The last twenty years have seen a remarkable transformation in the social standing of LGBT people in many countries of the Global North. Yet these moves toward equality—in themselves positive—have taken place in the broader context of neoliberal capitalism, with contradictory results.
In this article, I make two main points. First, I argue that greater acceptance of LGBT people has opened up a space for the development of an openly LGBT section of the ruling class, and for a “moderate” version of LGBT politics that reflects the experiences of that social layer. Second, I note that radical voices in LGBT politics rightly reject this “openly LGBT bourgeoisie” and argue for a politics that in particular confronts the violent oppression experienced by people of color and trans people. However, the politics that dominates among LGBT radicals doesn’t help us to begin building a movement that could mobilize large numbers of people for real change—instead, it risks dividing the LGBT movement, and it fails to reach out to the many people who can be won to support genuine sexual liberation.
Formal LGBT equality and the emergence of the openly LGBT bourgeoisie
In the United States, where gay sex was illegal in fourteen states until 2003, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. Citizens of Ireland, where sex between men was illegal until 1993, voted in May 2015 to allow same-sex marriage in their country. In Britain, LGBT people have only had legal protection in the provision of goods and services since 2007, trans people have only had the right to a new birth certificate since 2004, and the age of consent was only equalized across genders in 2001.
None of this means that the struggle for LGBT liberation is complete. In more than a quarter of US states, LGBT people have no protection against discrimination at work or regarding housing. In another thirteen states people have no right to visit their partner in the hospital. In three states adoption by LGBT people is specifically banned. In four states trans people cannot get new birth certificates. While same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland.1
Even when LGBT people have almost complete equality before the law, and protection by the law, oppression continues. In September 2009, 62-year-old Ian Baynham, a white man, was kicked to death by three teenagers in Trafalgar Square in central London. A survey in 2013 reported that one in six lesbian, gay, or bisexual people in Britain had experienced a hate crime in the previous three years. In the US, twenty homicides of LGBT people were documented in 2014: seven victims were gay or bisexual men, while eleven were trans women, ten were trans women of color, and sixteen of the victims were people of color. In the four months between June 1 and October 6, 2014, eight transgender women of color were murdered in the US, while between January 1 and February 20, 2015, seven trans women were killed in the US, six of them women of color.2
A second feature of current gay politics is the rise of openly LGBT or LGBT-friendly sections of the capitalist ruling class. In Britain, for example, marriage equality was not the result of campaigning by LGBT people and our allies—it was an initiative by the Cameron government, which has pursued a neoliberal policy to the right of Margaret Thatcher. Marriage equality in Ireland was supported by a Yes campaign endorsed not only by the Left, including revolutionaries, but by Ireland’s two main capitalist parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In the United States, the old rule that the Right are generally homophobes seemed confirmed by the response of most potential Republican presidential candidates after the Supreme Court decision on marriage. But even here, strategists warned that trying to reverse the decision would drive away young voters the Republicans need, and called on the party to accept defeat and move on. In any case, leading Democrats such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both capitalists and imperialists par excellence, have already departed from earlier homophobic positions—Obama didn’t support marriage equality in his first presidential election race in 2008, and Clinton opposed it as recently as 2013. The United States has also seen the rise of conservative LGBT voices such as that of Andrew Sullivan, who has argued for the integration of LGBT people into capitalism for the last twenty years, while the Log Cabin Republicans claim over 45,000 members. Elsewhere in the world we’ve even seen gay men leading far-right racist parties, such as Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in Holland in 2002, who opposed Islam and immigrants on the grounds that they constituted a homophobic and “backward culture.”3
Nor is it only right-wing politicians who have found a niche for themselves in neoliberal capitalism. Tim Cook, chief exec of Apple and one of the world’s highest paid executives, is an out gay man. The development of an openly gay bourgeoisie in the United States is described in Christina B. Hanhardt’s recent book Safe Space, in which she describes the efforts of mainly white residents in New York City’s Greenwich Village to “take back our streets” from, in particular, young LGBT people of color.4
It’s important to make two further points about the openly LGBT bourgeoisie. The first is to stress that this is a recent phenomenon. In the 1980s, if you had a comfortable job you would often be put at risk by coming out. The gay bourgeoisie typically chose comfort in the closet. Of course there were right-wing voices in the LGBT movement, but insofar as they were aligned with class interests they were those of the petty bourgeoisie, especially the pub and club owners. Such people opposed homophobia if it stopped paying customers coming through their doors, but they also worried that radicalism might upset business and diminish profits. So, for example, a friend of mine was thrown out of a London gay pub in the 1980s for leafleting for Gay Pride:
They threw me out of the White Swan in Mile End for leafleting about Gay Pride. Gay Pride was condemned by the commercial gay scene. The attitude was don’t make a fuss, all you martyrs are just causing trouble. It makes me laugh when all the gay pubs and clubs think they invented Pride.5
The second crucial point about the openly gay bourgeoisie is that, while vocal, they are a minority. There’s a right-wing stereotype that LGBT people are wealthy, for example because we are stereotyped as childless—we’re a privileged group, not an oppressed one. It’s a stereotype that the LGBT media sometimes perpetuate, because they want to sell advertising space and so they exaggerate the ability of their readers to buy expensive goods. But research consistently shows the opposite. A survey published by Gallup in 2012, for example, based on interviews with over 120,000 people in the United States, found that more people identified as LGBT among those with lower levels of education and income: 3.5 percent among those whose education included high school or less, and 4 percent among those who had completed some college courses, as opposed to 2.8 percent of college graduates and 3.2 percent of those with a postgraduate education. Furthermore, 5.1 percent of those earning less than $24,000 per year identified as LGBT, while only 2.8 percent of those earning over $90,000 per year did so. Research also indicates that men in same-sex couples earn less than men who are in a mixed-sex couple, by an average of about $1,000 per year in 2011. What’s more, the average income of a married mixed-sex couple raising children in 2011 was just below $75,000, while that of a same-sex couple raising children was under $60,000. Twenty-two percent of the children of married mixed-sex couples lived in poverty, while 29 percent of the kids of male same-sex couples did so, along with 41 percent of the children of female same-sex couples. So the openly gay bourgeoisie is only one small part of a much larger LGBT population that includes many with low levels of education and income.6
Finally, the tendency of some openly LGBT people to enthusiastically identify with capitalism and its ruling class has to be seen in the context of international politics. Since 9/11 both US and British governments have launched a series of disastrous interventions in the Middle East that have killed over half a million people. Rather than look at the blood on its own hands, the Western ruling class has turned to scapegoating Muslims—including the promotion of stereotypes that Muslims are typically sexist and homophobic. In fact, a survey in 2011 showed that 39 percent of US Muslims believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society—less than the 45 percent who believe it should be discouraged, but hardly a marginal view, and Muslim opinions are shifting rapidly in favor of LGBT people, as they are in US society more generally. Again, in November 2013 the largest Muslim organization in the US, the Islamic Society of North America, stated its support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect the rights of LGBT people at work. Despite this, Islamophobic stereotypes are prevalent enough to persuade some LGBT people that they should side with their “own” “civilized” rulers against Muslims and others in the Global South.7
The response of LGBT radicals
The growth of the openly LGBT bourgeoisie has led to the increased influence of organizations that reflect their view of the world—support for formal equality before the law that takes no account of how LGBT issues overlap with concerns such as gender, race, and class, and that doesn’t fight for wider change in society. An internal report in June 2015 reported that Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest US LGBT advocacy organization, is a “white man’s club” where sexism is commonplace, people of color underrepresented, and trans staff not taken seriously. For example, there is only one gender-neutral toilet in a building where 150 HRC staff work. In Britain, Pride in London is chaired by Michael Salter, until recently head of political broadcasting for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron—and this year’s London Pride parade was led off not by an LGBT community group, but by Barclays bank.8
Many LGBT people are quite rightly opposed to the dominance of such organizations in the movement. Their experience isn’t that of the LGBT bourgeoisie, that gay oppression is the only thing that needs fixing in capitalist society. They see that sexism, racism, and economic injustice are commonplace too, and that all these ways that people are put down are connected. But how those connections work is a more controversial topic. I want to argue for a Marxist account, which claims that not only is economic injustice rooted in capitalism, but that sexism, racism, and homophobia are as well. For example, the idea that humanity is divided into different races is only a few hundred years old, and developed at the same time as did capitalism, initially based on the labor of enslaved Africans in British colonies and the American South. The oppression of women under capitalism is linked to the expectation that they must play the primary role in caring for the current generation of workers and raising the next one, so ensuring capitalism’s sustainability. That care takes place in the family, so people who often don’t live in families—such as LGBT people—have historically faced condemnation. For example, when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, the right-wing London Telegraph complained that his writing was “the visible enemy of those ties and bonds of society—the natural affections, the domestic joys, the sanctity and sweetness of the home.”9
The role of the family
The family has become ever more important to the sustainability of capitalism under neoliberalism, as cuts in welfare and public services have forced increasing numbers of workers to rely on family support. Some conservatives continue to take the traditional position that LGBT people are thoughtless hedonists, the enemies of the family, and so support our continued oppression. Others—such as Cameron and Obama—are attempting to strengthen the family by offering to integrate LGBT people into it. But even if this happens—and there’s a long way to go—such neoliberal diversity is very far from liberation. The family is supposed to be our main source of love and support in an indifferent world, but it frequently can’t live up to those huge demands, as the high incidences of domestic violence and child sexual abuse in families demonstrates.
This understanding of LGBT oppression—that it’s rooted in the importance of the family to capitalism, and that racism and women’s oppression are rooted in capitalism as well—has crucial implications for political strategy. It means, for example, that we have to reject the idea that relations between oppressed and non-oppressed groups are a zero-sum game—that every advance for LGBT people means a step back for straight people, for example. Rather, we start from the fact that most straight people in a capitalist society are workers without any real power. Straight workers who accept homophobic ideas aren’t acting in their own best interests. They should ally with LGBT people not out of altruism, but because straight and LGBT people have a common enemy—a ruling class that is happy to see us divided along lines of gender, race, gender identity, and sexuality.
Recent British history gives an example of how that approach works in practice. Most of the civil rights British LGBT people now have were gained under the Labour government that came to power in 1997. Labour adopted support for LGBT rights at its conference in 1985, with crucial votes for the policy coming from the miners’ union. British miners had just been defeated after a yearlong strike in which they had received consistent support from groups in the LGBT community—including Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), whose story is told in the film Pride. This was the miners returning that solidarity, supporting policies that became law when Labour came into government. Reestablished this year, LGSM led a contingent of a thousand trade union members—most LGBT, some straight—in the 2015 London Pride march.10
This is very different from the conservative politics of HRC or London Pride. But much of the opposition to such organizations inside LGBT politics in recent months hasn’t come from this perspective. Rather, it reflects not just the view that the Right has too loud a voice in the LGBT movement—it at least insinuates that the whole movement has become right-wing and aligned with big business. For example, on July 6, 2015, the Solidarity website published an article headlined “Rainbows and Weddings: The Neoliberal and Imperialist Politics of LGBT Rights.” The piece made many valid points about the need for more radical approaches in the LGBT movement, for example to fight the oppression of people of color. But it also argued that from the 1990s on “gay rights became a profitable business,” and claimed that “a myriad of corporations joined hands to give birth to the rainbow industry and started sponsoring pride parades and liberal activist endeavors aimed at getting legislation like marriage equality approved.” It also claimed that “gay people have become the basis of big businesses in the US and the media and corporations have extensive campaigns to cater to the gay demographic. Barack Obama used the gay vote to . . . gain power.”11
The same conflation of ideas appeared in an article on the Mary Sue website on July 1. Teresa Jusino pointed out, quite rightly, that the forthcoming film Stonewall has a largely white cast, when in fact trans women of color played a major role in the riot. But she also made broader claims about the LGBT movement, referring to “the fact that it’s become a movement of gay, white, affluent cisgender men.” Such claims are made most strongly by Darkmatter, a US-based “trans South Asian artist collaboration.” For example, in December 2014 Janani Balasubramanian of Darkmatter wrote an article on the Everyday Feminism website headlined “3 Ways the Gay Rights Agenda™ Has Perpetuated Oppression.” Balasubramanian argued that people are wrong to perceive developments such as marriage equality as victories:
Behind every rainbow flag, there’s a pot of Goldman Sachs (and a conservative agenda).
Rather than victories, several moments in recent history of the gay movement have been huge losses.
The gay rights movement has won rights and recognition that largely serve the interests of white, wealthy cisgender gay men to the detriment of poor queers and queer people of color, and to the detriment of racial and economic justice more generally.
Again, these are victories for the only most enfranchised gay people. Thus, they are mechanisms for perpetuating injustice.12
The first point to make here is that civil rights like marriage hasn’t mainly benefited wealthy white men. They have given people the right to remain in rented homes that they shared with a partner, to remain in a country where their partner has the right of residence, or to visit their partner in the hospital. None of these are issues that particularly affect the wealthy.
Balasubramanian argues that by participating in the military, LGBT people support US imperialism. There is no denying that imperialism is what the US military is about. It’s also the case that marriage and the family are often repressive institutions. But there is a world of difference between choosing not to get married or join the military, and being unable to because the inferiority of LGBT people is written into the law.
Contradictions and isolation
More generally, the changes we have seen in the last few years have been examples of reforms within capitalism. Such reforms are typically partial and contradictory. It’s easy to respond to them as Darkmatter did on June 26, when in response to the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality they changed their Facebook profile picture to a graphic reading “abolish marriage.” This is to ignore a change that is actually on the table—formal legal equality—in favor of another, marriage abolition, that isn’t. It constitutes abstention from the highest-profile struggle that is actually going on, in favor of those with radical views isolating themselves with like-minded people.
But what if reforms such as marriage equality do succeed in “assimilating” LGBT people into society? Well, it’s not impossible. Some authors write as if LGBT people were inherently rebels, and conservative politics a betrayal of our essential nature, proposing a vision of LGBT politics as a movement of “sluts and drag queens and trannies and trolls and women who have seen a lot of life” as Michael Warner once put it, as opposed to people who are “home, making dinner for their boyfriends.” But many straight people have accepted the family as the way they aspire to live, while LGBT people have been excluded from this choice. The more they open up to us, in the absence of more radical social change, there is nothing about same-sex desire or transgender identities that means we’re certain to reject them.13
But that’s only one possibility, the one that Obama and Cameron favor. Reforms can have radicalizing effects too. The Supreme Court decided against segregated schools in 1954. By 1964 the Civil Rights Act had banned racial discrimination in employment and public services. In 1965 restrictions on the right of Black people to vote were outlawed. These reforms did not “assimilate” African Americans—they were part of a dynamic of rising militancy that culminated in the revolutionary politics of the Black Panthers.
If we want to transform reforms into a revolutionary movement that incorporates people of color, LGBT people, women, and workers, we have to start from the issues that affect people now. We have to address the issues that divide us, like racism and transphobia—but we don’t do that by minimizing the oppression of cisgender white gay men, or by claiming that a diverse movement is nothing but a front for corporations and imperialists.
A coalition to fight violence
Earlier this year, the New York City–based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects produced their annual report on hate violence against LGBT people. Making clear the disproportionate impact of that violence on people of color and trans people, it included a series of recommendations, including funding for public education, awareness, and support programs, comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, an end to the criminalization of homelessness and drug possession, access to housing and welfare for people with criminal records, and for police officers to be held accountable for their anti-LGBT harassment and violence.14 These issues—underfunded public services, the destruction of welfare, mass incarceration over drug offences, and police violence—affect millions of people in America. There is a potential constituency here for a movement that could transform the lives of the majority of LGBT people, including those most oppressed. If we’re to take the first steps toward building such a movement, we need politics that can start to build such coalitions to challenge our rulers—not turn different groups of the oppressed against each other as we each fight for our own little piece of the pie, and so let the real enemy off the hook one more time.
- “Gay rights in the US, state by state”, Guardian, 26 June 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2012/may/08/gay-rights-united-states; “Changing Birth Certificate Sex Designations: State-By-State Guidelines”, Lambda Legal, 3 February 2015, http://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/transgender/changing-birth-certificate-sex-designations. The states are Idaho, Kansas, Ohio and Tennessee.
- “Ruby Thomas given seven years for homophobic attack on Ian Baynham”, Guardian, 26 January 2011; “Homophobic Hate Crime: The Gay British Crime Survey 2013”, Stonewall, https://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/hate_crime.pdf; “Media Release: National Report on Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities Released Today”, National Coalitions of Anti-Violence Programs, 9 June 2015, http://avp.org/storage/documents/Reports/MEDIARELEASE_2014_NCAVP_HVREPORT.pdf; “NCAVP Mourns the Death of Aniya Parker, a Transgender Woman of Color Killed in Los Angeles, California...”, 6 October 2014, http://avp.org/resources/avp-resources/339-ncavp-mourns-the-death-of-aniya-parker-a-transgender-woman-of-color-killed-in-los-angeles-california-the-eighth-death-of-transgender-woman-of-color-that-ncavp-has-responded-to-since-the-beginning-of-june-; “Miami: Seventh Trans Woman Murdered in U.S. in 2015”, Advocate, 20 February 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/02/20/miami-seventh-trans-woman-murdered-us-2015.
- For example, see David Ignatius, “Resisting the gay marriage ruling would be a losing battle for the GOP”, Washington Post, June 30, 2015; Conor Friedersdorf, “Hillary Clinton’s Gay-Marriage Problem”, The Atlantic, 13 June 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/hillary-clintons-gay-marriage-problem/372717/; Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal (London: Picador, 1996).
- Stonewall, “Stonewall Global Diversity Champions programme”, http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_work/global_diversity_champions_programme/default.asp; Stonewall, “Diversity Champions from A-Z”, http://www.startingoutguide.org.uk/diversity-champions/a-z/; Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013), Chapter 5.
- Ray Goodspeed in Colin Wilson, “There Was No Question of Anybody Walking Out”, Jacobin, January 5, 2015.
- Gallup, “Special Report: 3.4% of U.S. Adults Identify as LGBT” October 18, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/158066/special-report-adults-identify-lgbt.aspx; Williams Institute, “Same-sex and Different-sex Couples in the American Community Survey: 2005-2011”, http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/ACS-2013.pdf; Jonathan Capehart, “Myth: ‘Gays make more money than non-gays’”, Washington Post, February 8, 2012.
- Pew Research Centre, “Muslim Americans”, http://www.people-press.org/files/2011/08/muslim-american-report.pdf, p. 9; HRC Blog, “Largest U.S. Muslim Organization Supports LGBT Anti-Discrimination Bill,” 11 November 2013, http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/largest-u.s.-muslim-organization-supports-lgbt-anti-discrimination-bill.
- Yezmin Villareal, “5 Most Disappointing Things We Learned About HRC’s ‘White Men’s Club’”, Advocate, http://www.advocate.com/human-rights-campaign-hrc/2015/06/04/5-most-disappointing-things-we-learned-about-hrcs-white-mens-cl; Stonewall, Diversity Champion Members, http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_work/diversity_champions_programme/diversity_champion_members/default.asp .
- Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side: Towards a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 172.
- Colin Clews, 1985. “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Part Two”, http://www.gayinthe80s.com/2012/09/1985-lesbians-and-gays-support-the-miners-part-two/; Colin Wilson, “London Pride 2015: a snapshot of struggles past, present and to come”, http://rs21.org.uk/2015/06/28/london-pride-2015/.
- Mehlab Jameel, “Rainbows and Weddings: The Neoliberal and Imperialist Politics of LGBT Rights,” https://solidarity-us.org/rainbowsandwed....
- Teresa Jusino, “Stonewall: A Film About a Historic Moment of Resistance . . . That Erases the People Who Were There”, http://www.themarysue.com/stonewall-film-trans-erasure/; Janani Balasubramanian, “3 Ways the Gay Rights Agenda™ Has Perpetuated Oppression”, http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/3-ways-the-gay-rights-agenda-has-perpetuated-oppression/.
- Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: Free Press 1999), 36, 63.
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-affected Hate Violence in 2014, 13–16, http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/Reports/2014_HV_Report-Final.pdf .