The Key Differences on Gay Liberation
by John Riddell
We’ve had a lively internal discussion on gay liberation, and it’s proved to be valuable for the LSA/LSO. Sixteen contributions have been published, twelve of them in the special literary discussion over the last two months. They cover the three topics of the Political Committee Statement: our position on gay liberation; the state of the gay movement; and our intervention in it. They strengthen our understanding of gay liberation in many ways.
A number of contributions criticize the line of the Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation. The critics have stressed that they consider the Political Committee Statement a step forward, and their contributions reveal quite a wide area of agreement between them and the Political Committee.
In this framework, Comrades Russell, Faubert, McLean, and Bearchell have joined in presenting a "Proposed Revision of the Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation," which contains a series of proposed amendments.
This report will be limited to answering the points raised by these criticisms and by the "Proposed Revision."
No significant disagreements have yet come to light on our assessment of the gay movement or the strategy we propose for it. But the line of the "Proposed Revision" is clearly in conflict with the line of the Political Committee Statement on the third point — our position on gay liberation. Its standpoint is developed most fully in Comrade Russell’s contribution, "The Central Issues in the Gay Liberation Discussion." Comrade Russell summarizes the main issues in the discussion as follows :
The 1971 report, available together with other decisions of that plenum from the LSA/LSO Central Office, was the League’s first statement on gay liberation. It contained a valuable initial assessment of the gay movement, together with some conclusions for our work. These conclusions were wrong on several counts, and these errors were corrected in practice before the April 1973 convention.
Let’s take the first point, our position on gay sexuality.
Should we take a stand on gay sexuality?
The Political Committee Statement says the following on this point:
In other words, we start from the proposition of the fundamental equality of all humanity. When a section of humanity is oppressed, and denied equality, we welcome and support their struggle for equality; we oppose their oppression, and equally oppose all the fraudulent rationalizations put forward to justify this oppression.
Defenders of the oppression of gays put forward many kinds of crackpot "theories" to justify denying equal rights to gays, and many of these "theories" claim to be scientific. In rejecting these rationalizations, however, we do not put forward a counter-theory of gay sexuality. That would be contrary to our tasks as a revolutionary political organization.
The Political Committee Statement explains:
We do not take a stand on questions of culture or science such as the nature of sexuality, it continues. But, "We do not have to take a stand on the nature of sexuality to reject all forms of anti-gay discrimination, and to identify completely with the aims of the gay liberation movement. This is what we have done. We welcome the entry unto the political arena of the gay movement. We express our solidarity with the growth of gay pride. We support all the struggles of gays for equal rights."
Perhaps a very limited stand ...
As Comrade Russell notes, the 1971 Plenum Statement did go further than this — though not much further. It said :
As a positive statement of the character of gay sexuality, this is not much. "Homosexuality is a form of sexuality" is a tautology without any content. It doesn’t really say anything. The present Political Committee Statement might have tried to improve on this by saying a few words about what kind of form of sexuality it is. Instead, it says nothing. It limits itself to rejecting charges that homosexuals are sick or perverted. And the Political Committee is proposing today that we add nothing to the statement on this point. Why?
Some comrades have wondered if the Political Committee is perhaps being rigid and dogmatic on this point. Comrade Duncan McLean suggests in his contribution, "Problems with the Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation" that some kind of affirmative statement is surely possible. "The statement ‘gayness is not a sickness’ is a sentence with a double negative," he says. "It can be expressed also as ‘gayness is healthy.’" He later suggests the phrase "gayness is normal." The amendments suggest we say that homosexuality is "significant" and "legitimate."
Comrade McLean’s point is thought-provoking. But there’s a distinction to be made here. We defend the rights of gays, and we therefore reject all the false rationalizations offered to justify their oppression. But affirming that a person’s sexual orientation is a private matter is not the same thing as expressing an opinion on the inherent worth of their sexual orientation. Rejecting the quack anti-gay "theories" does not require us to propose a substitute theory. Defending the rights of gays does not involve passing judgment on their sexual preference.
We can see the same distinction in the case of Soviet dissidents, who are jailed as "sick" or "insane." Defense actions in Canada reject claims that anyone with their dissenting views must be "sick." But this does not involve passing judgment on the correctness of their point of view.
Comrade McLean suggests that there should be some simple non-controversial statement we can make about homosexuality. What should we say? We could say that it’s "frequent." That’s indisputable, and it helps show that gays aren’t "sick." But child-beating is even more frequent. The word "frequent" doesn’t tell us much; it does not indicate whether we approve or disapprove.
Comrade McLean suggests that we say homosexuality is "normal." This is a modest, inoffensive word, and it doesn’t sound particularly audacious. But when someone asks you, "What do you mean by the word ‘normal’?" — what are we to say? "Normal" means "conforming to the standard." What standard are we talking about?
Homosexuality certainly doesn’t conform to the standard of capitalist society. We therefore must be speaking of some other standard. A moral standard? That would be the approach of a religious organization, not a political one. We’re not out to pass moral judgment on forms of sexuality. Do we mean standard of human nature? A standard of what humans would do in a free, non-repressive society? In either case, we will have to put forward some kind of theory of the nature of sexuality in order to define what is normal and what is not.
Once we’ve passed a motion on whether homosexual behavior conforms to some standard of normality, we’ve set a clear precedent. If the LSA/LSO is going to take a stand on one form of sexuality, it will then logically be prepared to decide whether other sexual preferences are "normal." Many choose sexual abstention as their preference. Some might argue that this is not "normal" at all, but rather a healthy defense mechanism against the deformed sexuality of capitalism. What does the LSA/LSO think of this? Is sadism "normal"— or is it abnormal, a byproduct of sexism? Where does the LSA/LSO stand?
You see, once we begin to pass judgement on sexual behavior, saying what forms we approve of and what forms we don’t, we are soon far from the realm of politics. Debates may be intriguing. But it’s all in the realm of personal speculation, not politics.
The same problem arises with other adjectives. Is homosexuality "natural"? What then is our concept of human nature? Is it "healthy"? All sexuality under capitalism is deformed; what is our theory of a "healthy" sexuality? Is it "legitimate"? "Legitimate" in whose eyes, by what standard? In each case, we must back up the adjective with theoretical proof.
If we’re adopting a position on sexuality, we should do so clearly and unambiguously — not slip it in under cover of an ambiguous phrase. And if we want to stay clear of taking a position on the worth of gay sexuality, then let’s stick to the text of the Political Committee Statement, that carefully avoids ambiguous formulations. The task of the plenum is to take a clear decision on this alternative.
... or perhaps adopt a stand but not vote on It
Comrade Russell proposes that the League advance and defend the proposition that "homosexuality is not better or worse than heterosexuality." True, he agrees that "no convention has ever taken a vote" on scientific questions like this. But "despite this, there is no pretense in our propaganda of suspending judgment on these points ... to suspend judgment on the slogan ‘Gay is Good’ would be to place a question mark over the underlying assertion of the gay movement: that homosexuality is just as good as heterosexuality."
He would have us defend a position on gay sexuality, and back it up with a scientific theory.
If we’re to have a "judgment" on this question and carry a line on it in our education, it can only be through a democratic vote by a leading body of the League. It is therefore positive that the amendments do indeed put to a vote whether the League should adopt a view on the character of sexuality.
The ‘Proposed Revision’ on scientific theories
The "Proposed Revision" proposes a series of changes in the Political Committee Statement on this point. These changes should also be considered together with the contributions to the bulletin, particularly that of Comrade Russell, that develop the point of view of the "Proposed Revision" more fully.
One sentence of the Political Committee Statement reads that the League "does not adopt positions on questions of culture, science or sexuality." They substitute the following: "(The League) does not adopt a hard ‘line’ and invoke centralism on questions of culture, science or sexuality. The League does draw on and utilize bodies of knowledge on these questions to advance the struggle for socialism." This proposal means that the League would indeed have positions on scientific questions, although League members who disagree on these points would be free to advance their own views.
Later, the "Proposed Revision" proposes that we endorse the views of some theorists : "Yet a sufficient body of scientific knowledge has been established to which we can refer, and from which we can draw some basic conclusions." It even names a few authors who provide the foundations of this theory: "... Engels and Trotsky have helped in laying the initial groundwork (along with pioneer sexologists like Wilhelm Reich) ...."
Engels and Trotsky carry a lot of weight with us, but before the League declares that they provide the foundations of a correct theory of sexuality, we’d better examine what they said on the subject. This is all the more true for Wilhelm Reich, who was a Marxist for only part of his creative life.
The "Proposed Revision" also repeats some of the phrases of the Political Committee Statement on this question, phrases that make the "Proposed Revision" a bit self-contradictory. What is significant however is the changes, and they indicate a different line from that of the Political Committee.
Our position on scientific questions
The body of Marxist thought reaches far beyond the program of a revolutionary organization. Our program is based on the method of dialectical materialism: our indispensable tool for a correct political course. But dialectical materialism has been applied to many other fields, and the conclusions reached by Marxists in scientific study are of great value to the work of a revolutionary party. For example, study of primitive matriarchal societies has helped undermine male supremacist theories that justify male domination today. Another striking example is the importance of studying the history of the working class movement in Canada.
The League favors its members undertaking personal study in these fields — outside the framework of their regular party tasks. But for a revolutionary party to control, regulate, or take positions on such questions harms the party — and it also obstructs the progress of scientific study. The views of Marxists on history, anthropology, or sexuality can stand on their own feet. Resolutions of party conventions are not required and will not help establish the authority of Marxist scientific conclusions.
How does it hurt us to take positions on scientific questions? First, except for a small handful of specialists in the field, members of the League have no access to the facts on which a position is based. They cannot form an independent opinion. The best they cart do is give a vote of confidence to this or that scientific specialist. Second, our positions are not going to be tested in experience, so there’s no way of resolving differences and correcting errors. So it tends to break a political party into rival cliques. Third, taking positions like this does not promote our goal — building a revolutionary combat party. It depoliticizes us, it makes us less able to grow into a mass party, and it tends to transform us into an esoteric cult. After all, you don’t want fusion negotiations blocked by a disagreement on the views of Wilhelm Reich on sexuality, or the shape of the primitive matriarchy, or whether the universe originated in a "big bang." If we take positions on such questions, we will not grow.
Everything we do aims to prepare to lead the masses to victory in political combat. That’s our purpose, our only purpose: to prepare for combat. Anything that doesn’t promote that goal is a dead weight on the party, blocking our progress.
Scientific study and discussion
Comrade McLean has made some important points about the general importance of cultural questions to Marxists. A revolutionary party favors the free development of cultural and scientific discussions, and we favor Marxists undertaking personal work in these fields. Sometimes we find it useful to provide a platform for this kind of discussion, in our forums, or in our press. Sometimes we indirectly provide resources that help an established Marxist view gain a hearing, as we did on the Evelyn Reed tour. But it’s not our task as a political organization to develop scientific positions or pass judgment on scientific debates.
Comrade McLean’s contribution "On the Guinea Pig Speech," LSA/LSO Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 11, asks if League members can express their views in public discussions on questions like the nature of homosexuality, provided that they make it clear where the League’s position ends and their purely personal views begin. Of course we can. The relevant paragraphs from the Political Committee Statement make the line of distinction absolutely clear, and therefore assist comrades who want to participate in discussions like this.
In all this, a sense of proportion is required.
First, on some questions, like the Marxist theory of the matriarchy, Marxists have long ago reached many conclusions whose authority is well established. We can gain from working to ensure that these views get a hearing. This is not the case on the question of sexuality, as Comrade Russell has agreed. Scientific study is in its infancy; there is no developed Marxist view. It would be dead wrong for the League to become identified with this or that view.
Second, we’re a very small movement. We don’t get chances to speak for the League in new arenas very often; we need to use them to get the maximum hearing for the League’s program. In other words, as members of the League, our political tasks are our prime concern.
Third, our resources are very limited. We aren’t leading a workers state, as the Bolsheviks were under Lenin and Trotsky. We don’t have an active publishing house like Pathfinder. We don’t even have our first weekly paper. We have to center our limited resources on the most immediate tasks.
Problems with Comrade Russell’s proposal
The general problems of trying to take a position on sexuality are underscored by the difficulties of the view proposed by Comrade Russell, the view also put forward by the "Proposed Revision." His thesis is that homosexuality is rooted in human instincts, and that it is "just as much a part of basic human sexual behavior as heterosexuality." He points to a range of scientific evidence to prove his case.
Comrade Russell cites evidence of the widespread extent of homosexuality in North American society, of its prevalence in other human societies and the considerable degree of toleration it enjoys in a good proportion of them, and finally, to the existence of homosexuality among the primates: our closest biological relatives in the animal world.
But as a scientific view, this theory is not self-evident. It is open to question on several points. Comrade Russell has proposed a theory of what human instincts are in the area of sexual behavior. But among psychologists, theories of human instincts are generally discredited. Specialists have not been able to determine what is "instinctual" behavior. Data on behavior of animals is also questionable. Most of you have read articles by Evelyn Reed debunking the view that we can draw conclusions about human society today by studying primates.
Marxists pose an additional question. Even if it can be proven that something has existed in every human society that ever was, this does not convince us that it will exist in the future. It does not prove that it’s instinctive. We think that socialist revolution will open up an incalculable transformation of society. We think that all human society until now is only "prehistory", with the end of class society the real free and creative history of humankind will only begin.
Comrades must examine Comrade Russell’s view care-fully. The range of debate will extend from the animal world, through primitive and class society, into the communist world of the future.
But it would be wrong for the LSA/LSO to adopt or defend this view.
We all reject the deformation of sexuality under capitalism. It’s natural that we try to imagine what a free sexuality would be like — and we speculate about the society of the future. But we must remember how little we know.
Will future humanity evolve toward developing sexuality and infuse it into every aspect of life? Or will it find that when sexual liberation is achieved, sexual expression begins to decline in importance as a form of human activity? Will future humanity maintain some kind of distinction between males and females in social life, or will this differentiation between the two sexes begin to wither away? Who knows? All we can say is that the speculations of present humanity, deformed as we are by capitalist oppression, carry no weight. We must be careful not to mistake our hopeful speculations for scientific conclusions.
Of course we utilize the evidence of scientific studies in refuting reactionary "theories" about homosexuality. Some of the ways we can do this are indicated in Comrade Russell’s speech at a public forum in Winnipeg, reprinted in the Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 5. He cites the evidence of the Kinsey report on the extent of homosexuality, evidence of its extent in other societies, and evidence that gay oppression has not existed in every society. Other comrades might make their points in other ways.
But these are all ways of challenging the scientific validity of anti-gay "theories." We show that they are not logical deductions from established fact. We give examples of where their facts are wrong, their logic is wrong, their thinking displays gross irrational prejudice, their "theories" are motivated by crude prejudice, not scientific impartiality.
This is how we handle "theories" that Blacks are inferior. It’s not hard to debunk them. It doesn’t require you to develop a "socialist" theory of racial differentiation. If we give the impression that you must adopt some other theory of sexuality in order to reject the anti-gay theories, it weakens our case.
We have a simpler, and surely a very convincing case to present. We start from the proposition of the fundamental equality of all humanity. We reject all the rationalization for denying equal rights to gays. We hold that homosexuals are equal in rights, capacities, in human worth, and we combat the oppression that denies them full equality.
Is socialism necessary?’
Comrade Russell points out the second major problem he sees in the Political Committee Statement as follows:
The 1971 Plenum Report stated: "Sexual repression and the oppression of homosexuals is part and parcel of the system. It will take a socialist revolution to lay the groundwork to eliminate this form of oppression." Since 1971 we have moved toward greater caution and greater precision in statements like this. This is reflected in the 1972-73 discussion of the fight for the right to abortion, and in the evolution of our position on Quebec, as well as gay liberation.
The Political Committee Statement points to the evidence that ending gay oppression requires gays to join in the struggle for socialism. It shows how gay liberation challenges key institutions of capitalism. It points to the fact that decaying capitalism in general tends to rein-force oppression in all spheres, to deepen human misery. This is why the struggle for democratic rights as a whole cannot be won without workers’ power. The Statement says that anti-gay hysteria is an important prop of reactionary and fascist ideology. It also mentions that gay oppression is related to sexual oppression in general, which is a general feature of capitalist rule. And it says gay liberation will require quite a fight, and that gays must look to the working class movement as a potential ally in a showdown struggle.
It’s an overwhelming case that gay activists should "throw in their lot with the working class in the struggle against capitalist rule."
It is true that the bourgeoisie can be forced to grant concessions. Under certain circumstances it can go very far in granting concessions — at least for a time. We sometimes say that "the only concession it can never grant is to concede power." Could it dismantle the apparatus of discriminatory practices against gays, without giving up the patriarchal family? It has not been proven that this is impossible. Comrade Russell shows how homosexuality has been tolerated in other societies with a patriarchal family structure. Tolerating homosexuality would not force capitalism to free the housewife from compulsory domestic labor or childbearing, or free children from the tyranny of their parents.
The family is certainly a barrier to gay liberation. But this does not exclude the theoretical possibility that discrimination against gays could be ended without destroying the patriarchal family.
Would this mean ending gay oppression? We’ll see in a moment that there’s a disagreement about what constitutes "gay oppression." Of course, if "gay oppression" includes the general oppression of sexuality that everyone suffers, you can’t end it short of socialism.
But if you view it as the specific disabilities and discrimination suffered by gays, then you cannot prove conclusively that capitalism is incapable under any conceivable circumstances of ending this problem.
But isn’t the whole debate here sterile? It’s like Mandel’s position that capitalism can hypothetically accept the liberation of Quebec. Rather than discussing what might happen in a hypothetical capitalism, shouldn’t we discuss what is happening in the real capitalist society we live in? That’s what the Political Committee Statement does, and it makes a convincing case for gays to support the struggle for socialism.
The aims of gay liberation
The question of the definition of gay liberation bears on the same question. The "Revised Version" changes this definition to encompass goals that clearly can only be achieved after a socialist revolution. Where the Political Committee Statement reads, "The gay liberation movement is a movement for democratic rights," the "Proposed Revision" deletes the sentence. It substitutes this:
The comrades proposing the amendments are clearly worried that calling the gay movement a struggle for democratic rights will lead us to underestimate its importance. Comrade Bearchell says, "If democratic rights were all that was required for (gay) liberation, none of us would be fighting for socialism." Comrade Russell writes, "... gay liberation has a revolutionary potential — it is not solely a movement for civil rights." On the face of it, these sentences underestimate the revolutionary potential of democratic struggles. But the question before us is the dynamic of the gay movement.
First of all, the gay movement is obviously many things. The Political Committee Statement defines it to include gay churches. There is a lively gay press that encompasses art and poetry. And so on. The phrase of the Political Committee Statement, that it is "a movement for democratic rights," was talking of its political dimension.
The desire to be free of sexual suffering, for sexual liberation if you will, is surely one of the most pervasive feelings of modern capitalism. Among youth, it can lead to demands for freedom in sexual expression that the Young Socialists include in their general program.
But Comrade Russell’s summary of the gay movement’s program — a list of demands that expresses our general position — touches on sexual repression as such on only one point: the demand to end all "age of consent" laws. It is purely a program of democratic rights, for equal treatment for gays — not a program for sexual liberation.
The comrades proposing the amendments seem to grant much of this, in saying that equal rights is the "present focus" of the movement. But even if this program were granted in full, they tell us, the gay movement would stride forward to do battle against sexual repression in general, "not just civil rights." They advance no evidence to back this up. It seems utter speculation. The same is true of the claim that the gay movement aims to end sexism.
Comrade Russell can explain the meaning of the phrase "ending the exclusive heterosexual norm." If it is just another way of saying "end discrimination against gays," it’s already contained in the statement. If it means something more than that, it shouldn’t be in the statement.
There’s a danger that the definition of "gay liberation" could be arbitrarily expanded to encompass aspects of the gay movement that we should not take a stand on. For example, many in the gay movement argue the benefits of gays "coming out" — that is making no secret of their sexual preference. Comrade Chris Bearchell says that we should take a stand on this question, that we should explain "the need for gays to ‘come out’." We have a rule in the League leadership: the League must not give anyone advice on their private lives — how they should live and who they should live with. If we did, we’d have to take responsibility for the consequences — for how things turned out. We do better when we stick to politics. Comrade Bearchell’s position is contrary to our policy. It also shows, I think, the dangerous logic of taking a position on the "legitimacy" of gay sexual preference. It takes us out of the realm of politics.
There’s another danger here. A concern not to underestimate the importance of gay liberation could lead us to ascribe to it features, and an importance, that are not really there. If we take the example of the family, the women’s liberation movement clearly has a program directed against the heart of the patriarchal family structure. Demands for women to control their bodies, for liberation from compulsory responsibility for child-bearing and for domestic labor, and for equal rights at school, work, and other activities — these demands, if fully won, would dismantle the patriarchal family beyond repair.
This is not true of the gay movement. Gay oppression is closely linked to the family; it can be viewed as an outgrowth of the morality established to buttress the family — like the prohibition on sexual expression among youth. Demands for gay liberation come into conflict with the family, as well as other capitalist institutions. But they are demands for equal rights, democratic demands, that do not necessarily require the destruction of the family, or of repressive sexual morality, as a whole, for their achievements.
It’s in that framework that the gay movement has grown, and assumed all the importance that we recognize, and that is noted in the Political Committee Statement.
The amendments contained in the "Proposed Revision of the Political Committee Statement" have been helpful in focusing attention on the key points in this discussion. They also include suggestions by the critics of the Political Committee Statement that are in line with the Statement. Critics of the Statement are correct to point out that the League utilizes the conclusions of science to help convince people of our views — and this is quite obvious in every issue of Liberation and Labor Challenge.
They are right in pointing out that "Gay is Good" is, among other things, an expression of gay pride. However, as Comrade Russell’s contribution indicates, "Gay is Good" means other things as well, and we can best maintain the clarity of the Political Committee Statement by not changing its formulation on gay pride.
Finally, the critics are correct in saying that League members participate — as individuals — in scientific or cultural discussions in the gay liberation movement and elsewhere. Where these and other points raised in the literary discussion require changes in the text of the Political Committee Statement, this will be done when the Statement is edited.
The task of this plenum, of course, is not to vote on the wording of the Statement, but on its line. The "Proposed Revision" of the Political Committee Statement presents a line counter to that of the Statement on several essential points. This plenum should vote to reject the revision, and to adopt the general line of the Political Committee Statement and of this report.
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