Amy Thomas reviews Hannah Dee’s The Red in the Rainbow, an essential look at why fighting homophobia means fighting the system
Since the federal election Julia Gillard has continued to refuse to allow same-sex marriage. Despite The Greens being joined by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie in calling for a parliamentary conscience vote on the issue, Labor has refused to shift.
Their actions pander to homophobia and the fight for same-sex marriage can help strike a blow against it. But to stop homophobia altogether, we must recognise that it goes much deeper than legislation.
Gay civil unions are legal in the UK, but in October last year, teenagers in London’s Trafalgar Square beat a young gay man, Ian Baynham, to death. Hannah Dee’s new book The Red in the Rainbow: Sexuality, Socialism and LGBT Liberation has been written in the context of a resurgence of right-wing bigotry in the UK. It explains how homophobia is not simply the product of discriminatory laws, religion, or bigoted individuals—but that it is tied up with the economic and social system we live in.
Those of us fighting oppression need to understand where it comes from. The Red in the Rainbow puts a comprehensive case that same-sex love is nothing new—it’s “as old as humanity itself” and has existed in many parts of the world and in many different cultures.
Dee shows how sexuality and ideas about gender have differed throughout history. Cross gender transfer was common among the Indigenous people of the Americas—where someone born into one “gender” could transition into another. She lists many other examples of same-sex love and attraction, and show how they: “existed in the pre-colonial societies of Latin America—the Aztecs, Mayans, Quechuas, Moches, Zapotecs and Tupinamba. They have also been found across a wide range of African societies… there is a wealth of literature and cultural artefacts from ancient Greece and Rome that are testament to a celebration of love between members of the male sex.”
LGBT oppression has not existed since the beginning of time, but rather developed as a consequence of the emergence of the capitalist system and its need for the heterosexual nuclear family.
The modern nuclear family, composed of a mother, father and children, never existed among the nomadic hunter-gatherer societies that persisted for millennia before humans formed permanent agricultural settlements. Instead people lived in large groups and all looked after and fed one another. Once class societies developed in the permanent settled communities, the size and composition of family groups varied, depending on the economic needs of that society. For instance, extended families comprised of several generations often all lived under the same roof to assist agricultural production and provide care for family members in old age. This is because human relationships are part of our social structure—and are shaped by the way things are produced in that society.
The idea of the nuclear family as the norm, with the mother taking primarily responsibility for care of the children, has only existed since the 1800s. The very early phase of capitalist development provided the basis for a freer sexuality, because people were no longer confined to producing within the home and were now “free” to sell their labour and live independently. This allowed older forms of family bonds to weaken.
A subculture of sex between men developed, and many women lived (“passed”) as men. But the new rulers of the system, the bourgeoisie, saw danger. Mortality rates in the factories were exorbitantly high. A report in the 1850s said 57 per cent of working class children died before they reached one year of age in the industrial centre of Manchester. Shifting the burden of care onto private individuals, organised into families, could mean longer lives for working people at minimal cost to the bosses. The rich also wanted to write into law their ability to hold onto their wealth through inheritance.
The bourgeoisie waged an ideological campaign to instil “family values”. In the UK, the shift was marked by the change of marriage from a verbal contract to a legal agreement that made the wife the property of the husband. The home was promoted as a haven on earth, a palace of domesticity, of virtue, stability and love. Sex was permitted, but only within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. Anything outside those bounds needed to be resolutely punished. In Britain the number of death sentences handed down for sodomy increased in the early 1800s along with new laws introduced in the 1820s. In Australia, some of the first laws passed by the colonisers were to criminalise homosexuality. The British state stirred up a witch-hunt around the trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of sodomy and gross indecency in 1895 to send a signal that they were prepared to brutally repress homosexuality.
Deference to “family values” continues to be used today to stir up homophobia and defend the nuclear family. Even openly lesbian Cabinet Minister Penny Wong has defended the ban on same-sex marriage by saying in July that, “on the issue of marriage I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious, historical view around that which we have to respect.”
Most relevant for us today is what this means for modern battles against homophobia.
The Red in the Rainbow vividly describes how the strength of the socialist movement in Germany and the Russian revolution in the early 20th century encouraged the birth of the first gay rights organisation in history in Germany and sweeping reforms that saw homosexuality legalised in Russia.
The modern Gay Liberation movement began in 1969, when a riot shook a Mafia-run gay bar, Stonewall, in New York. Gays, lesbians and transvestites fought back against the cops, who were carrying out a routine raid of the nightclub. Many LGBT activists had campaigned against the Vietnam War and for black civil rights, and the new radical atmosphere gave them confidence to fight for their own liberation. The slogan “out of the closet and into the streets” typified the Gay Liberation movement, which spread across the US, Europe and Australia.
Dee makes the very important point that all the gains we have won in recent decades rest on the back of this period of radical struggle. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, the right of gays to teach in schools, equal rights legislation: all these things have their origins with the Stonewall rioters and the gay liberation movement.
Importantly, she also deals with how the stemming of the radical tide in 1980s distorted the politics of the LGBT movement.
While the success of the gay liberation struggle meant a much wider acceptance of LGBT people, it also meant that many activists were now taking up positions within existing institutions. In Australia, many activists were drawn into policy committees and service provider organisations. Lobbyist organisations which sought to win change through seeking access to the corridors of power formed. Their approach has been to encourage activists to wind down radical grassroots struggles in order to pursue gradual legal reforms.
Those who remained radical struggled to find a theoretical basis for their fight. The gay liberation movement had correctly seen the roots of homophobia in the nuclear family, but there was not a wide understanding of its economic significance for capitalism. In the 1980s, many began to see homophobia and sexism as a consequence of the domination of men, or “patriarchy”. Dee aptly refers to this as a theoretical cul-de-sac that led the movement into placing the blame on men’s or straight people’s supposed desire to oppress others—“this encouraged a focus on waging narrow struggles against the particular symptoms of oppression unconnected from the root cause”. Separatist groups that excluded men and heterosexuals were formed. Sometimes the movement fragmented itself further, forming groups for black lesbians only for instance. This made for a weak and divided movement. It was accompanied by a retreat into the belief that living out lifestyles based on alternative sexuality was itself radical.
The book shows that even in the 1980s there was an alternative to this narrowly-focused politics. Particularly inspiring is the story of activists who formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which built LGBT support for British miners in their struggle with Margaret Thatcher to stop pit closures and sackings. It was not an easy task. As one activist recalls, “some miners were openly hostile and suggested that the miners would become the laughing stock of the Valley [if they were to accept lesbian and gay support]”. But as the strike wore on and the miners faced extreme police brutality, they began to see that they held common interests with the gay activists. The same police batons that had been used to beat gay demonstrators were now being used on the miners. As one miner put at a ‘Pits and Perverts’ ball in 1985: “You have worn our badge, ‘Coal not Dole’, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now over 140, 000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks, gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same.”
Their efforts shows that it was possible, with the right politics, to win over sections of the working class to opposing homophobia.
An infusion of that kind of politics is needed today. As Dee explains, the modern incarnation of the 1980s identity politics is the politics of “queer”, and it is equally unable as the 1980s separatists were to provide a strategy for fighting homophobia.
Queer politics emerged out of the group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the US. ACT UP fought against the devastation of the AIDS crisis, campaigning to have AIDS drugs reduced in price and to speed up testing. They rejected the mainstream LGBT movement who were rightly seen as too tied to the establishment. ACT UP mobilised thousands in creative actions like die-ins and sit-ins and were well-known for their in-your-face slogans.
But this radicalism had its own limitations that were exposed in the 1990s. The founders of ACT UP went on to help found Queer Nation and then Outrage! in the UK, which set out, Dee explains, to, “build militant opposition to a government that had contributed to the AIDS crisis and to provide an alternative to the civil rights agenda of LGBT organisations and the commercialised gay scene.”
The rise of the “pink dollar” through the 1980s and 1990s has seen LGBT relationships and personal expression become a profitable enterprise for capitalists—with the commodification of a new form of acceptable LGBT image. This has generated, rightfully, the disdain of many radical LGBT activists.
But Queer Nation placed the blame for LGBT oppression not on the system but on “heterosexism” or sometimes simply heterosexuals. Its 1994 manifesto declared: “go tell all straights to go away until they have walked hand in hand with someone of the same sex… otherwise tell them to shut up and listen.” This was a dismissal of the possibility of winning allies in the fight for LGBT rights. As Dee points out, this is typified by the use of the term “queer” in itself, which, for many, is a term of abuse. While the word “gay” was reclaimed by a powerful social movement, the term “queer” never has been. It remains a term used exclusively by academics and small groups of student activists. Many queer activists see the main problem as mainstream gays and lesbians who subscribe to “gender norms”—fostering an elitism that excludes those who don’t live in the inner city and go to a good university.
Many an academic career has been made out of queer theory, a more obtuse and abstract version of what Queer Nation began to express in the early 1990s. It is typified by academics like Judith Butler and David Halperin. While queer theory correctly asserts that sexuality is socially constructed, it cannot explain how. At most, its explanation is that oppression is a result of language categories that we can subvert simply by living outside them, by “transgressing” gender and sexuality.
In that way, queer politics has ended up replicating much of the lifestyle and identity politics it originally sought to find an alternative to. As one Queer Nation flyer put it, “you as a functioning queer… are revolutionary.” As Dee writes in The Red in the Rainbow, “for Marxists, the way out of this conundrum lies in a theory of class. This is the key to understanding the material roots of oppression and locating where the power lies to overthrow it… what’s transgressive is action by the working class to change the world.”
So it is not exclusively struggles for LGBT rights that can win gains for LGBT people, but any battle that strikes a blow against capitalism and tips the balance of forces to our side. Legal rights like same-sex marriage are important, but uprooting homophobia requires much more than that. It requires a commitment to fighting the system that oppresses and divides us all. Anybody who wants to do that should read this book.