Class Society and Gay Oppression
by Stuart Russell
This report is being presented by four comrades who are proposing a series of amendments to the Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation. It is not a counter-report from a tendency or faction, but rather from a number of comrades presently intervening in the gay liberation movement, who in the course of the literary discussion have put forward a number of criticisms relating to the Statement.
Unfortunately one of the immediately apparent weaknesses of the literary discussion, which formally draws to a close at this Plenum, was the total lack of any interchange on the questions in dispute. The exchange that should have appeared in the pages of the bulletin has occurred mostly over the telephone during the past week, as well as during a number of informal discussions. Hopefully this Plenum will enable this crucial exchange of viewpoints to occur — which in our view is the road to political clarity.
However, we are already witnessing the beginnings of a convergence on some important questions in debate before this Plenum. This is a significant development. With further discussion we can be confident of surmounting obstacles in the road of a full convergence. Comrades should see that as the task of this session.
The purpose of this report is: 1) to discuss the areas and specific points of agreement between the comrades proposing the amendments and the Political Committee, 2) to concentrate most of the report on our disagreements and points of unclarity, to see if we can go further toward resolving them, 3) to motivate the vote we’re proposing to the Central Committee, and 4) to make some remarks about the discussion on gay liberation in our movement.
Points of agreement
In his report on behalf of the Political Committee, John Riddell says that we as the LSA /LSO are in favour of the process of revolutionists doing research into questions of science, culture and sexuality, and that we’re in favour of promoting science. In so doing he makes reference to amendment number 5. We welcome this statement as an extremely important step toward political clarity. As I mentioned at the beginning of this report, in our opinion a process of convergence is unfolding in the discussion. The attitude of the PC on this question is an indication of that process.
The PC report also states that our movement utilizes science to refute anti-gay and reactionary theories relating to homosexuality. This again is another positive sign.
The League uses the tools of science — we base ourselves on its findings — while at the same time not adopting this or that particular body of evidence or theory. In the same sense no one is proposing a Marxist theory of sexuality, or even of homosexuality, for a vote at this Plenum. Contributing to the elaboration of such a theory, however, should be seen as a long term goal for our movement. At the same time the PC says that amendment number 8 — which refers to participating in discussions relating to gay oppression and more general theoretical questions — is ambiguous, but nonetheless we encourage this process.
Insofar as the slogan and concept "Gay is Good" is an expression of gay pride the PC says that it can accept amendment number 3. They say however in the same breath that we cannot include the formulation "Gay is Good" in the Statement because its meaning can be misinterpreted. In our opinion this is an ambiguous and very unclear position.
Nevertheless, the fact that we now agree on some very basic questions that previously were in dispute is very positive. It should be underlined, as John did in his report, that we also agree on what our strategy should be for the gay liberation movement, despite any important tactical differences we might have.
Points of disagreement
I now want to get into the section that this report is focused on: namely our points of disagreement relating to the PC statement.
Some comrades have asked if our amendments stand on their own feet. Our answer is that they primarily stand on the most recent written contributions, and more precisely they rest on this report. So while comrades may want to make reference to earlier contributions, like those written before the last convention, it would be best to refer to the most recent ones. In other words, as we see it there has been a certain evolution in the discussion — not a basic change in our position — but a progression toward a more clear and precise elaboration of our viewpoint.
Also it is true to say that the Revised Statement we submitted goes further than the eight amendments only insofar as it reflects an attempt to explain what the amendments would mean if adopted. But the Revised Statement, which is in essence a working proposal, does not diverge on questions of line from the proposed amendments themselves.
Class society and gay oppression
The first point I want to discuss at some length is the question which is at the very heart of a Marxist analysis of the struggle for gay liberation — the relationship between gay oppression, class society and the nuclear family.
The PC believes that our movement should not reaffirm the understanding that capitalism cannot grant gay liberation. In contrast, the Gay Liberation report to the 1971 Plenum said the following: "Sexual repression and the oppression of homosexuals is part and parcel of this system. It will take a socialist revolution to lay the groundwork to eliminate this form of oppression. This was recognized by the Bolsheviks in 1917." In our opinion this is a correct and precise perspective, it may not be entirely cautious, but its conclusion is correct, and that’s what counts. We stand firm on this acquisition of the League and the Marxist movement, and ask why the PC is trying to retreat from it?
Our movement has analyzed that while capitalism is capable of granting certain demands of the women’s liberation movement, like for example repealing the abortion laws, it is incapable of granting full women’s liberation or of eliminating this form of oppression.
Similarly, in our opinion class society is capable of granting certain democratic rights as a result of the mobilization of gay people, but it is incapable of granting full gay liberation or eliminating gay oppression — which would entail the elimination of sexual oppression and all that, that entails.
In the contribution "The Central Issues in the Gay Liberation Discussion" we stated: "while partial concessions can be wrested from the capitalist state by the struggle of large numbers of gays for their rights, so long as society is predicated on the need to suppress homosexual behaviour the full rights of gay people will not be achieved. The oppression of gays is so deeply rooted in the needs and fabric of capitalist society that nothing short of a socialist revolution can win their full liberation."
A correct position on the family is absolutely crucial to this discussion. Previously we thought the PC agreed that the family should be added to the list of institutions that the gay liberation movement challenges — in reference to amendment number 2 — but without the implication that it need be dismantled to achieve gay liberation. Now the PC has retrogressed even further to say that they can’t adopt this amendment at all. This means the PC isn’t sure about the centrality of the family to the maintenance of gay oppression.
The family is where anti-gay prejudices begin, and is a fundamental pillar of sexual and gay oppression. The family serves the function of harnessing the unpaid labor of women, allows society to slough off social responsibility for individuals and especially the young onto a small social unit, acts as a profound conservatizing force, maintains sexual and gay oppression, permits the reproduction of the working class, and so on. It plays the role of a socializing force, enforcing monogamy and perpetuating rigid sex roles which is the key area wherein the family oppresses gays. Such roles are in direct contradiction to the experience of every gay person’s sexual and emotional experience. "Men" and "women" are defined in relation to each other. Reich called it, among other things, "the factory of authoritarian ideologies and conservative structures." Perhaps the family could survive if sexual rights for youth were granted, but it could not coexist side-by-side with total sexual liberation, because sexual oppression is woven into the very fabric of the family and the system it upholds.
Thus the fundamental bulwark or central focus of sexual and gay oppression is the monogamous, heterosexual family. In "Problems with the Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation" it was stated that, "gay liberation does not, in and of itself, challenge the overall doctrines of religion, the system of education, the existence of the courts or the governments in nearly such a fashion as it does the family. One can speak thousands of words about any of these institutions without touching gay oppression directly. But one cannot even think of the concept: nuclear family, let alone write a paragraph describing it, without thinking of or describing an institution directly counter-posed to gay liberation. The family ... is by its very nature, essence, and to its very core, anti-gay."
This flows from the fact that since homosexual behaviour is non-procreative, it threatens the proper functioning of the nuclear family. Since this behaviour goes against the maintenance of this central pillar of class society it must be regulated and ruthlessly repressed. We should recall that one of the favourite accusations of anti-gay bigots, is that the gay movement is out to "ruin the family."
It is impossible to dismantle gay oppression without dismantling the family, because it is not possible to eliminate sexual oppression without abolishing the family. The two are inseparably and dialectically inter-related. The final elimination of the family will only come after a socialist revolution, and therefore, gay and sexual oppression will only be eliminated under a classless society. Thus gay liberation has an objectively and-capitalist dynamic. As Reich said, "Since the compulsive family, economically and ideologically, is part and parcel of authoritarian society, it would be utterly naive to expect that its effects could possibly be eradicated within this society."
Of course the gay movement challenges institutions like the legal system differently from the family or religion. Most of its demands presently revolve around civil rights — which directly come into collision with the laws, the courts and the cops. However, even if civil rights were granted and discrimination was ended gay oppression would still continue to exist. Gay oppression evolved alongside the rise of the patriarchal family and class society as well as rigid anti-homosexual religious codes —they are inextricably bound to the repression of homosexual behavior.
This is why we need to distinguish between the present demands and long term goals of the gay movement. As Marxists we not only analyze a social movement by studying its present demands, but also by examining its dynamic —what direction it is headed in, and what fundamental changes need to occur to win emancipation. For example, the feminist movement is presently mobilized around issues like abortion repeal, the ERA, childcare centres—all basic democratic rights. But we don’t put blinders on and mechanistically deduce that therefore the struggle of women for their liberation is only limited to civil rights, because we understand the underlying thrust of this movement—not only to end discrimination and win civil rights, but to dismantle the family, and destroy sexism and sexual oppression.
What is gay and sexual oppression all about? It means irrational sex-stereotyping, male chauvinism, inculcating the norms of an authoritarian society, sexism, psychological oppression, homophobia, self-oppression, the binding of sexuality to procreation and the pervasiveness of the exclusive heterosexual norm. Its function is first and foremost the maintenance of the family, as well as helping to create submissive, docile workers to keep its system churning out profits, and helping the ruling class to divide the oppressed. Does anyone really think that capitalism could survive without it?
Where did gay oppression come from, and why are gays oppressed? To answer these burning questions we need to analyze the roots of gay oppression. A materialist view of gay oppression is based on the understanding that it developed with the rise of class society, and will only be eliminated with the destruction of this form of society.
In her introduction to the pamphlet Women’s Liberation in Canada, Kate Alderdice wrote: "But women will never win total liberation in the framework of this society. It cannot free them from the burden of labor in the home, or integrate them fully into economic and social life. It has no interest in doing so. The oppression of women is one of the main pillars of capitalist society and will not disappear until capitalism itself does. It will require a major social struggle and complete reorganization of society to free women from servitude.... Only a socialist Canada can, for the first time, create the conditions to eliminate the oppression of women and all forms of exploitation." And, we might add, including the repression of homosexuality.
A socialist revolution is the fundamental prerequisite for the final elimination of gay oppression as with all forms of oppression.
The key institution of the family as presently constituted can never "incorporate" homosexuality. "Gay families" are inconceivable. What niche are gay people to have in capitalism? Where are we to live? How are we to fit into the social fabric? How are centuries of religious taboos to be wiped out? Since when does tolerance, which is the best and unlikely token a straight, capitalist society can offer, equal liberation?
What are the implications of refusing to clearly affirm that capitalism cannot grant gay liberation? How would we respond to a gay militant who asks us why he or she should struggle for socialism if gay oppression can be eliminated under this society?
While it is true to say that gay rights may be granted under class society — maybe even the elimination of anti-gay discrimination to an extent— it is ludicrous to believe that gay or sexual liberation can be granted. And if you don’t understand that you really don’t understand what gay liberation is all about! In "Gay Liberation: The Need For a Socialist Perspective" it was noted that: "We must be absolutely clear that Gay people have a role to play as well as a stake in the socialist victory. We must recognize that wresting even an impressive series of legal concessions from capitalism is not the equivalent of winning liberation— socialism is required."
Some comrades have expressed the opinion that the potential of gay liberation is somehow limited because its current demands are primarily democratic. The idea flows from the false concept that democratic demands have a minor role to play in the struggle for socialism. The character of a particular demand, however, flows from its ability to set masses of people in action against the system, not whether it falls into one category or another. The false counter-position of democratic and transitional demands and underestimation of the significance and power of democratic demands is a fundamental revision of the transitional approach. Therefore, we not only need to be able to win gays to the struggle for socialism, but also to consistently defend the present tactical focus by the gay movement on civil rights, which is the best method to mobilize the largest numbers in the fight for gay liberation and build a mass, militant gay movement.
Does the Political Committee recognize the important distinction between the concept of discrimination and oppression? From John’s report we are led to believe that the terms can be used interchangeably, which is not true. Discrimination is the practice of employing prejudicial judgment against minorities on the basis of their supposed inferiority. But gay oppression is reflected not only in the discrimination and persecution directed against persons who are either known or suspected to be gay, but also in the pervasive efforts of this system to completely suppress homosexuality even before it may arise, and to threaten violators with severe reprisals. The effects of this oppression are felt on a much wider scale than merely among those who admit, whether to themselves or publicly, to being gay.
As Novack pointed out, the tendency in the epoch of imperialist decay is not toward more democratic rights being granted, but a retreat in this process. As John Riddell said in "A New Period in Canadian Politics," printed in Labor Challenge. "In today’s conditions of growing crisis, it is more and more difficult to convince big business that it can grant any reforms at all." This is not to underestimate the importance of democratic rights in the revolutionary process, or to say that certain rights won’t be won.
As well, what indications are there that capitalism is capable or willing to grant full gay liberation? The entire experience of the gay movement in Canada and Quebec since 1971 has illustrated that capitalism is reluctant to even grant the most minimal concessions — and then only as a result of the persistent mobilization of gays.
Nature of homosexuality
The next point I want to deal with is on the nature of homosexuality. Can the League reaffirm its approach to the nature of homosexuality? The PC says no, and adds that it was wrong for us to take such an approach in the past.
Our view is summed up in a passage under the heading "The Marxist Approach to Homosexuality" in the 1971 Plenum Report: "For Marxists, the question of sexual repression and homosexuality is not new. The materialist view of homosexuality has been very clear. Homosexuality is not a perversion, not a disease but a form of human sexuality." This flows from our rejection of the notions that homosexuality is a "perverted", "sick", "sinful", "unnatural" or "deviant" form of behavior.
However, the PC believes that we must retreat from the 1971 approach in order to say nothing whatsoever. On the contrary not only should this statement be reaffirmed, in the long-term it must be amplified and elaborated upon in order to aid in the development of a Marxist analysis of sexuality. Some may scoff and claim this is not a "political" question. But the repression of homosexual behavior and the movement that has flourished to destroy it are very political questions.
On the one hand, the PC claims to reject the notion that gays are sick, yet on the other hand it states that the movement should take no "stand" on the nature of homosexuality. Yet in our society, homosexuality is branded an illness, and it is one of the main "justifications" for the oppression of homosexually-oriented persons. How can the Statement seriously propose to leave open the question of the nature of homosexuality and in the same breath claim to reject "with contempt" the idea that it is an illness?
What does the Statement have in mind with the concept of the "value" of homosexuality? Does this mean that it wishes to suspend judgment on whether homosexuality can be a positive factor in the lives of gays, rather than something to be ashamed of, denied, and suppressed? Does it mean to suggest that in the face of a gay person’s assertion that it is better to openly and proudly accept one’s homosexuality than to hide and force oneself into a constricting heterosexual mold, revolutionists should stand by silently, or note that we have no opinion?
This is not a matter of taking a stand on personal tastes. Personal tastes have nothing whatsoever to do with this. What is involved is a recognition of historical and scientific fact, as well as an expression of solidarity with the central thrust of gay liberation, which is to bring about a society in which exclusive heterosexuality is no longer the norm.
The 1971 position means that homosexuality is a component of the human sexual continuum — that homosexuality is not abnormal. It was doing nothing more. In fact, the very essence of gay liberation is predicated on the rejection of the un-materialist and anti-sexual notion that homosexuality is an illness, and an affirmation that gay is just as good as straight.
In other words, we can say that homosexuality is within the range of normalcy in the human animal and is therefore a legitimate component of human sexual behavior. However, of course, we don’t vote on the findings of Kinsey or other sexologists on whom we base our analysis, or impose centralism on their conclusions.
It is also true to say that there are other possibilities for theories relating to homosexuality. There are reactionary theories, conservative theories, liberal theories as well as the beginnings of materialist theories. But for the Political Committee to say that the League should not reaffirm the materialist view of homosexuality is a retreat, and a very serious error.
Exclusive heterosexual norm
The PC is also not sure that one of the long-term goals of the gay movement is the elimination of the exclusive heterosexual norm. This concept is simply the summation of what gay oppression is based on — the forced channeling of people into one exclusive form of sexual behavior, which is codified in law and perpetuated by every major institution. This norm is reinforced by all the institutions of capitalist society, beginning with the family, and continues in the schools and churches. Individuals who refuse to conform to this norm can be threatened with jail, physical extermination or mutilation. Thus no one is permitted free sexual choice under our society. The norm is deeply rooted in the evolution of the Judeo-Christian ethic, but we don’t have time to go into that.
The implication of the destruction of the exclusive heterosexual norm is that this forced channeling would cease, that individuals could freely choose their sexual preference without any social restriction. The elimination of such a compulsory norm, which has existed for centuries, would not mean the imposition of an exclusive homosexual norm or any other irrational norm, but that sexuality could be divorced from procreation. The enormous potential of human sexuality would finally be unleashed.
Nobody should demean this goal on the spurious grounds that it is not "political" in the strict sense of the word. The fact is that the elimination of this norm is an objective precondition for full homosexual liberation. In the same sense we say that one of the objective pre-requisites for the construction of socialism is the abolition of private property and capital.
It is difficult to read the Statement, with its repetitive stressing of the fact that the revolutionary party is a political organization, without coming away with the feeling that it intends to suggest that there is something inherently apolitical, cultural, or countercultural about gay liberation. Without ever directly stating so, it manages to imply that the gay liberation struggle, by its very nature, raises issues that the League should avoid, steer clear of, and indeed that these issues pose such a danger for the movement that it must go out of its way to make clear that it avoids and steers clear of them. So serious is this danger that to take a position on them would risk narrowing its appeal and crippling its ability to mobilize the masses. Clearly, there is something about gay liberation that is seen as posing a threat to the movement’s ability to carry out its tasks—a threat that the Statement warns against in terms one cannot imagine being invoked in regard to any other struggle of the oppressed.
In what does this threat lie? Apparently in the insistence of the gay liberation movement that the exclusive heterosexual norm of society represents a distortion of human sexuality and that homosexuality is not inferior to heterosexuality. It no doubt also lies in the fact that this insistence of the gay liberation movement is being advanced within the revolutionary movement by comrades such as ourselves, who regard it as a crucial question, the answer to which will determine the nature of the relationship the movement will have toward this struggle. We believe this threat to be imaginary.
We would simply be deluding ourselves and gay militants if we thought that a civil rights perspective was sufficient for the gay struggle. A transitional approach to this struggle is premised. on the need to construct a bridge between the struggles to eliminate the most blatant forms of gay oppression and the long-term goals of complete homosexual liberation. A correct perspective on the need to eliminate the heterosexual norm can hasten the process of gay concluding that they need to throw their lot in with the working class in the struggle for socialism.
Saying that the elimination of this norm is a precondition for gay liberation is also not an attempt to predetermine what sexual behavior would be like after a successful socialist revolution. No one knows the answer. We can be sure that it will be free from repressive attitudes and compulsory norms. But sexual liberation will only come if the revolutionary vanguard inscribes it onto its banner before, during, and after a socialist revolution. Otherwise, there will be no sexual revolution.
Gay pride and ‘Gay Is Good’
We now come to a point which potentially could, and I hope won’t, become a lavender herring in the discussion — here I am referring to the question of our attitude to gay pride and the concept "Gay is Good." The Political Committee says that if we solidarize with gay pride we then solidarize with its manifestations. Yet they equivocate and add the disclaimer that providing we stay "clearly away from" the concept "Gay is Good."
It is true to say that "Gay is Good" equals gay pride, while also meaning other things. In our 1973 Political Resolution we correctly noted that : "Gay Pride’ announces that homosexuality is a significant and legitimate component of human sexuality."
The concept "Gay is Good" or "Gay is Just as Good as Straight" means that homosexuality is not better and not worse than heterosexuality— it is simply a fact. It is a message to the entire world that homosexuality is neither criminal nor abnormal, as society tries so hard to portray it. It is a profound message to closeted gays —imploring them to be proud of their homosexuality, to come out of the closet of centuries of oppression and join the struggle for a sex-positive society. In essence it is a profound expression of gay pride, just as "Black is Beautiful" is an affirmation of the pride of Black people.
The concept of coming out is also an aspect of this discussion. In "Gay Liberation: The Need for a Socialist Perspective" this was explained as the following: "The immeasurable emotional toll taken by constant deception (often accompanied by a painful lack of self-respect) alone is just not worth it. The most obvious advantage of all is that the more people who are open the easier it becomes for those still in the closet to come out. It need not be argued that collective political struggle is more important. Of course it is. But unfortunately or not, for Gay people coming out is often a prerequisite. It is hard to remain in the closet and still march down the street chanting ‘Gay Rights Now’."
"Gay is Good" is a statement affirming the positive nature of homosexuality against the predominant bourgeois viewpoint. It demands the acceptance by society of gays as completely equal human beings.
For these reasons we are recommending that the Statement be amended to read that we express our solidarity with the growth of gay pride, and with its contemporary and popular expression embraced in the affirmative slogan "Gay is Good." We want to once again underline and clearly state, however, that this slogan is not up for a vote.
Our proposal for the vote
This in turn raises the question of what is the nature of our amendments. First of all, they don’t represent a hidden or overt counter-statement. In fact, our purpose in drafting the amendments was to aid in the clarification and improvement of a basically very good Statement drafted by the PC. Our recommendation is that the Central Committee vote on the general line of the Proposed Amendments, in the view of strengthening our movement’s analysis of and approach to the gay liberation movement, and the general line of this report.
In conclusion we want to emphasize that the willingness of the Political Committee to embrace a number of amendments, coupled with the process of convergence represents a step forward for our movement in this arena. At the same time, however, the fact that the PC has argued that the movement must either retreat from, or not reaffirm, some basic acquisitions of our movement’s analysis of gay oppression and liberation represents a step backward.
We should also underscore that the points in dispute are not simply over minor tactical questions — they concern fundamental questions of theory and analysis for our intervention in the gay movement. This is why the very function of our amendments is to improve the Statement’s analysis in the interest of a more correct analysis, which can rally gay militants to the Trotskyist movement. In the long-run the ultimate test of experience will show who’s analysis is correct and who’s is not. That we can be sure of.
But this Plenum is not by any means the end of the discussion on gay liberation. While the bulletin may be closed and the discussion formally terminated, it still proceeds. It goes on because political clarity on many fronts has yet to be achieved. This Plenum is one step further to that task. The many different questions still left unanswered, and the great interest in the gay liberation topic is a further indication of the objective necessity for a more complete gay liberation resolution at our next convention. Such a resolution could, for example, round out the Statement’s important, but by and large superficial, analysis of the gay movement and homosexual oppression.
The discussion in our movement over the past five years on this question has made considerable progress, but as I think is evident to all, is far from being conclusive. The simple fact is that the League still has not gone through a real discussion on gay liberation.
We hope that the discussion here today will help further the crucial process of clarification and convergence. In line with this we think the Political Committee should consider publishing the report from the PC as well as this one in an internal bulletin. In addition, we are suggesting that in the interest of popularizing our movement’s position on gay liberation, that extracts of the adopted Statement be made public, either through an article or perhaps a pamphlet.
The contemporary gay liberation movement needs not only our activists and our organizational skills, but most importantly it needs our program — a program for winning full gay liberation in the framework of a strategy for over-throwing this decadent system. The discussion of gay liberation and socialism is not some sterile sectarian "in" debate. Many left organizations are innovatively attempting to grapple with it, as are more and more leading gay militants who can be won to our movement. Gay activists need a materialist scientific analysis to explain their oppression and the road to their liberation. Only the LSA /LSO can provide such a perspective.
The elaboration of a Marxist analysis of the roots and origins of gay oppression is a major challenge before the international Trotskyist movement. This Plenum here today takes us one step further toward that all-important goal.
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