In recent years the struggle against gender oppression and sexual orientation-based discrimination has developed into mass movements in many countries. We have seen large-scale protests expressing anger and rebellion – that had been building up for years and decades – against an exasperating interference of a system that not only forces you to struggle daily to make ends meet, but also claims the right to decide what you can or cannot do in your private lives, who you can have a relationship with, sexual or otherwise, whether you can raise a child, etc., and subjects anyone who departs from the norms of the so-called “traditional family” to a social and legal ghetto.
[This article was first published in the Italian theoretical journal Falce Martello]
With their demands for liberation and their mass base, these protests have within them an intrinsic revolutionary potential. At the same time, there is also a conscious attempt to reduce these issues to a question of culture and limit the goals of the movement to fighting for small concessions that are compatible with the normal (i.e., oppressive) functioning of capitalism. A lot of coverage is given to theories that on the surface appear radical but which in practice channel the struggle of the LGBT movement along idealist and existentialist lines which end up in a blind alley, when what is really needed is to change the material conditions.
It is vitally important for the victory of the LGBT movement that it adopt a class approach, uniting the struggle against homophobic oppression and for full civil rights with the general struggle for a decent life, free from economic and social oppression. It is equally important that the labour movement take up the LGBT struggle, overcoming the divide that has existed historically, in particular due to the reformist and Stalinist leaderships of the Left.
As revolutionaries, this objective is a vital part of our political activity, and this article is offered as a basis for further theoretical debate on this question.
Discrimination and homophobia today
Today homosexuality, or any other related behaviour, is still officially illegal in 72 countries, with punishment ranging from a month to 15 years imprisonment, to life imprisonment, and even the death sentence (in 8 countries). In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the death penalty is carried out by stoning, while in other countries forms of corporal punishment such as lashes are meted out. Same sex marriage is only recognised in 23 countries and in a further 27 civil unions are recognised1.
However, even where there exist forms of legal protection, official discrimination takes on many forms. In several US states, for example, there exist “laws against the promotion of homosexuality” that limit specific behaviour or provide guidelines for the type of sexual morals to be taught in schools and other public institutions. This is all too familiar in Italy, where the right wing and the Catholic Church have launched crusades against so-called “gender theory” in Italian schools. These people encourage the far-right to take action, organising groups to carry out violent attacks against gays (as well as immigrants and left-wing activists). It is not by chance that a draft law against the incitement to homophobic hatred and aggravating circumstances has been gathering dust in a parliamentary commission for the past three years. While this law does not go far enough, it would at least guarantee some greater degree of protection. Evidently, the Minniti bill which would allow the expulsion of immigrants who have survived crossing the Mediterranean by boat is much higher up their list of priorities!
On top of all this, discrimination permeates everyday life in schools, in the workplace, in housing, and is felt in the constant ideological and social pressure that weighs down on LGBT people. According to research by ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics) in 2011, due to the fear of mobbing or being fired, only one in four gay workers declares openly their sexual orientation, a trend that is particularly evident in the provinces. According to an EU poll, 68% of EU citizens are of the opinion that discrimination based on sexual orientation does exist. According to another poll, in Italy only 6% of LGBT teenagers in high schools are fully open about their sexual orientation within the wider community, while a further 39% are only partially open within a smaller circle of friends – the averages in other EU countries are similar. That 94% of LGBT teenagers prefer to hide their sexual orientation, partially or totally, speaks volumes about the personal hardship that social discrimination creates. Such pressure does not stop at home, and the family is actually often the first place where non-acceptance is to be found, and it extends to all kinds of violence, from being locked in the home, to beatings and “corrective” rape. It is not uncommon to read news of teenagers who have “committed suicide because of being gay”, the final tragic outcome of the psychological pressure generated at the social and family level.
What traditional family?
Every homophobic campaign is based on the argument that homosexuality is fundamentally “against nature”. The most vulgar displays of this line of thought are to be found in religious fundamentalism, but the argument was for a very long time also present in the “scientific” world – a confirmation of the fact that science is conditioned by the dominant ideology. In psychology, homosexuality was for a long time considered pathological by the majority of the scientific community, or at least as a non-physiological condition, even by the most progressive psychologists. Such was the case of Freud, who, although he did not encourage discrimination, deemed it to be an interruption of sexual development. Even Wilhelm Reich, in general a supporter of sexual liberation, who also had a materialist and revolutionary outlook (in the early part of his life at least), defined homosexuality as “the consequence of a very early disorder in the development of the affective and sexual functions”. Only in 1973 did the APA (American Psychiatric Association) cease to regard homosexuality as a pathology, and in 1986 finally removed the category of “ego-dystonic homosexuality” (a presumed form of pathological homosexuality, regarded as a source of stress, as opposed to physiologically-based ego-syntonic homosexuality), in recognition of the fact that the psychological stress was in reality caused by the social pressures suffered by homosexuals. Four years later, on 17th May 1990, the World Health Organisation finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.
The fact that there is nothing abnormal about non-heterosexual orientations and behaviour is confirmed simply by their widespread presence throughout human history and around the world, a fact abundantly documented by anthropological, historical and literary studies2. There are records of so-called “people of the two spirits” among Native Americans, men who dressed and behaved as women, and vice versa, and who were often involved in religious ceremonies. It is well known that in Thebes, in the 4th century BC, a sacred battalion was created, formed of 150 male soldier couples, whose invincibility in battle lay in the desire of each soldier to protect his own partner and appear valiant in front of him – every soldier would have thrown all his energy into each battle. It is also widely known that in Athens and Rome (male) homosexual relationships were socially and legally recognised. That said, however, it would be wrong to think of these as examples of complete freedom of sexual relations, as we see in some superficial interpretations, or to look for a “golden age of homosexuality” before modern-day repression.
In Athens, socially regulated male homosexual relations in the pre-urban period and in the first years after the birth of the polis, consisted of a pederast relationship between a free adult male citizen (usually over 25 years old), and a free male adolescent (between the age of 12 and 17), that had as its purpose the education of the youth towards adulthood and the status of citizen. The sexual relationship was a part of this educational relationship, inherited from a much older initiation rite into adulthood, where the roles were rigidly fixed: the adult as the active suitor, and the youth as submissive and shy, who would yield only when the seriousness of the suitor’s intentions was demonstrated. This relationship would continue until the younger partner reached adulthood, then passing through a period of abstinence and after that assuming another role until marriage. No relations were permitted with slaves – as these would not have had any educational purpose, as slaves were not destined to become citizens – or (at least in theory) between adults. Such relations were common to all before marriage, and only in some cases continued afterwards. Women, on the other hand, were secluded within the home and banned from social life, while lesbian relations were considered distasteful, although they did exist, especially in schools for the education of young women (Sappho was an educator) before they were finally secluded within the home. Over the centuries, the diffusion of male homosexual relations and a weakening of the division of roles led to a certain social stigmatisation.
In Rome, on the other hand, sexuality was proof of male domination, and it was therefore unacceptable for a free citizen to take on a passive role (even at young age). Homosexual male relations were considered wholly legitimate on condition that the submissive partner was a slave or a male prostitute – the Lex Scatinia (3rd or 2nd century BC) forbade sexual harassment of young free males, and banned them from assuming a passive role with adult males, and punished such behaviour with fines. Gradually, during the period of the Empire, due to Greek influence, a relationship analogous to Hellenic pederasty spread. And with a gradual deregulation, passive sexual behaviour among free men, slaves and male prostitutes spread, including prominent figures such as Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. Subsequently, however, from the 4th century AD onwards, homosexual relations began to be limited by law, with the punishment of castration for passivity (342 AD), death by burning at the stake for passive male prostitutes (390 AD), death for all passive males (438 AD) and finally for all forms of homosexual activity (533 AD).
A decisive role in repressing homosexuality was played by the emergence of Christianity as the dominant religion. The Church was the first to decree homosexual relations as being “against nature”, an idea which still persists in religious morality to the present day. This was a completely new concept, given that previously even those who opposed homosexual relations did not condemn them as being against nature, but rather mostly wanted to strengthen the role and stability of the family in society, often arguing that it was necessary for population growth. It was Justinian who first raised the idea of divine punishment for homosexuals. This repression of homosexuality went hand in hand with the concept of Christian abstinence, according to which sexual intercourse is legitimate only when carried out with the aim of procreation, and therefore uncontrolled and adulterous intercourse must be repressed (previously adultery was socially accepted – of course only for men)3.
From this brief historical overview, we can draw some conclusions. Firstly, homosexual and bisexual behaviour has always existed, as is evident from social practice but above all from the fact that limitations were imposed on non-regulated homosexual relations (for instance between adult male citizens or between women, both in Greece and in Rome), namely those closer to homosexual love in the modern sense, which has appeared repeatedly throughout history.
Secondly, we can see that in different historical periods different social norms regarding sexuality have existed, a fact that proves there is no basis for the concept of the “traditional family”, much less a traditional monogamous family with mutual bonds of fidelity, as is insisted on today. This model was only adopted under Christianity, and even then only as an ideal. The social reality of adultery and prostitution available to men is quite different, and it has undergone countless transformations, existing today in many forms, depending on the social and economic context (just think of the difference between the old extended family of peasants compared to the mononuclear family of blue-collar or white-collar workers today).
Thirdly and lastly, we need to note that these norms were in no case an expression of sexual and emotional freedom. To begin with, slaves and women were totally excluded, and only certain forms of behaviour were considered legitimate, while others were forbidden, and, at least in the case of Greece, pederast relationships were a social institution that did not take account of the sexual orientation of either the citizen or the young boy involved, who may have experienced it with discomfort.
Thus, to conclude, such laws were in effect different forms of regulation of emotional, domestic and sexual life, including repressive measures when lawful behaviour was violated, where what was deemed to be lawful depended on the structure of society.
Also, in view of these considerations, we can assert that, generally speaking, the repression of non-heterosexual (homosexual, bisexual…) behaviour has emerged throughout human history with different degrees of intensity and with different levels of limitation, with the aim of stabilising family relations, particularly to ensure the foundation and strengthening of the monogamous family.
As Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and as has been confirmed by the key conclusions of several recent anthropological studies, the family is not a stable institution that has always existed. During the hunter-gatherer stage, when the management of economy, food and tools and the raising of children were conducted at community level, women had a prominent role and society was matrilineal. It was thanks to the domestication of animals, the agricultural revolution, and the concentration of the means of production in the hands of men, that patriarchal oppression originated – together with class society – and that monogamous marriage became the basis of the new family structure, its primary purpose being to guarantee paternity in inheritance. From this stems the sense of ownership over wife and children which is still so widespread today, and that affects the lives of billions of individuals.
It is in this context that the oppression of women, their marginalisation within society, and the repression of their sexual behaviour emerged, reducing them to mere instruments of reproduction (caring for the household and children), and became structural and embedded historically, together with the evolution of various family and social structures. Attitudes towards sexual behaviour that falls outside of reproduction within the monogamous family, on the other hand, depends on how much they are considered as a threat to the family as an institution. Homosexual love between women has been subject to varying degrees of repression at different periods in history (we have only mentioned a few above). We can argue, however, that as long as the monogamous family is considered the fundamental cornerstone of society and the only model for legitimate emotional and sexual behaviour, it will be impossible to overcome social discrimination based on sexual orientations.
Class Struggle and Gay Emancipation
The struggle against sexual discrimination is linked to the struggle against class society in general for several reasons. The first, as we have explained, is that only the abolition of class society can create the material economic basis and cultural drive sufficient to dismantle the model of the monogamous family as the only basic unit of society. By socially carrying out all the tasks that are today assigned to the sphere of the family, and mostly to women (cooking, cleaning, raising children), and by allowing the free development of individuals with access to the best material and cultural resources society can provide, it will be possible to facilitate a process by which interpersonal and family bonds are gradually freed from material necessity and correspond solely to romantic and sexual desires, thereby dissolving the oppressive norms and discriminations that exist at present.
The second reason is that the vast majority of LGBT people are workers, youth, temporary workers, unemployed, who experience a double oppression in regard to both their class, in the workplace and living (or surviving) conditions, and their identity or sexual orientation. Joining the struggles against these two forms of oppression is therefore the most natural thing, especially when we consider that the enemy is the same. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that homophobic prejudices are also fostered to divide workers – for example, to make heterosexual workers believe that, while they may be oppressed, they are still superior to the gay person (how satisfying!), in the same way that racist prejudices are nurtured. The role played by the right wing in this process is self-evident.
Whoever says that the two fronts of struggle must be separated is playing into the enemy's hands. And often, in the LGBT movement, those people promoting this stance are wealthy individuals who do not experience the material problems faced by LGBT workers and youth. In fact, they limit the movement to calling for small concessions from the government, without making too much noise and often without making any substantial gains. That is the case, for instance, of the gay-friendly movements of the 1950s (both in Italy and internationally), which were later strongly criticised by the gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which developed along revolutionary lines on the basis of the waves of class struggle during those years.
On the other hand, it should be noted that a large share of responsibility for the split between the LGBT movement and the workers’ movement in the second half of the 20th century falls on the leadership of the Communist parties who, on the basis of Stalinist degeneration, adopted openly homophobic positions. These softened only at a later stage, and then mostly to assume a reformist view of the struggle for civil rights, mirroring the reformism of their political programme.
However, it was not always like this. Although in the writings of Marx and Engels there is no mention of the homosexual question, there are several statements by leaders of the old German Social-Democracy expressing opposition to any discrimination towards homosexuals or punishment of homosexuality in German law. It is no accident that, when Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee at the end of the 19th century to promote the abolition of paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code that rendered homosexuality illegal, his petition, discussed in parliament in 1898, received only the support of the minority SPD in parliament. The work of Hirschfeld continued with the launch of the Institute for Sexual Research and the subsequent organisation of the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921 (along with the participation of a Soviet delegate). The work of Hirschfeld marks the first great effort in modern times to decriminalise homosexuality based on scientific debate. Hirschfeld himself considered homosexuality to be a pathological – or at least non-physiological – state, for which, however, there was no reason to impose punishment. Article 175, however, was not abolished and the triumph of Nazism over the German workers’ movement opened a period of black reaction that relentlessly crushed gay people. The Institute for Sexual Research was among the first buildings to be raided on 6th May 1933 by Nazi youth, who burned in the square all the texts found in the library. The Nazis worsened the punishments decreed by Article 175, leading to the arrest of 100,000 gay people, 60,000 prison sentences, internment in psychiatric hospitals, and forced sterilisation. Gays were among those sent to the concentration camps, together with Jews, Socialists and Communists.
The condition of homosexuals after the October Revolution
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, in which workers took power into their hands for the first time in history (with the exception of the brief period of the Paris Commune in 1871), changed the lives of millions not only in political and economic terms, but in regard to the family as well. The Soviet government granted women the same rights as men, legalised divorce and abortion, and promoted the intensive development of social services, to provide the economic foundations for liberation from family duties: nurseries, public canteens, laundries, day hospitals, cinemas, theatres, etc. At the same time, with the abolition of the Tsarist penal code, homosexuality was decriminalised (whereas, under the Tsar, it was punishable with severe prison sentences).
The position of the Bolshevik party was that sexual behaviour belongs to the private sphere, and as such was not to be sanctioned or regulated, unless it harmed others (for example, if coercion or violence were involved). In Russian scientific debate, homosexuality was still regarded as an illness – as in every other country – but no discrimination arose out of this opinion. Among the concrete examples of the attitude of the Soviet government on the issue, we can quote the participation of a Soviet delegate to Hirschfeld's Congress for Sexual Reform as well as the appointment of Georgy Chicherin, who was openly gay, as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1918. Such a situation, given the historic context, was unparalleled anywhere else in the word.
The traditional family began to be broken up by social changes: men and women were called on to participate in social life and the youth were, at least partially, freed from traditional family authority and strived for new social (including sentimental and sexual) relations4, especially within the youth groups. However, very soon the radical changes opened up by the revolution, even in family and in sexual relations, came up against the problems caused by the isolation and economic difficulties that the revolution was facing. Material resources were too limited to offer an alternative: often public services were of such low quality that of necessity there was a tendency to return to the old family structure. At the same time, the bureaucratic deformation that led to Stalinism was beginning to take place, which meant breaking with the ideals of Lenin, Trotsky, and the October revolution.
This phenomenon had two consequences. On the one hand, given the lack of a material base for developing family and emotional relationships on a more advanced, social level, the traditional family made a comeback; it would take decades to fully overcome this, even in the best of conditions. On the other hand, the Stalinist regime saw in the return to the family and traditional morals a source of stability for the regime, in particular an instrument for strengthening the idea of authority (beginning with that of the head of the family over the children) which was actively promoted.
Trotsky wrote in The Revolution Betrayed:
“The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously – what a providential coincidence! – with the rehabilitation of the rouble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, ‘We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim’, the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.” (The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 7, Family, Youth and Culture, Thermidor in the Family).
This process also changed attitudes towards homosexuality. Instead of relying on the urban proletarians, that had overcome prejudices against gays more spontaneously, the regime relied on the petty bourgeois elements and the underdeveloped far-eastern regions. (In 1925, for example, in Turkestan, an additional clause was added to the Penal Code of the Soviet Union that provided punishments for homosexuality). And in 1933-34 the prohibition of male homosexual relations was restored, punishable with prison sentences. In 1935 divorce was severely restricted; recognition of free partnerships was abolished, and in 1936 abortion was once again made illegal. If, to put it in Trotsky's words, the “dogma of family” had become the “cornerstone of triumphant socialism”, homosexuality, seen as a threat to the family, had become a vice of bourgeois decadence. This homophobic position later deeply infected the Communist (Stalinist) parties on an international level, jeopardising what should have been a naturally developing gay movement, one interlinked with the revolutionary movement itself.
From Stonewall to a lull in the movement
After the Second World War, in a period of general ebb of the class struggle, a leading role was played by those gay groups which, as explained above, tried to establish dialogue and a soft approach towards governments to win some minimal rights, bit with little success. After a period of ebb in social struggles and the weakening of the gay movement, it erupted once more (or, in a certain sense, for the first time) as a mass movement in 1969 in New York, with the Stonewall riots. During the night of 28th-29th June, the umpteenth police raid on a gay bar (the Stonewall Inn) – considered routine practice up until then – was for the first time met with mass resistance, which developed into a battle spanning two days, in which a thousand people were involved.
The Stonewall revolt changed the face and nature of the gay movement, which assumed a character no longer of small circles of scientists or committees, and broke with the idea of homosexuality as an abnormality, but instead expressed pride in it. The movement also took a turn to the left, towards revolutionary positions which, though vague, linked up with the rise in class struggle during the late 1960s and 1970s. After Stonewall, at the beginning of July 1969, the Gay Liberation Front was founded in the USA. It adopted anti-capitalist and “third-worldist” positions, and came out in support of the struggle of the Black Panthers. Similar organisations were set up in several countries: the Gay Liberation Front in the UK in 1970, which would proceed to gather hundreds of activists but then fragment politically, the Front Omosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR) in France, and the Mouvement Homosexuelle D’Action Révolutionnaiere (MHAR) in Belgium.
In Italy in 1971 the Fronte Unitario Omosessuale Rivoluzionario Italiano (FUORI, the acronym means “OUT” in Italian) was founded. As for the other groups, their numbers were not massive: barely a hundred activists in three groups in Turin, Milan and Rome (with big political differences between the three cities). Initially their newspaper was sold monthly in the kiosks, with a print run of 8 thousand copies.
On 5th April 1972, in the city of Sanremo, FUORI organised the first public demonstration against the International Congress of Sexology, which had on its agenda a discussion on the causes of homosexuality and possible curative therapies. To give an idea of the tenor of the discussion, one suggested therapy was to administer mild painful electric shocks associated with pictures of naked men but not of naked women, while another was to selectively remove cerebral tissue.
Outside the congress, dozens of activists picketed shouting slogans such as “We are normal! We are normal!” and holding placards reading “Psychiatrists, stick your electrodes in your own brains”. Inside the conference hall, Angelo Pezzana, a member of FUORI, took the floor, opening with the famous words “I am homosexual and happy to be so”. The demonstration marked a turning point in the gay movement and a break with the moderate pro-gay organisations.
The turn towards a revolutionary perspective was important: in the first issue of the paper, the editorial board addressed “the revolutionary [heterosexual] comrades” asking them to “be the first to understand the reality of homosexuals,” given that “sexual repression is the first, the most devious and most dangerous method of subjugation of any repressive system”. “We argue” continued the militants of FUORI, “for the need of a sexual revolution, parallel to and integrated with the political revolution that is already underway in every country.”5 What we had here was an organisation without a clear Marxist programme, but which nonetheless understood the potential inherent in the gay movement converging with a revolutionary perspective. But yet again, the primary reason this did not go all the way was the homophobic position of the leaderships of the labour movement.
A few weeks after the Sanremo demonstration, on 1st May 1972, the Rome branch of FUORI, together with other groups, organised a demonstration in Campo de' Fiori square, “a celebration of joy, against work and for sexual liberation”. At a certain point a group of activists from the extra-parliamentary Left arrived, “declaring themselves to be members of Potere Operaio [Workers’ Power, an ultra-left group], while shouting 'Faggots out from Campo de’ Fiori,’ they started throwing buckets of water on the campaigners”6.
As for the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which had never officially dealt with the matter, it published in 1974, in issue 3-4 of the magazine Critica Marxista, an article by Luciano Gruppi in which the following ideas were put forward: “It is precisely the relationship that we argue must be established between society and nature that tells us how much homosexuality, on the contrary, breaks such a relationship by contradicting a fundamental instinct of every living being: the continuity of the species. Homosexuality, therefore, impoverishes and deeply modifies the personality of man. Often born out of solitude, it often also ends in solitude too.”7 There is no need to comment on how uncomfortable gay workers and students must have felt being active in that party. It was the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1975 that opened up a debate within the party, which changed its position on homosexuality by the end of the 1970s, just before the beginning of the decline of the wave of militant struggle that had swept Italy since 1968, and all this was framed within an increasingly reformist policy of the party.
So instead of offering a perspective of general political struggle to the activists of the new gay movement, which could have overcome the general political eclecticism, those activists were pushed away by the labour movement, and thus they ended up taking different paths. From an organisational point of view, in 1974 FUORI merged with the Radical Party – that in those years was leaning to the left – thereby abandoning the revolutionary perspective and merely struggling for civil rights within the limits of bourgeois society. Some leading figures of the FUORI, among them Mario Mieli, broke with the movement because of this, and turned towards the extra-parliamentary left, unfortunately at a moment when it too was about to enter into an irreversible crisis.
The lost opportunity of building a link between the LGBT movement and the labour movement was very well highlighted in the 2014 film Pride!, which tells the true story of Mark Ashton, a gay activist in the youth section of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who at the London Pride march of 1984 launched a fundraiser in support of the miners' strike against Thatcher, on the basis of class solidarity and common opposition to both the reactionary Thatcher government and the wider capitalist system. He managed to build a group called “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” and, overcoming the mutual mistrust between the London gay culture and the organized labour movement, he forged a link that culminated in a wide mobilisation of British gays and lesbians in solidarity with the miners, as well as leading to the participation of a large delegation of miners in the 1985 Pride march and the incorporation of gay rights into the programme of the trade unions. At the beginning of the ‘70s there was a similar demonstration of solidarity headed by Harvey Milk, and taken up by the San Francisco gay community, with the boycott of Coors beer by the Teamsters.
The great British miners’ strike of 1984, which stands out as an exemplary struggle to this day, took place during the last great burst of workers’ struggles that had begun in the 1970s, but was very quickly followed by a period of deep lull of the movement, which threw back both the labour movement and the gay rights movement.
In this context of lull, we witness a fragmentation of the gay liberation movement, which retreats to the level of welfare care, particularly in regard to the issue of AIDS in the 1980s, of solidarity against homophobic violence, and of struggle for laws against discrimination and later for the recognition of civil rights. Thus, on the one hand there was a return to the reformist and conciliatory approach of the gay groups of the 1950s, while on the other hand it rested on the gains of the struggle of the 1970s that once and for all declared the naturalness of being gay, of pride and dignity. All this also forced the scientific community to change its approach in subsequent years and acknowledge the legitimacy of homosexual behaviour, thus breaking the isolation of the gay rights struggle. On this basis, the Italian Arci-gay association developed, growing from a few branches in the early 1980s to its present nationwide network.
New Theories or Dead Ends?
While the decline of the movements in the 1980s and 1990s leads to a demobilisation and retreat from open struggle, in the academic world a debate opens up, particularly about the issue of gender identity, which leads to so-called queer studies, or queer theory. The term dates back to 1990. One year earlier, Judith Butler had published Gender trouble, which became a point of reference for further elaborations.
Even though such elaborations never developed into a general theory, the central point is the critique of the idea that gender identity and a male/female biological sex exists in nature, and that these are rather the product of a heteronormative society, that is a society which establishes as a norm (and via power relations) a binary division based on a heterosexualised “discourse”. This is the final link in a chain of thought that begins with feminist separatism (against patriarchal society, pitting woman against man), goes through lesbian separatism (woman is not to be affirmed any longer because she is defined as a woman in relation to men: only a lesbian in the political sense can rebel against ideological male dominion) and ends up with queer theory (any form of gender identity is the result of heterosexual patriarchal ideological domination, therefore they must all be rejected).
Now, to those who are not allowed to freely express their own gender identity or their own sexual orientation, these theorisations may appear as a radical rejection of social impositions and hence be attractive. The problem is that, as soon as one digs a bit deeper, they turn out to be a dead end for anyone trying to actually change things.
According to Butler, gender identity is not natural but is created “performatively”, that is, on the basis of the repetition of acts determined by socially established norms and “discourse”8. It is this artificially produced identity which in turn gives us the idea that in nature there exist two sexes, male and female. This theory is borrowed from Foucault: “For Foucault, the body is not ‘sexed’ in any significant sense prior to its determination within a discourse through which it becomes invested with an ‘idea’ of natural or essential sex. The body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations. Sexuality is an historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity. As such, sexuality is understood by Foucault to produce ‘sex’ as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis.”9.
Thus male and female, but also heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, would all be illusory categories resulting from this mechanism, because given that the biological sexes do not exist, then sexual orientations do not exist neither.
This is a classic example of how a partial truth can be taken and disconnected from reality and made the be all and end all of an argument that leads nowhere. No one questions the fact that a person's consciousness is strongly influenced by the social context in which it develops. However, starting out from this correct premise, what is the point of denying the existence of the male and female sex, with all their anatomic and biological differences?10 This has a certain importance if we move, for example, from the world of academic hypotheses to medical therapies, or to pregnancy and breastfeeding. Furthermore, even if I state that my consciousness (and hence the way I perceive my own gender identity) is determined by the social conditions in which I live, does that make it any less real? No, it reflects my real conditions of existence, both natural and social, and will evolve with the evolution of society.
But, above all: in view of this theory, how can I fight for sexual liberation? Put very simply, I cannot. To quote Butler again: “Hence, power can be neither withdrawn nor refused, but only redeployed. Indeed, in my view, the normative focus for gay and lesbian practice ought to be on the subversive and parodic redeployment of power rather than on the impossible fantasy of its full-scale transcendence”11. That is, the best we can achieve is a creative parody, a caricature of gender identities, to show that they are not natural entities but, indeed, a product. By doing that we show that gender does not exist, and there is then possibility for “proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality”12. The mountain has given birth to the postmodern mouse: I can see gender oppression but I have abandoned a class analysis of society, and so I can no longer see the causes of this oppression; then I raise oppression (or better: one single or particular aspect of oppression, the heterosexualising power) to a metaphysical entity on which everything depends, and I have not got the slightest idea of how to overthrow it; the only form of subversion I have left is to fall into a subjectivism in which I deny reality and I argue that everyone can invent their own reality, without changing anything at all outside my own consciousness.
It comes as no surprise that the ruling class does not fear these theories. At the same time it is evident that these same theories have little or nothing to offer outside a circle of academic debate. All those who have the pressing need to fight for their own rights in the real world, would do better to arm themselves with sharper theories and forms of struggle.
Here it is worth looking briefly at the idea of intersectionality, which has become very popular lately among some layers of the movement. It means, more or less, that in society there exist several forms of oppression (based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.), and these are intertwined and overlap transversally, hence the transversal nature of the movements and the possibility of bringing them together in coalitions.
Butler herself highlights the fact that the need to weaken the universal category of “woman” arises from “criticisms from women who claim that the category of ‘women’ is normative and exclusionary and is invoked with the unmarked dimensions of class and racial privilege intact”13. Correct! Indeed, gender oppression is not the same for the worker woman and the bourgeois woman, and the struggle for the liberation of women, when it questions the privileges of the ruling class, leads to a division along class lines with the bourgeois women breaking away, because they have to defend their material class privileges, even remaining subordinate to their (bourgeois) husbands within the home.
We see the same thing in the LGBT movement when we enter the realm of economic struggles (for housing, jobs, healthcare and so on), which is what renders civil rights concrete. This simply tells us that the fundamental contradiction in society, the class contradiction, is what determines the framework within which we struggle and that only by advancing the class struggle until the overthrow of capitalism can we offer a perspective of victory to movements fighting against the many forms of oppression present within society.
If we abandon the idea that the class struggle is central to everything, what is left? We have a constant – and incomplete – striving to build coalitions between different movements (LGBT, anti-racist, green, etc.), of varying compositions and balances, depending on which of these is the strongest in any given moment. In the post-modern outlook, this approach goes as far as redefining the very identity of the participants: “An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure.” So, even my identity can change on each occasion, according to the composition of a meeting or what it decides! No wonder that people are confused by all this…
It is not surprising that these theories gained ground in a period of lull in the class struggle, when the main point of reference – the working class – was missing, and could not offer a real possibility of overthrowing capitalism and with it all the forms of oppression that it creates or perpetuates. The rise of the class struggle, as always, will have a clarifying impact in the ideological sphere as well.
Civil Rights during the Crisis of Capitalism
Since the year 2000 we have seen in many countries the passing of laws against discrimination and for civil rights, from gay marriage to civil unions. These important conquests have been achieved thanks to the constant pressure on the part of gay activism and the growing support in society, including among heterosexual people, for equal rights. Today the banner of civil rights has been taken up not only in the Left, but also within sections of the capitalist class and of their political representatives: we have International Day Against Homophobia promoted by the European Union, we see resolutions adopted by the United Nations on this question, and so on.
We cannot, however, harbour any illusions nor have an ambiguous approach to any of this. These “liberal” governments and “enlightened” sectors of the bourgeoisie are the same people who support dictatorships in various parts of the world where gays and lesbians are hanged or beheaded. Thus, we see how the US government – under both Trump and Obama – supplies arms to Saudi Arabia. The same is the case with all the major European powers that, while legalising gay marriage, at the same time support the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt which, apart from all the arrests, murder and torture of political opponents, has also launched harsh repression against gays. This hypocrisy can be used for reactionary purposes and the defence of the rights of LGBT people can become a pretext for supporting imperialist policies. This is clearly the case when we are told that Israel is the country in the Middle East with the most advanced legislation on LGBT rights. Does this authorise Israel to massacre, to bomb and to impose embargoes on the Palestinians, whose administrations are less concerned about legislation on civil rights? In the Netherlands, the government uses the upholding of LGBT rights to limit so-called “homophobic” immigration, even with entrance exams in Dutch embassies around the world. If we lose sight of the overall picture, and especially if we abandon the class perspective, we can very quickly end up in the camp of reaction, as some LGBT rights groups have done, more concerned with winning positions of power and more than willing to turn a blind eye to what allied governments are doing14.
From a bourgeois point of view, making concessions on civil rights has both an economic and a political objective. Economically, LGBT people are simply a market sector, so a gay friendly company profile can attract customers. Ikea has no problem in putting pictures of male couples in its catalogue, provided that they have the money to buy the kitchen. In the same way, it has no problem in including divorced parents in its advertising, provided that they have the money to buy the exact same furniture for two bedrooms for the child, so they can be exactly the same in both homes. Unemployed gay people, on the other hand, must live with the fact that they do not exist as far as the world of advertising is concerned, just as heterosexual unemployed people do not exist.
On the political front, however, a section of the ruling class is trying to defuse a field of possible social conflict, taking on board what can be absorbed into the system, and seeking support from the moderate leaders of the LGBT movement, while at the same time promoting xenophobic, anti-working, draconian austerity policies, and cuts in key services.
Thus we see how, faced with a crisis of the family and because of pressure from below, a wing of the ruling class has accepted the legal recognition of gay couples, while at the same time pushing gay people back to the fundamental role of the family in capitalist society, and to support for the ideological outlook of the bourgeoisie. Hence we have the promotion of gay marriage, which, however, must adapt to the model of the monogamous family. This leads, in some cases, to a replication of male/female gender roles within the gay couple, including the division of tasks of domestic work and all the traditional bourgeois values.
Does this mean that we underestimate the question of civil rights? Absolutely not! We struggle for the full recognition and application of civil rights, namely complete parity of family and individual rights, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. This includes the right to marriage and adoption (which must also be applied to single people as well) and stepchild adoption (that is, the right to adopt the child of one’s partner) also for gay couples.
However, we must not lose sight of the overall picture and we must not forget which side of the barricade we are on in the class struggle.
That is why among the rights we defend we do not include the legalisation of surrogacy, which we oppose, because under capitalism it necessarily involves the creation of a market of women who, because of economic need, sell their bodies and undergo highly traumatic experiences such as going through a pregnancy and then having the new-born baby removed, with all the physical and psychological consequences that this implies. We do not doubt that there are cases where this is done voluntarily, as a “gift”, but the predominant social reality is very different from this, and we cannot accept it.
We should also emphasise the fact that the desire to have biological offspring, or the idea that emotional attachment to a child is of necessity linked to biological parenthood, has been drummed into us by the need to transmit property through the monogamous family, which did not exist before the rise of private property:
“'You white people,' a native American said to a missionary, 'love your own children only. We love the children of the clan. They belong to all the people and we care for them. They are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. We are all father and mother to them. White people are savages; they do not love their children. If children are orphaned, people have to be paid to look after them. We know nothing of such barbarous ideas’.”15.
Revolution and Liberation
We struggle for the recognition of all civil rights, and we welcome them enthusiastically when they are granted, even under capitalism. But we must also be aware of the fact that at any moment the sharpening of the class struggle can push the ruling class to opt for a more reactionary approach, and therefore take back what they have previously granted. Let us remember that the Clintons lead to the Trumps, the Macrons to the Le Pens, unless they are stopped by class struggle. No conquest is guaranteed to last, as long as we remain within the capitalist system.
And where these rights have been granted, is the aim really that of gays and heterosexuals being equally exploited? What can I do with civil rights if I am not guaranteed a house or a job, if the healthcare system is in a state of collapse and I don’t have the money for medical care for myself and my loved ones, if I do not have a residence permit? What use is the right to gay marriage if I have to dedicate all my time and energy to a boss and end up exhausted when I return home?
Once we enter into the problems of everyday life, a class division opens within the LGBT movement, because everyday life varies greatly depending on the class one belongs to. We saw this clearly in Italy during the 2016 mobilisations in support of civil unions, where the mass base of the movement, made up mostly of young people, temporary workers and students, was much more radical than the leadership (among which the Arci-gay), who saw the mobilisations merely as a means of garnering support for the new law, and possibly to put a bit of pressure on the right wing of the parliamentary group of the PD (Democratic Party). What we then saw was the PD scrapping stepchild adoption and limiting the scope of the reform. The leadership of the movement accepted this compromise but the rank and file demanded a relaunching of the protests.
This split between the leadership and the mass of protestors was clearly visible to us when we intervened in the movement, calling for a generalisation of the struggle against the PD government to include the struggle for jobs, housing and welfare. The majority of protestors enthusiastically took up our slogans, while the leadership – sometimes the PD itself, who organised meetings to show how much it cared about civil rights – looked around embarrassed, calling on people not to exaggerate. We cannot delegate to these people the task of leading the struggle for our rights.
We saw crowded squares where those demanding full civil rights for all were not just LGBT people, but also many heterosexuals, and we also saw how the struggle for civil rights immediately connected with the struggle for housing, jobs and healthcare. Such unity is what can lead to victory. What is required is for the LGBT movement to develop along class lines, with its full integration into the workers’ movement and for the labour movement to adopt a revolutionary programme.
We need to overthrow capitalism, free ourselves of the ruling class, take over the productive resources and wealth and use these in a planned and harmonious manner, not for the profits of the few but for the collective needs of society. Housework needs to be socialised; and the care and education of children must be of high quality. Everyone should have the right to a home; working hours should be reduced so that everyone has the time and energy to live one’s life.
On this material basis we will be able to break with the morality perpetuated by the bourgeoisie in terms of the structure of the family and sexual orientation. We will be able to throw patriarchy and homophobia into the dustbin of history, and we will be free to live our lives as we wish and everyone will be able to freely express their own sexual and emotional feelings. Deciding how this is to be done, in what forms and which family relations society will have, is a task that belongs to the future generations.
- Source: ILGA, state-sponsored homophobia report 2017
- We quote solely as a supplementary argument the diffusion of homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom, which highlights its presence in nature, but is not conclusive because of the differences between human and animal social and emotional behaviour. To quote just one of the latest studies, published as part of the “Against nature?” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Oslo, “homosexuality […] has been reported in more than 1500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them, but the real extent is probably much higher.”
- See, among the many texts on this: Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2002.
- On this attempt, and its failure, see Wilhelm Reich, “The Struggle For a ‘New Life’ in the Soviet Union,’ in The Sexual Revolution, 1936. See also Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, and the chapter ‘Family, Youth and Culture’ in The Revolution Betrayed.
- Quote from Gianni Rossi Barilli, Il movimento gay in Italia (“The gay movement in Italy, not translated into English). Feltrinelli, 1999, p. 51—52.
- Ibid., page 59.
- Quote from Fabio Giovannini, Comunisti e diversi: il PCI e la questione omosessuale, (“Communists and the diverse: the PCI and the homosexual question,” not translated into English), Edizioni Dedalo, 1980, p. 72.
- “In other words, acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality.” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990)
- It is not the aim of this article to establish the origins of gender identity. From a materialist point of view, we limit ourselves here to stating that it develops necessarily from a mix of natural (physical and biological), psychological and social elements.
- See the cases reported in: https://paper-bird.net/2016/11/02/selling-out-the-gays-and-governmentality
- M.F. Ashley Montagu, Marriage: Past and Present, a Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Boston, Porter Sargent Publisher, 1956, p. 48.