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Sexual Politics

new internationalist
issue 201 - November 1989

[image, unknown]
Neil Libbert / CAMERA PRESS
Sexual politics
What do Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher have in
common? Jeffrey Weeks explains why many politicians of
both Left and Right oppress lesbians and gays.

Homosexuality has no particular political belonging. Authoritarian regimes of both Left and Right have at times reviled it and at other times tolerated it. The liberal democracies of the West have in the past stigmatized it - but more recently offered some degree of acceptance. In short, homosexuality cannot be placed ideologically, socially or politically on either Left or Right.

Yet it has frequently been seized upon as an issue by politicians. It is difficult to find much that Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher have in common. But for both, nevertheless, homosexuality is something to be reviled and prevented.

In post-revolutionary Cuba homosexuality was denounced as a hangover from the corrupt Batista era; it had to be eradicated by revolutionary puritanism. The first National Congress on Education and Culture referred to 'the social pathological character of homosexual deviations' and resolved that 'all manifestations of homosexual deviations are to be firmly rejected and prevented from spreading'.

Gays were incarcerated in rehabilitation camps during the 1960s and then expelled as part of the mass 'Mariel' exodus of 'social undesirables' from Cuba to the US in 1983. At best, homosexuality was seen as an imperialist relic - at worst a gross social degeneration.

In the UK of the 1980s, under the social authoritarian conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, gay lifestyles and political activities have been seen as the hallmark of the 'loony-Left'. For Thatcher, homosexuality is a threat to the family - that fundamental building block of the enterprise culture.

What is it about lesbian and gay sexuality that makes it seem threatening to both Castro and Thatcher? What arouses such fears?

I want to suggest that it is not homosexuality in itself that poses the real threat. After all, various ultra-conservative regimes tolerate a sort of closeted homosexuality - even the Reagan administration did, despite its crusading opposition to the gay movement. In many societies around the Mediterranean littoral, for example, and in Latin America, a form of easy-going male homosexuality co-exists with highly traditional family values. And this undermines neither masculinity nor heterosexuality.

The real threat comes when lesbian and gay activities become part of an alternative way of life. For when people endorse the idea of sexual pluralism they are also implicitly endorsing social and political pluralism. When they affirm their lesbian or gay identities, when they assert their sense of belonging to social movements and communities organized around their sexual preferences they are making a political statement. Homosexuality then becomes more than an individual quirk or private choice. It becomes a challenge to absolute' values of all types, whether of the Right or the Left. Authoritarian regimes don't like that.

Homosexual activists have, however, mostly identified with the Left. And during some periods at least, the Left has given strong support to the lesbian and gay cause. In the 1890s, British socialist pioneer Edward Carpenter became a passionate advocate of sex reform. He campaigned both for equality between the sexes and for the rights of what he called uranians' or the 'intermediate sex' - that is homosexuals. And he drew freely on the work of the great German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld.

Between the 1890s and the 1930s Hirschfeld became the exemplar of progressive sex reform. Always a man of the democratic Left, he made direct appeals to the working-class electorate to support reform of anti-homosexual laws in Germany. And he found support in the leadership of the then Marxist Social Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, another socialist theorist, Edward Bernstein, was calling for 'a scientific approach' to sexuality rather than one based on 'more or less arbitrary moral concepts'.

Nazis disposing of homosexual books.
Christine Osborne / CAMERA PRESS

The belief that science could lead to more enlightened attitudes towards homosexuality became a touchstone of the world movement for sex reform that gradually emerged in the 1920s. 'Through science to justice' became its motto, and this commitment to reason and knowledge was embraced across the political spectrum. The World League for Sex Reform, which Hirschfeld led, included participants from across Europe and America, from Australia and Japan, from China and India and from the Soviet Union.

This international reform current was influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, but its dominant tone was a form of biological determinism. Homosexuals, it was argued, deserved legal rights because they belonged to a natural sexual minority. This was wrong, as later research has shown - the potential for homosexuality is in fact widespread and not merely the prerogative of a minority. And this mistaken analysis served the Nazis as a rationale for sending homosexuals to death camps: if it was a natural characteristic of a small minority then the way to get rid of it was to exterminate the deviants.

Nevertheless these 'scientific' arguments also did much to demolish old myths and prejudices in the early twentieth century. After 1917, the new Soviet State in Russia removed all penal restrictions on homosexual activities. Abortion, contraception and marriage laws were also reformed. For a while in the 1920s, the Soviet moral code was seen as an enlightened model for the rest of the world. While the Left remained committed to informed debate and justice for all citizens, the rights of homosexuals were,to a degree, affirmed and protected.

But in the 1930s all this was to change. Hirschfeld's work in Germany was wiped out by the Nazis, his organizations banned, his great centre and library destroyed. He died in exile; the homosexuals died in concentration camps.

Ironically, at the same time as homosexuals were being denounced as degenerates by fascists, the Communists under Stalin were denouncing them as the product of 'decadence in the bourgeois sector of society' and a 'fascist perversion'. In March 1934 homosexuality once again became a criminal offence in the USSR and the Communist movements of the rest of the world soon followed suit in labelling homosexuality as 'unsocialist'. The liberation of human personality and potential for all, including homosexuals, that pioneering socialists had offered as a vision was buried beneath the grim realities of the 1930s.

The point that needs underlining is that the reaction against homosexuality was part of the triumph of authoritarian values within the Communist movements. Once the State claims to regulate the lives of its individual members for the greater good of all, and does so with all the power of an unaccountable state apparatus and bureaucracy, then the rights of its minorities, and especially sexual minorities, become vulnerable. In the USSR today it is only with perestroika that it has become possible for the first time since the 1930s to talk and publish rationally about homosexuality - and even to think once again about reforming the criminal law.

The criminal law is, however, only one index of a society's attitude towards homosexuality. With the exception of the USSR and Romania, most of the east European Communist countries have decriminalized homosexuality - East Germany in 1948, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1961, and even Albania in 1977. But legal toleration is not the same as social acceptance. This has been difficult enough in the advanced industrial countries of the West, with their supposed acceptance of liberalism and pluralism. It is infinitely more difficult in societies which are organized around the principle of social conformity.

A variety of lesbian and gay movements emerged in the West from the late 1960s. They were all broadly of the Left but there have been important differences. In countries like the US and Australia, which have a tradition of responding to the needs of a number of competing interest groups, or which have an official ideology of multi-culturalism, the strategy has been to stress an almost ethnic identity for gay people.

The UK, however, has traditionally organized politics on a broad class basis. And the British Labour Party, aiming to respond to the needs of the working class as a whole, has had a more centralized kind of politics. It is less used to responding to other social groupings based on race, say, or gender so has found it difficult to endorse gay rights fully.

Still, whatever the tradition, lesbian and gay politics have contributed to a radical shift in the political agenda in advanced industrial societies.

This may seem a luxury to countries in the developing world - especially in poverty and war-stricken countries. But revolutionary Nicaragua (unlike Cuba) appears to be taking gay rights seriously. Former Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, has condemned Cuba's oppression of gay people in his book In Cuba; while Tomas Borge, the only surviving founder of the Sandinistas, and now Minister for the Interior, has gone on record opposing discrimination against lesbians and gay men. The press too upholds homosexual equality. When, in 1986 the US Supreme Court ruled that laws criminalizing sodomy were constitutional, the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada, devoted an editorial to condemning the decision as an attack on human rights.

These are encouraging signs. The dismal history of other post-revolutionary societies since 1917 suggests that once individual and group rights are sacrificed in the greater interests of the survival of the State, that State then becomes an autonomous force whose own rights suck dry the freedom and autonomy of civil society.

Support for the rights of lesbian and gays is a touchstone for a just society. It remains a central element in measuring the Left's commitment to pluralism and democracy, and perhaps its very survival, on a world of ever-increasing social, cultural and sexual diversity.

Jeffrey Weeks is a historian and sociologist specializing in work on sexuality. He is the author of several books, including Sexuality and its Discontents, (Routledge, 1985), Sex, Politics and Society (Longman, 1989) and Coming Out (Quartet, 1977).

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