from the pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999.
What causes homophobia? Why are lesbian, gay and bisexual people oppressed?
Attempt to find answers to these questions, and many gay rights campaigners will chide you for venturing into territory that is ‘too political’. For them, homophobia is simply a fact, probably arising from heterosexuals’ ignorance or inherent prejudice, and any deeper analysis is unnecessary headbanging. But we are ill-equipped to fight oppression if we don’t try to understand why it exists. And we are better-equipped if we have an idea of what we are fighting for, not just what we are fighting against.
For this reason, socialists have attempted to explain the roots of lesbian, gay and bisexual oppression. The standard answer runs thus: homophobia is caused by capitalism; in particular, it is based in the structure of the family. The SWP put it like this: “For socialists, the starting point for gay oppression is that it is rooted in capitalist society.” The roots of homophobia – and the role of capitalism – are, however, more complex than this. Significant elements of anti-gay prejudice originate before capitalism; others are strongly shaped by capitalism. Capitalism has done quite a bit of good for homosexuality and for sexual freedom; but it also stands in the way of full liberation. Capitalism has created the possibility of the liberation of human sexuality: but to realise that potential, we need to surpass capitalism, to create socialism.
Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite?
Capitalism proclaimed its new order with the slogan of the French revolution, promising liberty, equality and fraternity. Ideas of rights, of justice, of human dignity came onto the agenda. The vast majority of people, though, were soon to discover that this did not extend to them. Groups of people began to organise to demand rights they had been promised but denied: feminism grew from these roots. The new capitalist system broke up feudal, family-based production, and brought people together in factory-based, social production.
It was in this context that a homosexual identity, community, subculture and movement developed. The word ‘homosexual’ was first used in 1869 in a pamphlet in Germany. This is not to say that capitalism invented homosexual behaviour! It is well documented that same-sex sexual behaviour has existed in many different societies through history. But available evidence also strongly suggests that the notion of a ‘homosexual’ as a type of person, an individual’s identity, is a much more recent development, which came with the advent of capitalism.
As the centre of production moved from the household to the factory, so the public sphere and the private sphere became separated. The private, domestic sphere retained the responsibility for maintaining people in working condition, and for reproducing the workforce. The capitalists who benefit from this ready supply of human labour do not have to shell out and pay for it – the work is done as a labour of love, mainly by women.
So the capitalists are pretty keen on ‘family values’. Politicians fall over themselves competing to be lauded as the most ‘pro-family’. Much of the language of homophobia is expressed in terms of defending family life, and anti-gay attitudes often coincide with traditional views on the family. The worst bigots in the Tory Party call themselves the Conservative Family Campaign. The family helps to reproduce not only people, but ideas and values. Some of the most vitriolic expressions of homophobia are reserved for demanding that we are kept away from children, accusing us of wanting to corrupt young, vulnerable, impressionable minds. It seems that people should not come into contact with homosexuality until they know that it is abnormal. The family that is held up as paradise can be hell for the homosexual.
Supposed male and female roles within the family underpin gender stereotypes and the whole set-up of women’s disadvantage in the workplace and throughout society. Same-sex sexuality stands accused by homophobes of undermining male and female gender roles (and the assumption that they go together) and thus undermining the sanctity of family life. ‘Family values’ are, it seems, easier to impose or uphold if there is a strict notion of what qualifies as a family. But as it has demanded a more mobile workforce, capitalism has also brought some breakdown of family ties, enabling more sexual freedom. And some of the ruling class propaganda about family values is hypocritical – from immigration law to unemployment, many of their policies have torn families apart.
However, the family is not the whole story when it comes to explaining lesbian, gay and bisexual oppression. Not every queerbasher lets loose another kick with a cry of “here’s one for family values”.
There is another aspect to the language of homophobia which labels our sexuality as sinful, unnatural, against God’s law. Although capitalism has put its own spin on these, they have been around a lot longer: they are pre-capitalist ideas. Moral and religious codes gained their appeal as a way of explaining a complex and mysterious world. They retain their appeal as what Marx called ‘the heart in a heartless world’ – rules by which you can aspire to do the right thing in a world where so much wrong is done.
The moral framework of sin also allows for scapegoating of sinners. Crime and disorder are not the fault of poverty or alienation, but of homosexuals and single parents! Rather than being a straightforward bourgeois phenomenon, homophobia seems to be sustained by both capitalism and pre-capitalist ideologies, interacting with each other.
The homophobes’ appeal to the natural misses the point that human beings are capable of going beyond the narrow definitions of what is considered ‘natural’. As the GLF London manifesto contended,
“Civilisation is in fact our evolution away from the limitations of the natural environment and towards its ever more control.”
If homosexuality is not natural, then neither is using contraception, living in houses, curing disease or treating infertility. They are all examples of what people can do if we gain the upper hand in our battles with nature and break out of the confines it imposes. In any case, there is nothing unnatural about homosexuality.
Capitalism has brought developments which have facilitated some freeing of sexuality. Examples include leisure time and leisure facilities; and the separation of sex and reproduction made possible by contraception.
But under capitalism, not everyone has leisure time, or enough money to get out and meet people. Access to the benefits of capitalism is determined and restricted by the class structure of society. To go a step further – leisure facilities for all people; more leisure time through shorter working hours; freely available, safe, reliable contraception – requires prioritisation of people’s needs over private profit. As a system based on the exploitation of one class by another, capitalism is fundamentally unequal. It condemns millions to a life of poverty and daily struggle, an existence which fuels bitterness, hostility, aggression and prejudice.
In a classless society, we could organise production to meet people’s needs and provide a decent standard of living for everyone. There would not be a privileged class of people benefiting from the exploitation of another. If we cut the roots of homophobia, we can create the conditions for liberation.
What socialism can offer
The pioneer socialist writers about women’s oppression – from the followers of Robert Owen to August Bebel and Friedrich Engels – put forward the idea that under socialism, the domestic economy would be collectivised. This would free women from the lonely, unpaid drudgery of housework, and from the social disadvantage built on it. It would also free our personal lives from economic ties, enabling us to form personal, rather than financial, relationships. Breaking up the ‘compulsory family system’ would undermine the material basis for male and female ‘roles’ and the supremacy of heterosexuality.
Socialism would bring a radical expansion of democracy. In a collective, democratic society, we would all enjoy far greater control over the conditions in which we live. Democracy must include individual liberty and minority rights, free from majority tyranny.
It would be pointless to try to set out a blueprint of human sexuality under socialism: it could blossom and flourish in ways we might not yet imagine. And there should no need to resort to simplistic, unconvincing equations between capitalism and homophobia to persuade lesbian, gay and bisexual activists that they should take up the broader fight for socialism. Our case is for socialism as a ‘carnival of the oppressed’, a new society which can throw off the shackles of the class system whilst building on the progress that has been achieved so far.