It took the ascendancy of the extreme right and their backward views of same-sex relationships to force many of us to realize that Marxists have to produce and popularize an in-depth analysis of sexuality and gender. This question was brought to the front burner by the extreme right’s use of the issue of homosexuality to provoke a backward backlash amongst the masses of people.
Homophobia can be seen as various extremes of rejection of people involved in or inclined toward relationships based on same-sex intimacy. Heterocentricism is more tolerant but still assesses same-sex desire and relationships through the heterosexual experience, which leads to a denial of the present reality of the homosexual experience.
We have to strengthen our ability to help counter the extreme right, and minimize their ability to divide and conquer using this issue as a wedge. We can utilize a Marxist analysis to shine a light on the human experience of same-sex relationships across space and time. This approach is important because it dismantles the myth that everything has always been the same as it is now. That is a fundamental untruth.
Unless we challenge ourselves to pursue such an analysis, we walk around with the assumption that human beings have always and everywhere been heterosexual and that homosexuality is a new deviation.
Even though Frederick Engels, in “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” introduced the notion, taken from the ancient anthropological record, of group marriage where all members belonged to each other, we assume that heterosexuality was the underpinning of those relationships. Evidence now suggests that same-sex intimacy was as natural in the distant past as we think opposite-sex intimacy is today. In other words, the evidence suggests Engels was right possibly beyond even what he understood himself.
It was just 1,000 years ago that the tainting of same-sex intimacy became widespread, particularly in Europe.
Why did same-sex intimacy become tainted? Some say it had to do with religion and was initiated in the church. Others say it had to do with the development of the family as an economic unit and the productive value of children to the family. Still others say it had to do with the socio-cultural construction of gender in the context of the sexual division of labor that evolved with the rise of private property.
The socio-cultural construction of gender is what challenges the male of the species to become “masculinized” — dominant, controlling and violent — and the female of the species to become docile, fragile and inferior. These are socio-culturally produced phenomena, not who we must be as dictated by nature.
I suspect all of the above factors played a part, but this concept of the construction of gender with its distorting constriction, confinement and vulgarization of human sexuality is what is important to us today.
Do homosexuals chose to be or are they born that way? Well, the best answer we can come up with now is that something makes same-sex love and intimacy more desirable to particular people, and they are unable to deny it. The best science says nature and nurture are at work here though some argue it is only nurture. Some argue that during childhood something sparks a deviation from the socially constructed and constricted gender system that becomes part of the individual’s identity.
Even those men and women who desire same-sex relationships but marry the opposite sex trying to conform to the social norm find it a very difficult life to maintain. The homophobia and heterocentrism of our conflicted society makes such behavior seem necessary for survival. The partners who do not know the nature of the relationship in which they are involved can be emotionally hurt. This is not so much about lying as it is about human beings who feel they are forced by our society to hide or even deny who they really are.
Even today, we would be living in a fantasy world if we thought every man who is gay or every woman who is a lesbian or every youth who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) can easily proclaim this to the world.
The ultra-right actively promotes the view that those who engage in same-sex intimacy should be stoned and castigated as sinners before God, even though religious leaders who are serious students of history maintain that such interpretations of the Bible do not hold up. Many people still feel they require the cover of opposite-sex marriage no matter how miserable they are.
Some who find the wherewithal to make public their different-ness from our socially constructed gender system can suffer extreme consequences that cannot be ignored or minimized — overt and covert discrimination, prejudice, even physical attack and murder.
How does the LGBT question relate to the question of economic and social class? Obviously, the extreme right is able to mis-guide political activity by using issues like this to promote confusion and divisive, backward ideas. But this issue also has other relevant aspects for the class question.
If the “masculinization” of men is socially constructed and not “just the way men are,” then the class struggle would benefit from the working class becoming more and more conscious of that truth. It could help to free working-class men from a concept of manhood that is fundamentally bourgeois and based on domination and inequality.
In addition, the anger of ordinary men at not being able to become what the gender system dictates is sometimes unleashed on women or children or the LGBT community or themselves. Through consciousness and resulting activity, men could direct that anger at the economic system which exploits them as workers and the gender system which oppresses them as human beings.
Moreover, the working class, in coming to know itself as distinct from the ruling class, could have the opportunity to develop its own dynamic concept of the human being, human diversity and human potential, as opposed to the static and sterile concept put forward by the ruling class. Such a humanistic concept, consciously advanced by working-class leaders and generally understood and supported by the masses of working people, could help strengthen the working class in its quest to bring into being a better, more advanced society.
How does the LGBT question relate to other problems of inequality?
Besides class, the major inequality questions today revolve around national and racial oppression, the status of women and youth.
Taking the African American community as an example, we have seen an organized thrust by some African American ministers against LGBT rights and equality. One group of ministers went so far as to say they would stand with the KKK on this question.
With Bush’s faith-based money as the undergirding, the political agenda of the extreme right on homosexuality and abortion is being promoted in the African American community. Their promotion of anti-homosexual attitudes in conjunction with other issues succeeded in moving some African Americans to vote against their own interests in 2004, translating into a small increase in the African American vote for Bush (in some communities the vote increase was said to go as high as 18 percent or more).
We must find ways to help counter the influence of this thrust in the African American community and other communities of the nationally oppressed.
Among youth this question has particular significance. Young people who are LGBT can face abuse in their family, neighborhood or school. They also often have to deal with issues of self-rejection. Suicide and homelessness are significant problems. We must find ways to help promote support for LGBT youth both in our organizations and within the broad working class and people’s movements.
Women in general have an interest in being freed from a gender system that requires their arrested development. Even more, women have an interest in a reexamination of the need for society to play a role in the well being of the family. The gender system dictates that the family is the primary responsibility of women, a “feminine,” not “masculine,” task. Needed support services either do not exist or are inadequate, in part because of the socially constructed subordination of female-ness.
Overall, we have to find ways to disarm the extreme right on this question. Our objective is to influence masses, not just argue a position. When the extreme right spews its venom on this issue, we have to explore how to respond, including through letters to the editor, commentary in print and on radio, or organizing community forums. We can also explore finding democratic LGBT organizations in our neighborhoods and at work and develop effective relationships with them.
This article seeks to begin a process of thoughtful study and analysis on this and related issues, to advance our understanding and ability to combat the ultra-right. Wider involvement in this effort is greatly needed.
Dee Myles is a Chicago educator and chair of the Communist Party USA Education Commission.