Gay and lesbian life, capitalism, and liberation

In the 1970s there was a flowering of the Gay Liberation Movement, and subsequently the Lesbian and Gay movement, in Britain. This produced a considerable literature analysing the roots of homophobia, lesbian and gay life and identities, and strategies for liberation. Strongly influenced by the Women’s Movement in the US and Britain, these analyses argued that homophobia is not mere ‘ignorance’ or sui generis ‘prejudice’, but is an aspect of patriarchy and the institution of the heterosexual family. This literature was a huge advance on the previous mainstream literature on homosexuality. But it did not relate homophobia and sexual identities to capitalism. Following years of discussion with comrades in the International Marxist Group, Mike Macnair and I wrote Gay Liberation in the Eighties (Pluto, 1985) which, despite its title, attempted to place sexual oppression and sexual identities in the history of capitalism, and lesbian and gay liberation in the project of socialism.

Our starting point was that in all human societies, sexual practices and ideologies and moralities of sexuality are rooted in everyday material social practices, themselves shaped by the dominant social relations of the society. Drawing on the literature of socialist-feminism, we traced the changing forms of the heterosexual family in capitalism, differentiated by class. We argued that, while capitalism relies on the working-class heterosexual family, capitalism’s development of commodity production and consumption, and the use of women’s labour power in waged production, tend to undermine the heterosexual family as a compulsory form of social life – a central contradiction of social reproduction under capitalism. One effect of this was the ability of working class people in cities to live outside of heterosexual families, and to lead a gay or lesbian life, including in collective gay or lesbian milieux (networks, clubs, bars): women no longer had to bear children to survive economically, and cooking and cleaning no longer required an unpaid housewife but could be bought in. This possibility implied that homosexual behaviour, practised since time immemorial, could now become an identity, gay or lesbian people (and their logical counterpart, the heterosexual person). Sexual freedom now had its protagonists and actors, lesbians and gays, whose numbers increased with the deepening of the economic processes just mentioned. Hence the emergence of lesbian and gay political movements from the late nineteenth century in the rich countries.

On this basis, we argued that the project of gay/lesbian liberation was necessarily bound up with socialist economic strategy: the economic equality of women, socialisation of caring and domestic work, wages and housing adequate for people to live outside heterosexual families.  To the extent that these are achieved, sexual identity becomes unimportant socially and economically.  Just as socialist society supersedes the distinction between workers and capital, the heterosexual/queer identities wither away.

This analysis of sexual identity and the material underpinnings of sexuality has since been taken further by other Marxist writers such as Kevin Floyd, Rosemary Hennessy, Gary Kinsman and Peter Drucker.

In a later article (Gough, J. (1989) Theories of sexual identity and the masculinisation of the gay man, in Shepherd, S. and Wallis, M. (eds) Coming on Strong: gay politics and culture, London: Unwin Hyman: 119-136) I used this historical-materialist approach to examine what would now be called the gender ‘performance’ of gay men in contemporary high-income countries. Against the postmodern literature which sees gendered behaviour as radical choice unmoored in material social relations, as pure theatrical performance without constraints, I argued that the growth of a masculine self-presentation amongst gay men (male normal dress and body language; or, more demonstratively, clones and muscles) has arisen from the quantitative growth of the gay scene. Gay men no longer need to look for masculine men outside the scene (assumed to be not-gay), as was largely the case until the 1970s, but rather seek sexual partners amongst other gay men, who then present themselves as masculine in order to be attractive: sexual hermeneutics. Gendered performance thus has its roots in changes in materially-based social relations.