The rioters, once dismissed as “sick” or “perverted” by many, took inspiration from the anti-war and black power movements. Chanting “Gay power”, they started a mass movement that changed the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people forever.
Gay liberation has come a long way. In the last decade alone we have seen six legislative changes in favour of gay rights. Attitudes have shifted – a recent poll found 90 percent supportive of gay rights, yet only 20 years ago 70 percent of the British public thought homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”.
Today LGBT people are a more visible and confident part of society. The simple act of holding hands in public would have been risked by few in the early 1960s. These immense changes have led some people to conclude that the struggle for gay liberation is over. Yet in 2005, 1,306 violent homophobic crimes were recorded by London. In the same year a young gay man, Jody Dobrowski, was beaten to death so violently he could only be identified through fingerprinting.
Hate crimes are not the only problem. LGBT young people of school age are six times more likely to commit suicide than their peers. Is it really time to declare our work done?
Socialists have something unique to say about sexual liberation; for our tradition is about much more than winning formal equality. It is about questioning the whole basis of our oppression, breaking the conventions that are used to police us and laying the basis for genuine sexual freedom, free from state intervention or commercial exploitation. It is an integral part of socialists’ struggle for a better world.
The oppression of women and LGBT people is rooted in a central institution of modern society – the family. The family is not natural or inevitable, but changes through history, as Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels documented in the 1880s in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Today, despite huge changes, our rulers rely on the family to provide services like childcare and support for the old on the cheap, and to socialise us into believing that this is the only natural way to organise our lives. LGBT people, and others who don’t fit neatly into the family, face exclusion.
The story of the radical fight for sexual freedom is a largely hidden history. Few people know that many of the pioneers of the early gay movement in the 19th century such as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis were socialists, or about the endeavours of the utopian socialists, whose campaign for a new world envisaged a way of life based on free love and liberty, free from the shackles of marriage and the narrow sexual morals of Victorian England.
In Germany, where the first gay movement took off, the mass socialist party, the SPD, played a central role in the campaign against anti-gay laws and was the only party to oppose them in parliament. It also publicly defended Oscar Wilde when he was jailed in 1895 for daring to engage in “the love that dare not speak its name”.
The struggle for gay liberation in the early 20th century was to reach its high point following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Millions in Russia lived in poverty, while large parts of the countryside were dominated by religious and sexual conservatism.
It was common for people to cover up religious icons in their household during sex. Yet within two months of the revolution the new workers’ democracy decriminalised homosexuality and ushered in reforms aimed at liberating people’s lives and sexual relationships. The age of consent was abolished, divorce on demand was introduced and abortion was legalised.
Practical measures were introduced to undermine the material basis of women’s and gay oppression. Attempts were made to organise services communally like childcare and cooking, and pamphlets on sex and free love were produced. Old ideas were being thrown out. A same sex marriage was given legal recognition.
This was all the more remarkable because there was no gay movement in Russia at the time. Instead the Bolsheviks drew on the best traditions of the international socialist movement to achieve a position far more progressive than that of any government in the world today. The engine of this change was the mass of people who fought to build the world anew. It was in the true sense “a festival of the oppressed”.
By contrast in Germany, where there was a significant gay movement, the campaign to repeal anti-gay laws failed. Magnus Hirschfeld, a leading figure in the movement, was a brave fighter for gay rights but did not consider himself a socialist, and pursued a reformist strategy of lobbying the great and the good for constitutional reform.
Germany and Russia showed that the struggle for sexual liberation is inextricably tied up with the fortunes of the left and the wider working class movement. When those forces were crushed, it had devastating consequences for the gains that had been won for LGBT rights.
Joseph Stalin overturned every single progressive measure – homosexuality was re-criminalised with gay men sent to prison. In Germany gay organisations were banned alongside working class organisations, the first book burning was of those ransacked by Nazi youth from Hirschfeld’s Institute and thousands of gays were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps.
Millions of people were murdered and along with them the memory of the revolution as the festival of the oppressed. It is time to rediscover the lost history of our struggles for LGBT liberation and the role of socialists within them. To achieve real lasting sexual liberation we have to be part of a wider struggle for human liberation.
Further reading: Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia by Dan Healey
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