Socialist Alternative Issue 106, August 2006
THE ROTTEN LOGIC of “identity politics” has been shown up yet again. World Pride, the international celebration of gay pride and gay rights is being held this year in Israel – the country responsible for the murderous atrocities in Lebanon and Gaza.
As if to spit in the faces of the Palestinians, the pride festival will be held in occupied Jerusalem under the banner “Love without Borders”. Holding World Pride in Israel is the moral equivalent of holding it in apartheid South Africa.
Progressive gay groups around the world have joined Palestinian and Lebanese gay rights groups calling for a boycott of World Pride, as part of an international boycott of the racist apartheid state of Israel called by over 200 Palestinian NGOs.
Fifty-six percent of Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation. The Palestinian sections are segregated by an eight-metre high concrete wall. Palestinians’ lives are a never-ending cycle of roadblocks, checkpoints, ID checks, arrests, detentions, house demolitions and assassinations. This racist oppression is set to intensify during Pride. To “ensure the safety” of Pride party goers, the Israeli police in cooperation with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Tourism and Pride organisers will enforce curfews on the Palestinians.
So while wealthy Western gays holiday in pink dollar Jerusalem, Palestinians will be suffering even more.
To label such an abomination “Love without Borders” is the height of offensiveness. Gay Palestinians will not be able to attend Pride in Jerusalem. Neither will other Arabs or foreigners with Arab backgrounds. Neither will the gay Lebanese killed by Israeli bombers.
Holding Pride in Israel is no way to fight for gay rights. Cooperation with the Israeli state just strengthens its hand over those it oppresses. The Israeli government is using Pride as an opportunity to show the world that in Israel a gay man can also be a soldier. If only all gays were liberated enough to kill Arabs for their country!
An international boycott campaign, combined with the resistance of the Palestinians, can be effective, just as the boycott of South Africa was a key part of building mass opposition to apartheid.
Large demonstrations and union actions disrupted the tour of the all-white South African Springboks’ rugby tour of Australia in 1971. In Sydney a giant anti-apartheid banner was hung from the Harbour Bridge. In Brisbane, state premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a month-long state of emergency ahead of the tour! No South African sports team ever toured again until apartheid was overthrown.
Gay rights groups also took up the boycott of South Africa. A four-year battle within the International Gay Association ended in 1987 with the expulsion of the mostly white Gay Association of South Africa, which refused to oppose apartheid. The IGA supported anti-apartheid groups such as the Rand Gay Organisation and the black gay group GLOW, led by ANC activist Simon Nkoli. GLOW fought for its place in the leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle and because of this, gay rights in South Africa were recognised ahead of many other countries. GLOW insisted that liberation from homophobia could not be separated from the broader struggle for liberation in South Africa.
It is a disgrace that supposedly “left wing” Queer activists in Australia have defended going to this Pride behind racist borders. The left should stand on the side of the Palestinians and the Lebanese by saying NO PRIDE IN OCCUPATION!
For more info, visit: www.boycottworldpride.org
Standing against sexual oppression
Socialist Alternative Issue 106, August 2006
SOCIALISTS ALWAYS stand with the oppressed. We take sides, supporting every movement to defend and expand human freedom. As the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, we have to “respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse”.
Anyone who wants to oppose WorkChoices, imperialism and the “war on terror” needs to be equally serious about opposing sexual oppression – both the oppression of women and of gays and lesbians.
The family plays a central role in perpetuating the stereotypes that are crucial to sexual oppression. The stereotypes of the male breadwinner, and the wife and mother dependent on him and devoted to her children, underpin the treatment of women as sex objects, the false idea that women are by nature more passive and nurturing than men. They also provide a rationale for lower wages and fewer, more restricted job opportunities for women.
From these stereotypes follows the oppression of lesbians and gay men, whose failure to fit this model of what it is to be a “real man” or a “good woman” has been used as a justification for both physical and psychological violence against them. Gender stereotypes also lay the basis for the sexual oppression of heterosexual women – the idea that women are sex objects for men’s pleasure.
None of these outcomes is accidental. Capitalism puts responsibility for raising children on individual working class families, and within them, overwhelmingly on working class women.
This very real inequality in the family is then backed up by the derogatory way women, gay men and lesbians are treated in advertising, TV, films, and literature.
Oppression isn’t just legal discrimination such as women not having the right to vote, or gay men being arrested for having sex with each other. While most legal barriers to equality have been removed, oppression continues – and it benefits the capitalists that it does.
The most obvious way is the benefits the bosses get from the idea that all the work of the household, from bringing up the kids to looking after the sick, is supposed to be done for love, not money. Imagine if the bosses had to pay for these services!
Cheap labour is another obvious benefit the bosses get from sexism. Women today still earn on average two-thirds of what men do.
Who benefits from homophobia? Who is delighted when people who would get stuck in to anyone who used a racist insult, use terms like “poofter” to demean others? To whose advantage is it that some people are branded as “abnormal”?
Capitalism depends on keeping workers divided. Sexism and homophobia have the same effect as racism – they stop us from seeing who our real allies are. No wonder that right-wingers who support Howard and Bush – and therefore the occupation of Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, WorkChoices and the anti-Muslim racism known as the “war on terror” – also agree with them that marriage must be restricted to two people of the opposite sex.
Whenever the ruling class is on the offensive, lesbians and gays are among those who come under attack.
But none of this is set in stone.
If you ever needed evidence that society does not have to be as it is, look at the way in which sexual oppression has changed. History shows that nothing about relations between the sexes is fixed.
Two generations ago, few men cooked, cleaned, or looked after the kids. Today most men do some of these things. Well into the twentieth century, without reliable contraception, women had large numbers of children and died younger than men. Modern birth control and paid jobs have together meant a degree of freedom and independence unheard of in earlier times
What about the most common homophobic argument, that homosexuality is “not natural”? But what is “natural” has varied from society to society, with many societies over the ages – from Native Americans to Ancient Greece to seventeenth century Japan – accepting and even celebrating same-sex relationships.
Just as the ruling class can go on the offensive, the oppressed can fight back.
The Gay Liberation Movement gave people the confidence to “come out of the closet” and fight for their rights. The Women’s Liberation Movement took on sexism in all its forms. These movements did not arise in isolation, but were part of the broader radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s as people reacted in horror to what capitalism was throwing at them – the war in Vietnam as well as exploitation and oppression at home.
Oppression can’t be overcome unless the system that thrives on it, capitalism, is overthrown. Only the working class has the power to win that fight. But we won’t win if we’re divided. Every struggle against oppression strengthens workers’ ability to take on the ruling class.
Revolutionary movements consist of more than workers seizing control of production. Revolutions are, in Lenin’s words, “festivals of the oppressed.”
In Depth: The homophobic face of Australian culture Socialist Alternative Issue 94, August 2005
John Howard declared that “more could be done to eradicate … inflammatory exhortations to violence and intolerance. … There might be … some communities where inflammatory conduct is inferred and is not rebuked and it is not being made clear that that behaviour is quite unacceptable.”
But no, he wasn’t referring to the Sutherland Shire, one of the whitest, most Christian bastions of Sydney and where the greatest hatred of and violence towards lesbians and gay men was recorded in a recent study.
And no, he wasn’t referring to Baptist or Evangelical Christian communities which encourage loathing of homosexuality and campaign to have their bigotry enshrined in law because it is against the teaching of their god.
John Howard is famously the most socially conservative Prime Minister of Australia since Menzies. His views on the rights of women, especially lesbians, and the rights of gay men are widely known: in short, the fewer the better. So, when he weighed into the racist hysteria against Muslims in the wake of the London bombings with rants like the one above and demanded that Muslims who come to Australia recognise the supposedly inclusive values of “Western civilisation” and respect for women (a demand never made of Christians), I’m sure the irony was not lost on many of us.
But for many on the left, alongside abhorrence of anti-Muslim racism, there is uneasiness about what Islam represents. Comments like Howard’s can have a resonance among people who believe the spread of conservative Islam might erode some of the social rights we’ve won in recent decades, even when these same people wouldn’t ordinarily trust a word out of his mouth.
But for all of us wanting to put a stop to homophobia, the starting point has to be resisting the idea that Howard has anything useful to tell us at all. One of the most powerful proponents of homophobia in Australia – the author of the gay marriage ban who also supported the move to prevent lesbians accessing IVF by saying that all children should have “the prospect of the care and affection of both a mother and a father” – would like nothing more than to see the social rights of lesbians and gay men eroded further. In this light, his comments can be seen for what they are: a means of stoking up anti-Muslim racism, pure and simple.
A couple of recent surveys put comments like Howard’s into perspective. The most recent backs up a long line of evidence of how widespread homophobia is in our supposedly “tolerant” society. It found that 72 percent of lesbians and gay men had been verbally abused, up from five years ago. One in five had been threatened, and one in eight physically assaulted.
The other survey of nearly 25,000 people, Mapping Homophobia in Australia, gives us an idea why. It found that around 35 per cent of people believe homosexuality to be immoral. But importantly, it showed that Muslims are unlikely to be any less tolerant of lesbians and gay men than other religious people. The survey found that the views of those from non-Christian religions in Australia, nearly a third of whom are Muslims, were on a par with those of Catholics, Anglicans and Uniting Church Christians, among whom about 34 per cent believed that homosexuality is immoral. By contrast, homosexuality is condemned by 68 per cent of Baptists, and by 62 per cent of the evangelical Christians Liberal and Labor politicians have been so busy courting.
It’s also clear from this report that many religious people make judgments about morality at odds with the preaching of their religious leaders. Catholics are a notable case. While the Vatican repeatedly condemns homosexuality as “deviant and immoral”, most Catholics disagree. In the words of the report, “most Catholics have become adept at interweaving their own moral instincts with the various proscriptions of the church”. And on the other hand, 20 per cent of non-religious people condemned homosexuality as immoral. So it’s important not to overemphasise the importance of religion in shaping homophobic views in society.
On the other hand, homophobia is often seen as a form of cultural backwardness among working class people. So politicians who introduce homophobic laws claim that they are merely reflecting the views of the Australian people. And frequently, middle class liberals espouse this view too, often with thinly disguised prejudice against the working class. So the authors of the Australia Institute report were taken aback to discover that Sydney’s affluent southern suburbs were among the most homophobic.
Of course it is true that working class people frequently hold backward, homophobic ideas. But this is not because they blindly accept the views of their leaders tossed to them from on high, or because they are “ignorant” or culturally backward. Homophobic ideas – so propagated by ruling class politicians and institutions like the media – are also underpinned by material realities that legitimise them: the reality of the family; the reality of the anti-gay laws that prop it up; the reality of police harassment; the fact that most of the time teachers and bosses do little or nothing to prevent the homophobic abuse endemic in schools and workplaces, and frequently perpetrate it themselves. In this climate, and in the absence of significant struggles for lesbian and gay rights, it is little wonder that many working class people hold views that reflect the sickness of the society they live in.
But these material realities did not simply spring from nowhere. Homophobic oppression is a pillar of capitalist society, a means by which working class people can be organised into nuclear families, so that they reproduce themselves at little cost to their rulers. In Australia, the value to the capitalists of homophobia and sexist oppression, which prop up the unpaid labour of women in the home, amounts to a whopping one-third of GDP.
This link between capitalism and lesbian and gay oppression becomes clearer when we recognise that, far from being a hangover from earlier historical periods, it has a distinct starting point in the mid- to late nineteenth century, as capitalism became firmly established. This was a time when new sources of labour could no longer be gained simply by driving peasants off the land. Instead, a way had to be found to get the working class to reproduce itself without the capitalist system bearing the costs. Their solution was to establish the nuclear family, and homophobia became a key means of doing this.
It is true that the Church had earlier listed “sodomy” and “buggery” among the repertoire of sins that became banned in law. But until the 19th century these laws covered a wide range of “unproductive” sexual acts – including bestiality and heterosexual anal intercourse. It was only in the late 19th century in Britain and Europe that same-sex acts were criminalised. And it was at this time that new legal and medical approaches transformed the nature of sexual oppression: from the prosecution of particular acts to the targeting of a newly invented category of people: “homosexuals”.
The history of homophobia in Australia Tracing the history of sexual oppression in colonised Australia, which parallels that in Britain and Europe, can tell us a great deal about how homophobia became a feature of modern capitalism.
In one sense, persecution of homosexuality – at least between men – was born in Australia with the new colony: in 1787, before the colony of New South Wales was even settled, the soon-to-be Governor proclaimed that there were two crimes that would merit death, in the form of “delivering [the] prisoner to the natives of New Zealand, and letting them eat him”, as he put it: murder and sodomy. These ideas were formed in the context of growing prosecutions for sodomy between men in England, an aspect of the heavy social control being levelled at the newly emergent, overworked, overcrowded and disorderly industrial working class.
Yet, despite these inauspicious beginnings, it was four decades before these laws were implemented in the new colonies in any systematic way. These decades marked a dramatic turnaround in official opinion, reflected in three British parliamentary investigations into convict settlements. Among enquiries in 1798, 1812 and 1837, the first two made no reference whatsoever to same-sex relations. But the last was brimming with testimonies of “unnatural acts” between men.
Similarly, the first hangings for sodomy in NSW and Tasmania were in 1828. The majority of sodomy trials in NSW before the mid-19th century took place in just one decade, the 1830s, with the last execution occurring the year before transportation ceased. In Tasmania, the notorious penal colony for the other Australian colonies, and where transportation continued longer, the incidence of execution was higher than in NSW and lasted into the 1860s.
During the 1840s, lesbian activity among convict women began to be the subject of moralising in official reports, with a British parliamentary investigation into female convict discipline finding such activity was rife. There are records of a series of cases of women being punished for this within the women-only factories.
This shift in official response to same-sex activity among convicts seems to have been precipitated by the rapid expansion of the convict population, particularly in the early 1830s. This was a decade of growing ferment as convict discipline became more difficult to manage, and prosecutions for sexual activity were part of a general disciplinary crackdown: hangings in Sydney reached a record high around 1830, and floggings were administered liberally for minor offences.
This decade also saw a growing push among sections of the British and NSW ruling classes to abolish the expensive system of transportation in favour of free settlement, as surplus labour became a more pressing problem in Britain than the disposal of criminals. Not only was scaremongering about widespread “depravity” in the convict population seen as supporting the case for abolition, control of convict sexuality was also tied up with ensuring the orderly assimilation of the freed convict population into the emerging working class.
Marriage was seen as a key part of this process, particularly for convict women, and punishment of heterosexual as well as homosexual non-marital sex among convict women was accompanied by a tightening of sexual mores, while state measures granted considerable privileges to convicts who married. This process transformed marriage from being viewed as largely irrelevant by the working population up until around 1820, to becoming the dominant institution by the 1840s, establishing the family as a key institution of social order and laying the basis for population expansion.
Persecution of homosexual activity between convicts, then, became an instrument in both the management of a rapidly expanded convict population and the transformation of Australian settlements from penal colonies to settler societies.
From the 1860s until the turn of the century, the state began to develop increasingly sophisticated methods for policing social behaviour. The program to organise the population into families intensified, and not only as a means of ensuring order. Pregnant convict women had been seen as a burden by the colonial authorities. But with transportation no longer providing a means of expanding the labour force, it became a concern of the state to encourage the working class to reproduce. As Henry Parkes told the NSW parliament in 1866, “Our business being to colonise the country, there was only one way to do it – by spreading over it all the associations and connections of family life.”
The depravity of working class conditions was also a growing concern during this time, as lack of parental guidance, poor housing and rising infant mortality rates threatened the health and discipline of the future labour force. So the sexual morality of working people became a key theme in the push to ensure that the relationships formed by members of the working class met set standards of “decency”.
Women’s relationships were increasingly controlled by their economic dependence upon men, the denial of their sexuality and prosecution for unsanctioned sexual behaviour like prostitution. Among men, heavy official attention was accorded a wide array of “deviant” sexual activities, along with “larrikinism” – associating in groups on the streets and engaging in behaviour offensive to bourgeois morality.
It was during this time – from the mid-1860s to the early 1890s – that the generalised criminalisation of men’s homosexual activity took place, with the introduction of provisions for “indecent assault” or “gross indecency” ensuring a range of prosecutable offences and easier convictions. Just as in Britain and Europe, criminalisation of male homosexuality was introduced as part of a process of organising the working class into respectable heterosexual nuclear families.
While the 1920s onwards saw the emergence of a thriving underground camp scene in the major cities, the 1950s witnessed another serious crackdown against male homosexuality in Australia. Again, this was part of a process of reinforcing the nuclear family, this time in response to the social liberalisation that had occurred during World War II. There was a sharp increase in the number of people charged and convicted for homosexual activities, and there is strong evidence that police were actively involved in entrapment of homosexual men. A special squad targeting homosexuality was set up in the Victorian police, and the NSW police superintendent labelled homosexuality “the greatest social menace facing Australia”.
Those who worked in the public service became targets for discrimination, and there were moves to isolate homosexual men in NSW prisons and lock them up in mental institutions. The tabloid press was filled with scandal, and though the broadsheets had very little coverage of homosexuality, what there was sent a clear message to anyone thinking of straying from the heterosexual norm – that path could lead only to shame and arrest.
Far from a steady victimisation based on a cultural logic inherited from an earlier era, the persecution of people engaging in homosexual activity has occurred in waves, organised to suit the changing interests of those in power. While the Christian churches have certainly played a role, they are by no means the primary agent. In fact, the late 19th century laws against homosexuality were introduced in a period when the churches had diminishing influence and state support for them was being withdrawn. Rather, repression of homosexual activity in Australia has been an important and increasingly sophisticated tool for disciplining the working population, both convict and free, and to encourage the reproduction of the working class.
Recognising that homophobia is a prop for capitalism can show us how to fight it. It shows we can’t rely on reasoning with the ruling class to end homophobia, as many gay and lesbian rights lobbies try to do. But more importantly it also demonstrates that the views of ordinary people, religious or otherwise, are never the key problem. To challenge homophobia, we need to challenge the material basis underpinning it – the family, the laws, the state and the bosses who benefit, all of which has shaped a society in which oppression of lesbians and gay men is virulent and systemic.