By Sherry Wolf 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 roots of gay oppression: Part 1, The Changing Family