Only Socialism Can Bring Freedom to Lesbians and Gays!

Only Socialism Can Bring Freedom to Lesbians and Gays!

[First printed in 1917 West #1 Spring 1992]

Almost twenty-three years after the heroic Stonewall Rebellion in New York City against police harassment, the oppression of gays and lesbians remains a daily reality. The rebellion caused many individuals to affirm openly their sexual identity, and thousands celebrate it in yearly observations all over the country. In the intervening years homosexuals have made notable strides forward in many respects in some major cities. In San Francisco, gays are an important component of the local political scene, with bourgeois politicians vying to take part in the Gay Freedom Day Parade, one of the biggest annual political events. There has even been some legal recognition of gay and lesbian domestic relationships.

Meanwhile there has been an ugly anti-gay backlash that has been fueled by hysteria over the deadly AIDS epidemic and by the rightist shift in the bourgeois political agenda over the past period. This has led to an alarming increase in homophobic activity ranging from murderous gay-bashing in San Francisco to the repeal of gay rights ordinances in suburban Concord, California. Racist right-wing demagogue Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, pushed for Congress to require that recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts sign oaths declaring their art to be free from “homoeroticism.” He also prevented the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from funding educational programs that might promote homosexual activity (Nation, 5 November 1990). From many pulpits present-day Billy Sundays thunder condemnations of “the gay lifestyle” under the guise of promoting “traditional values.” California Governor Pete Wilson got into the act by vetoing AB 101, which would have protected gays from job discrimination.


Many individual gays striving for liberation have become involved with high-intensity activist groups such as ACT UP or Queer Nation. The gross negligence of the capitalist ruling class in combating AIDS as well as in caring for those who are struck down by the HIV virus is an outrage. We share with ACT UP supporters the sense of urgency about the necessity to do much more. We also respect the courage of these activists in confronting the medical establishment and the state. But it is vitally important to the success of such confrontations that the campaign be popularized, and the Bolshevik Tendency, to the extent of its capacity, would seek to win the support of deeper social layers, particularly among workers and the oppressed. This is essentially a political struggle, and the isolation of the more militant elements can in the long run lead only to demoralization.

Queer Nation conducts ostentatious displays of gay affection in non-traditional settings with the intention of shocking heterosexuals into re-examining and changing their consciousness. We are not puritans and we consider that gays have the same right to be open about their sexual orientation as heterosexuals. However, such activities are limited in impact, and tend to presuppose that the roots of homophobia lie in the consciousness of individuals rather than in the material circumstances created by class society.

The gay movement, especially since Stonewall, has encouraged homosexuals to “come out,” to be open about their sexuality, despite the oppressiveness of this society. Coming out is considered by most gay people as a step toward self-esteem and personal adjustment, but it is a choice which can be made only by the person concerned, depending on their circumstances. The physical violence against gay men and lesbians, hysteria about AIDS, and other forms of oppression so prevalent in this period leads many homosexuals to fear exposure. These people value their right to privacy, and do not wish to come out. Most are just ordinary people, afraid of the consequences of being openly homosexual in an oppressive society, and it would be indefensible to force them out of the closet. But some homosexuals who stay in the closet may become prominent functionaries of the bourgeoisie, and may even come to represent the worst kind of homophobic politics.

Outing” is a political tactic adopted by some gay activists, which involves publicly revealing the sexual identities of such prominent right-wing closeted homosexuals. Although we share the gay liberationists’ disgust with the targets of outing, and their sense of frustration with the lack of progress in gay rights, we are opposed to this tactic as doing little toward improving the conditions of gay men and lesbians in today’s society. It merely adds to the fears of exposure which burden the ordinary inoffensive closeted homosexual, and creates a climate for the worst kind of muckraking homophobic journalism.

The Material Basis for Gay and Lesbian Oppression

Marxists fully support the right of gays and lesbians to be themselves and to participate fully in all that society has to offer, wherever they may be. Gays and lesbians should not be forced into their own ghettoes in a few liberal cities. And we favor the passage of legislation to ease the burdens of lesbians and gays—and all other oppressed groups. But we also realize that whatever gains are made by reforming the present system are incomplete and transitory. The continued oppression of lesbians and gays in this society is linked to the existence of capitalism and its basic social unit, the nuclear family. In bourgeois society individuals are isolated into families, which reproduce, rear and socialize the next generation. The nuclear family provides some stability for capitalism by providing a convenient outlet for the frustrations of oppressed workers. While a male worker may be powerless vis-a-vis the boss, he is the “master” in his home, wielding power over the wife and children. At the same time the man’s “mastery’ of his home creates an enormous pressure on him to submit to the dictates of bourgeois society and tends to reduce his willingness to engage in militant labor activity such as strikes. This is true even in the age of two-income households as most families rely primarily on the husband’s income, since discrimination against women means that the wife usually makes less money.

While the burden of cooking, cleaning, child rearing and maintaining the family falls most heavily upon women, gays are also negatively affected by the nuclear family; for the various purveyors of bourgeois ideology—churches, popular media and the educational establishment—create social prejudice against relationships which show there are alternatives to the present social norm. Under capitalism sexual impulses must be restrained and channeled toward the needs of the bourgeoisie, hence the incessant attempts by the church and the bourgeois state to enforce “morality.” As long as capitalism exists, there will be prejudice against “nonstandard” sexuality.

However there is nothing inherently revolutionary about homosexuality. There are gay areas in “liberal” cities such as San Francisco and New York; and gays and lesbians themselves debate assimilation versus liberation. Homosexuals are not a social class and they span the political spectrum from the far left to the far right.

The overturn of capitalist property relations will not automatically liberate gays and lesbians from oppression, but it will create the conditions in which oppression can be brought to an end. After the Russian Revolution in October of 1917, the Bolsheviks repealed all laws against homosexuality; and for one brief shining moment the world saw the beginnings of the freest society in human history. However, the Soviet Union’s isolation and backwardness, intensified by the imperialist blockade and military intervention, and the triumph of the counterrevolutionary Stalinist clique caused many of these gains to be reversed, although the collectivized property forms remained. In all other countries where capitalism was overthrown, such as Cuba and China, homosexuals were persecuted from the beginning. These new states were modeled on the degenerated Soviet workers state which, in the interests of consolidating the rule of the privileged bureaucratic social layer, also sought to prop up the nuclear family.

The liberation of gays and lesbians can only be achieved through the working class, led by its revolutionary vanguard, taking power and developing the productive forces to such a high level that it will be possible to eliminate poverty, ignorance and social inequality once and for all. In a socialist society the state, along with the nuclear family, will start to wither away and be replaced by freer, voluntary forms of human association. So the best contribution to the struggle for lesbian and gay rights is to work toward the building of a revolutionary party of the working class.

Workers Must Defend Lesbian and Gay Rights

 Building a revolutionary party requires transitional organizations to focus on the various struggles against different forms of special oppression, such as the oppression of women, of blacks, and of gays and lesbians. An organization actually capable of fighting against the oppression of gays and lesbians must be based on a program that locates the origins of oppression in class society, and that works for the end of oppression through the power of the working class. Such an organization will be part of a common movement with a revolutionary party which leads the movement as a whole.

Although there are many similarities, the issue of gay and lesbian liberation is not totally analogous to the black or woman question. Gays are not concentrated in the working class like blacks. Women, who like homosexuals, are members of all social classes, are the primary target and main victim of the necessity to force human relations into the straight-jacket of the nuclear family. In this sense the oppression of gays can be seen as linked to, and derived from, the oppression of women. Moreover, unlike a person’s color or gender, one’s sexual preference is a private matter that is not readily apparent in most circumstances. Indeed much of the oppression of lesbians and gays involves their being forced to hide their sexual identities.

It is the duty of all class-conscious workers, whatever their sexual orientation, to fight against anti-gay discrimination, not only because socialists believe that everyone has the right to their own sexuality but also because curtailing the rights of gay men and women inevitably leads to diminished rights for the working class and all the oppressed. Homophobic attitudes undercut the capacity of the class to understand its own historic interests in uniting all the oppressed. The bourgeois offensive against lesbians and gays is an attack against the working class at one of its weakest points, i.e., on a group which many workers, because of social conditioning, might be reluctant to defend. As we stated in an article in 1917 #2:

“The retributive moralists of the right have a larger agenda, however. They are trying to use the widespread fear of AIDS to promote a campaign of anti-science and anti-sex (particularly gay sex). These are the same people who want to ban Playboy, Penthouse, Darwin, rock videos and other examples of what they characterize as ‘secular humanism.”

The Trap of Sectoralism

While many groups such as the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) agree that the overthrow of capitalism is necessary for gay and lesbian liberation, their politics are flawed by their sectoralist approach, i.e., they tend to see gays, women, blacks, etc. as sectors of society co-equal with the working class in the fight for socialism.

There are only two social classes capable of running a modern society: the bourgeoisie, which is the present ruling class, and the proletariat, which is the class that produces the wealth. In this era of capitalist decay and all-out attacks on personal liberty, the working class must stand as the defender of democratic rights.

Marxists recognize the importance of the fight against special oppression. But we also insist that the inequality of class society is at the root of all forms of social oppression whether of gays, women or blacks. Therefore while it is necessary to struggle against particular forms of oppression, and in favor of particular reforms, the roots of social oppression can only be attacked through linking the struggles of the oppressed to the class question, i.e., the necessity for the working class to rule. But this class-based approach, which does not lose sight of the fact that the working class as a class is the decisive force for social change is fundamentally different than “sectoralism.” Attempts to organize gays as gays, women as women or blacks as blacks will lead to multi-class formations and eventual failure.

Marxists seek to intersect and recruit the most militant women, blacks and gays to participate in the struggle for workers power, through winning them to understand that this is the only way to end, once and for all, sexism, racism, and homophobia. Class struggle and the fight for social and economic justice can overcome homophobia and unite gays and lesbians with other layers of oppressed people in a common cause. When the class struggle intensifies, the more conscious layers of the working class, who lead the class as a whole, will tend to rally behind its best fighters regardless of sexual preference, gender or color.

Break with the Democrats! For a Workers Party!

A major political obstacle in the fight for gay liberation (as for women’s liberation and black liberation) is the Democratic Party. In San Francisco this bourgeois party exerts influence on gays through such organizations as the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club, and openly gay politicians such as Harry Britt have been active in Democratic Party politics for years. Since the 1970s, starting with the late Harvey Milk, open gays have served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. However the Democratic Party, despite its occasional rhetoric about concern for the “little people” or its criticisms of the brutal policies of the Republican Party, is not a vehicle for social change. The Democrats are just as committed to the rule of capital as the Republicans. The Democrats were in control of the United States Congress during most of the Reagan years and were accomplices in the all-out assault by government and big business on the working class, minorities and women. It was a Democratic Congress that confirmed all the right-wingers on the Supreme Court. Democratic mayors such as David Dinkins in New York, Wilson Goode in Philadelphia and Coleman Young in Detroit have helped administer draconian cuts in social programs. The role of the Democrats is to head off potential social protest movements, channel them back into the system, and render them impotent. Witness the way in which the local Democrats dissipated the justified popular anger at the brutal police beating of United Farm Workers (UFW) leader Dolores Huerta and allowed the cop involved to get off with only minor punishment.

The only way forward is a complete break with the Democratic Party (and its twin the Republican Party) through the formation of a workers party based on the trade unions and the organizations of the oppressed. This party would be a tribune for the oppressed and would lead the fight for a workers government. Such a party would fight for full democratic rights for lesbians and gays and for the repeal of the sodomy laws and all other laws regulating sexual activity among consenting individuals. It would organize workers defense guards to defend against anti-gay violence and would advocate free, quality medical care for all, including appropriation on a Star Wars scale for research in the fight against AIDS.

The Bolshevik Tendency is committed to the fight for such a mass revolutionary workers party. We base ourselves on the Transitional Program which was developed by Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers for this era of capitalist decay, and we look forward to the re-creation of the Fourth International as the party of world-wide proletarian revolution. While George Bush and the American bourgeoisie celebrate the “death of communism” and prattle on about the coming of “freedom” to Eastern Europe, the new pro-bourgeois leaders institute rule by decree, while workers go hungry and fascist scum run wild terrorizing ethnic minorities. The world capitalist system is wracked with crisis and has no positive future to offer the vast majority of the human race. There is only one way out. The proletariat, armed with the Marxist program, can rise up and again continue toward the fulfilment of its historic mission to lead humanity to a socialist future of freedom, equality and abundance for all—a future in which we will all be free to be truly human.