End Racism and Homophobia in the Gay Community
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Gay School 101
By Sherry Wolf Historically, struggles against institutionalized oppression and violence against gays have often been limited by the political perspectives of their leaders. When the gay movement came of age in the late 1960s, most of the Left around the world looked to the former Soviet Union, China, or Cuba as models for human liberation. These were hardly inspiring social experiments for gays. In all of these societies, sexual minorities were openly, at times violently, oppressed by these so-called communist states. The Communist Party of Cuba, like the other Stalinist states, ordered that “‘homosexual deviations’ were of a ‘socio-pathological character’ and that all manifestations of homosexual deviations are to be firmly rejected.’ Gay people who visited Cuba in 1970 out of solidarity with the regime were abused and threatened.”59 Under the guise of fighting the Havana underworld, which ran gay prostitution rings before the 1959 revolution, the new Committees for the Defense of the Revolution policed the personal and public lives of gays and lesbians. The influential Popular Socialist Party gave ideological credence to the antigay campaign there by using Stalinist ideas popularized in the 1930s and 1940s to spread the notion that sexuality was not a personal matter, but “a fulfillment of obligation to society.”60 Gays were often imprisoned for having “counterrevolutionary predispositions.” The fact that most socialists outside these repressive societies made excuses for this treatment created hostility among many gays toward the socialist Left. The fact that many working-class people do accept backward ideas about homosexuals, along with the generally low levels of class struggle, further distanced most gays from looking to working-class struggle as a means of challenging homophobia. But there is a genuine pro-gay and pro-sex socialist tradition that must be defended. Eighty-seven years before sodomy laws in the U.S. were finally ended by the Supreme Court, the Russian Revolution of 1917 wiped laws against homosexuality from the criminal code. The Bolshevik Party–in the tradition of Marx and Engels and under the leadership of Trotsky and Lenin–was a mass party numbering in the hundreds of thousands at the time of the revolution, with wider support among millions of workers and peasants. Every aspect of Russian society was thrown into turmoil by the revolution. The “curious fact” Engels had written about decades before was accurate: “A phenomenon common to all times of great agitation, that the traditional bonds of sexual relations, like all other fetters, are shaken off.”61 Marx and Engels had argued that “sex love” was distorted and alienated by commodity production, and monogamy under capitalism was an extension of the bourgeois concept of private property–while sex itself was turned into a commodity. The Bolshevik Gregorii Batkis described the new attitude toward sex and sexuality in 1923: The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class, but also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life…. [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations, provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one’s interests…. Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so called “natural” intercourse.62 Far from the rigid, asexual picture of Soviet life often depicted in Western antisocialist literature and history, a rich tapestry of possibilities in a previously backward society began to emerge in the immediate years following the revolution. Young people, in particular, experimented with a wide variety of sexual relationships and living arrangements. The success of the “new morality” was hampered by the conditions of civil war and economic deprivation that dominated Russia for more than three years after the revolution. The Bolsheviks were unable to stamp out prostitution, for example–one of the most alienated forms of bourgeois sexuality. Alexandra Kollontai, a leading member of the Bolshevik Party, described the explosive changes in sexual relationships in 1921: History has never seen such a variety of personal relationships–indissoluble marriage with its “stable family,” “free unions,” secret adultery; a girl living quite openly with her lover in so-called “wild marriage”; pair marriage, marriage in threes and even the complicated marriage of four people–not to talk of the various forms of commercial prostitution.63 Years of civil and external war eventually destroyed the Russian working class and threw the economy back to conditions not seen in more than a century. By the end of the 1920s, most gains of the revolution were lost, and Stalin rose to power at the head of a new bureaucracy that used the language of socialism to justify reactionary policies. In 1934, homosexuality was deemed a “fascist perversion” and recriminalized, and thousands of gay men were thrown into prison camps. Socialists who stand in the revolutionary Marxist tradition have never defended these antigay policies or the Stalinist regimes that carried them out. From Marx and Engels on, revolutionary socialists have marched, organized, and fought for sexual liberation, as a precondition for the full liberation of the working class. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union Locals 509 and 2020, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the National Association of Government Employees, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1505, and the Massachusetts United Auto Workers (UAW) union all passed resolutions defending gay marriage. “Our union has taken this position in order to protect the civil rights of our members,” wrote the UAW’s political caucus in a letter to state lawmakers. “Ending marriage discrimination is also a critical union issue.”64 These unions, representing two hundred thousand workers in Massachusetts, who stood alongside their gay brothers and sisters to demand full marriage equality, provide a glimpse into the possibilities that exist today for class solidarity between working-class people, regardless of sexual orientation.
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