issue 158 - April 1986
The coming-out crusade
There were no homosexuals in 17th Century America. But less
than three centuries later more than one in four people had had
homosexual experiences and one in 100 were declaring they were gay.
John D'Emilio argues that economic development itself provides the
opportunity for people to express their homosexual desires - and
that more people are 'coming out' today than ever before.
I WANT to challenge the myth of the eternal homosexual. Gay men and lesbians have not always existed. We - in the US and elsewhere - are the products of history. And our history is tied up with the history of the family in industrial society.
The white colonists in 17th-century New England established villages structured - like most Third World villages today - around self-sufficient family units. Men, women, and children farmed land owned by the man and the survival of each family member depended on the co-operation of all. Women processed raw farm products into food; they made clothing, soap, and candles; husbands, wives and children worked together to produce everything they consumed.
By the 19th Century, this system of household production was in decline. Men and women were drawn into jobs earning wages in the expanding capitalist system. The family was no longer an independent unit of production. But family members were still dependent on one another. Many families no longer grew their own grain, but wives still baked bread from the flour they bought with their husbands' wages. And they still made clothing from the cloth and yarn they bought.
For those people who felt the brunt of these changes, the family took on new significance. It became an institution that produced, not goods, but emotional satisfaction and happiness. By the 1920s an entire 'family' ideology had grown up in the white middle classes. In the family men and women formed satisfying, mutually enhancing relationships and created an environment that nurtured children. The family became the setting for a 'personal life', sharply distinguished and disconnected from the public world of work and production.
The meaning of heterosexual relations also changed over this period. In 17th Century New England producing offspring was as necessary for survival as producing grain. Sex was harnessed to procreation and women bore, on average, over seven children each.
Court records and church sermons indicate that male and female homosexual behaviour did exist at this time. But homosexual behaviour is different from homosexual identity. There was, quite simply, no social or economic .space for men and women to be gay. Survival was structured around participation in a nuclear family. True, there were certain homosexual acts - sodomy among men, 'lewdness' among women - in which individuals engaged, but the family was so necessary and pervasive that early American society lacked even the category of homosexual or lesbian to describe a person. And Massachusetts even had laws prohibiting unmarried adults from living outside family units.
But capitalism changed all that. When people began to make a living individually by earning wages instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, it became possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity - an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a life based on attraction to one's own sex.
By the 1920s and 1930s there were lesbian and homosexual bars in every big city in the US. Public bath-houses and YMCAs became gathering spots for male homosexuals. They staked out cruising areas, such as Riverside Drive in New York City and Lafayette Park in Washington. In St. Louis large numbers of black gay men congregated at the annual drag balls. Lesbians formed literary societies and private social clubs. Some working-class women dressed as men to obtain better jobs and lived, as lesbian couples, with other women, appearing to the world as husband and wife.
At the same time, doctors and psychiatrists began to develop theories about homosexuality, describing it as a medical condition, something that was inherent in a person, a part of his or her 'nature'. This medical model affected the consciousness of the women and men who experienced homosexual desire, so that they came to define themselves through their erotic life.
This led, in turn, to the emergence of a rudimentary urban subculture of gay men and lesbians. Yet, throughout the 1930s, this subculture remained rudimentary: unstable, elusive. It was the advent of World War II that provided the impetus for the creation of the complex, well-developed gay community that existed when the gay liberation movement exploded in the 1960s.
The war severely disrupted traditional patterns of sexuality. It plucked millions of young men and women - whose sexual identities were just forming - out of their homes, out of towns and small cities, out of the heterosexual environment of the family. And it dropped them into sex-segregated situations: as GIs, as WACs and WAVEs, in same-sex rooming houses. For men and women already gay, it provided an opportunity to meet people like themselves. Others could become gay because of the temporary freedom to explore sexuality that the war provided.
Newspapers and magazines began to publish articles describing gay male life. Literally hundreds of novels with lesbian themes were published. Psychoanalysts complained about the new ease with which their gay male patients - whom they were trying to 'cure' - found sexual partners. By the time of the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 - when police raided one too many gay bars and, for the first time, gays fought back - our situation was no longer one of silence, invisibility and isolation. A massive, grass-roots liberation movement formed almost overnight precisely because well-established and self-conscious communities of lesbians and gay men already existed.
But as the subculture expanded and grew more visible, oppression intensified and became more systematic. 'Sexual perverts' were scapegoated during the McCarthy era. Eisenhower imposed a total ban on the employment of gay women and men by the federal government and all government contractors. Purges of lesbians and homosexuals from the military rose sharply. The FBI instituted widespread surveillance of gay meeting places and of lesbian and gay organisations. The Post Office placed tracers on the correspondence of gay men and passed evidence of homosexual activity on to employers. Urban vice squads invaded private homes, made sweeps of lesbian and gay male bars, trapped gay men in public places, and fomented local witch hunts. The danger involved in being gay rose just as the possibilities for being gay were enhanced.
Significantly, the latest opposition - from the New Right - has taken shape as a pro-family' movement. It seems ironic that capitalism, whose demand for wage labour made possible the emergence of gay communities in the first place, should be unable to accept gay men and lesbians in its midst.
The key to the irony can, I think, be found in the contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family. Capitalism has gradually undermined the economic functions that cemented the ties between family members at the same time as enshrining the family as our only source of love, affection, and emotional security. As these material bonds weaken, family members experience a growing instability in the very place where they have come to expect happiness and emotional security. The result: lesbians, gay men and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the entire system.
I have argued that lesbian and gay identity and communities are historically created. A corollary of this is that we are not a fixed social minority, composed for all time of a certain percentage of the population. There are more of us now than 100 years ago, more of us than 40 years ago. And there may very well be more of us in the future.
Claims made - by gays and non-gays alike - that sexual orientation is fixed at an early age, and that large numbers of visible gay men and lesbians in society, the media, and schools will have no influence on the sexual identities of the young, are wrong. Capitalism has created the material conditions for homosexual desire to express itself. Now our political movements are creating the ideological conditions that make it easier for people to make that choice.
To be sure, this analysis confirms the worst fears of our opponents. But our response must be to challenge the belief that homosexual relations are bad. We must not fall back onto the defensive argument that society need not worry about tolerating us, since only homosexuals become homosexuals. At best this is an analysis that applies only to those who already are gay. It leaves today's youth - tomorrow's lesbians and gay men - to internalise anti-homosexual attitudes that can take a lifetime to expunge.
Like it or not, the expansion of capitalism has led to the separation of sexuality from procreation. This means that the expression of human sexual desire has begun to enter the realm of choice. Lesbians and homosexuals embody the potential of this separation most clearly, since our gay relationships stand entirely outside a procreative framework. The acceptance of our erotic choices ultimately depends on the degree to which society is willing to affirm sexual expression itself as a form of play - positive and life-enhancing. The gay liberation movement may have begun as the struggle of a 'minority'. But what we should now be trying to 'liberate' is an aspect of the personal lives of everyone: sexual expression.
John D'Emilio lectures in history at the University of Carolina and is author of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, published by University of Chicago Press in 1983. He is a regular contributor to the gay press in the US. This article is an edited version of a longer piece in Desire: The Politics of Sexuality.
Worth reading on... SEX
Brownmiller, S. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape Penguin Books, 1976. A classic. Gathers together most available facts on rape - historically and internationally - and makes the uncomfortable argument that most ordinary men are potential rapists. Essential reading for anyone who thinks rape only happens to other people.
Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality Peregrine Books, 1984. Argues that there is no such thing as sexuality: it’s an invention of the white middle-classes in the 1 9th Century... Well, he convinced me.
Metcalf, A. and Humphries, M. The Sexuality of Men Pluto Press, 1985. A collection of readings by men, about men - saying many of the things that feminists have been saying for years, but all the more compelling for being from the horses mouths.
Snitow, A., Stansell, C., Thompson, S. Desire: The Politics of Sexuality Virago, 1984. A creative and stimulating state-of-the-art' collection of essays. poems and short stories. Each contribution explores a different theoretical point. It demands a lot of thought from its readers, but well repays the effort. Not for the casual reader.
Bancroft, J. Human Sexuality and its Problems Churchill Livingstone, 1983. This really is all you ever wanted to know about every aspect of sex - medically, anatomically, psychologically, statistically. A sex textbook mercifully free of 'naked-ape' and anti-gay assumptions.
Meulenbelt, A. (Johanna’s daughter) and others For Ourselves: Our Bodies and Sexuality - from Women's Point of View Sheba, 1981. A book with a cover designed like a birthday gift - ribbon and all. And that's exactly what reading it is like; unwrapping something tender and precious. Photographs, interviews, analysis, anecdote and anatomy. Do buy it if you can.