The Roots of Homophobia
Jessica Cormack Socialist Alternative Conference. 2003
Well I think we’d all agree that homophobia is still alive and well today. Some of the most obvious examples include the blatant discrimination again lesbians applying for IVF, where on Friday John Howard claimed that denying IVF access to single women and lesbians was not discriminate, but necessary to give each child an opportunity to have a mother and a father. Unfair custody battles where children are predominantly given to the parent in a straight relationship. Job discrimination, and a current example from Brisbane is where this café which has historically been known as a queer-friendly venue has recently changed hands. Soon after this changeover, six workers were fired, five of who identified queer. A week later the only straight person who was fired was called and told a mistake had been made and they had their job back. So this is very recent example of homophobia. And there’s also the welfare system, where gay and lesbian relationships are not recognised as legitimate forms of intimacy, and so force many queer people to marry their gay friends of the opposite sex. And these are only the 1st world examples. In the next 20 minutes I hope to convince you that of several things. That all sexual activity is socially constructed and therefore homophobia is not an inherent trait, but rather a structural oppression of the capitalist system, the same as sexism and racism. In fact homosexuality as word didn’t exist until 1869 when it was used to describe contrary sexual feeling and Uranium love. I aim to illustrate that the family is the primary institute for perpetrating ideas about what is considered normal sexuality. And to convince you that sexual practices, in any society, are shaped to maintain the existing society with its specific mode of production, and arrangements for reproduction.
I shall start way back in history, in classless hunter-gatherer times, and slowly work my way forward to the modern day concepts of family and sexuality, and by doing so, prove that the modern concept of homophobia is not natural, has not always existed, and under socialism, will disappear. As Marxists, we believe that only a socialist revolution will open the way to sexual freedom and equality.
Hunter-gatherer societies, were classless societies. Although there were male and female roles, each was equally important in the survival of the group. There were fluid forms of marriage, childbirth and rearing. One example of where gay or homosexual relations occurred was in a native Nth American tribe, where members of the tribe, should they have a preference for tasks of the opposite sex, were allowed to swap genders, and this extended to them marrying according to their acquired gender, not their biological one. And this was all seen as perfectly normal. Although there were few controls on sexual activity, sexual relations were still maintained within a framework of customs and roles designed for survival. The work still got done, so it suited the method of production, and because marriage and family were fluid relations, monogamy and childbirth were of little importance.
The first examples of gay relationships in class society date back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, during 500-300 B.C. Many gay relationships were seen to exist in these times, but the seemingly strange thing was the double standards imposed at the time. Men were allowed to be active participants in sex with other men, but playing a passive role was frowned upon. Likewise, men were free to have to sex with boys, but boys having sex with men were not accepted. In Rome, “sexual service was an offence for the freeborn and necessity for the slave”. The point is however, that the prejudice was not against homosexuality as a sexual orientation. So why the double standards?
One suggestion has been that men being passive participants meant they were lowering themselves to the status of women and therefore the practice was frowned upon. But this leads to the question of why women had a lower status to begin with. The answer lies with the role slavery played in production and exploitation at the time.
During this period the majority of the labour force was bought from outside the nation as slaves. Combined with this, the free people of society produced only small numbers of children themselves, because it was a poor community and they couldn’t afford to feed many heirs. So these two factors combined, meant a low priority on childbearing. This could explain the low status of women, and low status of men who played a passive role in homosexual relationships. The reason why gay relationships were allowed to exist at all can also be explained by the role of slavery, in that sexuality was dissociated from reproduction, due to the labour force being made up of non-native people. The mode of production was not threatened by homosexuality because reproduction among the free peoples was of little importance to production and running of society. Any laws which may appeared homophobic in nature were only concerned with protecting the free persons, and maintaining class division.
To recap, attitudes towards sexuality in ancient class societies were shaped by the importance slavery had as the main source of labour, and they were perpetrated by those in power to maintain class divisions and continue this system of production. It was only when slavery was superseded by serfdom that a new outlook on sexuality arrived, for never before had there been such a dramatic change in the structure of the labour force, never in history had there been the need for such a huge growth in the native population as during this transition period.
I also wanted to mention Christianity in this section, because it was these specific changes in circumstances and attitudes that allowed it to become the dominant religion. Although some aspects of Christianity do condemn same-sex relations, they mostly do so in the context of all non-procreative sex. Ie. They’re not specifically homophobic. So how did it become the dominant religion?
It was during the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, in the 3rd century. The empire had encountered a wave of disasters – military defeat, plague and famine, which all led to political instability and a population decline. This sparked off three major changes. Laws originally designed to force the aristocracy to marry and have children were extended to penalise sex between men. New policies were introduced to force peasants into fixed posts with the obligation to reproduce themselves, which coupled with a heavy taxation system and compulsory contributions, led to the flight of the peasants from the land. Thirdly, slave breeding, although quite common now was just too costly in relation to the amount of surplus it could generate with the existing technology, and so the Empire was facing collapse.
For further material progress a new mode of production had to take over from the ancient form of slavery, a new system called serfdom. It was a system based on serfs, the agricultural producers, being bound to the soil of their landlords, and obliged to reproduce in return for lowered taxes and the right to marry and have children. The family was now the primary unit of production. It was during this time that Christianity took advantage of the specific material conditions to sell itself to the people.
The Christian God would save those individuals who devoted themselves to God, and took up the Christian ideology, which included the necessity to marry and have children. It had an ideology of sexuality that fitted in with the rise of serfdom and landlord classes. It was a necessity for the empire to restore its native population in order for production to continue functioning and Christianity helped propagate this. However Christianity was not homophobic in the modern sense, for it perpetrated a blanket condemnation of all non-procreative sex, which included oral sex, anal sex, sex with no intent of conception, sex with animals, and sex with one’s own gender.
By the 1200’s, church control had weakened, and was widely ignored. There was an increase in the population, expansion of cultivation, colonisation of new land and growth of towns and trade. Because of this, previous bonds the lords and bishops had on control were broken. There was a rise in merchant capitalism alongside the system of serfdom, which created a pressure for individual freedom and the breakdown of feudal social structures. Accompanying this came a backlash from the Church and State, which was precipitated by the expansion but intensified by the crises and plagues that followed. All this led to procreative sex once being at the forefront of the agenda for social control and the family central to its enforcement. We must remember this was still a pre-industrial society, so the major importance of the family was still as the basic unit of production and property ownership. Penalties for “unnatural sex” were tightened, which included sex with Jews, animals and one’s own gender.
During this period before the Industrial Revolution there were many contradictions in the way homosexuality was treated. King James I of England condemned sodomy, but openly had love affairs with his male courtiers. Such class hypocrisy can be explained by the different place homosexuality had in the ideology and social structure of the Renaissance compared with now. Gay relations were generally seen as something practiced “on the side”. There were late marriages amongst the lower class and arranged marriage among the aristocracy, so gay relationships didn’t interfere with the society’s control on reproduction. The contradictions were there because the family as an institute was an easy way for the upper class to keep social order and continue with the current mode of production.
By the end of the 17th century a gay subculture was beginning to emerge, with the Molly houses of England, drag balls, and gay clubs, all experiencing periodic attacks. During this period the first voice was raised in defence of homosexuals, William Brown a labourer from England said quite eloquently “I think there is no crime in making what I please of my own body”. Something was starting to change. The bourgeois revolutions had raised the question of individuality and decreased state interference. There was the growth of workshop manufacture, journeymen formed organizations in comparison to previous household production, and personal life was breaking loose, much to the despair of the authority.
By the 18th century new themes of homosexuality began to appear. In 1709 a pamphlet was released explaining that gay men who acted feminine did so “in order to disguise their natural feelings (as men) towards the fair sex, and to encourage unnatural lusts”. In 1736 a second article was circulated by a legal writer, who said that “it is seldom known that a person guilty of abusing his generative faculty so unnaturally has afterward a proper regard for women”.
Both of these are obviously not equivalent to modern concepts of homosexuality, and the second one claims that a lack of interest in women is the result, not the cause of unnatural behaviour.
By the 1800’s there was peak punishment for sodomy in England, while simultaneously old laws on sodomy were being abolished in Russia and Prussia, the US after the American Revolution, and in France, as there began a “festival of the oppressed”. So why was England increasing its repressive laws while the rest of Europe were relaxing them? The answer lies in the coming of the Industrial Revolution. It was during a time of war, which meant several things for England. For the ruling class, the threat of defeat by the French was seen as the threat of a “revolution of ethical, moral and religious spheres”. For the working class it meant the development of the mining, textile and metal industry. It meant long working hours, and it meant bad conditions and pay. The state feared sexual anarchy could only add to the social revolution of people fed up bad conditions. It served their purpose to create divisions amongst the lower classes and scapegoat the homosexuals, for “its far better they mob the sodomites than riot for reforms again their corrupt government”. To go into more detail…..
Industrialization meant a disruption to the family, it meant repeated change to the age and sex structure of the workforce, it meant a boom-bust cycle which periodically through people into states of poverty. A fear was generated that without traditional family roles and responsibility a working class disorder would occur. The family was no longer the place of production, but still a necessity, especially in the eyes of the upper class. It was essential for labour reproduction, for discipline and hierarchy within the factories, for the taming of rebel workers with family responsibilities, and for the perpetuation of self-sufficiency and individuality. Self-sufficiency was particularly pushed, so that the onus of caring for the less capable was on the working family, not the ruling class. There were three major outcomes due to these changes in family.
The first was the association of male and female gender roles with separate spheres of work and home. The idea that work was an outside world suited to men and the home was a haven for women and children was first developed amongst the bourgeous in the eighteenth century. It was during a time when the wealth of this class was no longer created in the household, and while they had the resources to create private luxury, everyone else was hard at work. It was during this time that the Evangelicals saw it as their campaign not just to preach the aristocracy, but to extend the message to the working class. Employers and capitalist firms took it upon themselves to produce pamphlets promoting family and orthodox sexuality and correct gender roles. With this came opposition, the major political campaigners being Marx and Engels, with the Communist Manifesto but for the majority of people in modern society the family was a necessity. There was no welfare system in place so the burden of caring for the very young, sick, elderly and unemployed fell on the family. Yet despite these ideas that the man was the breadwinner and the woman the housekeeper, the reality was that many women did work in order to keep their family out of poverty. It was the material importance of the family that helped marginalise those not fitting the stereotype. These ideas were only reinforced by the view that family satisfied personal life, which was the second outcome of changes to the family.
As Zaretsky put it “originally the family was the productive unit based on private property, so people understood personal relations to be rooted in their mutual labour. With the rise of industry, people were separated from the ownership of productive property, so work and life were separated. Labour was outside the inner world of peace and feeling”.
In reality we know this isn’t true, and all personal life is subordinated by the needs of the capitalist system, including family and its distinct gender roles.
The consequences for sexuality were that while individuals were made to feel they were free to get personal satisfaction from sex, it was understood to be contained within this recognised norm of family and gender structure. Doctors stressed the importance of sex, but also its dangers and complications. Ie. Masturbation and wasted sexual energy. It was also during this period that new words were founded, for example, “the homosexual”, a condition most doctors saw as either insanity or a contagious congenital defect.
The third reaction to this change in the family was repressive control. People were punished for inclinations, not behaviour. All capitalist countries have used legal harassment in the twentieth century. During Hitler’s era it became irrelevant that some of the founding members of the Nazi party were homosexual, for the only interest was in maintaining divides and providing an easy scapegoat.
In the USA during the McCarthy period, 1000’s of gay government workers were sacked, an attempt by the ruling class to reclaim some of the gains the working class had made during the 30s. The government reported that “indulgence in acts of sexual perversion weakens the moral fibre of the individual and one homosexual can pollute an entire government office”.
And it’s the same historical reasons why homophobia is still live and well today. It exists to maintain a social structure that supports the current mode of production, and specific form of reproduction, and by doing so maintaining class divisions. The family is still the primary institution to enforce these things, and it does so by perpetrating male and female gender roles and orthodox sexuality. Homophobia remains a tool of the upper class to divide the working class by providing a scapegoat. This way they have less fear that the working class will realise the real enemy, the capitalist class.
On top of all this history, which is mostly based on gay male sexuality, there is a lesbian history. Unfortunately due to the male dominance over past literature, lesbianism has a patchy history. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, “unnatural acts” were regarded with horror, but much of what today we regard as part of a lesbian relationship was ignored, as it was compatible with femininity, marriage and motherhood. One again we see this reoccurring theme of how class wins out over fighting for homosexuals as a group, and how its much better to get together and cooperate with gay or straight people interested in fighting for equal rights for all.
Two examples of where class won out were when British, Christian, upper-class women were always given the benefit of the doubt about lesbian relationships, and were defended as having “innocent friendships”. Meanwhile, the predatory lesbians of lower classes were breaking up middle-class marriages.
Another example of conservatism was during the Cold War, where the argument was that for lesbians to be accepted in society all they had to do was maintain a respectable, conservative look. Ie. Not butch.
One strand of lesbianism applauded was working class women was passed themselves off as men, because after all they were only trying to raise themselves to the superior position of the male. Right?
Unfortunately I can’t go into much more detail due to time, but basically lesbians are subject to the same forms of oppression as men in modern industrial society, and perhaps this can be a topic for further discussion.
To recap, all human sexuality is socially constructed, and changes depending on the way society is being run at the time. There is no one natural sexuality, and homophobia is not an inherent trait, but a structural oppression which exists to serve the ruling class in maintaining divides amongst the working class.
The fall of slavery and the Industrial Revolution were the two major periods in overturning old forms of gay oppression and replacing them with new ones. What repression existed prior to the Industrial Revolution was not the same as modern homophobia, in that it existed as part of a blanket condemnation of all non-procreative sex, but is similar in that it too was dictated by the mode of production specific to that era.
The family has always been the crucial institution for the integration of sexuality into class society. Under capitalism the family has become detached from production, and redefined as a separate sphere of personal life. Although same sex relations did exist prior to capitalist, and were punishable, it was only since the Industrial Revolution that people have been defined as different according to their sexual preference and been repressed because of it.
So the struggle to end gay oppression is a struggle to end capitalism and its distortion of gender and sexuality. And what will socialism offer? Under socialism the reasons for sexual alienation and oppression will disappear, ie. The family as the primary form of personal life, the inequality of women, the maintenance of separate gender roles and the powerlessness of the majority of people to have a say in the running of society. Secondly, the prospects for sexual liberation improve with every struggle against oppression here and now. Although Engels was right in saying we can’t predict what forms of sexuality and personal relations people will choose in the future, we can say that the chances of sexual liberation are much greater in a society free of structural oppression. The lesson is that gay liberation has become just as essential to the struggle for socialism, as a socialist revolution is for any meaningful sexual liberation.