of labor between those who produced and controlled surplus wealth .
Even Darwin identified that, in many societies, the bond between the mother and the child was nowhere near as pronounced as it was in the Victorian era. Many tribes did not even have words for mother, son, daughter, and so on. Instead, their descriptors referred to the tribe as a whole. These tribal societies had far less rigid class boundaries than Darwin’s England, suggesting that the family is a product of class society .
As McCubbin argues, the oppression of queer individuals arose in tandem with the oppression of women, itself a product of class society. McCubbin substantiates this analysis by delving into what he has termed “primitive societies” that existed prior to the development of capitalism. He notes that women were highly respected in these cultures. Women were “the domesticators of animals [and] the builders of the first human dwellings” . Women were not cooped up at home, but rather took active roles in the running of society. Many even became political leaders. McCubbin bases this argument on the research and analysis of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s longtime friend and close collaborator.
Engels argued that the family itself arose from class society, in step with the anthropological research sketched out above. As the family shifted to become the primary economic unit, women became increasingly subjugated by this unit. Class society arose when the productive forces-the things humans use to produce and store goods-developed to a point at which it was possible to store a surplus. This created a division of labor between those who produced the surplus (farmers, hunter-gatherers, etc) and those who collected and distributed this surplus. Prior to this, it was not possible for individuals to accumulate wealth, since they only produced enough to sustain themselves. Because wealth did not exist in the sense that we know it today, it was not possible for goods to be passed on to individuals. As such, there was no reason to divide people into individual family units. Indeed, it was not possible to do this. In societies in which a surplus was not produced and appropriated (in pre-class societies), production and distribution was organized collectively and cooperatively, in what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism” . Men and women undertook different tasks in these societies, but women were not systemically oppressed. As I mentioned above, women often became political leaders or otherwise obtained higher status than men.
The oppression of women corresponded to the rise of the monogamous family unit, which was used as a tool to perpetuate class society. The development of the plough and the domestication of cattle to pull it dramatically increased agricultural productivity. For the first time, it was possible to accumulate a surplus-more than was needed simply to survive. This, as I said above, was the determining factor in the rise of class society. Because of the available surplus, it became possible to pass wealth onto offspring in the form of inheritance. It was in this context that the nuclear family as an institution came to prominence .
In fact, the very word family was first used to describe the above-mentioned economic arrangement. Early Romans used the term “famulus” to describe household slaves and “famalia” to refer to “the total number of slaves belonging to one man” . In early feudalism, the aristocracy regarded marriage as an economic relationship, not an emotional one. It functioned as a means to transfer wealth (often concentrated in the form of land) or to secure peaceful relations between estates that had access to such wealth. As the family became dominant, men were increasingly drawn into production. This gave them access to greater social activity as they engaged in cooperative labor. Women, by contrast, were increasingly isolated and confined to the role of reproduction and child-rearing, which slowly shifted away from its “natural form” as a cooperative process. It was here, in the separation of production and reproduction, that the division between women and men began to constitute inequality between the sexes .
One of the first inequalities was related to the rights of partners to seek communion with people outside the family relationship. Monogamy was imposed exclusively upon women, so that the father could pass his wealth onto children he knew were his own. Monogamy was the first means by which ruling classes perpetuated their own existences. As Engels explained, “the first class oppression that occurs in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and women in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male” .
This was reflected across the entirety of feudal society. Despite the fact that landless peasants (who would later become Proletarians) had no wealth of their own, they were also forced into the nuclear family arrangement. It was common practice for feudal lords to literally arrange marriages between poor peasants. Severe punishment was levied against all who engaged in non-procreative sex. In 1553, King Henry VII of England introduced the Buggery Act, which put men to death for non-procreative sex. This activity was considered “a crime against nature” . Not by coincidence, the Act coincided with similarly draconian laws punishing “vagrants,” poor peasants forced off their land and into factories . From the beginning, the institution of the family, and the puritanical sex norms that accompanied its rise, had an evident class character. The aristocracy knew that monogamous marriages were only advantageous to the ruling class. Unless forced to follow this way of life, either through indoctrination or violence, the laborers would rebel. This is essentially what Marx meant when he wrote “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class” . Ideological structures, such as the family, are largely determined by the ways in which a society organizes the production and distribution of its goods.
These norms persisted long after the collapse of feudalism. In the seventeenth century, families were, in effect, small economies of their own. Sex was strictly for procreation, and the family unit was interdependent. Each family member—men, women and children—needed each other for different steps in the production of necessary items like bread and clothes. While homosexual behavior did exist, there was no space for an individual (or even a gay couple) to live outside the family economy. “Solitary living” was legally forbidden. Economic survival depended on the family, so homosexual behavior did not evolve into a way to live or identify .
As capitalism began to take hold, individuals worked for wages, became more independent, and no longer needed the old model of the family economy because they could buy food, clothing, etc. with their own wages. The function of relationships and sexuality shifted from procreation to emotional and sexual satisfaction, which created a space where homosexual behavior was an acceptable form of expression. The subsequent rise in homosexual behavior created a community of individuals who were attracted to their own sex, and this community created a new way to identify. In this way, capitalism created the gay identity .
With the gay identity came gay oppression. In Britain, laws began to punish gay men caught seeking others like themselves in public venues. In 1861, the death penalty for buggery was ended and a sentence of ten years in prison, later amended to two years of hard labor, was enacted .
In Paris and Berlin, medical and legal experts in the 1870s examined a new kind of “degenerate” to determine whether or not these people should be held responsible for their actions. The word “homosexuality” was first coined by a Hungarian physician named Karl Maria Benkert in 1869 . Homosexuality evolved in scientific circles from a “sin against nature” to a mental illness. The first popular study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis in 1897, put forward the idea that homosexuality was a congenital illness not to be punished, but treated . Nineteenth-century sexologists developed ideas about homosexuality as a form of mental insanity .
When the famous British writer Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labor, the newspapers were filled with lurid descriptions of a form of sexuality few acknowledged had existed. The trial came to define gay men in the popular consciousness as effeminate aesthetes but also raised awareness among latent homosexuals of the existence of others like them. Londoners discovered where to go to find men looking to have sex with other men . In attempting to repress homosexuality, the capitalists actually gave rise to a vibrant-and militant-queer community. This echoes Marx’s thoughts on the creation and the role of the working class: “what the bourgeoisie…produces, above all, are its own gravediggers” .
Wilde, who was himself married with two children, accepted the popular clinical thinking about his “condition.” His writings of the period reflect the debate about whether homosexuality was a form of sickness or insanity, complaining of his “erotomania” while in prison .
In the early years of the queer movement, lesbians were less visible than gay men. Men’s greater financial independence and integration in the public spheres of work and community afforded men more opportunities to explore alternative sexual lifestyles. Wage-earning men could live in urban boarding houses where they could invite other men to their rooms, providing an outlet beyond familial controls. This was something largely unavailable to working class women, demonstrating the material ways in which gender and sex have been used to divide the working class. In the mid-nineteenth century, a few working class women who “passed” as men in order not only to seek employment but to pursue romantic relationships with other women came to the attention of authorities. Stories appeared in newspapers about crossdressing lesbian women One such woman was “Bill” in Missouri, who became the secretary of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. This is a testament to the ability of workers to overcome oppression. Despite wider society’s negative view of gender nonconforming individuals, the struggle of the workers necessitated the abandonment of oppressive ideas. One report read: “She drank…she swore, she courted girls, she worked hard as her fellows, she fished and camped, she even chewed tobacco” . Not all of these “passing women” were lesbians. Some simply sought equality with their male coworkers and freedom from raising children (itself an integral part of the perpetuation of the labor process). Performing men’s work for men’s wages, owning property, having bank accounts in their own names, and voting were among the many benefits available to men only. For these women, to be a man meant having privileges not open to other workers. This suggests that gender, or perceptions of gender, are social constructs with specific class natures.
This is not to say that economic benefits were the only motiving factor in whether or not a woman chose to pass as a man. A fair number of these passing women did get married to other women, occasionally several times, and newspaper headlines announced: “A Gay Deceiver of the Feminine Gender,” “Death Proves ‘Married Man’ a Woman” , and “Poses, Undetected, 60 Years as a Man” .
Queer and gender-nonconforming individuals were arrested, imprisoned, and stigmatized because they opened the populace up to the idea that alternative structures to the nuclear family existed. The ruling class, who had relied on this formation to discipline and train laborers, dreaded this possibility. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this: Queer oppression is a class issue, irrevocably bound up with the capitalist mode of production. As long as there is capitalism, there will be queer oppression.
It was not until the 1880s, that sexual relationships between women in the U.S. were more openly acknowledged. Immediately following this acknowledgement, they were repressed. Laws against “perversion” and “congenital inversion” were applied to women as well as men for the first time. In Britain, though, lesbianism was left out of the criminal code because Victorian prudery dictated that women had no desire for sex and legal authorities feared that including sanctions against women having sex with others of their gender would actually promote homosexuality among them. What might seem like a progressive move was actually a reflection of the sexist ideas of the ruling class, who sought to perpetuate the family structure that isolated women and disciplined labor .
Lord Desart, who had been the Director of Public Prosecutions when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy, said this about including lesbianism in the 1921 criminal code: “You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offense, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it. I think it is a very great mischief” .
As industry grew, so did the gap between the lives of the wealthy classes and the impoverished working class. In the late nineteenth century, upper- and middle-class men often sought out casual encounters with younger working class men whom, they believed, were indifferent to anti-homosexual mores. Aside from bourgeois (that is, capitalist) prejudice, this belief was also based on the real-life conditions of the working class, which was crowded into one-room tenements and slums where social rules against sexual promiscuity and alternative sexual activities often did not apply . The fact is that workers, left to their own devices (that is to say, out of the influence of bourgeois ideology) have historically not harbored homophobic attitudes. Workers may be homophobic, but these are habits that were inculcated by the capitalists in an effort to serve their interests.
The bourgeois family and its moral codes of sexual control and hard work held the upper classes to strict rules of conduct. They believed that sexual purity among women was essential for them to carry out their domestic roles as teachers and disciplinarians of their children, and sexual control among men allowed them to be successful in business. Men were allowed their occasional discreet trysts, unlike women, but stepping over the line was harshly punished. Of course, members of the ruling class often engaged in the very behaviors they condemned among the workers. This is because they understood the utility of sexual oppression in fostering divison among that class. It did not matter that prohibiting homosexual behavior was ineffective. The important thing that these laws created an impression of abnormality among workers, which initially sabatoged class solidarity.
Oscar Wilde, whose writings were widely read and respected by the middle class, was convicted for having publicly flaunted his sexual activities with much younger men, amid loud outcries over the corruption of youth and the importance of the family to the maintenance of the British Empire. Again, the capitalists did not necessarily have a moral objection to the acts they condemned. They understood that the enforcment of sexual purity was a systemic necessity. As such, lust and sexual perversion were cited by social-purity advocates as enemies of the empire. “Rome fell; other nations have fallen; and if England falls it will be this sin, and her unbelief in God, that will have been her ruin,” wrote one advocate of sexual purity .
New patterns of living, however, defied the puritanical calls to abstain from homosexuality. Gay people and lesbians invented new ways of meeting, and by the early twentieth century virtually every major American and European city and some small towns had bars or public places where gay people could find one another. Riverside Drive in New York City, Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, YMCAs and public bathhouses in St. Louis and Chicago: these all served as gathering spots for gay people and lesbians. Poet Walt Whitman, the most famous nineteenth-century American homosexual (also a socialist), called Manhattan the “city of orgies, walks and joys” . and bragged of New York’s “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love” . Popular songs circulated among black people in the 1920s and 1930s with lesbian and gay themes and titles such as “Sissy Man Blues” and “Fairey Blues” provide evidence of a thriving African-American gay community . From the very beginning, the gay identity was fomented around resistance to oppression and the struggle to define a new way of life outside the boundaries of industrial capitalism. The gay identity is not merely the result of particular sexual or romantic behaviors, but rather the result of specific class forces and reactions to oppression.
The openness of gay subcultures, particularly in urban areas where workers congregated, gave way to new theories of homosexual behavior. Doctors advanced the notion that homosexuality was inherent in a person who had no power to change his or her nature. The widespread conception of gay people as butch women and effeminate men ran so counter to the feminine and masculine ideals put forward in popular culture that ruling-class ideology embraced this unscientific conclusion that gay people were suffering from a condition that set them apart from “normal” people. Gay people themselves began to think that their erotic urges and desires made them fundamentally different from heterosexual society. Writers such as Radclyffe Hall, who successfully fought the banning of her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in the United States in 1928 (her efforts were sadly unsuccessful in Britain), popularized the medical definition of homosexuality as an inescapable natural deviance. This was a deliberate attack on the working class by the bourgeoisie: the owning class needed a way to justify the division of labor among different sectors of society. Biological essentialism was a tactic they chose to do just that .
The development of a visible and identifiable gay minority not only led to gay oppression, but also to the possibility of organized resistance to it. This organized resistance, contrary to popular belief, was led by socialists from the moment of its inception.
Socialist Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and a close friend of sexologist Havelock Ellis, wrote and spoke frequently to large crowds on women’s liberation and the rights of homosexuals . In Germany, Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Magnus Hirschfeld started the first gay organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in 1897. Hirschfeld, with the support of the SPD, campaigned to repeal a law against men having consensual sex . During the failed German Revolution of 1918 to 1923, dozens of gay organizations and periodicals appeared calling for the liberation of homosexuals . Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when all laws against gay people were struck from the books, the German Communist Party argued: “The class-conscious proletariat…approaches the question of sex life and also the problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice.…the proletariat…demands the same freedom from restrictions for those forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes” . Communist Parties have historically argued in favor of the rights of queer individuals.
In fact, the first politician to speak on record for the rights of queer people anywhere in the world was August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He addressed the German parliament on this matter on January 13, 1888 . Although many socialists would break with this party fifteen years later at the outbreak of World War One, there is no denying the political significance of the world’s largest socialist party taking an openly pro-gay line. Not only did leading SPD members such as Karl Kautsky and finance minister Rudolf Hilferding sign a petition demanding the repeal of the German anti-sodomy law in 1875, they encouraged thousands more to add their signatures as well . Even earlier, the prominent socialist journal Die Neue Zeit defended the British writer Oscar Wilde in the aforementioned trial. Bourgeois attacks on homosexuality as “unnatural,” wrote socialist Eduard Bernstein, were “reactionary” since “moral attitudes are historical phenomena” . The question of gay oppression as a class issue has been raised by the socialist movement for well over one hundred years.
Despite the tireless activism of Marxists (and anarchists such as Emma Goldman), life for most queer people was filled with self-hatred and public condemnation. Few had the luxury of coming out for fear of losing jobs or the risk of social ostracism. Pervasive legal and religious hostility and social restrictions sent many to doctors seeking a “cure” or to alcohol and drugs seeking release from emotional strain and internalized self-loathing .
Ironically, the notion that homosexuality is entirely biologically determined has taken hold among some modern gay people and lesbians. Since the late twentieth century, this thoroughly ahistorical and unscientific view about homosexuality has been embraced by many gay people who claim to have been “born gay.” As an oppressed minority seeking a way to fight discrimination, some gay people have used this defense to argue that, since they cannot change their nature, society must stop persecuting them for something they have no control over. Many, who cannot remember ever having been sexually attracted to a member of the other sex, are simply arguing what seems to correspond to their erotic “natures” .
In a certain sense, this adoption of biological essentialism by the queer community is understandable. It is a defense mechanism against bigotry. Any resistance to oppression, even if it is misguided, should be supported. However, there is a more sinister reason underpinning the widespread adoption of this view. In the first place, it does not actually challenge the dominant heteronormative society. The biological essentialists are playing by the straight’s rules. They are arguing that the oppression of queer people is wrong because queer people cannot control their sexualities, rather than because oppression of any kind is wrong. The reality is this: whether or not sexuality is a choice is irrelevant. We should fight for a world in which all people have control over their bodies and their lives. What people choose to do with their own bodies is their business, regardless of whether or not their urges are biological in nature. The queer rights movement must be about the empowerment of the oppressed for its own sake. Buying into biological essentialism only hinders our cause.
The biological essentialist view has been fueled by the widely publicized search for a so-called “gay gene” . First, one must question the ideological drive behind the research itself, which is never targeted to find a gene for greed or warmongering among ruling-class elites, for example. We have seen that the ruling class has been more than willing to twist biological science to justify oppression. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University wrote extensively about the search for brain differences related to sex and other behaviors such as alcoholism and criminality, which was largely discredited during the nineteenth century by anatomists who deluded themselves into believing that their brain measurements justified their social prejudices against women . The search for the gay gene mirrors this development. The project is nothing more than an attempt to paint queer individuals as inherently abnormal, and thus perpetuate capitalist oppression and division among the workers.
In the mid-1990s, researcher Simon LeVay’s study was widely interpreted as strong evidence that biological factors directly wire the brain for sexual orientation . But several considerations suggest that this may be an oversimplification. First, his work has never been replicated . Furthermore, in LeVay’s published study, all the brains of gay men came from AIDS patients . His inclusion of a few brains from heterosexual men with AIDS did not adequately address the fact that, at the time of death, virtually all men with AIDS have decreased testosterone levels as the result of the disease itself or the side effects of particular treatments . The fact is that all human beings are 99 percent identical in genetic makeup . While there is certainly some genetic component to sexual and romantic desires, the idea that one’s sexuality is wholly independent of their environment is unscientific and ahistorical. Human sexuality is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. There are genetic, biological and psychological components to it, and all of this interacts dynamically within a particular context or society. Human sexuality and behavior develops from this and its interaction with societal constraints or the lack of such constraints. It should be noted that diversity and differences arise in this sphere, as with any other aspect of human life. Attempting to reduce human sexual behavior to one cause is a recipe for disaster.
The historical materialist (that is to say, Marxist) perspective of sexuality leads us to conclude that gay identity is the result of a complex set of historical, cultural, and environmental factors. Sexuality, like other behaviors, is fluid and not fixed. Gay oppression, then, is also a fluid, non-fixed historical phenomenon. Only by understanding how gay oppression arose and who it benefits can we seek to end it once and for all. Only by embracing Marxism, with its analysis of class society, can the queer community come to liberate itself.
- Quoted in John Boswell, “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,” published in Hidden History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Meridian Books, 1989, p. 20
- David Cohen, “Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens.” Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality Harper Collins, 2010. p. 11.
- Ibid, 27.
- Gillies, V. (2008), Childrearing, Class and the New Politics of Parenting. Sociology Compass, 2: 1079–1095. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00114.x
- Bob McCubbin The Roots of Gay and Lesbian Oppression: A Marxist View. World View publishers, 1976. p.3.
- Ibid, 10.
- Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York, 1972. P.10.
- Clara Fraser, Revolution, She Wrote. Red Letter Press, 1988. p. 59.
- Engels, p. 21
- Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, Longman Limited, 1989. p. 99
- D’Emilio, p. 13
- Noel Halifax, Is there a straight gene? Radical Queer no. 2. cited in Worker’s Liberty
- Weeks, Op. Cit, p. 21
- Ibid, p. 102
- D’Emilio, p. 9.
- John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Harper and Row Publishers, 1989. p. 113.
- Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 136.
- D’Emilio and Freedman, p. 30.
- Ibid, p. 125
- Ibid, p. 184
- D’Emilio, p. 9
- McCubbin, p. 39.
- Quoted in Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, New York, 1972. p. 13.
- D’Emilio, p. 9.
- Colin Wilson, Socialists and Gay Liberation, p.14
- Ibid, p. 11.
- Ibid, p. 12.
- David A.J. Richards, Identity and the Case for Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies. 1999, p. 9.
- Joy E. Corey, Divine Eros: A Timeless Perspective on Homosexuality, 2014. p. 132.
- Ibid, p. 133.