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Real equality for gays and lesbians is still to be won

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1898

From the Victorian era till the 1960s gays and lesbians were persecuted by the state. Police officers regularly entrapped and arrested gay men. In that repressive climate, most gays and lesbians hid their sexual orientation. Over the last three decades the worst legal restrictions and discriminations have ended. The level of popular prejudice against gays and lesbians is much reduced. Today every major TV and radio soap has gay or lesbian storylines, with sympathetic characters.

The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement was born in New York in 1969. At the Stonewall Inn, lesbians and gays fought back over several nights against cops persecuting them.

The movement spread rapidly, emboldening many to ‘come out of the closet’ and fight against discrimination and for equal rights. The gains have been real. But real equality is still to be won. It is still a lot easier to be gay in a big city than in small towns and villages. There are still many cases of prejudice and violence against gay people. Life is especially hard for young gay people.

Most young people today hate racism. The widespread school students’ movement against the Iraq war set them firmly against imperialism. Yet homophobia-prejudice against gays and lesbians-is still widespread among this same younger generation.

Two kinds of argument are used. Those influenced by religion sometimes quote the Old Testament, where homosexuality was declared an offence. But the same Old Testament was written in a society that also allowed enslaving people from other societies, selling your daughter into slavery, or stoning people to death for blasphemy-practices that today’s young people would find revolting.

More common is the argument that homosexuality is ‘not natural’. But what’s ‘natural’ for human beings? What we think of as ‘natural’ varies across human history.

Some Native American peoples recognised three sexes, and attributed special powers to the third. Ancient Greek warriors had both female wives and male lovers, and 10th and 11th century Islamic societies celebrated the diversity of forms of human love. In 17th century Japan an early book celebrating love between men appeared.

What we think of as beautiful, as desirable and as morally proper is not fixed. These things change as society changes. In the past peasant men selected their wives on the grounds of physical strength and their capacity to bear numerous children. Today ideas of romantic love play a much more important role, and most people want to limit the number of their children.

We’re not simply animals, ruled by our genes. Animals don’t go the cinema, watch TV, listen to recorded music, dress themselves according to current notions of fashion.

The Bible and the Koran have nothing to say about these things, for they were written long before these modern inventions. The Old Testament forbids wearing clothes of different fibres, and very few people follow that rule. Human sexuality shows that we are more than animals-we’re social beings. Through our sexuality, we don’t just seek to reproduce the species, but to find love and happiness, and a sense of beauty. What we mean by these things changes all the time.

Politically, we have to ask, who benefits from gay-bashing? Who is delighted when young people who would never dream of using racist insults use terms like ‘poofter’ to demean people in their school or college?

The plain answer is-the right. Capitalism depends on keeping working people divided. Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia-all have the same effect. In America the Christian right supports Bush, the war on Iraq, cuts in taxes on the rich-and opposes equal rights for gays. Bush wants to push through a new law defining marriage as restricted to two people of the opposite sex.

Marriage rights are important in capitalism, for they define such things as the right to raise children, inherit property, pension and life insurance rights, even the right to visit in hospitals and prisons. In Chile, when the military overthrew the elected government, they killed thousands of trade unionists, indigenous people and socialists-and also attacked gays.

Hitler’s Nazis murdered Jews, Gypsies, communists, socialists, trade unionists-and homosexuals. The BNP and other bigots in Europe would love to encourage gay-bashing. Whenever the right is gaining, gays and lesbians are among those who come under attack. Gays and lesbians remain oppressed. Socialists always stand with the oppressed. We support every movement to defend and expand human rights.

We need also to encourage a broader sense of human diversity and change. Our own ideas are shaped by history. Human sexuality is richly complex. In every society the pull of sexual attraction and affection is unevenly distributed among us. Some of us are drawn solely to the opposite sex, others to the same sex, and others again to both sexes.

There can be interesting debates about what makes us different. Are our desires partly shaped by our genes? How much are our senses trained socially to respond to specific aspects of human beauty and desirability? Such debates are just that-interesting. What they can’t tell us is how to behave towards people whose sexuality is different from our own.

Socialism is about fighting for a society where everyone is free to be what they want, provided that they don’t exploit and oppress others. Rather than being uptight and punitive towards people who differ from us, we should not just be ‘tolerant’ but positively delight in our differences.

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