National Sections of the L5I:

The origins and nature of lesbian and gay oppression

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Lesbians and gay men are subjected to brutal oppression in capitalist society. Despite some countries having legalised homosexual acts between consenting “adults” in private, oppression, discrimination and legal harassment continue to exist on a massive scale. So much so that millions feel obliged to conceal their sexuality or to repress it. The submerged misery of these millions is incalculable. Against all who voluntarily or involuntarily reveal their sexuality, a massive barrage of repression is unleashed.

Lesbians and gay men face not only abuse and derision but physical assault which can end in murder. At work lesbians and gay men face the constant threat of dismissal and victimisation and, if unemployed, discrimination. In addition there is the routine harassment by the police on the streets, in the gay clubs, through entrapment and so on. Lesbian mothers are systematically denied the custody of their children. The “popular press” keeps up a persistent campaign of vilification – an incitement to “queer bashing” and a constant stoking of the fires of homophobia.

Why is there this monstrous campaign of repression which unites such unlikely bedfellows as the Pope, Ian Paisley and the Ayatollah Khomeini? Homosexual acts have long been condemned by certain religions – most notably Christianity – but the systematic oppression of homosexuals as a distinct category of people separated off from “normal” society, especially in Western Europe and North America, began only some two hundred years ago. That is, it is a feature of capitalist society.

The justification for this oppression is that homosexuality is not merely abnormal but also, and more importantly, “unnatural”. While the levels of toleration that capitalist society is prepared to grant homosexuals have fluctuated, acceptance of homosexuality, and therefore the recognition of it as a perfectly natural phenomenon, has never existed. Yet the sexual behaviour deemed “natural” by capitalist society – heterosexual activity with great emphasis on penetrative intercourse as “real” sex – is only one aspect of human sexuality. What makes it so suited to being described as the only natural form of sex is its reproductive function. Now this is extremely important for the survival of the species and has always been so. The idea, perpetrated by many radical feminists, that penetrative heterosexual intercourse is inherently oppressive to women ignores a fundamental biological fact of human life. However, acceptance of the importance of reproductive sex is only half the story. Because one thing is natural it does not follow that everything else is unnatural. Moreover, the very word natural brings with it a whole number of problems of definition. Human beings have never taken nature as a fait accompli, but have always sought to either utilise or transform it. Our species has, by social means, repeatedly developed and transformed its own “nature”.
To understand the development of lesbian and gay oppression it is necessary to dispense with capitalism’s categories of natural and unnatural in matters of sexuality. They are arbitrary in the extreme.

Capitalism has existed for several hundred years. In the thousands of years preceding capitalism’s rise to world dominance there were many different views of what was natural and unnatural in sexual relations. Different societies and even different strata within a particular society conformed to moral codes that were peculiar to themselves. What was perfectly natural and even sanctified for the pre-Columbian natives of South America seemed unnatural and abominable to the Christian conquistadores. The wide diversity of moral codes in sexual matters throughout history is eloquent testimony to the uselessness of the term natural as any sort of guide. Attitudes towards sexual behaviour and moral codes that relate to it repeatedly change as a particular society itself changes. Moral codes for regulating sexuality are determined by the needs of the class that rules in a particular society. These codes are always in conformity with the social needs of the dominant class.

The condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural and the systematic oppression of homosexuals that this led to, arose from the social needs of capitalist society and its ruling class, the bourgeoisie. Nature was called upon by the bourgeoisie to validate an oppressive code of sexual conduct. A cursory glance at history demonstrates that with its sexual morality, as with all of the other aspects of capitalist society that are deemed eternal and natural, nature had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The present bourgeois attitude to homosexuality is not eternal and history repeatedly shows this to be the case.

In Ancient Greece homosexual activity was not regarded as unnatural at all. Sexual love between men was glorified by poets, philosophers, sculptors and painters. Although there are recorded examples of lesbianism as well – the term itself being derived from Lesbos, the name of the island where Sappho, a poetess who celebrated the love between women, lived – there is no evidence to suggest that it was accorded any social approval.

Amongst males, homosexuality was not merely tolerated, it was encouraged. After his failure to rescue Eurydice from the underworld the mythical songster Orpheus turned to the love of young males. His songs openly celebrated this love. Plato and Aristotle, highly regarded by bourgeois scholars, both extolled the virtue of male homosexuality. Attempts by Christian scholars to suggest that such love was a non-physical, idealised love – hence “Platonic” – do not square with the mass of written and archaeological evidence depicting in great detail, and with obvious approval, the physical aspects of male homosexuality.

Even before the much publicised acceptance of homosexuality in Greece, earlier examples of the social approval of homosexuality exist. In ancient Mesopotamia the earliest legal codes dealt with many aspects of sexual morality but there were no provisions for the punishment of homosexuality. Indeed amongst the caste of priests in early Mesopotamia homosexual practice was commonplace, public and accepted.

However, nobody should imagine that Ancient Greece was a haven of sexual freedom. It was a strongly patriarchal class society – based on slavery. Whilst many of the free males of Athens, Sparta and Thebes conducted same-sex emotional and sexual relationships women suffered terrible oppression. The citizen’s wife was largely confined to her household and severely punished for any sexual relations beyond those with her husband necessary for producing children. The family was already an instrument of oppression. Other women were restricted to prostitution. The slaves, the great majority of the producers, had no rights either political or sexual.

The main point, however, is that this society not only functioned, it also produced some of the finest products of the human spirit, giving birth to the earliest forms of democracy, to classics of tragic and comic drama, to philosophy, sculpture, architecture, mathematics and so on. And all this happened in a period when intra-male sexuality was not repressed but encouraged. This society was in no sense decadent – that is falling apart as a result of sexual customs. This embarrassing fact is usually passed over in silence by bourgeois historians and moralists. Classical Greece was unusual in the explicit honour and role accorded to male same-sex love. It was closely related to the educative and military training aspects of the Greek city state, resting on the exploitation of slaves and the subordination of women. The “ideal” relationship was between an older, mature man and a younger adolescent (pederasty, which literally means “love of boys”). This was supposed to aid the education, moral as well as practical, of the young and to bind together the male citizens as a military force. This pattern has existed as well in other warrior societies throughout history.

However, if this pattern was unusually highly developed in Ancient Greece, if same sex love was only tolerated in other societies, nowhere was it treated, as it has been in modern times, with fear and loathing, let alone subjected to systematic legal punishment. Also, in Greece heterosexuality and homosexuality were not counter posed. Men were not thought of as being either homosexual or heterosexual. Sex between men and women was principally for the purposes of reproduction, while sex between men was a source of pleasure. There was no question of invoking nature to grant approval or disapproval for either. Instances of homosexuality and heterosexuality amongst the gods and goddesses were, after all, legion.

The rise of Christianity, in the late classical world and during the establishment of feudal Christendom, brought about a signi?cant change in attitudes towards homosexuality in Western Europe. However, homosexuality was lumped together with other sexual sins deserving of special treatment by the zealots of the early Christian church. Practitioners of homosexuality, along with fornicators, those guilty of bestiality, adulterers and more besides were all taboo under the Christian doctrine outlined by St Paul.

Paul, as part of his plan to unify and centralise the Christian church, stamped on the very early sexually free attitudes of Christ’s followers and advocated an ideal of celibacy that had profound consequences for Europe for centuries to follow. For Pauline Christianity lust and debauchery were major sins, punishable by god and the law, and homosexuality tended to be regarded as a particularly abominable extension of these sins. Once again it is clear that the target of god’s wrath was a man guilty of a homosexual practice, rather than a man guilty of being a homosexual. To counter the sins of the flesh Paul preached celibacy as the highest good for all. He wrote to the Corinthians:

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman . . . For I would that all men were even as myself.”

He did concede in the same letter that this ideal might be beyond many and that the best way to avoid “burning” would be to marry. But marriage was very much second best. Reinforcing the oppressive norms of the family, visible from the earliest days of class society, Paul taught that within marriage women had to occupy a position of total subservience to their men:

“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Whereas paganism had witnessed many cults in which sexuality was an integral element of doctrine and indeed worship (fertility rites), Christianity – at least as systematised by the third century Roman state church – excluded it. The blessed trinity, the holy family and the virgin birth of Christ by Mary all excluded sex. Moreover, the church was run by an all male priesthood.

For early Christianity sex itself was an expression of sin, of the fall and of the devil. The sexual impulse was, according to Saint Augustine, so powerful that it destroyed the capacity for reasoned thought. Therein lay its danger. It was an earthly pleasure that could divert the faithful away from the pursuit of heavenly delights. And women were the temptresses, the true daughters of Eve. Thus in the earliest teachings homosexuality was not seen as a major threat. But the hostility towards sex in general that was typical of Christianity meant that it would inevitably become a target for persecution.

Ironically warnings against homosexuality became necessary for those closed communities – monks and nuns – who had chosen to live celibate lives. Saint Basil was obliged to warn young monks to:

“. . . fly from intimate association with comrades of your own age and run away from them as from fire.”

Saint Augustine found it necessary to utter a similar caution for nuns:
“The love between you, however, ought not to be earthly but spiritual, for the things which shameless women do even to other women . . . are to be avoided.”

As the church developed, during the middle ages, into a major power, running the affairs of its own vast feudal estates and heavily influencing the affairs of all the kingdoms of Christendom, its attitude towards sexuality hardened. By 1215 absolute celibacy was imposed on all clergy. The church’s willingness to condemn to the stake those guilty of lust and of sodomy – usually along with a variety of other crimes – increased considerably. But this hardening up on morality was accompanied by an increase in brazen hypocrisy. Fornication by the holy fathers of the lowest order and the highest was commonplace. And in the monastic communities the sins that Basil and Augustine had warned against were practiced, often without reproof, so long as discretion was maintained. In other words a stringent code of sexual morality – transgression of which meant death or dismemberment – was a weapon of social coercion used to terrorise and control the peasant masses. It is no accident that the various heretics burnt by the church were often in political rebellion against the papacy, and equally no accident that their charge sheets contained, along with the sin of heresy, the sins of lust and sodomy.

In the later middle ages the sins of sodomy or buggery do appear to have been more widely punished than previously. It was at this time that the medieval church furnished the world with the concept of a sin against nature. Homosexual activity was listed as such a sin by the leading Catholic theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas. But it was in the same category of heinous crimes as masturbation, bestiality and . . . having heterosexual intercourse in anything other than the missionary position! In cases brought before the law, however, homosexual activity tended to be regarded as on a par with adultery. Prosecutions of sodomites were normally “sex cases” in which the accused would stand charged of a host of other supposed sex crimes. The idea of the sin against nature became more important in the sense of identifying an actual breed of “unnatural” sinner/criminal as feudalism gave way to capitalism. Capitalism appropriated late feudalism’s idea of a natural order of everything on Earth ordained by god, and used it to sanctify its own particular methods of exploitation and oppression. In turn this led to a further qualitative development of western society’s attitudes to homosexuality. This process of change is at its clearest in the case of the earliest major capitalist power, Britain.

The civil war that erupted in Britain in 1642 was a class struggle for political power between the forces representing the remnants of feudalism and those who championed the cause of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and a new social order. In the economic and political spheres capitalism did triumph over the old feudal aristocratic order (though not without the aristocracy winning important compromises that enabled it to survive as a powerful factor in Britain). By the end of the seventeenth century the changes in society were being reflected in changes in philosophy and morality. The “natural order” of late feudalism was preserved but was proved to be in accord with the precepts of reason and empirical fact. One element of the natural order of things was the newly emerging bourgeois family. It was counter posed to the libertarianism of aristocratic sexual relations, and all manifestations of sexuality that did not accord with this emerging norm were held to be deviations from nature and from reason. There were very clear implications in this development for society’s view of homosexuality.

As social relations began to be moulded by the needs of an economy geared towards production for exchange, the market and money, an intensification of the sexual division of labour took place. There was a growing physical separation of the “home” from the place of work. The old feudal household as a unit of production itself was being broken up. As one historian of the period, Sheila Rowbotham, observed:

“Although many women still continued to work alongside their husbands their role in family production came increasingly to be regarded as supplementary. By the eighteenth century women in the growing strata of ‘middling people’ were already being reared for the leisure and sensibility we associate with the Victorian middle class.”

Changes in the organisation of work not only affected the legal and social position of women but also the dominant ideas in society about the distinct roles of women and men.

The empirical philosophy of John Locke, writing in the 1690s, gained in popularity in Britain. He taught that private property was the most basic “natural right” for men. The bourgeois man should be “free” to accumulate capital through his own hard work and through the use of his workers’ labour. In particular he needed to be free of the cares of the home, the organisation of domestic life, the rearing of children and so on. This affected the way in which the bourgeoisie viewed marriage. It modified the institution to suit its own purposes. In feudal times the peasant husband would have sought a wife suited, not merely to producing children and keeping house, but also to helping in the field.

The aristocracy generally married for purposes of property and to continue the family line, but a mistress, not a wife, was often the object of the lord’s affections. Arranged marriages were the norm and customs such as the land-owning lord’s right to sleep with a serf’s chosen bride on the first night of her marriage prevailed into late feudal times throughout much of Europe.

The rising bourgeoisie, on the other hand, celebrated the ideal of the individual love match. Marriage should be the result of a man’s love for a woman – an idea embodied in the principal novels of the eighteenth century in Britain. The bourgeois family was private and domestic. It was not a basic unit of production, but a social structure which freed the male in the family to accumulate capital and to establish his influence in society and politics. Affection was supposed to be the cement that held the new family structure together. As the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai noted:

“In practice, of course, the bourgeoisie itself, in the name of convenience, continually sinned against this moral teaching, but the recognition of love as the pillar of marriage had a profound class basis.”

The relevance of this for the way in which homosexuality was treated was that any sexual relationships outside of the heterosexual love marriage were increasingly viewed as a threat to the bourgeois family itself. Homosexuality in particular became an offence not simply against nature in the physical sense, as had been the case in feudal times, but also against the natural, that is bourgeois, family. Homosexuality ceased to be simply the action of those overtaken by lust and therefore prepared to “do anything”, as the feudal moralists had taught. Rather, as an activity in direct contravention of the bonds of the love marriage, it came to be viewed as the activity of a distinct minority who were choosing to commit crimes against the natural order of the world.

In the period of the transition from feudalism to capitalism there occurred a series of moral panics and large scale persecutions aimed at “devil worshippers” and witches. An integral part of the charges against the victims – men and women – was “unnatural vice”. Women suspected of being unnatural in their affections were tortured or burned at the stake. The crime of unnatural affection (often levelled at women who simply lived alone in the village) was, however, rarely the only reason for such witch-hunts. Bad harvests would sometimes provide a pretext. On other occasions natural disasters would suffice as an excuse. In the early eighteenth century however, persecution aimed at male homosexuals because they were homosexuals, part of the new category of people being created, began on an unprecedented scale.

Initially it took the form of raids which resulted in the arrest and prosecution of groups of men frequenting London’s “Molly Houses”. In place of trials of individual deviants – the old norm for cases of sodomy – whole groups of men were prosecuted in collective trials in 1699, 1707 and 1726. Convictions resulted in the death penalty. And in the trials it became clear that these men were viewed as sinners who freely and knowingly chose to sin. Homosexuality was beginning to be seen as the activity peculiar to a group of people – homosexuals. The eighteenth century only saw the beginning of this process. It was taken to a new stage of development as capitalism matured and as the norm of the bourgeois family permeated the whole of society in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Active persecution in the eighteenth century also provoked a reaction from those persecuted. There is evidence of organised resistance up to and including the use of violence against the raiders, by the users of the “Molly Houses” in 1726. Of course nothing like a homosexual movement developed, but a growing sense of identity amongst those targeted for attack was evident. The development of a sub-culture through conventions of dress and behaviour helped fuel this sense of identity. The very creation of a distinct identity was, however, a result of the choice, in matters of sexual behaviour, that capitalism was now posing to all individuals.

The male homosexual of the eighteenth century had to conform to established morality or become a Molly. Indeed the Mollies were the prototype of what many nineteenth century sexologists and homosexual rights’ campaigners alike called the “third sex” – women trapped inside men’s bodies. This view, though false, enabled male homosexuals to develop an alternative culture and escape from the moral strictures of bourgeois society. The culture, which could loosely be described as “camp”, was extremely important for the Mollies. In his Secret History of the London Clubs of 1709 Edward Ward gives a clear picture of the Molly subculture which set the tone for homosexual culture for years to follow. He wrote of the Mollies:

“They adopt all the small vanities natural to the feminine sex to such an extent that they try to speak, walk, chatter, shriek and scold as women do, aping them as well in other aspects.”

Of course the idea of “aping” women confuses homosexuality and the super-imposed gender roles that capitalism has developed concomitant with its sexual division of labour. But it was this strict demarcation of gender roles that the Mollies were responding to. Men were men and women were women. This was not simply a biological fact for capitalist society. It had implications for sexuality and behaviour. Since the Mollies did not feel as though they were men in the heterosexual sense that society had decreed the norm, they adopted the mannerisms and dress fashionable amongst women at the time. The truth is that while there is a clear biological distinction between men and women this does not determine either sexuality – sexual preferences and orientation – or most aspects of social behaviour.

Much of the behaviour associated with a particular gender is socially, rather than biologically constructed. For example the fact that women are child bearers is a feature of biology, of gender. However the tasks of child rearing, which in all class societies have been classified as women’s work, are not determined by biology, by gender at all.

There is nothing in biology that makes women better cooks or cleaners than men. Nothing at all. Yet these tasks are commonly thought of as “women’s work”. In fact they are the product of a sexual division of labour which arose in the course of humanity’s social development. Moreover, to justify this division of labour over the centuries differing class societies have constructed a culture in which feminine and masculine characteristics in terms of emotions and social behaviour, are totally counter posed.

This counter position stems from socially constructed gender roles not, to any significant degree, from biology. It fragments the human personality. It prevents men and women from assimilating the best elements of both of the rigidly separated categories – masculine and feminine – and thereby transcending what is an extremely destructive divide. In a nutshell then, gender roles are primarily products of our society not of our sexuality.

Despite all this, however, and despite the element of misogynist ridicule that undoubtedly exists within the camp tradition pioneered by the Mollies, the male homosexuals of the eighteenth century were attempting to defend their sexuality against its stigmatisation at the hands of capitalism and its moral guardians.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and with the development of industry the bourgeoisie consolidated itself in Britain as the ruling class. At the same time it brought into being the industrial working class and eventually the conditions necessary for the revolutionary transformation of capitalism itself – large scale industry. Farming developed on a capitalist basis, while the Enclosure Acts eliminated the peasantry as a serious social force within Britain. The thousands who were driven off the land migrated to the towns and became free labourers – proletarians. Capitalism was creating its own class enemy despite itself.

Initially the bourgeoisie did not seek to impose its “ideal” family on the newly emergent working class. On the contrary, the requirements of capital accumulation in the early nineteenth century led it to ruthlessly break up proletarian families. Child labour, the horrific exploitation of women workers and the exacting toll of long hours at the factory for men all undermined the reproduction of a stable family life for the masses. However, as the working class grew and began to organise as a class and as capitalism’s needs for the reproduction of labour power became greater, the ruling class’ ideas about the family were obliged to become the ruling ideas for the whole of society. Pressure from the working class for the protection of family life (a progressive struggle) and the bourgeoisie’s need to use the family as a means of regenerating and reproducing labour power led to the spread of the bourgeois family as the bedrock social unit in society.

The process was accelerated towards the end of the nineteenth century. Capitalism in Britain had developed into its imperialist stage. This was accompanied by signi?cant changes in the composition of the working class. A relatively better off layer of skilled male workers came to politically dominate the organisations of the working class. This was the social basis for the development of reformism. The “aristocracy of labour” was “bought off” by the fruits of imperialism’s super pro?ts.
It was in this period particularly that the bourgeois family was sold to, and adopted by, the mass of the working class. It was at one with the general response of skilled workers to the trade crises (women out first) and to their trade union demands (the male “family wage” and the exclusion of women from productive labour especially in the skilled trades).

If the status of the bourgeois was partly measured by the “leisure” of his wife and daughters in the eighteenth century, by the end of the nineteenth century a similar attitude prevailed amongst the upper layer of the working class. And it served as a powerful transmission belt for this bourgeois ideology to the rest of the class. The effect on attitudes towards homosexuality was that the working class became infected by the bourgeoisie’s hostility to “unnatural acts”.

The systematisation of oppression was reflected in legal developments. Homosexuals were the most clearly identifiable deviants from the bourgeoisie’s natural order. They were set apart from society and made a target for repression – with even well meaning sexologists helping the process with their theories of men trapped in women’s bodies and vice versa. All that was missing – given the difficulties of using Henry VIII’s sodomy laws – were modern legal codes for dealing with them. A Liberal MP, Henry Labouchere, furnished the necessary clauses with his law on indecency, in 1885. It stipulated:

“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.”

Thousands of gay men have suffered at the hands of the gross indecency laws ever since. Pressure for their introduction had come originally from well meaning reformers to combat the “white slave” trade in children for sexual purposes. The guardians of bourgeois morality saw to it, as they have so often since, that this pressure by the reformers was used to their own advantage. In a climate of moral panic they so shaped the law that male homosexuals, along with prostitutes, became the principal victims of the moral panic.

The most celebrated homosexual victim of the moral reaction that followed the Labouchere Amendment was Oscar Wilde, the author. His case is rightly famous not simply because of his individual reputation, but because it revealed, in the starkest possible terms, that capitalism’s cure for those “suffering” from homosexuality was two years hard labour. In society’s view homosexuals were not merely sick men, they were criminals. Wilde himself had faced gay-baiting from his college days. At Oxford his forthright “decadence” prompted the yahoos at his college to try and wreck his room – though Wilde’s “effeminacy” was no obstacle to him kicking these thugs down the stairs!

Following a well publicised affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensberry, evidence that Wilde had committed acts of gross indecency with other males was amassed by the police and Wilde was convicted in 1895. The male homosexual community panicked and many fled to what they saw as a haven, Paris, where tolerance was greater as a result of the legacy of the Napoleonic Code in French law. More importantly the law had wagged its finger at all homosexuals by jailing Wilde – his fate awaited all of them. Their sexuality became a cause of ceaseless fear, fear of being found guilty of a “crime” which caused nobody any harm at all, to which the “victim” had consented, and which was conducted privately. The pioneer sexologist, Havelock Ellis, pointed to the deep rooted unfairness which underlay the laws that were used against Wilde and many more after him:

“The act which brought each of us into the world is not indecent; it would become so if carried on in public. If two male persons, who have reached years of discretion, consent together to perform some act of sexual intimacy in private, no indecency has been committed. If one of the consenting parties subsequently proclaims the act, indecency may doubtless be created, as may happen also in the case of normal sexual intercourse, but it seems contrary to good policy that such proclamation should convert the act into a penal offence.”

We need not agree with Ellis’ views on public morality to be able to appreciate the way in which he highlighted the discriminatory character of the law on gross indecency.

Other imperialist countries followed a broadly similar pattern. In Germany Paragraph 175, rendering male homosexuality illegal, was passed into Imperial law in 1871. In the USA, despite variations between states, laws against homosexuality were brought into force in the nineteenth century.

What of lesbianism? In the nineteenth century there was not an equivalent legal crusade against it. This was not due to any enlightened attitude, however. Nineteenth century attitudes to women, “respectable women” that is, were based on a total denial of the existence of female sexuality. Gradually this was modified by the view that nice women wanted sex, but purely for procreative purposes. The sexologist, August Forrel, typified this outlook when he wrote:

“The most profound and most natural irradiation of the sexual appetite in women is maternal love.”

Indeed, this outlook influenced early feminists who campaigned around the theme of the protection of motherhood. Their view of sexual intercourse as procreative fulfilment led them to castigate lesbians for engaging in non-reproductive sex. Even Marie Stopes, who fought to enlighten women on many sexual matters, developed quack theories about the centrality of semen to sexual activity to justify a hostility to lesbianism. She wrote:

“The bedrock objection to lesbianism is surely that women can only play with each other and cannot . . . have a natural union or supply each other with the seminal or prostatic secretions, which they ought to have and crave for unconsciously.”

Thus, the denial of female sexuality led the nineteenth century moral guardians to ignore it in the hope that it would go away. Then, when a sexual dimension to women was granted, it was quickly and rigidly subordinated to the tasks of breeding future generations. However, when lesbianism patently refused to go away, the state showed that it was prepared to strengthen the law. In 1921 a Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed by 143 to 53 votes in the House of Commons. It read:

“Any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section eleven of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.”

The House of Lords prevented the law reaching the statute book, not out of friendship towards lesbians but because the old fossils were still convinced most women did not know anything about lesbianism and to pass a law about it would bring it to their attention unnecessarily. However, the bourgeoisie were prepared to use other laws – like indecent assault – against lesbians and had no hesitation, in 1928, of finding Radclyffe Hall’s novel, Well Of Loneliness, guilty of obscenity because of its lesbian theme and suppressing it.

The bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century called on science to help them justify their treatment of homosexuals. They did not, however, always get the answers they wanted. The contribution of the early sexologists and psychologists was extremely contradictory. Virtually all the leading experts in these fields —Kraft Ebbing, Magnus Hirschfeld, Freud, Havelock Ellis – favoured the reform of the anti-homosexual laws. They were, by and large, convinced that homosexuality should be the object of scienti?c investigation, not criminal prosecution. To this extent they found themselves very often in conflict with capitalist morality.

However, their theories for explaining homosexuality often reinforced bourgeois society’s view of it as either an abnormality or an illness. Thus Kraft Ebbing’s path-breaking Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) billed itself as a medical study of the “abnormal”. Freud similarly regarded homosexuality as a disorder or perversion, but he rightly opposed the idea that homosexuality stemmed from a woman being trapped inside a man’s body or vice versa. He believed that homosexuality was a confusion of choice in terms of sexual preference, not a confusion of gender identity. Polemicising against the “third sex” thesis he wrote:

“The literature of homosexuality usually fails to distinguish clearly enough between the question of the choice of object on the one hand and of the sexual characteristics of the subject on the other . . . A man in whose character feminine attributes obviously predominate . . . may nevertheless be heterosexual. The same is true of women.”
This was a very important insight.

However, Freud was a bourgeois liberal not a Marxist. He did believe that the homosexual’s preference for same-sex love was a throwback to the days before civilization, when bisexuality was the norm. As such it was a problem, if not an illness; a disorder, if not a crime. He wrote:

“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage; but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of the sexual development.”

In other words the “sexual function” is not dictated by norms laid down by society but by an independent, “sexual development” which goes on in each individual. Psychological factors can check that development and thereby cause homosexuality, because the proper endpoint of that development for Freud was, and should always be, heterosexuality. Freud did not challenge capitalism’s normative approach to sexual orientation.

The ideas of the early sexologists and psychologists were ignored by capitalism’s law makers and moral guardians. Until the 1920s and 1930s that is. By then a more pliable breed of scientists than the great pioneers, were installed in the key medical establishments throughout the imperialist countries.

The view of the pioneers that homosexuality was an abnormality was seized upon, and their pleas for tolerance and understanding were ignored. Even those who sought to harmonise psychology and Marxism, like Reich, classified homosexuality as a deviation from “normal”, genital based sexual activity. Tragically Freudian psychoanalysis was instrumental in getting homosexuality listed with the World Health Organisation as a recognised illness. Science and morality were brought into harmony.

By the beginning of the twentieth century most of imperialist Europe and North America had legally sanctioned the oppression of homosexuals – male and in a different way, female. It took over sixty years for any generalised shift in attitude and law reform to take place. But the years of tolerance that followed the 1960s, were not only of limited duration, they were of limited use. For lesbians and gay men oppression merely changed into a different gear. Now even the reforms of the “permissive” sixties are under attack as gay men are blamed for the AIDS virus, and turned into modern day lepers and as lesbians are sacked from their jobs, denied their children and all too frequently, beaten up on the streets.

Capitalism has given lesbian and gay oppression a legal, political and in many respects, a social form. It has made it more wide-ranging and thoroughgoing than ever before, but it has also sparked resistance. That resistance needs to be transformed into a struggle, not only against oppression but also against the capitalist society that nurtures and sustains that oppression.