The sexual revolution

EXACTLY FOUR decades after the Stonewall uprising, we are finally in the midst of a gay civil rights revolution.

A great majority of Americans today tell pollsters that they know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Coming out, adopted in the 1970s, has made such inroads that the public now supports an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation in multiple areas, even the once-impossible bastions of marriage and military service.

So powerful is this leftward trajectory in consciousness that even during the presidency of George W. Bush, even at the federal level, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court struck down the last remaining state sodomy laws, and the Senate rejected a Bush-sponsored amendment to the Constitution that would have defined marriage as exclusively heterosexual.

But if anyone thought the momentum toward freedom was irreversible, they were disabused of that illusion on election night one year ago. Even as Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president, voters in four separate states repudiated gay rights. In Arkansas, a measure passed preventing same-sex couples from adopting, Florida and Arizona enacted measures against same-sex marriage, and, stunningly, Californians inscribed in their Constitution a clause defining marriage as heterosexual.

That antigay sweep in 2008 made it plain that sexual orientation remains the last great redoubt of de jure bigotry, but the defeat proved galvanizing, propelling gays, lesbians, and their allies into the streets that night and reviving organizing from below. As if intentionally timed, Gus Van Sant’s Milk was released in 2009, garnering Academy Awards for Sean Penn and a screenplay that brings alive Harvey Milk’s brilliant, uncompromising, coalition-building, movement-mobilizing style. The year has also seen same-sex marriage victories in Iowa’s Supreme Court and the legislatures of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

The forces of fairness and equality, however, have never yet wrested a victory on same-sex marriage at the polls, despite more than a dozen contests. This month, Maine is likely to vote down its same-sex marriage law, and voters in Washington state may repudiate their domestic partnership law. That the margins of defeat are shrinking is cold comfort. We need a clear-cut rejection of bigotry at the ballot box akin to Milk’s success against the Briggs initiative in 1978. Without that kind of popular validation, the gay civil rights revolution may stall.

Into this moment comes Sherry Wolf’s Sexuality and Socialism, a manifesto of mobilization and equality that matches the challenges of the present with a far-reaching vision of social and sexual liberation inspired by the spirit of Stonewall and the sex-affirmative liberatory socialist tradition.

“LGBT” is a clumsy cluster of initials, but Wolf is that rare activist for whom the phrase is more than rote. She neglects none of its constituencies. Wolf declines to tack a Q on the end, since to her “queer” is an irredeemable term reflective of oppression. Still, Wolf views sexuality—as do many self-proclaimed queers—as on a continuum, with many possible variations existing between the binary poles of gay and straight. Wolf covers the whole rainbow, from intersex individuals born with ambiguous or mixed genitalia to lesbians who prefer a masculine bearing.

Wolf traces homosexuality to the emergence of capitalism. Drawing upon the insights of scholar John D’Emilio, she holds that capitalism separated home from work, making it possible for individuals to live outside the family and for lesbian and gay male identity to crystallize. This historical understanding means that Wolf rejects a genetic causality, viewing homosexuality as neither biologically nor environmentally fixed, but fluid. This is not to say that Wolf finds sexual taste a mere choice, but she considers exploration important in determining sexual orientation, along with history, environment, family, and other variables.

Wolf advocates many reforms, including protection against workplace discrimination, but she is particularly assertive on same-sex marriage and the right to serve in the military. These might seem self-evident propositions, but many leftists and sex radicals think of them as conservative objectives. Wolf, by contrast, considers them gateways to further transformations.

Gay marriage challenges traditional conceptions of the family, Wolf observes, and is motivated in good part by the denial of material benefits—inheritance, insurance, hospital visitation rights, Social Security, child custody, and the like—to gay partners. Same-sex marriage, she holds, must be secured at the federal level, since otherwise “gay married couples who go out of state on vacation lose their rights once they cross the state line.” As for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the armed forces, Wolf calls for an alternative of openness, a shift that would “have a direct impact on the lives and consciousness of millions of people who are compelled by economic circumstances or social conditioning to turn to the military for employment.”

This analysis of gay marriage and military service sidesteps more intricate questions, such as whether civil unions should replace marriage for everyone, including heterosexuals, leaving marriage to religion. Nor does Wolf devote space to whether benefits should be decoupled (so to speak) from marital status. Still, her policy of insisting upon equal treatment for all has the merit of principle, recalling the Black-led civil rights movement’s demands for military desegregation (won in 1948 after A. Philip Randolph threatened massive civil disobedience) and the repeal of miscegenation laws (often accomplished, as today, through the courts).

If Wolf’s reform agenda overlaps with mainstream gay liberal goals, she differs strongly in tactics, strategies, and philosophy. She eschews a strategy of electing Democrats, accepting corporate sponsorship for pride events, and waiting patiently, instead calling for militant mass activity from below and a strategy of alliance-building, especially with working-class movements.

The number of gay-related books in the past thirty years that cite Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky may be counted on one hand. Sexuality and Socialism is one of them. As “a lesbian Marxist who came of age in the neo-Cold War, AIDS-ravaged 1980s,” Wolf believes that the “genuine Marxist tradition has stood squarely in favor of sexual liberation.”

The hitch for such a position is that nowhere in the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky is there a single gay-affirmative fragment. Indeed, insofar as Marx and Engels discussed homosexuality at all—chiefly in private jokes about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Johann Baptiste von Schweitzer—their remarks were, to put it mildly, insensitive. Their sole public reference is a line about “the abominable practice of sodomy” in Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Wolf’s handling of this is refreshingly free of nonsense. “There is no sense in attempting to polish a turd here,” she writes, “as there is nothing politically enlightened or progressive about these comments.” Without excusing Marx and Engels, Wolf contextualizes their oafishness, pointing out that in the Victorian era, even many gays were given to self-loathing. Oscar Wilde, she notes, called himself “sick” and “abnormal.”

Wolf considers Marx and Engels to have been “essentially un-Marxist in their approach to the situation of gays.” She turns instead to their writings on the oppression of women, reprising Engels’s claim that early human society was communal and matriarchal, extrapolated from limited data on the Iroquois. Engels held that monogamy, marriage, and the family grew out of a need for generational property transference as class society emerged, and Wolf builds upon that to locate the root of homophobia in the heterosexual nuclear family.

By the end of the book, Wolf states there is “nothing implicitly radical about polyamory or implicitly reactionary about monogamy” and holds that leftists should “stand for the freedom to choose any consensual sexual arrangement, including marriage.” These positions are very sensible ones for liberatory socialists, but they seem in tension with Engels’s orthodoxy, for if marriage is bound up with property and serves ruling-class interests, why stand for the freedom to choose it and why advocate same-sex marriage? Is the family inherently oppressive, or is the problem rather the authoritarian, male-dominated, compulsory family? Should socialists pursue the abolition of the family or seek its democratic, egalitarian reconstruction in conjunction with expanded configurations of socially-provided caregiving? Such questions are left unsifted.

As evidence that Marxism has not neglected sexual liberation, Wolf points to Wilhelm Reich and other theorists, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), who “started the first gay organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897” and campaigned to repeal a law against men having consensual sex. Germany surely did have a unique turn-of-the-century status as a center of socialism and homosexual awakening, but sometimes Wolf gilds the lily. In discussing August Bebel, a major SPD leader, she states that in 1898 he was the “first politician anywhere in the world to speak on record on the floor of a national legislature for the rights of gays,” but she does not mention his description of homosexuality as a “crime against nature” in his much-reprinted 1879 book on women.

The Bolshevik tradition and Soviet Revolution of 1917 have pride of place in Wolf’s contention that Marxism is sexually libertarian. Wolf notes that Lenin decried prudery in his remarks to Clara Zetkin, even though he expressed hope that under socialism sexuality would not be as casual as drinking a glass of water, but she omits his complaints against “dissoluteness” or drinking from a “glass with a rim greasy from many lips.” Wolf is most persuasive when she draws upon Dan Healey’s excellent book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia (University of Chicago Press, 2001). When the Russian Revolution wiped out laws against homosexuality along with the rest of the tsarist criminal code, it led in the 1920s to a flowering of freedom for gays and lesbians, even including sex-change operations.

Under Stalin, whose industrialization drive of the 1930s required an accelerated birth rate and rigid labor discipline, homosexuality was declared depraved and outlawed—a mirror image of right-wing moralism in the age of Nazism and McCarthyism, both of which persecuted gays. Mao, Castro, and other heads of single-party Communist states followed Stalin’s repressiveness, and Wolf views the Stalinist legacy as the reason so many American radicals, starting with the Communist Party, opposed homosexuality on grounds of “bourgeois degeneracy,” “fascist decadence,” or some other stupidity.

The essence of Marxism, Wolf argues, is the self-emancipation of the working class, not the succession of bureaucratic states that claimed to rule in its name. Since the liberation of the working class requires its unity, she argues, ?socialists must stand for the rejection of all division and oppression, whether gendered, racial, or sexual. Sexuality and Socialism is guided by the ethic that sexual pleasure ought to be able to take any form so long as it is consensual.

This is all admirable, but Wolf’s conviction in Marxism’s rectitude hardens her unduly against learning from other left-wing strands, especially utopians and anarchists. Because of their emphasis on free expression, utopian socialists and anarchists were often extremely advanced proponents of sexual freedom. The sole quotation in Wolf’s book from Emma Goldman is from a letter in which she disparages lesbians as “a crazy lot,” but that is hardly representative of Goldman or the anarchist tradition.

Socialists ought to appreciate the anarchist expansion of the horizons of sexual freedom. The fault with anarchism lies not so much in its intentions—almost wholly admirable—but in its antipathy to political action, which leaves it incapable of addressing the material inequities produced by legalized discrimination. No lover should have to wait until the state is smashed to visit his AIDS-afflicted partner in the hospital; political action is essential to correct such injustices.

Wolf’s attentiveness to labor and class is praiseworthy and rare in studies of sexuality. She goes well beyond such familiar chestnuts as Harvey Milk’s support for the Teamster boycott of Coors beer, relaying, for example, the delightful story of “Bill,” a Missouri worker who became president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. “She drank,” ran a contemporary account, “she swore, she courted girls, she worked hard as her fellows, she fished and camped, she even chewed tobacco.” The Marine Cooks and Stewards (MCS) union, which organized workers on ocean liners from the 1930s to the 1950s, had a Black, gay official, Revels Cayton, who said, “If you let them red bait, they’ll race bait. If you let them race bait, they’ll queer bait. These are connected—that’s why we have to stick together.” Wolf has a sophisticated view of how class cuts through the gay community. She describes the first strike in the Castro by gay workers in a gay-owned establishment and the mixed feelings many working-class gays have toward gay professionals and organizations.

Wolf is right to observe that the Mattachine Society, the first sustained American gay rights organization, arose out of labor and left organizing. It is not exactly the case, however, that Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, “got his start as a union organizer in the 1930s and 1940s in New York’s Department Store Workers Union with the International Workers of the World (IWW),” a claim repeated twice. Hay organized at Macy’s in the late 1930s and early 1940s for the United Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Employees of America, a CIO union. He had an IWW connection in the 1920s, as a teenager, when he worked on Pacific freighters, but he found the Industrial (not International) Workers of the World coastal marine branch to be homophobic. The Wobblies, Hay concluded, believed in “All for one and one for all—except for queers.” Wolf’s intended point remains valid nevertheless, because the 1934 San Francisco general strike inspired Hay to join the Communist Party, whose theory of race oppression later inspired him to advocate homophile self-organization, despite the Party’s homophobia.

In integrating the history of labor and the left with LGBT theory, Sexuality and Socialism should broaden the vista of activists beyond present-day demands to wider questions of strategy and purpose, provoking discussions and arguments of the type integral to the growth of any mass movement.

Only in Sherry Wolf’s book is one likely to find this last extraordinary story: During the recent factory occupation in Chicago at Republic Windows & Doors, hundreds of LGBT marchers for marriage rights carried on to rally at Republic. That moved Republic occupier Raúl Flores to reciprocate in an address to an LGBT rally held the night after the Republic workers won their demands. “Our victory is yours,” said Flores. “Now we must join with you in your battle for rights and return the solidarity you showed us.”


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


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