Intersections: two talks on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer movement and the fight against patriarchy.
The discussion of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning (LGBTQ) movement concerns a movement of profound difference that in and of itself is a convergence of differences centered on the question of sexuality and gender variance. Homosexuality and bisexuality is about sexual orientation while transgenderism is about gender. These differences at times intersect one another. Over the course of time these movements for recognition and liberation have joined. This movement has come to be commonly known as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning Movement. Another term that has gained common usage, especially among youth has been the term “queer.” “Queer” specifically refers to a particular development and direction of identity, culture and community that has expanded to include all whose sexual life and sensual social identities depart from the heterosexual mainstream. Historically, the term “in the life” developed in the African-American community to have a similar meaning as “queer” has in the overall community.
This movement for liberation has the potential to bring us to the understanding that heterosexism and homophobia not only oppress LGBTQ persons, but also that heterosexism and homophobia are an essential part of the fabric of oppression of all people under capitalism.
“Heterosexism” refers to a nexus of interconnected social relations, practices, institutions, and discourses which work to establish and enforce heterosexuality as the single “normal,” “natural” and “desirable” way in which human beings can engage in sexual relations with each other while rendering homosexuality “abnormal,” “unnatural” and “undesirable” as well in many cases “illegal,” “immoral,” “sinful,” “sick,” often invisible.
“Homophobia” refers to the fear and hatred of homosexuality and homosexuals. Homophobia spans from subtle actions all the way to violence against homosexuals. Homophobia and the intolerance for gay people cuts across religious, national, ethnic, racial and class boundaries. Throughout the world LGBTQ people are aggressively persecuted, jailed and even executed. I might add that LGBTQ persons are also found within all religious, national, ethnic, racial, and class groupings.
As a result of fear and internalized self-hatred we tend to find higher rates of physical and mental illness, suicide, depression and alcohol addiction than in the general population. There can be no measure for the intense loneliness, isolation, self-censorship, that LGBTQ persons experiences in trying to live in heterosexually dominated society. I cannot begin to count the toll that AIDS has reaped in terms of the deaths of gay and bisexual men in this country.
LGBTQ Oppression and Patriarchy
It goes without saying that heterosexism and homophobia are profoundly linked to patriarchy. It is no accident that increased violence against gays and lesbians occurs in a time of increased violence against women. Battering is the single major cause of injury to women, exceeding rapes, muggings, and auto accidents. Physical and psychological abuse of women is epidemic. The depiction of men and women as opposites of each other is part of this practice. Through patriarchy, and by extension through heterosexism, the patriarchal male asserts his domination and superiority over women and all that could be identified with the “inferior” qualities that women represent, i.e. the violators of the norms, LGBTQ persons. Patriarchy is fundamentally about relations. Under patriarchy relationships are static and fixed and are characterized by domination and subordination. The movement for LGBTQ liberation is potentially one of the most profound challenges to the fixed and static role determinates of the patriarchal worldview.
Patriarchy then is fundamentally a question of social relations that are historically and socially constructed. Though humans are born male and female, there is no one way of being man or woman and no one way that men and women should relate to one another. The relations of patriarchy allow for men to secure extensive economic, political, and cultural advantages over and at the expense of women. Without going into detail, one of the results is the thinking and behavior that men are not only different from but also superior to women. There arises from this a gendered division of labor where men value and are trained to develop the powers of rationality and carry out the tasks that are related to this faculty, while women are socialized to develop emotional sensitivity and are socialized to assume positions where they support and nurture. This division is constantly reinforced by the dominant culture around us. Men are also encouraged to be aggressive and even violent.
To be gay and lesbian is to challenge this pattern of socialization. The concepts of “real man” and “real woman” are brought into question. The categories of heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, and bisexual are categories that in essence could only rise out of sexist patriarchal society. A society characterized by the dehumanization of women defines them as subordinate/submissive and “surrendered” in their relation to men on the one hand and on the other “emotionally cripple[s] men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/political/military functions effectively… In a society in which men do not oppress women and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.”(Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” New York, New York, 1970)
As socialists we realize that the potential for all human liberation and freedom is the liberation of all human relations from the process of capital accumulation — in other words, the elimination of capitalism. The weakness in our message is that we have not always understood and exposed the revolutionary totality of this transformation. The human person must be liberated not only from capitalist accumulation but from alienating social relations. The elimination of dominating and subordinating social relations rests not only on the redistribution of the wealth but also on the recognition of human beings as having inherent worth and value in and of themselves. This gives us new insight into the fundamental communist vision of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” To be a human being is to experience your being as a complex of relations. The various categories and distinctions into which we attempt to isolate this being can go no farther than a mental exercise. The reality of a person is more complex. A person can be worker, woman, oppressed nationality, gay, etc. Can one be isolated as primary and fundamental when all this impacts her experience in society?
Time does not allow me to elaborate but I believe that this is foundational to a socialist understanding of sexual and gender oppression. Many communists in the past have either had very negative things to say about LGBTQ folks or have been indifferent to and ignored the presence of folk with different sexual and gender identities. Many of these revolutionaries suffered in silence out of fear of being called petit bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. There was a part of the communist movement that raised the most backward views within the working class on this question to a level of principle.
LGBTQ Involvement in the Struggle
This brings us to the question of LGBTQ participation in the social movements of today. I would say that the participation of LGBTQ folks has much in common with the participation of all folks in the social movements. As various sectors and various movements interact, they impact and change each other. Folks that today would be identified as queer have participated in the various movements. Gays and lesbians were part of the Communist Party, notably Harry Hay who helped to organize the radical wing of the movement for gay and lesbian liberation. There were also LGBTQ participants in the liberation movements of people of color — people like Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, just to name a few. Like women activists in these movements, they were ignored and subordinated. They experienced heterosexism and homophobia even in these powerful movements for liberation. It is no secret and no accident that the first real radical measures towards gay and lesbian liberation were the result of the resistance of working class and oppressed nationality gay, lesbian and transgender persons. The Stonewall Rebellion in New York, which has been whitewashed through history, was initiated by the most marginalized sectors of these groups.
Lesbian women, through their participation in the feminist movement, rose to a greater understanding of themselves as women-identified-women and contributed profoundly to the understanding of the intersection of oppressions. The Combahee River Collective, which spoke out powerfully about the liberation of black women, had African-American lesbians in its membership.
Another aspect of the LGBTQ movement has been the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This epidemic (as you all know) had a devastating effect on gay men. While all gay men were impacted, gay oppressed-nationality men were infected and died in proportions much greater than their white counterparts. This was due not only to homophobia but racism as well. Without support or aid from the dominant sector, organizations from Gay Men’s Health Crisis to ACT UP and Queer Nation were born, as well as new organizations of oppressed nationality LGBTQ persons, such as the Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO). Many important activists lost their lives in the course of this most recent period.
A Key Part of the Movements
In the light of a history of active participation by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons in the various social movements and in the movement for socialism, the LGBTQ movement for liberation is not an afterthought or an add-on. The development of a radical revolutionary sector in the LGBTQ movement paved the way for a greater contribution to the various social movements that intersected the lives of LGBTQ activists. They were able to bring a greater strength and energy to the women’s movement, labor movement, oppressed nationality movements, etc. as out LGBTQ individuals. It can’t be denied that homophobia and heterosexism occurs in the various social movements, just as racism, sexism, and classism appears in the movement of LGBTQ folks. These divisions remain major hurdles that must be confronted in the effort to build a unified movement that will shake the foundations of capitalism.
Today we find organizations and caucuses in the oppressed nationality communities. An organization that I helped to organize participates in the MLK activities every year and hosts a special breakfast for LGBTQ folks and their allies during that time. This organization also organizes workshops and meetings of African-American LGBTQ folks around issues that impact their lives and the lives of the African-American community. A group of young black queer revolutionaries have converged around this organization as well and have moved to form their own organizations. We must point out that LGBTQ oppressed-nationality persons very often experience racism from white gays at the same time as they experience heterosexism within their ethnic communities. It also needs to be mentioned that gay men in particular have often been identified as the perpetrators of gentrification, which often pit them against established communities of people of color. This has been often framed as an issue between African-Americans and gays, thus totally obscuring the complex social dynamics, including the class issues and capitalism’s devastation of African-American urban communities.
LGBTQ folks have moved to address issues in the workplace, especially in the way they impact their lives. Pride at Work exists today as an organization that addresses LGBTQ issues in the labor movement on the one hand and educating LGBTQ folks about the importance of labor and labor organizing on the other. Understandably, gays and lesbians have also been active in the movement for accessible health care.
In this current period, queer folk have also stepped up as part of the anti-war movement. Special formations such as Out Against the War and Queers Against the War have been organizing and spreading the message in the LGBTQ community.
Radicalizing the Struggle
Like most sectors, the LGBTQ sector is not monolithic. The LGBTQ community crosses class, ethnic/racial, national and gender lines. Resistance to the organized attacks of the radical Right has been a unifying factor, but despite this resistance, understandable contradictions exist. The liberal sector of the bourgeoisie have sought to exploit these contradictions and have sought to include, within limits, the struggle for LGBTQ recognition into their hegemony. Clinton’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” did not fundamentally attack the roots of LGBTQ oppression, and while the majority of individuals who were thrown out of the military for being queer were African-American women, white gay males were the main beneficiaries of this policy and were held up as the poster children by various organization for this project. The movement for gays in the military also raised questions from the Left in the LGBTQ movement about why we should struggle to be part of the military apparatus of the bourgeoisie.
Another thrust is the movement for marriage. No one among the leading spokespersons for the bourgeoisie is willing to grant LGBTQ relations the full rights and privileges provided by marriage. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMA), and movements are underway to define in the US Constitution that unions between a man and a woman are the only legally recognized union in the US. This movement gained impetus by the recognition of gay marriage in Canada.
From a Marxist perspective the demand for marriage has contradictions. By implication it could mean a buy-in and a desire to emulate the productive units that are the nuclear family under capitalism. On the other hand the equal recognition of unions that are not heterosexual could challenge arbitrary gender-based roles, as more and more LGBTQ persons are able to establish unions that are given the same recognition and rights found in heterosexual marriages. Today, already one in every three lesbian couples is raising children and one in every five gay male couples is doing the same. LGBTQ rights to raise children are constantly under attack and currently have no legal protection.
There currently is a conflict between the radical religious Right on the one hand and the liberal bourgeois elements on the other as to how to deal with this issue and other LGBTQ issues. Certainly, the liberal bourgeoisie wants to accommodate a certain sector of LGBTQ folks, especially as more and more of their own children come out and demand recognition.
The contention for terrain in the discourse over LGBTQ issues is currently dominated, I believe, by the hegemonic discourse of bourgeois ideas. This view is reflected in the main by the belief that the LGBTQ movement is confined to recognition within the confines of capitalism. Wealthier, white gay males (but not only white gay males) have been attracted to this, and this has an organizational expression in organizations such as the Log Cabin Republicans to an extreme, along with organizations such as the Stonewall Democrats and the Human Rights Campaign.
There are signs of contention for a more radical and revolutionary understanding of gender politics but many parts of the left have been late and timid in efforts to hegemonize the LGBTQ struggle. On the other hand, there are many LGBTQ folks who have come to a greater understanding that their total liberation is not possible within the confines of capitalism. With that realization is an understanding of the intersection of oppressions and the need to struggle against racism, sexism and militarism, and ultimately for socialism. As we develop the vision of the socialist future, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons must be a part of that future. The socialist organization that we are now building must be a place where LGBTQ revolutionaries will feel at home, and the socialist society that we strive to create in the future must be a society which all human beings can contribute to and thrive within in the fullness of their humanity.
BJ is an African-American gay Marxist socialist, was involved in the Black Student Movement and African Liberation support work since his early teens. He came through the New Communist Movement. He studied philosophy and the roots of Latin American Theology of Liberation. Today he is working among African-American LGBTQ persons on the grassroots level. BJ is also a rank and file member of SEIU, Jobs with Justice, and Pride at Work.
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