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International Socialism, March 1998


Peter Morgan

Class Divisions in the Gay Community


From International Socialism 2:78, March 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It is becoming increasingly common for some commentators to argue that gay oppression is a thing of the past. The Economist said recently, ‘The first members of a unique new class are emerging: young gay people who have never feared abuse or assault ... They are the front edge of a generation that might be called post-gay: one that may grow up wondering what all the fuss was about’. [1] It went on to suggest that if you look at some parts of the world – the ‘cosmopolitan patches of certain Western countries’ – then to be gay is glamorous. The media treat gay issues with seriousness: it is more common to see gay characters on television; more and more celebrities have come out of the closet. ‘Today if homosexuality were a choice’, they argue, ‘now would be a great time to choose it.’

Even many writers on gay politics support this rose tinted view of the world. Andrew Sullivan, author of the best selling book Virtually Normal, argued recently in the US periodical The New Republic that ‘gay people [are] already prosperous, independent and on the brink of real integration’. [2] And in the same publication Jonathan Rauch says that we are now moving beyond gay oppression:

The standard political model sees homosexuals as an oppressed minority who must fight for their liberation through political action. But that model’s usefulness is drawing to a close. It is ceasing to serve the interests of ordinary gay people, who ought to be disengaging from it, even drop it. [3]

The basis for this, according to Rauch, is because gays are now more affluent. He cites recent surveys which allegedly show that the impoverishment of gays compared to the rest of the population is now a thing of the past:

As more and more homosexuals come out of hiding, the reality of gay economic and political and educational achievement becomes more evident. And as that happens, gay people who insist they are oppressed will increasingly, and not always unfairly, come off as yuppie whiners, ‘victims’ with $50,000 incomes and vacations in Europe. They may feel they are oppressed, but they will have a harder and harder time convincing the public. [4]

But if we look at the position of gays and lesbians in capitalist society today we see that, despite the gains of the last three decades, in particular in the advanced industrialised countries, it is beyond any doubt that oppression continues. Of the 202 countries in the world, in only six countries does the law protect gay men and lesbians against discrimination. Being gay is illegal in 74 of them. To be gay or lesbian in Cuba, for example, means you are likely to be sent to jail. In Bangladesh and Bahrain the official view is that homosexuality does not exist. In Pakistan homosexual behaviour is illegal and is punished by anything from two years to life imprisonment. In Saudi Arabia homosexual acts can be punished with the death penalty. In Australia anti-discrimination laws were passed in 1986 which affect employment, but homosexual relationships are still discriminated against in the areas of immigration, adoption and fostering. It was only in 1994 that homosexuality was legalised in the state of Tasmania. And in the United States although legal protection against discrimination now exists in the states of California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Wisconsin, in six others (Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and Nevada) anal/oral sex between people of the same gender is a crime. And, despite the promises from Bill Clinton in 1993, he has failed to reverse the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. Instead he hid behind a compromise ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy which led to large numbers of lesbians and gays being driven out of the armed forces. [5]

In Britain discrimination also exists some 30 years after the partial legalisation of male homosexuality. A 1993 Stonewall survey, Less Equal than Others, found that 16 percent of respondents faced discrimination at work because of their sexuality, and 48 percent had been harassed. This was supported by an independent report by the Social and Community and Planning Research study, Discrimination against Gay Men and Lesbians (1995), which found that 4 percent had lost their jobs because of their sexuality, 8 percent had been refused promotion and 21 percent had been harassed. [6] The age of consent for gay sex was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1994 but this still discriminates against gay men because the age of consent for heterosexuals is 16. Lesbians and gay men also face discrimination in immigration law, pension benefits, tax and inheritance law, housing and adoption law.

So as we approach the end of the 20th century there is a strange paradox. On the one hand there are those who argue that gay oppression has become so marginal it is virtually a thing of the past. Yet a look around the world shows continuing discrimination, and gay oppression, while it may be ameliorated, remains a structural feature of capitalist society. This article looks at why this contradiction exists. A key reason for the gap between reality and what many writers would have us believe is the differing class positions of the vast majority of gays and lesbians and a thin layer who have been able to find a niche within the system. What I intend to do is to look at what is commonly called ‘the gay community’ and show that it is a myth to talk as if there is a common interest between all gays and lesbians. In fact lesbians and gays are no more united because of their sexuality than are women, blacks or any other group of the oppressed. Instead there is a division that runs right through the heart of the gay community based on class. And this affects people’s experience of oppression, their politics, and their strategy for fighting for liberation.

One mistaken idea that flows from ignoring this class distinction, and regarding more open and visible middle and ruling class gays as representative of a whole community, is that all gays and lesbians have more spending power, or are more affluent than the rest of the working class. But this notion not only mangles reality and obscures the recognition of gay oppression, it also provides ammunition for those who want to resist any moves towards basic equality for gays, let alone liberation.

Gay scene and the pink pound

Over the last few years there has been mounting criticism about the gay scene, the commercialisation of the annual Pride march in London and the growth of the ‘pink economy’. Arguments which were once almost completely the preserve of socialists are now being voiced by those who once defended the pink economy from left wing criticism. A book called Anti-Gay, edited by Mark Simpson, argues that the scene offers little for the mass of gays and lesbians today. Instead of coming out as gay, he says, we should be in favour of returning to the closet – of escaping from the scene and all that lifestyle entails. [7] Others have argued that the Pride march is now becoming too commercialised. In a particularly powerful article in Gay Times Tony Leonard said:

The festival has embraced the free-market world of Thatcher and her successors in a way that was once unimaginable ... This year’s theme is ‘P.R.I.D.E. What Does It Mean To You?’ For the organisers, it seems, the answer is another five letter word – M.O.N.E.Y. ... If you thought Pride was about community, strength through togetherness, fighting against intolerance and bigotry, and any number of other social, political and spiritual concerns, it’s time to think again. The only hopes, dreams and aspirations we’re interested in here are those involving hard cash. [8]

Pride, which began as an annual march in London as a demonstration for gay rights and a political statement of resistance, has now become a major advertising opportunity for some very large and powerful companies – such as Virgin, Budweiser, or United Airlines which, incidentally, does not extend gay rights to its own workers. The idea that the event is something that benefits the whole community equally is a myth – there are important corporate interests involved. So keen were the organisers of Pride to use the event to generate large quantities of money that they even considered taking out a copyright on the word ‘Pride’ – although the proposals were eventually dropped. But reports of debts and unpaid bills have meant the tensions over Pride have come to a head, and a new group – called National Pride – have put forward proposals to run the festival in 1998. We now face the prospect of two festivals taking place simultaneously in London on the same weekend as the two groups fight it out.

Some of those who now recognise that the gay scene does not provide some form of liberation flip over completely from their previous faith in it. Whether for ironic effect or out of desperation some have even called for the gay scene to be shut down. Beneath the hyperbole they have realised how thoroughly the commercial gay scene is permeated by market values. But the impact of capitalist relations does not stop with major multinational companies trying to capture the gay market. The market itself shapes what it is supposed to mean to be gay. The class divisions that arise from capitalism mean there are both capitalist and working class gays; there are those with an interest in preserving the system and those with an interest in overthrowing it. The pink economy, which countless gay theorists have told us is what holds the gay community together, shows these divisions and antagonisms very sharply.

During the 1980s and 1990s we have seen a growth in the gay scene in the major cities in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain – Soho in London and The Village in Manchester are two of the most popular. In 1984 gay bosses formed the Gay Businesses Association whose express aim was to ‘serve the gay business community’. Gary Henshaw, a gay business consultant and co-owner of the Kudos cafe at Charing Cross, said:

I am motivated by money and power. There is a certain amount of power and prestige in being recognised as a businessman on the gay scene and I do enjoy that. I happen to be a capitalist in the extreme. I grew up watching Dynasty and I believe that dream that you must struggle forward, you keep expanding and you get bigger until some day I would like to build an empire. Power is very much connected with wealth. [9]

Gay bosses say they intend to serve the community as a whole – offering gay men and lesbians jobs, opportunities and the like. For them this is one important step on the way towards real liberation. Gary Henshaw describes the good fortune of those who work for him:

I think it’s a good environment. A lot of young people go and work in a gay business basically to liberate themselves. They’ve grown up with the problems being gay, suddenly they come out and they work in a gay bar or club and they find people accept them and they have a great time. Then they can go back into the straight environment with total confidence in themselves. [10]

In fact there is nothing liberating about working for gay bosses or working in a gay bar. Like the rest of the industry the workers are subjected to the same pressures as other workers – forced to work long hours on low pay with very little security. The so called ‘community’ is there to serve only one interest, that of the gay bourgeoisie and big business. As one employee said who worked for Bass Taverns (a ‘gay friendly’ pub which sponsors Pride): ‘We get paid less per hour after tax than the price we were charging for a pint. Hours would be cut in half without warning. The attitude was, “If you don’t like it, fuck off”.’ [11]

The Gay Business Association was also involved with the organisers of Pride in establishing a ‘gay friendly’ networking forum whose stated aim is ‘to connect the consumer with gay friendly business thereby increasing freedom of choice for the gay consumer and expanding the market’. The launch was at a conference organised by Marketing Week magazine called Marketing to the Pink Economy and it said, ‘Regardless of your personal opinion, you can no longer afford to ignore the pink economy.’ So while the gay bosses may make noises about the need to end discrimination, the need for equality, or the necessity to combat homophobia, they are very much committed to the capitalist system, and they have a material stake in the system on which their profits depend. Gay businessmen identify with the gay community in so far as this is the source of their income. But politically they may identify with quite right wing ideas – the market, free enterprise, cuts in public spending, the need to tax business less and so on.

Gay bosses hold to the idea of the ‘gay community’ as a way of legitimising their activities. This centres on the idea that all gays and lesbians are in the same boat – that they all suffer discrimination, and so they should all come together to fight it. Yet such phrases hide the class nature of oppression, the fact that those at the bottom of society face gay oppression in a much different form to those at the top. Many on the left accept this idea of a common gay community. In Britain Peter Tatchell said, ‘What unites lesbian and gay men are our common sexual experiences and our suffering discrimination as a result of prejudices against our sexuality. A wealthy gay white man is in much the same boat if he loses his job because he is gay as a poor black lesbian who loses her job for the same reasons’. [12] But gay people do not face the same degree of oppression. Clearly if you are wealthy you can afford the trappings of that lifestyle that allow you a greater degree of freedom to express your sexuality.

Just a brief look at the lifestyle of those gays who are part of the ruling class in society shows they live in a world apart from the majority of the gays and lesbians who are part of the working class. The Advocate, one of the biggest selling gay magazines in the US, recently featured an interview with Alan Gilmour. He tells us of the difficulty he had in coming to terms with his gay sexuality, the way in which he was accepted in the company after he came out, and how he was able to overcome a certain amount of prejudice. But until 1994 Alan Gilmour was the vice-chairman of Ford, the second largest car company in the US. This made him one of the most influential bosses in the US. In 1994 he resigned from Ford yet he remains on the board of Prudential Insurance, Dow Chemicals, Detroit Edison, US West and Whirlpool. The interview in The Advocate tells us that, despite his busy life, he still has time to oversee the construction of his dream home, a four floor, 13,000 square foot mansion in Detroit.

Whilst we may have every sympathy with Gilmour’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, nevertheless his lifestyle, income and wealth are a world apart from those workers who are forced to work long hours for low pay on a Ford production line, many of whom will be gay or lesbian. In fact, as the article tells us, Alan Gilmour was able to go on many expensive holidays and business trips which all helped him in coming to terms with being gay. For most working class people in the US, who since the 1970s have suffered a decline of wages in real terms of 19 percent, this is a luxury they are denied. Their main concerns are housing, health, education or simply having enough food for the kids and keeping warm during winter.

The affluent consumer?

The so called ‘pink pound’ is used to define a gay lifestyle. The market, or the commercialisation of the ‘gay identity’, has reached many different aspects of people’s lives. This is not something unique to the fight for gay rights. Many other struggles that began as a challenge to the system have been expropriated by the system as the bosses realise the possibility to exploit the market. Now to be gay or lesbian is not simply a statement of sexuality but a statement of lifestyle: it defines what clothes you wear, what magazines you read, what furniture you have, or what vodka you drink. For some, formerly on the left, this is no bad thing. As one writer explained:

Political activism, focusing on the injustices and discrimination we face, has a negative aura. In contrast, the pursuit of young-at-heart hedonism offers positive ways of flaunting, rather than bemoaning, gay sexuality. If affirming your sexuality is reduced to a choice between wearing badges, carrying placards, talking about gay oppression and getting arrested, or mincing up and down Old Compton Street, drinking pavement-cafe cappuccino and showing off carefully toned physiques under skin-tight T shirts – the second option is quite simply more fun ... If consumerism is the defining characteristic of the gay nineties, and if we have never had it so good, there must be some relationship between hedonism and political gain. It is not necessarily a negative one ... Consumerism is not antithetical to political gain, but an integral part of the very process through which these gains are slowly but surely being made. [13]

The fight to end gay and lesbian oppression, therefore, becomes not one of fighting back against the system, but one of buying into the system, not resistance to the market but the acceptance of the market. It has been accepted by many that most gays and lesbians are an affluent group of consumers, with a disproportionate amount of spending power compared to the rest of the population, who are just dying to rush out and spend all their money on a whole host of consumer goods and products.

Advertising gurus and marketing managers claim this is a discovery they have made in the 1990s. But the image of the well to do gay man goes back to the late 19th century when homosexuality was outlawed. For over a century portrayals of gay men as actors and artists, wealthy and flamboyant individuals have been stock stereotypes. These stereotypes played the pernicious role of suggesting that ordinary people simply could not be gay. That in turn reinforced anti-gay attitudes among workers. The updated version, of gays as yuppies, plays a similar role and has been supported by two recent surveys in the US.

The first was done in 1988 by the Simmons Market Research Bureau which did a survey of eight gay and lesbian newspapers in the US. Its data was one of the original sources for the argument that gays and lesbians are unusually well educated and affluent. Its results found that 59 percent of gays and lesbians had degrees compared to 18 percent of the rest of the population. And 49 percent of gays and lesbians had managerial or professional occupations compared to 15 percent for the rest of the population. [14] This was supported by the Overlooked Opinions survey in 1990 whose results found that gays and lesbians were disproportionately wealthy: 34 percent had incomes over $50,000 (compared to 25 percent for the population as a whole). On the basis of this it was calculated that the ‘gay communities’ income potential was around $514 billion. The Wall Street Journal called it ‘a dream market ... gay households have characteristics sought by many advertisers. Average annual [gay] household income is $55,430’. [15] Both surveys were used to persuade many major companies to advertise in the gay press in the US which, at the time, was desperately in need of a financial boost. Nor were these surveys confined to the US. In Britain a survey of 1,788 gays and lesbians in 1994 came to the same conclusion – that they were better educated (27 percent having degrees compared to 9 percent in the rest of the population) and lesbians were said to earn on average £3,000 more per year than heterosexual women. [16]

In fact recent evidence suggests that the reliability of these surveys is open to question. Firstly the data they use is highly selective: it’s mainly middle class, better educated and more affluent people who reply to these type of questionnaires, so the results are not surprising when you have such a highly selective group. As Lee Badgett says in a recent essay, Beyond Biased Samples: Challenging the Myths on the Economic Status of Lesbians and Gay Men:

Getting a random sample of gay people in the US is no simple matter. Government agencies and academic statisticians spend a lot of time and money to get representative samples of the US population. Unfortunately few such surveys ask the right questions that would allow a direct comparison of incomes between gays/lesbians/bisexual people and heterosexuals. [17]

Secondly, it is precisely the class position of middle and upper class gays that allows them them to be out about their sexuality. Therefore it makes it difficult for any selective sample to be indicative of all gays and lesbians in society. Simply as a result of the numerical preponderance of the working class, most gays and lesbians are likely to come from its ranks. The idea that the majority of working class gays and lesbians can buy into the pink economy is false. For most people this is something that is simply beyond their means. So the idea of a gay lifestyle which apparently transcends class boundaries is, in fact, a particular form of middle class lifestyle. As Peter Weir, one of the contributors to Anti-Gay, explains:

The gay community represented in Ikea ads, the comfy image of middle class white guys out shopping for furniture, is one that has been identified as the mainstream. It is a lie ... The true division in the gay community is between the entrenched, privileged, politically active urban and suburban trend-setters and policy makers, and the mass of people with homosexual urges. [18]

There is new research which questions the conclusions of both surveys and throws doubts on their reliability. Interviews with over 15,000 voters in the 1992 election in the US found 466 who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and a comparison of their income with that of heterosexual voters revealed that gay voters tended to be in the lower income bracket. This was supported by the 1993 Yankelovich Monitor survey on consumer attitudes which included a question on sexual orientation. What it found was that gay respondents had an average household income of $37,400 and lesbians $34,800 – both well below the $55,430 that the other surveys concluded was the average income of gays and lesbians. [19] Lee Badgett concludes that ‘all the evidence from better surveys shows that gay people do not earn more than straight people, and two detailed studies even show a more disturbing pattern: lesbian, gay and bisexual people earn less than heterosexual people’. [20]

One of these is a study by Badgett himself when he examined data from the US General Social Survey 1989–1991. He found that gay and bisexual male workers earned 11 to 27 percent less than heterosexual male workers with the same experience, education, occupation and marital status. And he found similar figures for lesbians. Yet even here he adds a note of caution and acknowledges that the reason little is known about the economic effects of sexual orientation is because of the limitations and reliability of the data. [21]

So the idea that all gays and lesbians are affluent is a myth. What has come to represent the stereotypical gay person is, in fact, just a small proportion of all gays and lesbians in society, essentially from the middle and upper class. Working class gays and lesbians are ‘excluded’ simply because they do not have sufficient purchasing power.

The drift to the right

The repercussions of this debate, particularly in the US, have fuelled a right wing offensive against gay and lesbian rights. For example, in the US state of Colorado an amendment was passed to the state’s constitution which, if enacted, would have removed gays and lesbians from civil rights protection. Amendment 2, as it was known, became the focus for a number of right wing and religious groups to go on the offensive against gays. The Colorado for Family Values group put out a leaflet which said, ‘Are homosexuals a disadvantaged minority? You decide! Records show that even now, not only are gays not economically disadvantaged, they’re actually one of the most affluent groups in America’. [22] And they quoted a number of figures from gay publications which argued that gays are three times more likely to have a college degree, three times more likely to have a professional or managerial job, and four times more likely to travel overseas than the average American.

Likewise, in his testimony against the Employment Non-discrimination Act of 1994 that passed through the US Congress, Joseph E. Broadus argued, ‘Homosexual households had an average income of $55,400 compared with a national average of $36,500 ... This is not a profile of a group in need of special civil rights legislation in order to participate in the economy or to have an opportunity to hold a decent job. It is the profile of an elite’. [23] So the image of the well off affluent gay consumer has now turned full circle and is being used by those intent on denying the fact that gay oppression exists.

Part of the reason why the right wing has felt confident to go on the attack over gay rights is because there has been a retreat by the left in gay politics since the heady days of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which emerged following the Stonewall riots of the 1960s. Then there were attempts to link the fight for gay rights with a general fight against capitalism. Today conservative thinking and strategy dominate many of those who write about gay politics, such as Andrew Sullivan, quoted above. They believe the rights of gays and lesbians can be realised within capitalist society through gradual, piecemeal reform. This thinking dominates groups such as Stonewall which remain very much committed to working within the system. Indeed when thousands of young gays and lesbians threatened to break down the doors of the House of Commons and virtually rioted outside following the failure of MPs to vote for an equal age of consent in 1994, Stonewall was one of the first to object and denounce the demonstrators the next day.

Compare this to the fight for gay rights in the 1960s. Then the GLF declared its solidarity with other revolutionary movements of the oppressed and exploited. In some quarters this was reciprocated. Huey Newton of the Black Panthers wrote from his prison cell in 1970 to express his support for the new gay movement. In Britain the GLF organised sit-ins in bars which refused to serve gays, various marches and protests and contingents on demonstrations like the TUC’s march against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill. The excitement of the new movement temporarily made up for the lack of any clear idea of how to overcome gay and lesbian oppression. However, the vision of change was very vague and, as the initial enthusiasm waned and the movement had to confront deeper questions – What causes oppression? Can the oppressed unite? and so on – confusion took its toll. Many activists began to see homophobia not as a product of the nuclear family under capitalism but as an inherent attitude in all straights.

Since then the retreat has continued into what is known as ‘identity politics’, the idea that simply asserting your identity is the way to overcome oppression. But this also leads away from collective struggle. For those who can afford it, it is possible to assert your identity on the gay scene. Clubbing, shopping or fashion become seen as liberating activities, although they are inaccessible to the majority of gays and lesbians. Identity politics therefore centres on expanding the pink economy, making money for gay businessmen, rather than challenging homophobia in the rest of society. Central to identity politics is the idea that the personal is political and the idea of autonomy, that movements against oppression should be separate and distinct, that there should be a gay movement, a women’s movement, a black movement. [24]

This approach represents a retreat from class politics, and the idea that the working class could be central to the struggle to end oppression. Today the slogan ‘The personal is political’, far from leading to collective political action, only leads to the idea that politics based on lifestyle can bring about change. But the problem is that ‘personal politics’ does not bring about change or challenge the system in which we live. It is not simply a question of alternative lifestyles, or of ‘empowerment’ through spending, but of challenging the existing order of society which produces and breeds discrimination.

Marxism and gay oppression

The standard attack on the Marxist analysis of gay oppression, as well as the Marxist approach to oppression generally, is that it is economistic. Marxism is discounted, on the one hand, for being unable to explain gay oppression using economic categories and, on the other, for being irrelevant to movements against oppression because gay liberation either does not fit into its strategy for social change or is merely a byproduct of a socialist revolution. For socialists the starting point for gay oppression is that it is rooted in capitalist society, that it serves the interests of the ruling class. Oppression serves to divide and weaken the working class. It sets gays against straights, blacks against whites, men against women, thus dividing one section of the working class against another, promoting inequality and discrimination.

More specifically gay oppression and women’s oppression also exist because of the importance of the nuclear family under capitalism. The family is the means by which what Marx called the ‘reproduction of labour power’ is carried out. This makes it a central institution of capitalist society. In the early days of capitalism whole families were forced to work in factories – and for a while the survival of the working class family as an institution appeared under threat (as both Marx and Engels believed). However, in the late 19th century a concerted attempt was made by the ruling class to consolidate the family as the main unit for the reproduction of labour, from day to day, and one generation to the next. It was at this time that the modern concept of a homosexual identity became articulated. In 1869 the term ‘homosexuality’ appeared for the first time in an anonymous pamphlet distributed in Germany. This is not to say that homosexuality began at this point – indeed one of the main arguments used against those from the right who argue that homosexuality is somehow ‘unnatural’ is to point to the fact that this is one form of activity that has existed throughout human civilisation. But it was towards the end of the 19th century that the ruling class moved towards making homosexuality an activity that was illegal. In Britain Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act deemed all male homosexual acts short of buggery, whether they be committed in public or private, illegal. And 13 years later the Vagrancy Act of 1898 clamped down on homosexual ‘soliciting’. Jeffrey Weeks declares that ‘these two enactments represented a singular hardening of the legal situation and were a crucial factor in the determination of modern attitudes’. [25]

The working class family was a cheap way of ensuring the supply of necessary labour. As the nuclear family became more important to capitalism it became increasingly important to portray it as the only way of living. That is why alongside the consolidation of the family came the first laws to criminalise homosexuals. There have been important changes to the family over the last century. Capitalism operates to break down the family – through migration and the demand for greater mobility of labour; through the pressures on the family which have led to increased divorce rates and more single parents; by virtue of the fact that fewer people are marrying in the first place, and more and more children are born out of wedlock. But despite this the family remains the key institution for the reproduction of labour. Working class people still cling to the family as the repository of love and calm from the outside world. Marriage and childbirth are still seen as inevitable for most working class women – even though the reality is still somewhat different. As Lindsey German explains:

One of the most surprising features of the family today is the astonishing tenacity with which most workers cling to it ... While these changes have fundamentally altered the families of millions of workers, there is a countervailing tendency for workers to cling to the family, and to attempt to reinforce its supposed traditional values. This is shown by the increased ideological importance of the family and the centrality of the home under late capitalism. [26]

Gay sexuality threatens the ideal image of the present day family firstly because it challenges the family’s rationale in the reproduction of labour power, but also because it challenges the ideology of the family. The idea of same sex partners challenges the man-wife relationship essential for the nuclear family. As Tony Cliff says:

So long as the traditional family is an economic unit, for rearing children and satisfying the consumption needs of the adults, homosexuals are bound to be considered deviant: the homosexual male is not seen to fit the man’s role as the provider for wife and children, and the homosexual female is not seen to act the role of mother and wife. The contemporary family is not only a prison for those in it, but also enslaves those who do not fit into the sex-role stereotypes connected with it. [27]

This is merely a brief outline of the theory of the family and gay oppression which various Marxists have developed since Marx and Engels themselves. But a number of key features of it are worth stressing. First, Marxism explains how gay oppression is structured into capitalism. It is not simply a consequence of reactionary ideas, rather those ideas rest on the way we are forced to live in capitalist society. The driving force of capitalist society, and its central contradiction, is exploitation. But the way capitalism has developed historically has given rise to forms of oppression which are so firmly built into capitalism they cannot just be reformed away. Gay theorists used to denigrate Marxism for downgrading gay oppression by accounting for it as a byproduct of class exploitation. Instead, they argued, gay oppression is rooted in a permanent antagonism between gays and straights. Some of them even argued such heterosexism was the root of every other oppression and the division of society into classes. Interestingly many of the same people have now interpreted partial advances for gays within capitalism as a sign that gay oppression, which they once thought immutable, can be swept away by the extension of gay business, just pulling yourself together, and quietly lobbying for changes in the law.

The second point about the Marxist theory of gay oppression is not only that it accounts for the oppression itself, but also it explains why mistaken ideas, like the notion that we are living in a post-gay world, can have such a hold. Understanding the class divisions in society is not only key to explaining oppression. It also reveals the class basis of other theories of oppression – how the advantages the middle classes enjoy in society, and the contradictory position of middle class gays, enable them to project their own experiences and class interests as strategies for gays as a whole.

The centrality of class

The history of the struggle against gay oppression is bound up with the history of class struggle and of socialism. And whenever the working class fights back class divisions become more apparent. This was something clearly understood by the Russian socialist Alexandra Kollontai when she argued why you cannot have unity between women of different classes in the fight for women’s liberation. The same is equally applicable to gays: ‘If in certain circumstances the short term tasks of women of all classes coincide, the final aims of the two camps, which in the long term determine the direction of the movement and the tactics to be used, differ sharply’. [28] Put simply, class interests divide the oppressed – and working class gays have more to gain from fighting alongside other working class people than they do from uniting with ruling class sections of the gay community who have a completely different agenda. Most of the time the divisions inside the working class seem all too powerful – between gays and straights, blacks and whites, men and women. Yet whenever workers struggle, this division breaks down. This was clearly seen during the days of the Russian Revolution of 1917 when workers took power for the first time. In so doing many reactionary ideas broke down.

In December 1917, just two months after the revolution, the Bolsheviks abolished all laws against homosexuality. At the same time abortion on demand was made legal, divorce by request was granted and the age of consent laws were repealed. As Lauristen and Thorstad state:

The sweeping reforms in sex-related matters that were an immediate byproduct of the Russian Revolution ushered in a new atmosphere of sexual freedom. The atmosphere, which gave an impetus to the sexual reform movement in Western Europe and America, was consciously extended to include homosexuality. ‘It was necessary, it was said, to take down the walls which separated the homosexuals from the rest of society’ ... This attitude was generally shared by the rest of the population. The official Soviet attitude under the Bolsheviks was that homosexuality did nobody any harm ... [29]

In just two months at the beginning of the century in 1917, the Bolsheviks achieved more than was done in decades elsewhere. The gains by gays and lesbians brought about by the revolution were greater than has been achieved in many Western countries since, although the revolutionary gains were reversed under Stalin.

Today the opportunity to put class back at the heart of gay politics is greater than it has been for many years. Over the last few years we have seen a change in attitudes towards gays and lesbians – now it is undoubtedly true that the majority of working class people reject discrimination. For example, the percentage of people who say that ‘homosexual men and lesbians should have the same rights under the law as the rest of the population’ has increased from 65 percent in 1991 to 74 percent in 1995. The percentage of those who believe that homosexual relationships between consenting adults should be legal has gone up from 58 percent in 1977 to 74 percent in 1993. And even responses on the one issue that is often used to whip up anti-gay prejudice – the question of whether a homosexual person should be a school teacher – show that, while in 1983 the majority view was that it was not acceptable (53 percent), by 1993 the majority view was that it was acceptable (55 percent). [30]

For years gays and lesbians have suffered attacks from the Tories, from the introduction of Clause 28 to the continued ban on gays and lesbians in the military. So the election of a government that not only promised greater tolerance but also had the first openly gay MP in the cabinet has brought a renewed sense of optimism. But Tony Blair has shown himself to be absolutely committed to the idea of the nuclear family, not just in terms of photo opportunities, but ideologically. The nuclear family plays a crucial role in his vision of a ‘New Britain’. The attacks on health, education and single parents is all about shifting the burden onto the family.

And no matter what the liberal credentials of New Labour over sexuality, a glance across the world shows how there can be sudden upsurges of homophobia as capitalism is thrown into crisis and right wing forces seek to build out of people’s despair. Gay oppression continues, albeit at a lower level than in the 1950s. That in itself wrecks people’s lives and, given the efforts of groups from the Christian Coalition in the US to Le Pen’s National Front in France, it would be foolish to imagine it will always stay at relatively lower levels.

At the same time alternatives to Marxism are in crisis. The gay movement, as any sort of radical coherent force, collapsed into the reformism of the Labour left in the 1980s. That has been followed by an even more stark collapse of its ideas. No sooner had identity politics and the tactics of groups like Queer Nation in the US and OutRage! in Britain become the orthodoxy among radicalised lesbians and gays than the theorists of the gay movement abandoned the notion that there was really anything to fight against. None of this means that gays and lesbians will automatically look towards revolutionary socialism as a way to fight oppression. Many hold out hopes for reform within the system. But that does not have the radical gloss enjoyed by the self-appointed gay leaders of the last two decades. Consequently, Marxism can find a ready audience among gays and lesbians who are sick of being told to emulate an impossible middle class lifestyle and who want to see the banner of gay liberation firmly on the battlefield in the sharp social conflicts that lie ahead.


1. From Now for a Question about Queer Culture, The Economist, 12 July 1997.

2. A. Sullivan, The Politics of Homosexuality, in The New Republic, 10 May 1993, p. 36.

3. J. Rauch, Beyond Oppression, in The New Republic, 10 May 1993, p. 18.

4. Ibid., p. 23.

5. Figures taken from C. Spencer, Homosexuality: A History (Fourth Estate 1995).

6. Discrimination in the Workplace, Stonewall Factsheet, 1996.

7. M. Simpson (ed.), Anti-Gay (London 1996).

8. T. Leonard, Give Us Back Our Pride, in Gay Times, June 1997, p. 37.

9. Quoted from N. Field, Over the Rainbow (Pluto 1995), p. 78.

10. Ibid., p. 80.

11. Quoted in T. Leonard, op. cit., p. 38.

12. P. Tatchell, Gay Times, August 1993.

13. S. Edge, The Nineties So Far, Gay Times, February 1996, pp. 18–24.

14. A. Gluckman and B. Reed, The Gay Marketing Moment, in A. Gluckman and B. Reed, Homo Economics (Routledge 1997).

15. From M. Badgett, Beyond Biased Samples, in A. Gluckman and B. Reed, op. cit., p. 65.

16. From the Pink Paper, 12 August 1994.

17. M. Badgett, op. cit., p. 68.

18. P. Weir in M. Simpson (ed.), op. cit., p. 32.

19. Figures from M. Badgett, op. cit., p. 68.

20. Ibid., p. 66.

21. M. Badgett, The Wage Effect of Sexual Orientation Discrimination, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 48, no. 4 (July 1995).

22. M. Badgett, Beyond Biased Samples, op. cit., p. 65.

23. Ibid., p. 65.

24. See S. Smith, Mistaken Identity, International Socialism 62, Spring 1994, for a description and analysis of identity politics.

25. J. Weeks, Coming Out (London 1990), p. 15.

26. L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989), pp. 44–45.

27. T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (Bookmarks 1984), p. 223.

28. A. Kollontai, The Social Basis of the Woman Question, in A. Holt, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (London 1977), p. 59.

29. J. Lauristen and D. Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935) (New York 1974), p. 63.

30. All figures quoted from Stonewall Factsheet, Public Opinion on Gay and Lesbian Rights.

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