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Out for freedom – socialists and the fight for LGBT liberation

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Issue 2435
LGBT health workers on the Pride march in London last year
LGBT health workers on the Pride march in London last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

To resist homophobia and transphobia, LGBT people must reclaim our history—and our history of resistance. 

But we also need to be armed with a clear theoretical understanding of why oppression exists.

Otherwise our political efforts will prove ineffectual and lead movements into dead ends.

LGBT people in many countries have made important strides towards equal rights at work and in society.

But it took decades of struggle to win these rights—and the picture remains contradictory. 

Most people’s attitudes, especially those of young people, have become less homophobic. 

But homophobic and transphobic bullying, harassment and attacks are still common.

Reactionary ideas can play an important role in reinforcing oppression—and it is important to challenge them whenever they arise.

But oppression isn’t rooted in the ideas that people hold. 

Marxists argue that LGBT oppression is rooted in capitalism. And it is the material conditions of capitalism that shape people’s ideas. 

Our society is divided into classes, with a capitalist class that exploits workers in order to pump profits out of them.

Many millions of people work to produce the wealth in society, while a tiny minority own the businesses, media and run the political institutions.

However, our rulers are always faced with the problem that there many more of us than there are of them. 


The ruling class will sometimes use brutal repression—namely the police—to keep the majority down. 

It has a long history of using the police and laws against LGBT people.

But it also hopes to keep control by dividing the working class and whipping up racism, sexism and homophobia.

For example, when politicians whip up Islamophobia they try to win support for it with claims that Muslims are homophobic or misogynist.

Our rulers try to play off different oppressed groups against each other because they fear a united working class that could challenge their power.

Some argue that it is reductionist or simplistic to blame capitalist class society for oppression. Many also argue that oppression is somehow a natural part of human society.

It’s true that oppression cuts across class, and a number of LGBT people are part of the ruling class.

But historical and anthropological evidence clearly show that homophobia and transphobia haven’t always existed. 

But different forms of gender identity have.

The US revolutionary socialist and transgender activist Leslie Feinberg assembled a mass of evidence in her 1996 book Transgender Warriors. 

Feinberg showed that societies throughout history have often tolerated and even celebrated different sexual orientations and gender expressions.

Capitalism is based around producing commodities to buy and sell on the market.

Its drive to turn everything into a commodity also affects our sexuality and need for pleasure and fulfilment. 

But as human society developed, the way that our sexuality is understood has changed. 

The main institution that has shaped—and controlled—our sexuality is the family. 


The form that takes has changed through time, but under capitalist ideology the nuclear family has dominated.

The role of the nuclear family in capitalism is to reproduce and socialise the next generation of workers. 

Here it’s fundamental to understanding LGBT oppression. Capitalism pushed men, women and children into mass factory production.

But the ruling class was concerned that the terrible factory conditions would break apart the working class family.

If the family broke down, then how would the next generation of workers be reproduced? 

Workers themselves felt crushed by long hours for men women and children. They looked to the family for respite. 

The drive to the ideology of the nuclear family was in response this. 

It was modelled on how ruling class families lived with a separation of work and home.  

What we think of as “traditional” gender roles of male breadwinners and female housewives were part of the ideology of the nuclear family.

But this wasn’t something that everyone naturally accepted.

new pamphlet PRIDE, POLITICS AND PROTEST A revolutionary guide to LGBT liberation by Laura Miles  lThis Socialist Worker pamphlet shows that the periods when LGBT people have made the most progress have also been the high points of working class struggle. It’s a must for those fighting for liberation.  Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Laura Miles is the author of a new Socialist Worker pamphlet
PRIDE, POLITICS AND PROTEST: A revolutionary guide to LGBT liberation
It shows that the periods when LGBT people have made the most progress have also been the high points of working class struggle. It’s a must for those fighting for liberation. Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

The term “homosexuality” first appeared at around this time and the first homophobic legislation was passed.

Understanding that LGBT oppression grew out of capitalism informs how we fight for liberation today.

The ruling class benefits from LGBT, women’s oppression and racism.

Marxists argue we have to fight for liberation, not toleration or assimilation within capitalist society. That means getting rid of capitalism. 

In the decades that followed the Second World War, capitalism could accommodate some of the growing demands for greater equality.

Mass movements forced the ruling class to make some concessions.

But gains within capitalism can be rolled back—particularly in hard times.


History is full of examples of social rights being eroded and overturned in periods of crisis to maintain the position of our rulers. 

For example, the German Weimer Republic in the 1920s was relatively progressive in its attitudes to LGBT people.

But after the Nazis defeated the German working class, tens of thousands of gay men were murdered in prisons and concentration camps.

The ruling class seeks to drive wedges among us because that helps it carry on exploiting workers.

It is in the interests of the working class to fight for unity against the bosses.

The fate of LGBT people and other oppressed groups is tied to the tide of workers’ struggle.

That’s not just because most of the oppressed are part of the working class.

Marxists argue that workers are central to fighting oppression. Of course, not all workers automatically have progressive ideas.

But their objective position in society means they have the power to down tools and overturn capitalism.

And workers ideas can change through struggle.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin understood how crucial it was for Marxists to challenge all forms of oppression. 

In discussing how to build a revolutionary party he argued that revolutionaries must become “tribunes of the oppressed”, and that revolutions are in reality “festivals of the oppressed”.

In October 1917 a revolution  led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party overthrew the Tsar in Russia.

The Bolsheviks immediately passed a range of unprecedented measures—such as legalising abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

LGBT people have made the greatest advances at times when working class struggle was rising. We can see this in the early 19th century, when the first socialist organisations were born.

It’s also the case with the revolutionary period following the First World War, and rising workers’ struggle and social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots against police repression in New York gave birth to the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). 

It named itself after Vietnam’s National Liberation Front that was fighting US imperialism—and called for revolution.


There is a long history of links between socialist organisations and the first campaigners for homosexual rights. These include Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld.

But many LGBT activists today are unaware of this history.

Workers’ defeats and periods of downturn in class struggle have led to the horrors of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia. 

 The downturn in struggle that followed the 1970s led to a shift away from Marxist and class politics.

In the 1980s and 1990s this led to the rise of Queer Theory and identity politics, which individualise oppression and don’t acknowledge its material roots.

They amounted to a theoretical justification for a generation of LGBT activists who were ditching the ideas of liberation and revolution. 

Instead, they embraced reformism and making accommodations within the capitalist system. 

Many LGBT activists are rightly critical of these theoretical explanations. 

They want the kind of answers and liberation that that motivated the GLF in 1969. 

While LGBT people can fight for reforms, we don’t have the social weight to liberate ourselves on our own.

The roots of LGBT oppression lie in capitalism. 

LGBT and straight people, organised together as workers, have the power to overthrow the system.

We need a revolutionary organisation to fight for that.

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