Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


Gay Resistance

Sam Deaderick and Tamara Turner
Gay Resistance: The Hidden History
Red Letter Press, Seattle 1997, $7.00

THIS journal will, I hope, always be interested in hidden histories, and especially interested in publications which bring them to light. Revolutionary History has not had many opportunities to review documents on questions of sexual liberation; consequently a recent visit to London from a comrade in the Freedom Socialist Party (closely associated with the publishers) with copies of this pamphlet is to be welcomed. It is to be regretted that there is no UK outlet for FSP publications.

The pamphlet could be used as a case study in support of Peter Fryer’s excellent advice to new writers: ‘Lucid, vigorous and brief.’ (So brief in fact that $7.00 may seem expensive for 50 pages of text.) As a political tool, it achieves its objective of placing gay struggles in an historical framework, of which class struggle is a main element. And no doubt it will raise the spirit of gay activists to be able to perceive themselves as part of a greater struggle, and defending an important heritage.

Both authors are, or were, associated with the FSP, which originated in a split from the US Socialist Workers Party (the FSP has for some years defined itself as Socialist-feminist). The text first appeared in their paper Freedom Socialist in the late 1970s, and subsequently in pamphlet form in 1978. The current pamphlet updates the accounts of radical gay and lesbian groups since then.

The argument of the opening sections of the pamphlet can be summarised thus. In ancient matriarchal societies there was complete sexual freedom, and this naturally extended to homosexual behaviour. This happy state of affairs was ended by the rise of patriarchy and monogamy, and led directly to the oppression of women and social hostility towards homosexuality. Classical Greece and Rome were well on the way to the full institutionalisation of patriarchy and monogamy, but retained some pre-civilisation freedoms. Asian cultures (with the exception of Zoroastrian Persia) and pre-Columbian American cultures remained free of these evils until they fell under the influence or control of Western culture. Ancient Judaism, seemingly another exception, generated the first legal prohibition against male homosexuality (in Leviticus), and its attitudes were adopted in their entirety, indeed developed further, by Christianity, and especially by the Pauline current.

Medieval European history was substantially shaped by the growing power and institutionalisation of Christianity. The centuries-long wars against heretics, witches and other dissident currents were the form taken by the growth of Christian power, and the means by which Christianity suppressed the residual sexual freedoms of the mass of the European populations. Homosexuality was a frequent accusation against the enemies of the Church. The heretics, however, were not fighting specifically in defence of homosexuality; rather they were defending the pre-Christian cultures and their freedoms as a whole. The objective of these long wars was the establishment of the nuclear, patriarchal family, which was essential to the orderly accumulation of capital.

The authors next present a brief account of the rise of movements for homosexual rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with Hirschfield and the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Germany in the 1860s. It mentions the defeat of those movements by the Nazis, touches on the Bolsheviks’ reforms, and includes radicals such as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. The following section is devoted to a presentation of lesbian contributions to literature, arguing that they prepared the cultural ground for later explicitly political movements.

The emergence of ‘liberal’ homosexual rights organisations in the USA is sketched in the next section, showing the impetus to their growth given by Kinsey and other researchers, and the setbacks suffered under McCarthyism. Some mention is given to similar movements in Europe. (The Minority Rights Group will perhaps be surprised to learn that they have a programme similar to that of the Daughters of Bilitis.)

The 1969 Stonewall riot marked a turning point, after which the majority of new movements had a distinctly radical character, or even hyper-radical in the case of the separatists. With the exception of the late 1970s campaigns against anti-gay changes in the law, these new movements have proven to be fissiparous, whilst the more general movement has built significant social institutions such as Gay Pride, and an infrastructure of publications and organisations.

In the closing section, the authors recognise and applaud the growth of a new leadership amongst gays from ethnic minorities, and argue that these victims of multiple oppression are the most capable of perceiving that gay oppression is a component of the problem of alienated life under capitalism.

That is the argument. How does the history stand up? There is a bibliography, but the authors do not provide specific references in support of their statements. No doubt this helps to maintain the punchy readability, but it makes it difficult to check on things and resolve questions about what is being said. For example, in his introduction, Roger Simpson writes that Deaderick and Turner remind readers that ‘oppression around sexual identity is as old as history’. By my reading, they argue only that it is as old as civilisation – a very different proposition.

I have practically no knowledge of ancient cultures, but I suspect that the very generalised claim made about them here – that they were all matriarchal and libertarian to an extreme degree – is a hostage to fortune which a hostile reviewer with special knowledge could assail. I don’t understand how such claims can be made on the basis of no written history and very limited evidence in the form of artefacts. And from what little I know of contemporary cultures that have had limited contact with capitalism, they do not closely resemble the joyous matriarchies which the authors describe. Trotsky’s reports of his escape from Siberia, for example, describe the most depressed and depressing pattern of life amongst the isolated tribes he encountered.

And I don’t see that the demand for gay rights today is in any way dependent upon a ‘golden age’ theory. No golden age lies behind other democratic and transitional demands, at least not since the English working class abandoned the demand to ‘throw off the Norman yoke’, and Connolly’s fables of primitive Irish democracy faded from view.

The section dealing with the Social Democratic parties and their response to homosexual rights campaigns seems to me to understate or neglect important elements of the Socialist response. Eduard Bernstein’s 1895 articles were published in English in 1977 by the British and Irish Communist Organisation (Athol Books), together with a related article by Herzen. This publication is perhaps obscure today, but in 1978, when the FSP articles first appeared, it was widely discussed. The BICO had a habit of disagreeing with the historical figures whose work they published, such as Bukharin and Jim Larkin. They gave a grudging acceptance to Bernstein with the conclusion: ‘Heterosexuality remains socially necessary and should be encouraged: homosexuality is fairly harmless and can be tolerated.’ This alone ensured that the publication was widely discussed. I would have included it in the bibliography.

Similarly, in 1978 the authors might not have had access to the English translation of Kautsky’s 1906 writings on Marxism and morality, which had been out of print for many years before it reappeared in Patrick Goode’s selection in 1983. An earlier version could probably have been found in university libraries, but nobody read the ‘renegade’ in those days. But by 1997 they cannot be omitted from a Socialist examination of moral questions.

Oscar Wilde is given the briefest of mentions, and his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism is not referred to. And for a 1997 revision not enthusiastically to recommend Richard Ellman’s splendid biography of Wilde is difficult for this reviewer to believe.

In describing the suppression of the German homosexual rights movement by the Nazis, the authors do not deal with the question of homosexuality amongst the Brownshirts. A reference to a publication that deals with this would be useful – such as the 1979 Big Flame pamphlet Sexuality and Fascism.

I found the brief section on the Russian experience disappointing for its lack of detail and references. A caption to an illustration refers to Batkis, but his book is not included in the bibliography.

If it is right (and it is) to credit lesbian novelists such as Virginia Woolf with a rôle in changing the climate of opinion, how can it be right to omit any mention of the beats? Allen Ginsberg’s courageous campaigning against the oppression of gays was even conducted in the heart of the Stalinist states, but he gets not the slightest nod of acknowledgement. Barry Miles’s biography of Ginsberg deserves a place in the recommended reading.

No doubt every reader would be able to produce his or her own list of amendments to the literary aspects of this question. But there is a more important and more political omission to be rectified – that of organised labour. The unions are not mentioned until the last page of the pamphlet. I don’t think this fairly reflects the politics of the FSP. Freedom Socialist regularly reports the active union work of FSP militants. The FSP played an honourable part in the work towards the foundation of the Labor Party in the USA. So it is puzzling to find no commentary on or assessment of the successes and failures over the last 20 years in winning support within the trade unions for gay struggles. (Let us recall how Tony Cliff hectored us in 1979 that ‘we should look forward to the first leader of the London workers’ council being a 19-year-old gay woman!’)

There are other questions that one would like to debate with the FSP which are probably outside the scope of their pamphlet. The FSP does not call for political revolution in Cuba or China. Conditions for gays have improved somewhat over recent years in Cuba, but not at all in China (to the limited extent of the available information). Is sexual liberation, then, a reform which it is within the ability of those states to allow? If so, how can the demands best be advanced by oppressed gays in those countries, and by those in solidarity with them elsewhere? And if Stalinist states can accommodate gay liberation, why is it impossible to think of similar reforms without revolutionary overthrow in capitalist states? Does it seem likely today that homosexual business people would set out to subvert and disrupt the circulation and accumulation of capital by refusing to pass their assets when they die? By this, of course, I am seeking to clarify the status of the demand for gay rights within the Trotskyist programme. Is it an achievable reform, or a basis for mobilisations which will overthrow the power of capital? Deaderick and Turner do not, in my assessment, make a categorical case for the latter position.

J.J. Plant

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011