USA: The LGBT Movement and the Fight for Equality

In this Workers' International League pamphlet, Tom Trottier examines the history and background to the LGBT movement. He explains the link to Capitalism and class society. He also looks at its history in the United States, the advances made during the Russian Revolution (and the effect of the Stalinist counter-revolution) as well as the modern history of the movent.

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Since the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969, there have been great strides forward in achieving equal rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. However, even today, all who make up the LGBT community continue to face discrimination and sometimes violence. As capitalism declines on a world scale, the ruling classes of each country will tend to look for scapegoats, to divert people from the struggle to change this decaying system and replace it with socialism and workers’ democracy. The ruling class will continue its policy of “divide and rule,” a tool to split the unity of the working class. Included in this is the use of homophobia and the attempt to divide people on the basis of sexuality.

How can the LGBT community defend the gains of the movement and move forward to true freedom and equality? Why does this movement need to link its struggle with the struggle for socialism? This booklet is an attempt to address some of these questions and learn the lessons of the past, so the future can be changed for the better.

Gender roles and sexuality in primitive communism

The LGBT movement is a modern development, but it has roots in past movements. However, it needs to be acknowledged first that homosexuality among humans has been integrated into past societies, in both primitive communist societies and class societies, in various ways. “Primitive communism” refers to the form of society that humans lived in for the majority of our existence, for tens of thousands of years before class society arose. These were societies in which the people lived and organized collectively to meet the community’s food, clothing, shelter and other needs. As an example, Native Americans had no concept of private property or land ownership prior to the European colonization of America.

The right wing claims that homosexuality is “unnatural.” If by this is meant that it is not found in nature, that is clearly false. Homosexual activity can be observed in many animals. However, since human romantic and sexual behavior is so clearly different from animal behavior, it would not be productive to draw too close a comparison.

Human sexuality is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. There are genetic, biological and psychological components to it, and all of this interacts dynamically within a particular context or society. Human sexuality and behavior develops from this and its interaction with societal constraints or the lack of such constraints. It should be noted that diversity and differences arise in this sphere, as with any other aspect of human life.

Society can try to set certain limits, such as creating gender roles for two sexes: male and female. Life, however, throws a curve to such rules, as with the birth of intersex children (formerly referred to as hermaphrodites, here we are speaking of people born with both female and male genitalia, or at least “ambiguous genitalia”). This is estimated to occur in at least 1/10 of 1% of all births.

It should be understood that many aspects of gender roles and sexual identities are created by society. Various societies over time have defined gender roles and sexual identities in different ways. When two different societies came into contact, this interaction in many instances led to dramatic changes as the society seeking to dominate the other changed it accordingly.

For example, Engels explains in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that the earliest human societies evolved into a stage of primitive communism, where group marriage held sway and lineage was traced through the mother (matrilineage). Engels further mentions the effect on group marriage by the Spanish missionaries, who condemned this practice. This had a decisive effect on the colonized people.

However, Engels never mentioned and might not have been aware of the fact that homosexual behavior and different gender roles were accepted in many of these societies. Some Native Americans also had the berdache, a person born male but who played a role that could be considered different from the general female and male roles prevalent in American primitive communist societies.

We know about homosexual behavior in primitive communist societies in the Americas due to the writings of Spanish and French missionaries and explorers. These chaste and celibate clergymen found it abhorrent and sinful. Homosexuality was viciously repressed by the Spanish, who had come to America for the three Gs: Gold, Glory and God. In many cases, the Spanish colonialists had dogs physically rip apart those who had engaged in homosexual behavior. Soon, any homosexual behavior that continued to exist was certainly not spoken about and had to be hidden from sight.

Engels explains how as society developed, group marriage gave way to monogamy, private property of the means of production developed, and children began to trace their lineage through the father as opposed to the mother. This would allow the man to bequeath his property to his children. Increasingly, society was divided into the individual family: one woman and one man and their children. There were strict penalties if the woman violated the “sanctity of marriage,” as the man wanted to ensure that his property would be passed on to his children, but of course, he was allowed many alternative distractions.

It would take many volumes to fully explain how homosexuality was repressed over the centuries, and in some situations allowed to exist over the centuries. This booklet cannot do this, but we can take look at how American capitalism integrated and regulated sexuality.

Capitalism: the superstructure

As Marxists, we understand that the fundamental basis for analyzing society is to look at how people organize themselves to provide food, clothes and shelter, and give birth to and raise a new generation. That is the economic base, the infrastructure. However, there are other institutions that regulate and maintain society, and Marxists call this the superstructure.  The superstructure must ultimately conform to the economic foundation of society; however the economic foundation of society can host a wide variety of superstructural institutions that can change over time.

Engels explains in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

“According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor, on the one hand, and of the family on the other. The less the development of labor, and the more limited its volume of production and, therefore, the wealth of society, the more preponderantly does the social order appear to be dominated by ties of sex. However, within this structure of society based on ties of sex, the productivity of labor develops more and more; with it, private property and exchange, differences in wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labor power of others, and thereby the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which strive in the course of generations to adapt the old structure of society to the new conditions, until finally, the incompatibility of the two leads to a complete revolution. The old society, built on groups based on ties of sex, bursts asunder in the collision of the newly-developed social classes; in its place a new society appears, constituted in a state, the lower units of which are no longer groups based on ties of sex but territorial groups, a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggles, which make up the content of all hitherto written history, now freely develop.” (Preface to the First Edition, 1884)

Capitalism, like other class societies, has developed social institutions which, as Engels explained, are conditioned by the economic infrastructure. As mentioned above, Marxists call this the superstructure. The individual family itself would be considered part of the superstructure; although it predates capitalism, it was a component of it from the start. It serves the function of allowing society to raise the next generation and allows privately owned property to be passed down to future generations. The state is another example. Like all class societies, capitalism needs an army, police, courts and prisons to protect their property from foreign nations and from the majority of the population of its own country who own little or nothing. Without a state, why would the majority put up with oppression and exploitation? The ruling class needs these institutions to maintain their wealth and privileges.

Religious institutions, which play a role in maintaining ideological conformity do provide some social and economic support to people ravaged by capitalism (charity). But at root, they defend the socio-political status quo, and have reinforced the male domination of woman and an entire moral code limiting sexuality to the male-female nuclear family.

Although these institutions must have views that reflect the needs of the underlying economic system, this does not mean that the system cannot exist without particular superstructural institutions. Hence, in present-day capitalism, the old institutional religions (Catholicism, mainstream Protestantism) have lost much influence in society. However, at the birth of American capitalism, religion played an important role and had much influence on the state.

Early America

Repression of homosexuality began in the Americas as soon as the Europeans landed. As explained above, the native peoples felt the wrath of the Europeans right from the beginning. Many of the American colonies adopted laws against “Sodomy.” It is estimated that at least seven men were put to death specifically for sodomy between 1607 and 1740. Many others received jail or other punishments, and some were executed and/or tortured by a lynch mob.

Even during the revolutionary war, soldiers in the revolutionary army were tried on sodomy charges. The repression against gays in the military literally goes back to George Washington. Even after the American Revolution, there were anti-sodomy laws in the various states, which were not eliminated nationally until 2003! The continued persecution of gays and lesbians made it less likely that people would strive for visibility. Given this oppression, the lives of lesbians and gays went underground.

It is interesting to note that the Stalinists and Maoists, many of whom assert that homosexuality is a byproduct of the decline of capitalism and the decay of its society, do not seem to have an explanation for why American capitalism would need to viciously repress something that should not exist in its infancy.

The Bolshevik Revolution

While LGBT people faced state repression in the USA, the victory of the workers’ revolution in Russia meant new freedom there. Women were given legal equality and the right to vote well before women in the U.S. had this right! The Bolsheviks ended the criminalization and arrests of prostitutes, but only arrested their patrons. They also tried to help prostitutes transition to other forms of employment by providing job training and housing. There were also attempts to provide universal child care, as well as communal restaurants and laundry facilities.

In addition to this, the Bolsheviks eliminated laws against homosexuality. The Soviet government sent delegates to the World League for Sexual Reform, set up by German reformer Magnus Hirschfeld, whom today we would describe as a gay rights activist.

“In the words of Dr. Baktis’s The Sexual Revolution in Russia: ‘As for homosexuality, sodomy, and whatever other forms of sexuality that are considered as moral violations by European legal codes, Soviet law treats them just the same as so-called natural intercourse. All forms of intercourse are private matters.’” (As quoted from the book The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement by Barry Adam)


The progress in the Soviet Union was short lived. Socialism must be built on the best technology and highest productivity developed by capitalism. One of the reasons socialism is superior to capitalism is that it will use the international division of labor to benefit humankind as a whole, while under capitalism, this division of labor and competition ultimately aggravates the crisis of the system.

The Bolsheviks saw the Russian Revolution as only the first step in the world revolution, that the revolution would spread to Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and so on. The revolution did spread. However, the absence in these countries of a trained revolutionary Marxist leadership, which could help orient the working class toward the seizure of political and economic power, eventually allowed the counterrevolution to triumph.

The capitalists were not strong enough to directly overthrow the revolution, but the revolution was isolated in a backward country, and this meant that a peculiar development occurred. A bureaucratic caste rose up in the Soviet Union, headed by Stalin, which took the political power into its own hands, while maintaining the state-owned planned economy. Gradually, this bureaucracy eliminated all remnants of Soviet democracy and physically exterminated the Marxists who led the Russian revolution.

Needless to say, the Stalinist regime distorted Marxism and socialism. Policies were changed 180 degrees and “justified” with political rhetoric. These changes included, in 1934, the re-criminalization of homosexuality and mass arrests of gays in Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov and Odessa.

The dominance of Stalinism in the world communist movement meant that the LGBT community was not going to find an ally there to lead it toward liberation from oppression.

Capitalism: Divide and rule

Modern American capitalism was also quite ruthless in its oppression of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals. In addition to the anti-sodomy laws and police prosecution, homosexuality was given extreme social disapproval. Any ability to live one’s life as a homosexual had to be done in an underground manner.

This was reflected throughout American capitalist culture. As an example, movies made in the 1930s to the early 1970s tended mostly to ignore homosexuality, but if there was a gay character, this person was portrayed as a villain or a clown, and most likely would commit suicide before the end of the movie.

Marxists understand that capitalist ideology also exerts its influence on science and medicine in order to perpetuate, justify, and enforce its own worldview. This was the case with official, mainstream psychiatry in America, which listed homosexuality as a disorder in its diagnostic manual until 1974! This was used to literally justify torture, such as shock treatments, lobotomies and other such methods, so that the patient could be made to be “straight.”

Interestingly enough, an American mother wrote to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, about her homosexual son in 1935. Freud wrote back to her on April 9 of that year. Here is part of what Freud had to say:

“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and a cruelty too.” (As quoted in Gay/Lesbian Almanac, A New Documentary by Jonathan Ned Katz)

The purpose of this quote is meant to show the difference in Freud’s approach versus the approach of the American medical community at the time. Marxists would not agree that homosexuality is an “arrest of sexual development.” Still, the quote above shows that at that time, Freud was ahead of his American brethren. Apparently, until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association would rather consult religious institutions than their “founding father” Freud himself.


During the Second World War, more than 12,000,000 men and women joined or were drafted into the U.S. armed forces. Ironically, this war set things in motion which would help lead to the birth of the LGBT movement in the USA.

Although the U.S. military would dishonorably discharge gay men and lesbians from the military, with the war raging, this was not given priority. As the war wound down, the witch hunts began. Interestingly, the two main centers for the U.S. military to discharge people for homosexuality were New York City and San Francisco. At that time, a dishonorable discharge and an accusation of homosexuality was so damaging to an individual that many did not return home, but continued to live in big cities, New York and San Francisco in particular. This led to the growth of an underground gay culture.

Dialectically, the conformity of American capitalist culture brought about its opposite in the growing underground LGBT community. The 1950s was a height of economic boom and power for U.S. imperialism. The ruling class launched the red scare, mainly to destroy the left in the trade union movement. We must remember that the Communist Party had the leadership of eleven CIO unions at the time. The McCarthyite witch hunts directed their wrath against communists, left sympathizers and “perverts,” meaning homosexuals.

It is hard for those of us who did not live back then to imagine life in those days. In 1950s New York City, a woman could be arrested for dressing in a way that made her look too much like a man! Still, a Communist Party member, Harry Hay, began an organization know as Mattachine, which was a gay rights organization that existed through the 1950s and 1960s, as did the Daughters of Bilitis, a Lesbian organization. It should be noted that although Hay was a loyal member of the CPUSA for years, his work in gay rights did not have approval of the party, which was dominated by Stalinist ideology.


The Civil Rights movement and the Black revolt lead to the rebirth of the women’s movement and a mass movement against the Vietnam War. Given the repression and hypocrisy of the 1950s, this dialectically lead to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The gains of these movements eventually led to the Stonewall Rebellion, where gays and lesbians physically fought the police repression which was aimed directly at the community’s social spaces. The Gay Liberation Front was organized with its slogan, “Out of the closets, into the streets!”

All of these movements—Black, women, LGBT—included members of all social classes in society and were aiming for basic democratic rights. The American ruling class used the middle class leaders to keep these movements within the “safe” boundaries of capitalism. They have used black, women and openly-gay elected politicians to make everyone feel that they have “a seat at the table.” The first Gay Pride marches were political in nature, while today, they are more akin to a giant party, and are increasingly being co-opted with advertisements, especially from the alcoholic beverage industry.

Certainly, these movements have forced the capitalist system to implement some reforms. Gay bars are no longer raided by the police. Anti-sodomy laws are off the books. As of this writing, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.

However, the gains still fall far short of real equality. Federal (and some state) laws still permit discrimination in employment based on sexual preference, gender identity and expression. Marriage equality without federal recognition means members of the LGBT community cannot sponsor their lover for citizenship, the way heterosexual couples can.

We must also understand that as capitalism, both on a world scale and here in the United States, continues to be in crisis, the ruling class and its most reactionary elements will increasingly look for scapegoats, and the LGBT community will continue to be one of them.

The Democratic Party

Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, promising the elimination of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military within his first 100 days in office. The middle class leaders of the LGBT movement supported him as a person who was going to fight for equality for lesbians and gays. These same leaders still advocate that the LGBT community support the Democrats as the party that will bring about real equality. What was the result?

In addition to his anti-working class policies of welfare “reform,” policies giving the police more power to “fight crime,” and the NAFTA treaty, Bill Clinton implemented “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which continued to allow discrimination against lesbians and gays in the military. We must also remember that it was Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law.  This was the first time ever it became national policy to prevent marriage equality. With friends like the Democrats, who needs enemies?

Like Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama has posed as a friend of the LGBT community. He promised to eliminate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but it took him two years to do it. That policy continued to be enforced. In the face of the Proposition 8 vote in California, Obama and the national Democratic Party continue a policy which does not support marriage equality.

Interestingly, as the crisis of capitalism deepens and the Democrats launch attacks against the workers and cut education and social programs, they fear losing the next election. Recently, the Democrats have tried to implement more reforms for the LGBT community so they can pose as progressive reformers. As an example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got marriage equality passed. California Governor Jerry Brown got a law passed to teach LGBT history in the public schools. Ironically, Brown and the Democrats are cutting money to education and laying off teachers. Who will teach this new curriculum?

Ultimately, the Democrats represent the same class as the Republicans. They base themselves on the continuation of capitalism. This forces them to move against the working class and play the “divide and rule” card. They are false friends. The LGBT community must depend on its own forces, in alliance with the broader working class.

The LGBT Movement and Labor

The labor movement has, over the recent years, adopted policies which support the LGBT movement and the fight for quality. Public sector unions such as AFSCME and the teachers have been at the forefront of this change. The unions need maximum unity to beat the bosses and the LGBT movement needs the support of labor, representing the power of the working class.

One interesting historical example of the two movements working together was the Coors boycott in San Francisco. In the early 1970s, the Teamsters union was organizing a boycott of Coors beer, which had always viciously fought the unions. The Coors family also gave (and gives) lots of money to right-wing groups and politicians.

Gay activist Harvey Milk joined up with the Teamsters campaign. He was successful in organizing community pressure at the gay bars and clubs to get them to stop selling Coors beer. The boycott was successful and both movements were strengthened. Through this common effort, the Teamsters in San Francisco became more supportive and sympathetic to the political goals of the LGBT community. This is a lesson that we must continue to take note of today.

The need for socialism

In February 2011, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a study on discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming people. The results confirm what many people already know. Transgender and gender nonconforming people are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with half stating that they have been harassed and/or been mistreated at work; 1 out of 4 reported that they had been fired by an employer as a result of their sexuality; 19% had been refused a home or apartment and 11% had been evicted; 19% had been refused care while trying to receive health care services; and 22% had been harassed by law enforcement.

This discriminatory treatment comes on top of a society where homelessness is growing and millions are unemployed with no hope of finding work. This discrimination in access to health care services must be seen in the context of a society in which many people have no health care coverage or it is inadequate and expensive.

We all remember Mathew Shepard’s brutal murder. This is an example of how capitalism tries to redirect hatred from the rich and their horrible system to a young man who was just trying live his life. Unless we change this society, capitalism will create the conditions where more such murders and attacks will take place.

In order to guarantee a society with full equality and which is free from bias, we must transform capitalism to socialism. Socialism would eliminate the need to keep people divided and would allow everyone to develop his or her individual potential. Socialism would be a society where jobs, food, clothing, housing, health care, transportation, retirement benefits and other things would be universally available. Why should a person’s ability to receive these benefits depend on marrying the right person or our own ability to get the “right job” when there are no jobs available?

In order to transform society, we need maximum unity of the working class. LGBT workers and youth must play a role in this struggle, in unity with the rest of the working class.

Socialism and human relationships

There is no way to know precisely how human relationships, especially romantic ones, will develop under socialism. However, we can be certain that people would be free to explore their own sexuality, free from state or religious coercion, and that sex would not be just another commodity, as it can be under capitalism. Under capitalism, economic necessity and social “norms” exert a tremendous amount of pressure on people when it comes to their personal relationships. The removal of the constraints of class society will allow people to freely choose their mutual and consensual interactions with one another.

Or, as Engels explained inThe Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

“Full freedom of marriage can therefore only be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual inclination.”

Another complication in human relationships under capitalism is the fact that people are divided into classes. This creates artificial divisions and adds power dynamics to human relationships that socialism can eliminate. People will just be people and will not have a certain “status.” There will be only one “status” in that we are all human. Once human needs are provided for as part of a rationally and democratically planned economy, and “status” fades, humans will be able to interact as free and equal individuals. Raising children will be part of the responsibility of society as a whole, not just the duty of the parents (and especially the mother). It might even develop that there will not be a need for societal/legal recognition of relationships such as marriage, adoption, etc.

The Workers International League is unconditionally opposed to all forms of discrimination. In today’s struggles against discrimination, second-class status, and gay bashing, LGBT workers and youth should join the broader fight for the socialist transformation of society. In order for this struggle to be victorious, we need to build a Marxist leadership that learns the lessons of the past so as to change the future. The WIL sees the building of this leadership, with which the working class can lead society forward to a new future, as its primary task. We invite you to join us in the struggle for a better world, the struggle for socialism.

Sources used for this booklet:

  • Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, by Frederick Engels.
  • The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement, by Barry D. Adam; 1987.
  • Gay/Lesbian Almanac, A New Documentary, by Jonathan Ned Katz (1983).
  • The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian Culture, by Walter L. Williams (1986).

Source: Socialist Appeal (USA)