By Sherry Wolf Modern capitalism created the “social space” for a gay identity to emerge.18 Industrial and financial centers concentrated people in huge numbers, thereby creating the potential for anonymity that had never before existed in human societies. Having created the possibility for individuals to live apart from their families–or at least to experiment with alternative sexual practices away from the narrowness of rural life–capitalist society then sought to define and repress this new sexual “deviance.” Industrial capitalism’s hostility to homosexuality is unique in comparison to previous societies’ laws punishing alternative sex practices. Whereas old laws condemned homosexual acts that threatened procreation, new proscriptions were enacted against a small class of people whose behavior set them apart from the majority. As British socialist Noel Halifax puts it, “Under capitalism sexuality was now not a ‘private affair regulated by…traditions and prejudices of the community’ but become ‘a public matter for the state.’”19 Gay oppression became systematized as the homosexual type in the form of a small minority of men–and some women–whose erotic interests in others of the same sex came to the attention of legal and medical authorities in big cities in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Britain, laws began to distinguish between bestiality and homosexuality and, for the first time, to punish gay men caught seeking others like themselves in public venues. In 1861, the death penalty for buggery was ended and a sentence of ten years in prison, later amended to two years of hard labor, was enacted. In Paris and Berlin, medical and legal experts in the 1870s examined a new kind of “degenerate” to determine whether or not these people should be held responsible for their actions. The word “homosexuality”was first coined by a Hungarian physician named Karl Maria Benkert in 1869.20 Homosexuality evolved in scientific circles from a “sin against nature” to a mental illness. The first popular study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis in 1897, put forward the idea that homosexuality was a congenital illness not to be punished, but treated. Nineteenth-century sexologists developed ideas about homosexuality as a form of mental insanity. One famous theory held that gayness was the result of “urning”–the female mind was trapped in a male body (or vice versa). Another theory widely disseminated referred to homosexuals as a third sex.21 When the famous British writer Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labor, the newspapers were filled with lurid descriptions of a form of sexuality few acknowledged had existed. The trial came to define gay men in the popular consciousness as effeminate aesthetes but also raised awareness among latent homosexuals of the existence of others like them. Londoners discovered where to go to find men looking to have sex with other men. Wilde, who was married with two children, accepted the popular clinical thinking about his “condition.” His writings of the period reflect the debate about whether homosexuality was a form of sickness or insanity, complaining of his “erotomania” while in prison. Early on, lesbians were less visible than gay men. Men’s greater financial independence and integration in the public spheres of work and community afforded men more opportunities to explore alternative sexual lifestyles. Wage-earning men could live in urban boarding houses where they could invite other men to their rooms, providing an outlet beyond familial controls, something largely unavailable to working-class women. In the mid-nineteenth century, a few working-class women who “passed” as men in order not only to seek employment but to pursue romantic relationships with other women came to the attention of authorities. Stories appeared in newspapers about cross-dressing lesbian women such as “Bill” in Missouri who became the secretary of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. One report read: “She drank…she swore, she courted girls, she worked hard as her fellows, she fished and camped, she even chewed tobacco.”22 Not all of these “passing women” were lesbians; some were just seeking equality with men and freedom from raising children. Performing men’s work for men’s wages, owning property, having bank accounts in their own names, and voting were among the many benefits available to men only. But a fair number of these passing women did get married to other women, occasionally several times, and newspaper headlines announced: “A Gay Deceiver of the Feminine Gender,” “Death Proves ‘Married Man’ a Woman,” and “Poses, Undetected, 60 Years as a Man.”23 It was not until the 1880s, when sexual relationships between women in the U.S. were more openly acknowledged, that they were repressed. Laws against “perversion” and “congenital inversion” were applied to women as well as men for the first time. In Britain, though, lesbianism was left out of the criminal code because Victorian prudery dictated that women had no desire for sex and legal authorities feared that including sanctions against women having sex with others of their gender would actually promote homosexuality among them. Lord Desart, who had been the Director of Public Prosecutions when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy, said this about including lesbianism in the 1921 criminal code: “You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offense, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it. I think it is a very great mischief.”24 As industry grew, so did the gap between the lives of the wealthy classes and the impoverished working class. In the late nineteenth century, upper- and middle-class men often sought out casual encounters with younger working-class men whom, they believed, were indifferent to anti-homosexual mores. Aside from bourgeois prejudice, this belief was also based on the real-life conditions of the working class, which was crowded into one-room tenements and slums where social rules against sexual promiscuity and alternative sexual activities often did not apply. The bourgeois family and its moral codes of sexual control and hard work held the upper classes to strict rules of conduct–at least outwardly. They believed that sexual purity among women was essential for them to carry out their domestic roles as teachers and disciplinarians of their children, and sexual control among men allowed them to be successful in business. Men were allowed their occasional discreet trysts, unlike women, but stepping over the line was harshly punished. Oscar Wilde, whose writings were widely read and respected by the middle class, was convicted for having publicly flaunted his sexual activities with much younger men, amid loud outcries over the corruption of youth and the importance of the family to the maintenance of the British Empire. Lust and sexual perversion were cited by social-purity advocates as enemies of the empire. “Rome fell; other nations have fallen; and if England falls it will be this sin, and her unbelief in God, that will have been her ruin,” wrote one advocate of sexual purity.25 New patterns of living, however, defied the puritanical calls to abstain from homosexuality. Gays and lesbians invented ways of meeting, and by the early twentieth century virtually every major American and European city and some small towns had bars or public places where gays could find one another. Riverside Drive in New York City, Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., YMCAs and public bathhouses in St. Louis and Chicago all served as gathering spots and cruising spaces for gays and lesbians. Poet Walt Whitman, the most famous nineteenth-century American homosexual, called Manhattan the “city of orgies, walks and joys” and bragged of New York’s “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love.”26 Popular songs among Blacks in the 1920s and 1930s with lesbian and gay themes and titles such as “Sissy Man Blues” and “Fairey Blues” provide evidence of a thriving African-American gay community.27 The new openness of urban gay subcultures gave way to new theories of homosexual behavior. Doctors advanced the notion that homosexuality was inherent in a person who had no power to change his or her nature. The widespread conception of gays as butch women and effeminate men ran so counter to the feminine and masculine ideals put forward in popular culture that ruling-class ideology embraced this unscientific conclusion that gays were suffering from a condition that set them apart from “normal” people. Gays themselves began to think that their erotic urges and desires made them fundamentally different from heterosexual society. Writers such as Radclyffe Hall, who successfully fought the banning of her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in the U.S. in 1928 (it was, however, banned in Britain), popularized the medical definition of homosexuality as an inescapable natural deviance. The development of a visible and identifiable gay minority not only led to gay oppression, but also to the possibility of organized resistance to it. Socialist Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and a close friend of sexologist Havelock Ellis, wrote and spoke frequently to large crowds on women’s liberation and the rights of homosexuals. In Germany, Social Democratic Party (SPD) member Magnus Hirschfeld started the first gay organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in 1897. Hirschfeld, with the support of the SPD, campaigned to repeal a law against men having consensual sex.28 During the failed German Revolution, 1918—1923, dozens of gay organizations and periodicals appeared calling for the liberation of homosexuals. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when all laws against gays were struck from the books, the German Communist Party argued: “The class-conscious proletariat…approaches the question of sex life and also the problem of homosexuality with a lack of prejudice.… [T]he proletariat…demands the same freedom from restrictions for those forms of sex life as for intercourse between the sexes.”29 The anarchist Emma Goldman went on a speaking tour throughout the U.S. in 1915 and spoke about homosexuality. Goldman commented to friends about the numbers of men and women who would approach her afterward to say that it was the first time they had ever heard about others like themselves.30 But for most gays and lesbians through the early twentieth century, life was filled with self-hatred and public condemnation. Few had the luxury of coming out for fear of losing jobs or the risk of social ostracism. Pervasive legal and religious hostility and social restrictions sent many to doctors seeking a “cure” or to alcohol and drugs seeking release from emotional strain and internalized self-loathing. Ironically, the notion that homosexuality is biologically determined has taken hold among some modern gays and lesbians. Since the late twentieth century, this thoroughly ahistorical and unscientific view about homosexuality has been embraced by many gays who claim to have been “born gay.” As an oppressed minority seeking a way to fight discrimination, some gays have used this defense to argue that, since they cannot change their nature, society must stop persecuting them for something they have no control over. Many, who cannot remember ever having been sexually attracted to a member of the other sex, are simply arguing what seems to correspond to their erotic “natures.” This view has been fueled by the widely publicized search for a “gay gene.” First, one must question the ideological drive behind the research itself, which is never targeted to find a gene for greed or warmongering among ruling-class elites, for example. Then, there are those stubborn facts. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University wrote extensively about the search for brain differences related to sex and other behaviors such as alcoholism and criminality, which was largely discredited during the nineteenth century by anatomists who deluded themselves into believing that their brain measurements justified their social prejudices against women. In the mid-1990s, researcher Simon LeVay’s study was widely interpreted as strong evidence that biological factors directly wire the brain for sexual orientation. But several considerations militate against that conclusion. First, his work has never been replicated. Furthermore, in LeVay’s published study, all the brains of gay men came from AIDS patients. His inclusion of a few brains from heterosexual men with AIDS did not adequately address the fact that at the time of death virtually all men with AIDS have decreased testosterone levels as the result of the disease itself or the side effects of particular treatments.31 The fact is that all human beings are 99 percent identical in genetic makeup. Gould’s historical materialist, or Marxist, perspective of sexuality leads us to conclude that gay identity is the result of a complex set of historical, cultural, and environmental factors. Sexuality, like other behaviors, is fluid and not fixed. It is worth quoting John D’Emilio at length here, because he captures the origins and potential future of gay sexuality in this passage: I have argued that lesbian and gay identity and communities are historically created, the result of a process of capitalist development that has spanned many generations. A corollary of this argument is that we are not a fixed social minority composed for all time of a certain percentage of the population. There are more of us than one hundred years ago, more of us than forty years ago. And there may very well be more gay men and lesbians in the future. Claims made by gays and nongays that sexual orientation is fixed at an early age, that large numbers of visible gay men and lesbians in society, the media, and the schools will have no influence on the sexual identities of the young are wrong. Capitalism has created the material conditions for homosexual desire to express itself as a central component of some individuals’ lives; now, our political movements are changing consciousness, creating the ideological conditions that make it easier for people to make that choice.32

The Roots of Gay Oppression, Part 2: The Construction of Homosexuality