The over-riding concern of Marxists has been the class struggle and gay rights were often sidelined as a result. However, since the 1960s gay rights have become a major issue, in particular in Australasia, Europe and North America.
In New Zealand, the general consensus towards homosexuals in society has historically been indifference rather than either official or unofficial hostility, except for some opposition from the now largely discredited religious right. Within New Zealand’s far Left gay rights has been a key platform since at least the 1960s as gay and lesbians have played major leadership roles in these organisations.
The religious right are hostile to homosexuality, a prejudice that dates back to ancient times. According to the religious Law of Moses it states “No man shall lie with another man as with a woman for this is an abomination to the Lord.” At the time this moral teaching was drawn up the reasoning behind it related to inheritance and the need to procreate future generations.
It was primarily because homosexuals didn’t normally have what were deemed to be “legitimate” children according to these religious laws that led to much of the hostility against homosexuals in ancient times in the Jewish and, later, the Christian faiths.
However, not all cultures imposed such bans. Both Ancient Greece and Rome tolerated homosexuality and celebrated it in both art and literature. It was even integral to some religious ceremonies. In
Japan and Vietnam no laws had ever been passed that specifically outlawed homosexuality but there was still the expectation that one’s children were expected to produce grandchildren. In many pre-European Pacific cultures homosexuality was widely practised and regarded as perfectly normal, even desirable in some cases.
In the West the ascendancy of Christianity led to homosexuality being repressed, often savagely. This remained the status quo situation until after the Black Death of 1348-1350.
It is only in recent years that the full ramifications of the Black Death have come to life. Such was the loss of life as the result of the Black Death that it created a critical shortage of labour.
As a result peasants were able to obtain their own land and even generate their own income. Many peasants were able to expand into areas previously off limits to them and to move around in search of work thanks to the critical shortage of labour. Through this social mobility, including entry into trades previously off limits to them, more people became exposed to new ideas and came into contact with peoples with traditions and cultures that were very different from their own.
The ideas the merchants brought back with them helped to fuel the second fundamental change brought about by the Black Death: disillusionment and hostility towards the Church and its clergy. The inability of the clergy to heal the sick, their all-too-often quick abandonment of the sick and the dying, and their accumulation of wealth from aristocrats and nobles who had died from the plague led to anti-clerical sentiments that would later lead to the Reformation and the Renaissance, of which the latter brought about a revolution in the arts, the sciences and a new appreciation of both ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Ideas and beliefs that had been largely tossed aside were re-examined and even embraced. These changed attitudes often extended to sexuality with many people taking the view the state and church had no business in peoples' bedrooms.
This re-examination of sexual morality was a key feature of the French Revolution and culminated in France in 1791 with homosexuality being legalised primarily as the result of the demands of the people who wanted to keep the state out of the bedroom.
The Napoleonic Code, which was imposed throughout those areas controlled by France, also legalised homosexuality but such laws were repealed once Napoleon was defeated after the Battle of Waterloo outside of France and its territories.
With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the ultra-conservative elements of European society – the church, the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats – reasserted themselves by imposing a very narrow interpretation of the family. That is, father, mother and the children. This family unit served to break down the wider ties that had been created through the extended family networks and also through more informal family ties.
This type of family, which would later become known as the nuclear family, became firmly entrenched at all levels of society to the extent that to even question its validity was condemned as heresy or unpatriotic. Anything that deviated from this was subject to brutal repression, even to the extent where homosexuals could be imprisoned, castrated or even executed.
However the idea that homosexuality was anything other than a perversion or sin didn’t take hold in society in general until the 19th Century where breakthroughs in science, particularly in zoology, botany and biology, proved that “homosexuality” was not exclusive to the human race but was also found in nature.
As archaeological and scientific discoveries proved many teachings of the Bible either wrong or open to very different interpretations to that offered by church leadership, the moral teachings of the churches came under increasing scrutiny with the result that many scholars concluded that what the churches taught had no basis in either historical or scientific fact.
Karl Marx was one of many philosophers who questioned the relevance of religion in the age of science and reason and questioned the morality that came with the religion. However, both Marx and Engels shared the contemporary views held towards homosexuals. Regardless of the individual viewpoints of the leaders of the socialist movement, it was that movement that took up the defence of homosexuals and the fight for their democratic rights as citizens.
For example, the leader of the Universal German Workingmen’s Association, Ferdinand Lassalle, defended J B von Schweitzer, who was hounded out of the legal profession because he was known to be a homosexual. Lassalle welcomed von Schweitzer as a leader of the Association. His grounds for doing so showed that early socialists understood the democratic principle at stake even if they did not understand the question of sexual politics. Lassalle declared:
“In the long run, sexual activity is a matter of taste and ought to be left up to each person, so long as he doesn’t encroach upon someone else’s interests. Though I wouldn’t give my daughter in marriage to such a man.”
It was the trial of Oscar Wilde, the famous British playwright, that galvanized the gay rights movement, especially in Britain and Germany, who noted the hypocrisy of moralists who were prepared to honour him as one of the greatest playwrights of all time but then found him guilty of gross indecency for being homosexual before shutting him out of polite society, going so far as to allow his plays to be performed but not allowing his name to be displayed.
Many Marxists saw in the treatment of Oscar Wilde a wider hypocritical trend within the bourgeoisie concept of morality in that it took upon itself the role of defining family by what was most convenient for the bourgeoisie rather than what was natural.
Indeed, even Eduard Bernstein, a Social Democratic Party writer, argued in the newspaper Die Neue Zeit in 1895, “For what is not unnatural? Our entire cultural existence, our mode of life from morning to night is a constant offence against nature, against the original preconditions of our existence. If it was only a question of what was natural, then the worst sexual excess would be no more objectionable than, say, writing a letter – for conducting social intercourse through the medium of the written word is far further removed from nature than any way as yet known of satisfying the sexual urge.”
Unfortunately, Bernstein viewed homosexuality as an illness worthy of sympathy and toleration: a commonly held bourgeoisie viewpoint at the time. This paternalistic view continued to last until well into the 20th Century.
This was not a universally held view throughout Marxism though: by the early 20th Century the belief that sexual liberation and the liberation of workers from capitalism went hand in hand was widely held by many socialists in Europe.
For many the repressive morality of religion with its endless prohibition on many sexual acts and its institution of marriage was just another means by which women and workers were exploited by the capitalist class. In Germany the gay and lesbian communities rallied behind the short-lived Soviet Republics and, later, the Weimar Republic because of their support for homosexual rights.
The most tangible gain achieved in the struggle for homosexual rights in this period was a result of the victory of the working class under the banner of revolutionary Marxism (Bolshevism) in Russia in October 1917. In December 1917 the Bolshevik government abolished all the Czarist laws that forbade or restricted homosexual activity.
This was an enormous gain and proof positive that revolutionary socialism is the key to destroying capitalism’s reactionary moral laws, as well as its other repressive laws. The world’s first workers’ state provided the only form of government prepared to enforce on behalf of homosexuals the old democratic principle that the state should not interfere in private matters. Doctor Grigorii Batkis, the director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, codified Bolshevism’s approach in a 1923 pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia. It stated:
“Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality – Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse. All forms of sexual intercourse are private matters.”
The open expression of homosexuality was tolerated to a far greater degree in post-revolutionary Russia than in the capitalist countries.
This toleration of homosexuality was quickly overturned by Stalin. Repression of homosexuals became a feature of all Stalinist regimes until most of these regimes collapsed around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The communist movements in the West that followed these countries also banned homosexuals from their ranks. Productivity and consistency were paramount in Stalinist states, and sexual minorities were seen as unproductive and non-conformist.
The Stalinists generally associated male effeminacy with luxury, leisure, and bourgeois or upper class values. Effeminate men and homosexuals were sometimes forced to participate in programmes of 're-education' involving forced labour, conversion therapy, psychotic or confinement in psychiatric hospitals drugs.
Most Stalinist states banned gay and lesbian associations, whether social or political, and banned the publication of LGBT material. Often, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, gays were denounced, dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned, deported and, in some cases, castrated or even executed.
The situation was not much better in Europe between the 1930s and 1960s where homosexuals were subjected to harassment or persecution of various degrees. In Nazi Germany they were exterminated in concentration camps.
However it was primarily in the United States with the release of the Kinsey Reports into Sexual Behaviours that was released in 1948 and 1953 that radically changed how homosexuality was perceived.
The 1948 report revealed that homosexuality was far more prevalent than previously believed as nearly half of all men surveyed had been attracted to someone of the same gender at some point in their lives, even if they defined themselves as heterosexual. Indeed there were grounds to believe that sexuality was not a lifestyle choice but determined by biological factors.
The Reports also determined that the percentage of people who identified as predominately or exclusively gay or lesbian were between 10-12% of the population.
In Britain in 1957 the Wolfenden Commission of Enquiry into homosexuality and prostitution published a report recommending that the legal persecution of male homosexuals, providing they were over twenty one and conducted their sexual activities consensually and in private, should cease. The report’s proposals did not become law until 1967.
To a large extent these Reports and the Wolfenden Commission of Enquiry influenced the emergence of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and many of the new social movements in Europe and North America during the 1950s and 1960s.
As these movements grew in size and influence the various Communist movements were obliged to take a position on homosexuality, since in some countries the capitalist state itself was discussing proposals for reform of the law. Taking their cue from their opposition to the Vietnam War, the Stonewall Riots, the U.S Civil Rights movement and the May 1968 insurrection in France militant gay rights groups began to gravitate towards the far Left which resulted in many Communist groups adopting gay rights as part of their programmes. However, the bourgeoisie moralistic backlash was just as swift. Homosexuals were accused of corrupting children and even advancing the cause of Communism, especially during the McCarthy period.
Supporting gay rights came to be equated with being anti-American and anti-patriotic. To a large extent, this homophobic attitude was a key reason behind gay and lesbian activists being banned from communist groups in the United States because of the fear that Communists could be blackmailed or their credibility undermined in the eyes of the working class.
In the United Kingdom, the 1980s saw increased opposition to gay rights from the right wing Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, who introduced Section 28 in 1988 in order to prevent what they saw as the "promotion" of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in schools.
However, the Conservatives' main opposition, the Labour Party, did little at that time to address the issue of gay rights, ignoring calls from then left-wingers such as Ken Livingstone to do so.
Meanwhile, the popular right-wing press featured pejorative references to lesbians, supposedly especially associated with the all-female anti-nuclear protest camp at Greenham Common, and individuals such as Peter Tatchell, the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election.
A conservative backlash against gay rights also took place in the United States of America with Ronald Reagan supporting laws that opposed gay rights in many states, primarily due to the large amount of financial and moral support he gained from the religious lobby groups.
By the 1980s two developments had emerged that would have a major impact on gay rights. The first was the discovery and unlocking of DNA which began to give scientists a much better idea as to what determined sexuality and sexual behaviours.
Genetics proved that homosexuality was genetically determined rather than a lifestyle choice. The second was the appearance of the HIV virus in the West. In the West the HIV virus mostly affected gay men with the result that gay rights groups began to lobby governments to legalise homosexuality for public health reasons.
Gay men were less likely to go to public health authorities for treatment if they feared being arrested for being homosexual. In New Zealand, the public health argument was one of the factors that convinced many conservative politicians to vote for legalising homosexuality in 1986.
In the last twenty or so years the emphasis of gay rights has moved away from having homosexuality legalised to campaigning against discrimination against the gay community, especially in the areas of employment, health and disability insurance and same sex marriage. The gay rights movements have also been focussing on homophobic violence, especially in schools where homophobic bullying has become epidemic.
So how should Marxists address the question of gay rights?
The anonymous grey suited corporate bosses in their glass and concrete towers oppress workers in many different ways. Most of the time we focus on how capitalism oppresses the working class through lousy pay, no or little say in the running or the ownership of a business or agency, and poor working conditions.
However, the most effective way in which capitalism has destroyed worker unity in recent years, particularly in the United States, has been through meddling in the strictly private areas of working people’s lives, in particular what they can or can’t do in the bedroom. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered workers are just as much a part of the working class as straight people. They suffer the same struggles as any other worker does and the creation of a socialist society will set them free but they face struggles that heterosexual people often don’t face.
They have additional oppressions, although not so much in New Zealand since discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was outlawed in 1993 and same sex civil union marriages were legalised in 2006 but these issues do affect our comrades in the Pacific Island nations and in much of Africa and the Middle East.
Gay people in most countries aren’t able to marry or even form a legal relationship with the person they love because they’re the same gender as themselves, they face widespread discrimination in society especially from the religious Right, and they face violence because of their sexuality. They also bear a greater work burden because they’re often expected to fill in at short notice for workers who have sick children as most gay couples tend to have no children.
In the context of growing moral reaction in Western Europe and North America, the task for us in relation to the lesbian and gay question is to provide a communist perspective for liberation.
Marxism furnishes us with the means for doing this. The Marxist tradition is richer than many lesbian and gay activists care to admit as historical materialism is the only basis upon which a theoretical understanding of sexual politics and the oppression of homosexuality can be constructed. Only Marxism provides an action programme which combines the struggle for democratic rights and the struggle for real sexual liberation with the class struggle for socialism.