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International Socialist Review Issue 37, September–October 2004

The Roots of Gay Oppression


SHERRY WOLF is on the ISR editorial board.

GAY OPPRESSION hasn’t always existed, and neither have gays as a distinct sector of the population.1 The oppression of gays and lesbians–and all sexual minorities–is one of modern capitalism’s infinite contradictions. Capitalism creates the material conditions for men and women to lead autonomous sexual lives, yet it simultaneously seeks to impose heterosexual norms on society to secure the maintenance of an economic, ideological, and sexual order.

Famous gays such as Melissa Etheridge pack concert venues, and the Fab Five "queer" guys are used to sell fashion–while homophobic laws defend discrimination on the job and in marriage. Gay oppression under capitalism, like racism and sexism, serves to divide working-class people from one another in their battles for economic and social justice. Socialists fight for a world in which sexuality is a purely personal matter, without legal or material restrictions of any sort.

Sexuality, like other behaviors, is a fluid–not fixed–phenomenon. Gay sexuality exists along a continuum. The modern expression of this can be found among the millions of men and women who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or two-spirited–often identifying themselves differently at different times in their lives. There are not two kinds of people in the world, gay and straight. As far as biologists can tell, there is only one human race with a multiplicity of sexual possibilities that can be either frustrated or liberated, depending on the way human society is organized.

Reams of historical evidence confirm that homosexual behavior has existed for at least thousands of years, and it is logical to assume that homosexual acts have been occurring for as long as human beings have walked the earth. But only when capitalist society in the late nineteenth century created the potential for individuals to live outside the nuclear family was the modern conception of a gay identity born. The oppression of gays and lesbians, therefore, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Contemporary industrial societies created the possibility for men and women to identify themselves and live as gays and lesbians, argues gay historian John D’Emilio.

What we call "homosexuality" (in the sense of the distinguishing traits of "homosexuals"), for example, was not considered a unified set of acts, much less a set of qualities defining particular persons, in pre-capitalist societies…. Heterosexuals and homosexuals are involved in social "roles" and attitudes which pertain to a particular society, modern capitalism.2

Historical evidence suggests that homosexual behavior was successfully integrated in many pre-capitalist cultures. The most famous example is ancient Greece, where sexual relationships between older men and teenage boys were heralded as one of the highest forms of love. Certain tribal groups embraced transvestite men and women who adopted the gender roles of the opposite sex, known as berdache. Even the Roman Catholic Church, until the twelfth century, celebrated love between men.3 However, in these societies, it was homosexual actions and not an identifiable category of people who were either tolerated or lauded.

The changing family

The roots of gay sexuality and its subsequent repression can be found in the ever-changing role of the family. The "family"–that sacrosanct institution exalted by right-wingers and surreally depicted by countless laundry detergent commercials–has changed radically throughout human history. In fact, the family itself has not always existed.

Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, Frederick Engels, employed the anthropological research of Lewis Henry Morgan in his groundbreaking nineteenth-century work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Anthropology was then a new science and some of Morgan’s research has since been refuted. Nevertheless, Engels’ theoretical conclusions have been substantiated by more recent anthropological research.4

Engels argues that although human beings have existed as a species for more than a hundred thousand years, people have only begun living in family units in the last few thousand years–when previously egalitarian societies divided into classes.

Prior to humans’ ability to store food and other goods as a surplus, there was no "wealth" to be hoarded, precluding the possibility for inequality between social classes. Since there was no wealth to be inherited by individuals, there was no reason for people to divide into individual "family" units. On the contrary, pre-class human social organization was based on large clans and collective production, distribution, and child rearing. A division of labor existed between men and women in pre-class societies, but there is no evidence to suggest that women were systematically oppressed–and in at least some societies, women were afforded an even higher status than men.5

The oppression of women corresponded with the rise of the first class divisions in society and the creation of the monogamous family unit. The development of the plough and the domestication of cattle to pull the plough enormously increased agricultural productivity. For the first time in human history, it became possible to accumulate a productive surplus–more than was needed simply to survive. This marked the first appearance of social classes and the first possibility of passing wealth on to the offspring of the wealthy in the form of inheritance. The rise of the nuclear family was a consequence of these changes.

The initial meaning of the word "family" is a far cry from the Norman Rockwell images of domestic bliss. Early Romans used the term "famulus" to describe household slaves and "familia" to refer to the "total number of slaves belonging to one man."6 For the early feudal aristocracy, marriage was an economic, not emotional, relationship–a means to transfer land wealth or to secure peaceful relations between landed estates. Men were increasingly drawn into production and women were increasingly isolated in the role of reproduction, or child rearing.

The changing economic structure of society drastically altered attitudes toward both women and sexuality. Only with the rise of the family–and the separation of the spheres of production and reproduction–did the division of labor between men and women begin to connote inequality between the sexes. Imposing monogamy–for women only–afforded the means through which wealthy men’s property could be inherited by children whom the father could be certain were his own. Monogamous marriage, in essence, developed as the agency through which ruling class men could establish undisputed paternity.7 As Engels wrote,

The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.8

Although landless peasants possessed no wealth of their own, the institution of the nuclear family was nevertheless legally established as the norm for all sectors of society. Feudal communities usually arranged marriages between poor peasants. Family life was filled with grinding work for all family members, and childbirth often ended in death for either mother or infant, or both.

Severe sanctions were enforced against all sexual behaviors that were non-procreative. In 1533, Britain’s King Henry VIII–whose obsession with producing a male heir led to six marriages–introduced the Buggery Act, which would put men to death for "buggery," the catchall term of the day for non-procreative sex that was considered a crime against nature.9 The act coincided with other laws in the same period punishing "vagabonds,"_i.e. peasants forced off the land with nowhere to go. Buggery was included in the Articles of War beginning in the seventeenth century in Britain and was punished the same as mutiny and desertion.

The households of European colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were independent units of both production and reproduction in which all family members worked together on a plot of land to supply virtually all of the family’s needs. In the New England colonies, "solitary living" was forbidden. Servants and apprentices had to live with the households they worked for, but even without legal constraints, economic survival in colonial times was inconceivable outside the family structure.10

The need for labor in the colonies fueled efforts by New England churches and courts to outlaw and punish adultery, sodomy, incest, and rape. Extramarital sex by women, who were considered incapable of controlling their passions, was punished more severely than extramarital sex by men. Sodomy could either mean sex between two people of the same gender or any "unnatural" acts such as anal or oral intercourse, even between married couples. Some cases of "lewd behavior" between women were punished by whippings, though no one was executed for sodomy in the colonies during the eighteenth century, probably due to the legal requirement of proof of penetration and two eyewitnesses.11 The dominance of the church and the lack of any means to care for children born out of wedlock drove neighbors’ zealous watch over the sexual mores of their community.

With the rise of urban centers and industrial production methods in the late-nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America, wage labor became much more common. There was an increased separation of home from work compared with farm life, so that the family became much more exclusively a center for reproduction. Over the decades, the growth of industry created a new kind of family ideal, as a haven from a changing, often hostile world. But the relationship between the family and capitalism was fraught with contradictions from the beginning. As D’Emilio writes,

On the one hand, capitalism continually weakens the material foundation of family life, making it possible for individuals to live outside the family, and for a lesbian and gay male identity to develop. On the other, it needs to push men and women into families, at least long enough to reproduce the next generation of workers. The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia. In the most profound sense, capitalism is the problem.12

The capitalist mode of production brought with it the rise of an entrepreneurial class–and with it, the notion of personal achievement and individuality as a social ideal. At the same time, the increasing prosperity of a new middle class and the broader accumulation of personal wealth and transferable inheritances demanded strict sexual morality, especially for women. British historian Jeffrey Weeks describes the contradictions of this new family structure: The bourgeois family was "both the privileged location of emotionality and love…and simultaneously an effective policeman of sexual behavior."13

In contrast to the prosperous middle class, industrial life was literally killing the working class in mid-nineteenth century England. Middle-class men in the rural area of Rutland, England, lived to be fifty-two, while working-class "men" died at the average age of seventeen in industrial centers like Manchester, sixteen in Bethnel Green, and fifteen in Liverpool.14 Textile mill owners employed mostly women and children for long hours of arduous labor at far less pay than men, which led to illness and mortality rates that threatened to cut into owners’ profits.

Frederick Engels describes the near-collapse of working-class family life in The Condition of the Working Class in England. He describes the crowded and filthy conditions in working-class homes and quotes one report by the Ministry of Health: "In Leeds, brothers and sisters, and lodgers of both sexes, are found occupying the same sleeping-room with the parents, and consequences occur which humanity shudders to contemplate."15

A reinvention of the working-class family was urgently needed. Victorian reformers campaigned for changes in factory work and housing, which led to the creation of a "family wage" for men, an amount that was intended to sustain a family and allow women to stay at home and care for children and clean their homes. This wage rarely did suffice and working-class women continued to take in sewing and other piecework. Though it had the impact of trapping women, it also relieved women form exhausting hours of factory work. Children were sent to school, not only to educate them for future jobs, but to instill in them the discipline of work. Middle-class sexual mores were propagated widely among the working class to drive down the rate of prostitution and the deadly diseases and out-of-wedlock births that are its consequences.

Capitalist society continues to grapple with the contradictions between the privatization of child rearing and household maintenance and the countervailing forces that tear the family apart. The nuclear family today–especially in the U.S., where social services such as childcare are expensive and hard to find–provides ruling classes with an inexpensive means for the feeding and preservation of the current workforce and the raising and disciplining of the next generation of workers.

Half of all American children live in a single-parent family at some point, and half of all marriages end in divorce.16 As women in industrialized societies have become thoroughly integrated–though unequally paid–in the workforce, women’s ability to dissolve marriages and live independently of men has strengthened. This has created tensions between the ideology of the family and the reality of people’s lives. Even the contentious abortion battle is an expression of this contradiction: as women have become central to the labor force, abortion is both economically necessary and socially desirable. But despite capital’s need for women to have fewer children and control over whether and when to get pregnant, the right wing continues to oppose legal abortion and to bolster ideology that strengthens the nuclear family.

The American ruling class today is split on the question of whether to legalize gay marriage, because, while marriage serves to further legitimize traditional family values, it also would normalize homosexuality and break down divisions in the working class. The absurdity of President George W. Bush heralding his family values crusade while depicting the right to gay marriage as a harbinger of an end to all that is sacred is lost to few but the most ardent reactionary ideologues. Bush’s $1.5 billion marriage initiative to goad poor (heterosexual) women into getting and staying married is also fueled by the government’s desire to offload any responsibility to care for their children, who have five times the chance of living in poverty and twice the risk of two-parented kids of dropping out of school.17

The battle for equal marriage rights–Massachusetts is the only U.S. state where gay marriage is legal at this writing–is about more than the 1,049 federal rights and benefits that accrue to those who are married. Ruling-class bigots who oppose same sex marriage understand that this civil rights battle could well open the door to the end of all legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, in the way that the 1947 California Supreme Court decision striking down the ban on interracial marriage in that state opened the way for further struggles. Gay marriage also challenges the traditional notion of what a family is supposed to look like. Its legalization creates an obvious confrontation with the very idea that there is anything natural about the heterosexual nuclear family.

The construction of homosexuality

Modern capitalism created the "social space" for a gay identity to emerge.18 Industrial and financial centers concentrated people in huge numbers, thereby creating the potential for anonymity that had never before existed in human societies. Having created the possibility for individuals to live apart from their families–or at least to experiment with alternative sexual practices away from the narrowness of rural life–capitalist society then sought to define and repress this new sexual "deviance."

Industrial capitalism’s hostility to homosexuality is unique in comparison to previous societies’ laws punishing alternative sex practices. Whereas old laws condemned homosexual acts that threatened procreation, new proscriptions were enacted against a small class of people whose behavior set them apart from the majority. As British socialist Noel Halifax puts it, "Under capitalism sexuality was now not a ‘private affair regulated by...traditions and prejudices of the community’ but become ‘a public matter for the state.’"19

Gay oppression became systematized as the homosexual type in the form of a small minority of men–and some women–whose erotic interests in others of the same sex came to the attention of legal and medical authorities in big cities in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Britain, laws began to distinguish between bestiality and homosexuality and, for the first time, 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 1869.20 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. One famous theory held that gayness was the result of "urning"–the female mind was trapped in a male body (or vice versa). Another theory widely disseminated referred to homosexuals as a third sex.21

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.

Wilde, who was 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.

Early on, 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, something largely unavailable to working-class women. 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 cross-dressing lesbian women such as "Bill" in Missouri who became the secretary of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. One report read: "She drank…she swore, she courted girls, she worked hard as her fellows, she fished and camped, she even chewed tobacco."22 Not all of these "passing women" were lesbians; some were just seeking equality with men and freedom from raising children. 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. But 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."23

It was not until the 1880s, when sexual relationships between women in the U.S. were more openly acknowledged, that 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. 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."24

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 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 bourgeois family and its moral codes of sexual control and hard work held the upper classes to strict rules of conduct–at least outwardly. 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. 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. 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.25

New patterns of living, however, defied the puritanical calls to abstain from homosexuality. Gays and lesbians invented 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 gays could find one another. Riverside Drive in New York City, Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., YMCAs and public bathhouses in St. Louis and Chicago all served as gathering spots and cruising spaces for gays and lesbians. Poet Walt Whitman, the most famous nineteenth-century American homosexual, called Manhattan the "city of orgies, walks and joys" and bragged of New York’s "frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love."26 Popular songs among Blacks 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.27

The new openness of urban gay subcultures 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 gays 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 gays were suffering from a condition that set them apart from "normal" people. Gays 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 U.S. in 1928 (it was, however, banned in Britain), popularized the medical definition of homosexuality as an inescapable natural deviance.

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. 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.28 During the failed German Revolution, 1918—1923, dozens of gay organizations and periodicals appeared calling for the liberation of homosexuals. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when all laws against gays 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.… [T]he proletariat…demands the same freedom from restrictions for those forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes."29 The anarchist Emma Goldman went on a speaking tour throughout the U.S. in 1915 and spoke about homosexuality. Goldman commented to friends about the numbers of men and women who would approach her afterward to say that it was the first time they had ever heard about others like themselves.30

But for most gays and lesbians through the early twentieth century, life 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 biologically determined has taken hold among some modern gays and lesbians. Since the late twentieth century, this thoroughly ahistorical and unscientific view about homosexuality has been embraced by many gays who claim to have been "born gay." As an oppressed minority seeking a way to fight discrimination, some gays 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."

This view has been fueled by the widely publicized search for a "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. Then, there are those stubborn facts. 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.

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 militate against that conclusion. 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.31 The fact is that all human beings are 99 percent identical in genetic makeup.

Gould’s historical materialist, or 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. It is worth quoting John D’Emilio at length here, because he captures the origins and potential future of gay sexuality in this passage:

I have argued that lesbian and gay identity and communities are historically created, the result of a process of capitalist development that has spanned many generations. A corollary of this argument is that we are not a fixed social minority composed for all time of a certain percentage of the population. There are more of us than one hundred years ago, more of us than forty years ago. And there may very well be more gay men and lesbians in the future. Claims made by gays and nongays that sexual orientation is fixed at an early age, that large numbers of visible gay men and lesbians in society, the media, and the schools will have no influence on the sexual identities of the young are wrong. Capitalism has created the material conditions for homosexual desire to express itself as a central component of some individuals’ lives; now, our political movements are changing consciousness, creating the ideological conditions that make it easier for people to make that choice.32

The Second World War

Sixteen million young American men and women enlisted or were drafted for duty during the Second World War. Almost as many millions more–mostly young women–left home for military or industrial jobs in new cities, often living in boarding houses and dorms, as part of the war effort. Never before had there been this many young people mobilized into sex-segregated living situations, often under life-and-death conditions where bonds between people can be intense and long lasting. The impact on sexuality overall, and on homosexuality in particular, was astonishing.

Among the famous gays who served were actors Tyrone Power and Rock Hudson and writers Gore Vidal and John Cheever. But a wealth of evidence exists to prove that the war created conditions for sexual experimentation and the development of a gay identity among hundreds of thousands, if not more. If researcher Alfred Kinsey’s wartime studies are accurate and can be applied to the military population, then at least 650,000 and as many as 1.6 million male soldiers were gay.33 D’Emilio writes,

In releasing large numbers of Americans from their homes and neighborhoods, World War II created a substantially new "erotic situation" conducive both to the articulation of a homosexual identity and to the more rapid evolution of a gay subculture. For some gay men and women, the war years simply strengthened a way of living they had previously chosen…. At the same time, those who experienced strong same-sex attraction but felt inhibited from acting upon it suddenly possessed relatively more freedom to enter into homosexual relationships. The unusual conditions of a mobilized society allowed homosexual desire to be expressed more easily in action. For many gay Americans, World War II created something of a nationwide coming out experience.34

The First World War, by comparison, only mobilized 4.7 million Americans over a nineteen-month period.35 One major, if indirect, impact that the First World War had on gays in the military was the one billion-dollar cost incurred for the care of psychiatric casualties–half of all veterans’ hospital beds were still filled with them by the start of the Second World War.36This enormous cost was used as an incentive by the newly emerging psychiatric profession to promote the necessity of psychiatric screening for the millions of military inductees in the lead-up to the new war.

One of the chief advocates for psychiatric screening, Harry Stack Sullivan, was a psychologist who lived discreetly with his male lover in Bethesda, Maryland. Sullivan did not believe that gays should be banned from military service nor discriminated against in any way and had no intention of including any reference to homosexuality in the screening. But in May 1941, the Army Surgeon General’s office for the first time included "homosexual proclivities in their lists of disqualifying deviations."37 There were–of course–no scientific means of determining who was gay; therefore, crude guidelines called for excluding any man who displayed "feminine bodily characteristics," "effeminacy in dress and manner," or "a patulous (expanded) rectum." As historian Allan Bérubé notes, "All three of these markers linked homosexuality with effeminacy or sexually ‘passive’ anal intercourse and ignored gay men who were masculine or ‘active’ in anal intercourse."38

What this amounted to in practice was hardly scientific. Millions of young men were forced to stand naked in front of physicians, or their assistants, and asked–often with great embarrassment–whether or not they liked girls. Given the years of propaganda for a coming war against the Nazis, the stigma of being deemed unfit for service, and the fact that nearly a whole generation was being mobilized to fight, ample incentive existed for those who knew they were gay to lie and go to war with their peers.

The armed forces segregated men in crowded barracks or in close ship quarters. The fear of death in a war that killed more than four hundred thousand Americans was ever-present and created harsh and extraordinary circumstances in which the norms of civilian life were often suspended. Men on leave in port cities danced together, an offense that would have brought arrest during peacetime; soldiers performed in popular drag shows with explicit homosexual themes to rapturous applause in Europe and the Pacific; GIs shared beds in crowded YMCAs and slept wrapped in each others’ arms in public parks while waiting to be shipped overseas; and intense emotional bonds were formed between soldiers who were often physically demonstrative in ways that American male culture in peacetime condemns.39 This created an atmosphere in which homosexuality was often ignored or accepted by peers, and gay veterans, such as Long Island native Bob Ruffing, recall how easy it was to cruise other men in the military:

When I first got into the navy–in the recreation hall, for instance–there’d be eye contact, and pretty soon you’d get to know one or two people and kept branching out. All of a sudden you had a vast network of friends, usually through this eye contact thing, some through outright cruising. They could get away with it in that atmosphere.40

Nearly 250,000 women served in the armed forces, most of them in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and few, if any, were rejected for lesbianism. In fact, the physical rigors of war and long hours of hard labor often worked to the advantage of a large number of WACs who were physically strong or had a somewhat masculine appearance–the characteristics most associated with lesbianism to this day. Working as mechanics, drill instructors, and motor vehicle operators, women in the armed services were recruited with posters showing muscular, short-haired women wearing tight-fitting tailored uniforms. Training manuals praised the female comradeship and close bonds between recruits, two-thirds of whom were single women under the age of twenty-five. There is evidence to suggest that a disproportionate number of women who joined the WAC were lesbians looking to meet other women and to get the opportunity to do "men’s work."41 Even a popular Fleischmann’s Yeast advertisement during the war, showed a uniformed WAC riding a motorcycle beneath the heading: "This is no time to be FRAIL."42 More than a few WAC veterans recall women showing up for their inductions wearing men’s clothing with their hair slicked back in the classic butch style of out lesbians of the day.

The realities of the war and the dire need for servicemen and women trumped all other concerns of the War Department. Despite the official hostility to homosexuality in the military, very few gays were actually rejected. Out of eighteen million men examined for service, only 4,000—5,000 were officially nixed for being homosexual.43

The most famous example of how central many gays and lesbians were to the war effort and the impact that had on forcing an unofficial wartime suspension of the witch-hunt is recounted by historian Randy Shilts. General Dwight Eisenhower, acting on a rumor, ordered a member of his staff, WAC sergeant Johnnie Phelps, to draw up a list of all lesbians serving in the WAC battalion for him to dismiss from service. After informing him of the medal-winning service of the battalion and the vast number of lesbians in it, Phelps said: "I’ll make your list, but you’ve got to know that when you get the list back, my name’s going to be first." The secretary of the battalion then interrupted to say, "Excuse me General, but MY name will be first, because I’m going to be typing the list." General Eisenhower promptly tore up the order.44

With millions of men gone from the workforce, jobs in aircraft and shipbuilding, as well as clerical and consumer industries, opened up to women for the first time. Many women had to relocate in order to take these jobs and found housing in same-sex dormitories, boarding houses, and trailers. Aside from working and living in close proximity with other women, many had a chance to socialize in all-female environments. Despite persistent anti-homosexual bias in society, the unprecedented mobility afforded to many working-class women during the war loosened previous sexual constraints. As D’Emilio argues,

The war temporarily weakened the patterns of daily life that channeled men and women toward heterosexuality and inhibited homosexual expression…. For men and women conscious of a strong attraction to their own sex but constrained by their milieu from acting upon it, the war years eased the coming out process and facilitated entry into the gay world.45

The social upheaval created by the Second World War has had a long-lasting impact on gay life in the United States. Some men and women who had been pulled from small-town life at an early age were attracted to port cities, such as San Francisco, which presented the opportunity to be openly gay among a community of others like themselves. San Francisco, in particular, became a gay mecca toward the end of the war, when fighting was most intense in the Pacific, and official policy turned up the heat on gays, discharging gay men by the hundreds into the picturesque port town. Denver, Kansas City, Buffalo, and San Jose, California, among other cities, opened their first gay bars after the war and developed the beginnings of gay enclaves. During the postwar period, there was a flood of new gay- and lesbian-themed books in which, unlike past works, gay characters accepted their sexuality, even if these books still portrayed gay and lesbian characters as tragic figures.

Like many Black soldiers who were emboldened to fight against racial segregation at home after their participation in a war they were told was about fighting for democracy, gays returned from the war with a greater sense of entitlement to rights and benefits.

Tellingly, while the U.S. government attacked the barbarism of the Nazis, it managed to avoid any discussion of Adolph Hitler’s treatment of homosexuals. While gays were "coming out under fire" in the American armed forces, the Nazis went on a campaign of terror against homosexuals in Germany. Beginning in 1938, gays and lesbians were sent to concentration camps and were forced to wear pink triangles. Berlin, which had been home to one of the world’s largest gay subcultures, became a nightmare for gays. "Indecent activities" between men and women–a touch, a kiss, or handholding–were enough to be sent to the camps. The head of Hitler’s storm troopers, Heinrich Himmler, said, "We must exterminate these people root and branch…the homosexual must be entirely eliminated."46 The Nazis claimed to be doing all of this in the name of the sanctity of the family and motherhood. In Germany, a country wracked by unemployment and destitution and gearing up for war, Hitler imposed a complete lockdown on dissent of every kind, including the inferred dissent of homosexuality.

Among the many crimes of the U.S. in that war, one that has remained largely hidden from history is the decision to continue the imprisonment after the war of gays and lesbians who were found in Hitler’s concentration camps.47 Of the fifteen thousand gays sent to the camps, one-third survived, many who remained in prison through the 1960s, when the Nazi-era Paragraph 175 anti-homosexual law was finally stricken from the books.48

Nothing shook up the sexual consciousness of postwar American society like the release of the 1948 and 1953 Kinsey Reports on American male and female sexual behavior. Fifty percent of ten thousand men surveyed admitted erotic feelings at some point toward other men; 37 percent had had sex with men; 4 percent claimed to be gay. Of the women surveyed, 28 percent admitted erotic feelings toward other women, while 13 percent said they’d had sex with women; about 2 percent said they were lesbians.50 Alfred Kinsey commented at the time that, given the predominance of homophobia, his results indicated "such activity would appear in the histories of a much larger portion of the population if there were no social constraints."50 Kinsey’s study gave public expression to the reality of a growing gay minority in the United States. This was to have a profound impact on gays’ ability to mobilize for their rights.

From the beginning, there have been class divisions among gays and lesbians–the ability to lead outwardly gay lives has been, and remains today, far more accessible to middle- and upper-class gays and lesbians. But with increasing numbers of gay spaces–and for some, the experience of coming out–in wartime, gays in the U.S. went from complete isolation to developing an awareness of themselves as an oppressed "class" of people in the immediate postwar period.

Crackdown and fightback

There were strong economic and social incentives for ratcheting up harassment and legal discrimination against gays after the war. With U.S. industry churning out more than 60 percent of all manufactured goods in the world, the need for a higher birth rate to staff the labor force and military raised the idealization of the nuclear family to new levels. America’s new industrial prowess brought household appliances and a marketing blitz unknown to previous generations of workers.

Women were driven out of the industrial jobs they held during the war. White women were told to go back home, put on housedresses, and make babies, while Black women were meant to return to their prewar jobs as low-wage domestic servants. Gone were women’s practical square-shouldered androgynous fashions of the 1940s; in came the frilly dresses with exaggerated busts and the hyperfeminine lines of the 1950s.

This heightened emphasis on the nuclear family was part and parcel of an era of political reaction in the United States. The launching of the Cold War with the Soviet Union brought with it an anticommunist witch-hunt at home, known as McCarthyism. Gays were among McCarthyism’s many targets.

The U.S. Senate launched an investigation into allegations of homosexuals "and other perverts" in federal government jobs in 1950. According to the Senate report, gays "lack the emotional stability of normal persons"; "sex perversion weakens the individual"; and "espionage agents could blackmail them."51 This led to President Eisenhower’s executive order calling for the dismissal of homosexuals from government service. Disbarment of gays, or suspected gays, went from a trickle to two thousand every year during the 1950s, and up to 3,000 or more per year into the 1960s.52

Though both gays and Communist Party (CP) members were persecuted by the anticommunist witch-hunt, gays could not look to the CP for solidarity. When Stalin took power in Russia in the late 1920s, he reversed all of the gains made by the 1917 Revolution, including the revolution’s laws decriminalizing gay sexuality. The CP in the 1950s adopted Stalin’s hostility to homosexuality.

Not surprisingly, the first U.S. movement to organize against gay discrimination on the job and police harassment in the bars and cruising spots was initiated by former members of the CP. Harry Hay left the CP–and his wife–to help found the Mattachine Society in Southern California in 1950. But the gay movement was not immune to that McCarthy crusade. With the House Un-American Activities Committee in full swing against communists and dissenters of every sort, anticommunist gays took over the leadership of the group–banning communists and turning away from challenging the government jobs ban to focus on urging its members to "try to get cured."53

In San Francisco in 1955, lovers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), naming the lesbian advocacy group after an erotic poem. Given the much lower visibility and numbers of gay women activists, the group of mostly white-collar workers focused on lesbian self-help and tried to provide a social space outside the bar scene, as limited as it was. An estimated thirty lesbian bars existed throughout the country by 1963, while there were that many male gay bars in San Francisco alone. The Cold War atmosphere and constant police harassment helped to nudge both the Mattachine Society and the DOB in a conservative political direction. They sought to "stress conformity" in order to "diffuse social hostility as a prelude to changes in the law and social policy."54 The one big victory of that era came in 1958 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in an unwritten decision to allow the circulation of the DOB’s publication, One, through the mail.

The continued repression of gays and lesbians in American society served to keep most gays closeted. Hollywood films portrayed gays as tragic and suicidal figures. Time magazine ran a story on homosexuality in 1966 in which the author characterized it as "a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality…no pretense that it is a pernicious sickness."55 The American Psychiatric Association kept homosexuality on the books as a mental illness until 1973, when struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s forced a change in medical thinking.

The modern gay movement burst onto the scene in June 1969 in response to a police raid on a squalid mob-run drag-queen bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn. For three nights, more than 2,000 gays, lesbians, and allies fought police in the streets of lower Manhattan. Influenced by the antiwar and Black Power movements around them, gays formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)–consciously taking their name from the Vietnamese resistance movement, the National Liberation Front. Activists demanded public respect and an end to antigay legislation and police harassment.

In the months following the Stonewall Riots, the gay liberation movement sought to form alliances with other progressive movements. But New Left groups were often as homophobic as the rest of the country. A breakthrough came when Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton issued a statement in 1970–the first pro-gay pronouncement to come from the Black Power movement.

As we all know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we’re afraid we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the woman or shut her up because we’re afraid that she might castrate us.

The remedy, he said,

is to gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. Homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society. The terms "faggot" and "punk" should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people.56

The major advance of the GLF, the Gay Activist Alliance, and other groups formed in this period was their confident assertion that gay oppression was not the fault of "sick" gays, but of an exploitative and oppressive society. The GLF’s founding statement declared that it was "a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about until existing social institutions are abolished."57 These activists’ refusal to adhere to the "respectable" tactics and strategies that dominated the movement previously was an enormous leap forward.

However, the new movement overall was weakened by its confused view of what liberation meant and how it could be achieved. By emphasizing "personal liberation," and demanding that it was the responsibility of all gays to come out, the new gay movement ignored the real economic and social limitations of most poor and working-class gays. For students on campus to come out can be difficult enough; but when a person could lose his or her job and be refused housing, the risks of coming out are infinitely higher. Outside the context of a broader movement fighting for the repeal of laws and collective challenges to institutionalized bigotry, coming out becomes a moralistic appeal.

Divisions over ideology and strategy within the movement finally led to splits that reverberated through the end of the twentieth century, with a sharp divide between the mainstream gay and lesbian movement and smaller, more radical formations–direct-action groups such as ACT-UP, Queer Nation, and Lesbian Avengers.58 The mainstream movement became firmly allied with the Democratic Party and set a strategy of promoting gay businesses as a way to validate gay lifestyles–orienting to the rising gay-identified middle class, not the vast majority of working-class gays and lesbians. This orientation substituted political moderation for the combativeness that had characterized the GLF.

Annual protests to commemorate the Stonewall Riots transformed into gay pride "parades" that often number in the hundreds of thousands in major cities throughout the industrialized world. These gatherings are tremendously important, but they also reflect the split reality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people. The marches are mass celebrations for millions of gays–many of those who attend are ordinarily closeted–to legitimate their sexuality and march in the streets of cities where gays ordinarily face massive oppression for their sexual orientation. At the same time, gay pride marches are currently dominated by a gay middle class seeking opportunities to market goods to a new niche, an activity that does nothing to address the needs of those millions unable to come out, given their own life circumstances.

Ending gay oppression

Historically, struggles against institutionalized oppression and violence against gays have often been limited by the political perspectives of their leaders. When the gay movement came of age in the late 1960s, most of the Left around the world looked to the former Soviet Union, China, or Cuba as models for human liberation. These were hardly inspiring social experiments for gays. In all of these societies, sexual minorities were openly, at times violently, oppressed by these so-called communist states.

The Communist Party of Cuba, like the other Stalinist states, ordered that "‘homosexual deviations’ were of a ‘socio-pathological character’ and that all manifestations of homosexual deviations are to be firmly rejected.’ Gay people who visited Cuba in 1970 out of solidarity with the regime were abused and threatened."59 Under the guise of fighting the Havana underworld, which ran gay prostitution rings before the 1959 revolution, the new Committees for the Defense of the Revolution policed the personal and public lives of gays and lesbians. The influential Popular Socialist Party gave ideological credence to the antigay campaign there by using Stalinist ideas popularized in the 1930s and 1940s to spread the notion that sexuality was not a personal matter, but "a fulfillment of obligation to society."60 Gays were often imprisoned for having "counterrevolutionary predispositions."

The fact that most socialists outside these repressive societies made excuses for this treatment created hostility among many gays toward the socialist Left. The fact that many working-class people do accept backward ideas about homosexuals, along with the generally low levels of class struggle, further distanced most gays from looking to working-class struggle as a means of challenging homophobia.

But there is a genuine pro-gay and pro-sex socialist tradition that must be defended. Eighty-seven years before sodomy laws in the U.S. were finally ended by the Supreme Court, the Russian Revolution of 1917 wiped laws against homosexuality from the criminal code. The Bolshevik Party–in the tradition of Marx and Engels and under the leadership of Trotsky and Lenin–was a mass party numbering in the hundreds of thousands at the time of the revolution, with wider support among millions of workers and peasants.

Every aspect of Russian society was thrown into turmoil by the revolution. The "curious fact" Engels had written about decades before was accurate: "A phenomenon common to all times of great agitation, that the traditional bonds of sexual relations, like all other fetters, are shaken off."61 Marx and Engels had argued that "sex love" was distorted and alienated by commodity production, and monogamy under capitalism was an extension of the bourgeois concept of private property–while sex itself was turned into a commodity. The Bolshevik Gregorii Batkis described the new attitude toward sex and sexuality in 1923:

The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class, but also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life…. [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations, provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one’s interests…. Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so called "natural" intercourse.62

Far from the rigid, asexual picture of Soviet life often depicted in Western antisocialist literature and history, a rich tapestry of possibilities in a previously backward society began to emerge in the immediate years following the revolution. Young people, in particular, experimented with a wide variety of sexual relationships and living arrangements. The success of the "new morality" was hampered by the conditions of civil war and economic deprivation that dominated Russia for more than three years after the revolution. The Bolsheviks were unable to stamp out prostitution, for example–one of the most alienated forms of bourgeois sexuality.

Alexandra Kollontai, a leading member of the Bolshevik Party, described the explosive changes in sexual relationships in 1921:

History has never seen such a variety of personal relationships–indissoluble marriage with its "stable family," "free unions," secret adultery; a girl living quite openly with her lover in so-called "wild marriage"; pair marriage, marriage in threes and even the complicated marriage of four people–not to talk of the various forms of commercial prostitution.63

Years of civil and external war eventually destroyed the Russian working class and threw the economy back to conditions not seen in more than a century. By the end of the 1920s, most gains of the revolution were lost, and Stalin rose to power at the head of a new bureaucracy that used the language of socialism to justify reactionary policies. In 1934, homosexuality was deemed a "fascist perversion" and recriminalized, and thousands of gay men were thrown into prison camps.

Socialists who stand in the revolutionary Marxist tradition have never defended these antigay policies or the Stalinist regimes that carried them out. From Marx and Engels on, revolutionary socialists have marched, organized, and fought for sexual liberation, as a precondition for the full liberation of the working class.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union Locals 509 and 2020, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the National Association of Government Employees, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1505, and the Massachusetts United Auto Workers (UAW) union all passed resolutions defending gay marriage. "Our union has taken this position in order to protect the civil rights of our members," wrote the UAW’s political caucus in a letter to state lawmakers. "Ending marriage discrimination is also a critical union issue."64

These unions, representing two hundred thousand workers in Massachusetts, who stood alongside their gay brothers and sisters to demand full marriage equality, provide a glimpse into the possibilities that exist today for class solidarity between working-class people, regardless of sexual orientation.

1 For the purposes of readability, the term "gay" here is used interchangeably with gay and lesbian and in lieu of "LGBT" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).

2 Quoted in John Boswell, "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories," in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey, eds., Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Meridian, 1989), 20.

3 Ibid., 5.

4 See, for example, Karen Sacks, "Engels Revisited: Women, the Organization of Production, and Private Property," in Rayna R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976). See also Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981).

5 For a fuller explanation of Engels’ theory, see Sharon Smith, "Engels and the Origin of Women’s Oppression," International Socialist Review 2, Fall 1997. Available online at

6 Ibid.

7 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 2001), 125.

8 Ibid., 129.

9 Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, 2nd ed. (London: Longman Limited, 1989), 99.

10 John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, eds., Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988), 16.

11 Ibid., 30.

12 John D’Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," in Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University (New York: Routledge, 1992), 13.

13 Weeks, 29.

14 Colin Wilson, Socialists and Gay Liberation (London: Socialist Workers Party, UK), 11.

15 Quoted in Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York: 1887). Available online at

16 See "Statistics on U.S. Families," That’s a Family! Women’s Educational Media, available online at

17 Sharon Lerner, "Bush’s Marriage Proposal," Village Voice, May 1—7, 2002, available online at

18 D’Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," 7.

19 Noel Halifax, cited in Daryl Croke, "Is There a Straight Gene?" Radical Queer, no. 2, available online at

20 Weeks, 21.

21 Ibid., 105.

22 D’Emilio and Freedman, 125.

23 Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey, 184.

24 Weeks, 105.

25 Ibid., 107.

26 D’Emilio and Freedman, 123.

27 D’Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," 9.

28 Wilson, 14.

29 Ibid., 15.

30 John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the U.S. 1940—1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 20.

31 See Simon LeVay, "A Difference in Hypothalmic Structure in Heterosexual and Homosexual Men," available online at

32 D’Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," 12.

33 Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Plume, 1991), 3.

34 D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 24.

35 See "America’s Involvement in Wars and Conflict," Something About Everything Military, available online at

36 Bérubé, 10.

37 Ibid., 12.

38 Ibid., 19.

39 D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 25.

40 Ibid., 26.

41 Bérubé, 30.

42 Ibid., photo inserts, 4.

43 Ibid., 33.

44 Quoted in Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), excerpt available online at

45 D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 31.

46 Wilson, 18.

47 Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey, 4.

48 See Randy Dotinga and Gregg Drinkwater, "The U.S. Gives $500,000 to Nazis’ Gay Victims,", June 1, 2001, available online at

49 D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 35.

50 Ibid., 36.

51 D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 46.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid., 108—10.

54 Ibid., 109.

55 Ibid., 138.

56 "A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements," August 21, 1970, available online at"news/"history/archive/huey.html.

57 Wilson, 20.

58 For an excellent overview on the politics of these movements from a socialist perspective, see Sharon Smith, "Mistaken Identity: Can Identity Politics Liberate the Oppressed?" International Socialism 62, March 1994.

59 Wilson, 24.

60 Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey, 448.

61 Frederick Engels, "On the Early History of Christianity," (Die Neue Zeit, 1894—5). Available online at"archive/marx/works/1894/early-christianity.

62 Wilson, 17.

63 Alexandra Kollontai, "Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle," in Alix Holt, ed., Alexandra Kollontai, Selected Writings (London: Allison & Busby, 1977). Available online at"archive/kollonta/"works/1921/sex-class-struggle.htm.

64 Steve Trussell, "Mass. Unions Join the Battle for Gay Marriage," Socialist Worker, February 6, 2004. Available online at http://""20041/485/485_02_GayMarriage.shtml.

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