The LGBT Movement and the Fight for Equality (Part One)

This is part-one in our series.  You can purchase the entire pamphlet from MarxistBooks.com.

Since the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969, there have been great strides forward in achieving equal rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. However, even today, all who make up the LGBT community continue to face discrimination and sometimes violence. As capitalism declines on a world scale, the ruling classes of each country will tend to look for scapegoats, to divert people from the struggle to change this decaying system and replace it with socialism and workers’ democracy. The ruling class will continue its policy of “divide and rule,” a tool to split the unity of the working class. Included in this is the use of homophobia and the attempt to divide people on the basis of sexuality.

How can the LGBT community defend the gains of the movement and move forward to true freedom and equality? Why does this movement need to link its struggle with the struggle for socialism? This booklet is an attempt to address some of these questions and learn the lessons of the past, so the future can be changed for the better.

Gender roles and sexuality in primitive communism

The LGBT movement is a modern development, but it has roots in past movements. However, it needs to be acknowledged first that homosexuality among humans has been integrated into past societies, in both primitive communist societies and class societies, in various ways. “Primitive communism” refers to the form of society that humans lived in for the majority of our existence, for tens of thousands of years before class society arose. These were societies in which the people lived and organized collectively to meet the community’s food, clothing, shelter and other needs. As an example, Native Americans had no concept of private property or land ownership prior to the European colonization of America.

The right wing claims that homosexuality is “unnatural.” If by this is meant that it is not found in nature, that is clearly false. Homosexual activity can be observed in many animals. However, since human romantic and sexual behavior is so clearly different from animal behavior, it would not be productive to draw too close a comparison.

Human sexuality is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. There are genetic, biological and psychological components to it, and all of this interacts dynamically within a particular context or society. Human sexuality and behavior develops from this and its interaction with societal constraints or the lack of such constraints. It should be noted that diversity and differences arise in this sphere, as with any other aspect of human life.

Society can try to set certain limits, such as creating gender roles for two sexes: male and female.  Life, however, throws a curve to such rules, as with the birth of intersex children (formerly referred to as hermaphrodites, here we are speaking of people born with both female and male genitalia, or at least “ambiguous genitalia”). This is estimated to occur in at least 1/10 of 1% of all births.

It should be understood that many aspects of gender roles and sexual identities are created by society. Various societies over time have defined gender roles and sexual identities in different ways. When two different societies came into contact, this interaction in many instances led to dramatic changes as the society seeking to dominate the other changed it accordingly.

For example, Engels explains in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that the earliest human societies evolved into a stage of primitive communism, where  group marriage held sway and lineage was traced through the mother (matrilineage). Engels further mentions the effect on group marriage by the Spanish missionaries, who condemned this practice. This had a decisive effect on the colonized people.

However, Engels never mentioned and might not have been aware of the fact that homosexual behavior and different gender roles were accepted in many of these societies. Some Native Americans also had the berdache, a person born male but who played a role that could be considered different from the general female and male roles prevalent in American primitive communist societies.

We know about homosexual behavior in primitive communist societies in the Americas due to the writings of Spanish and French missionaries and explorers. These chaste and celibate clergymen found it abhorrent and sinful. Homosexuality was viciously repressed by the Spanish, who had come to America for the three Gs: Gold, Glory and God. In many cases, the Spanish colonialists had dogs physically rip apart those who had engaged in homosexual behavior. Soon, any homosexual behavior that continued to exist was certainly not spoken about and had to be hidden from sight.

Engels explains how as society developed, group marriage gave way to monogamy, private property of the means of production developed, and children began to trace their lineage through the father as opposed to the mother. This would allow the man to bequeath his property to his children. Increasingly, society was divided into the individual family: one woman and one man and their children. There were strict penalties if the woman violated the “sanctity of marriage,” as the man wanted to ensure that his property would be passed on to his children, but of course, he was allowed many alternative distractions.

It would take many volumes to fully explain how homosexuality was repressed over the centuries, and in some situations allowed to exist over the centuries. This booklet cannot do this, but we can take look at how American capitalism integrated and regulated sexuality.

Capitalism: the superstructure

As Marxists, we understand that the fundamental basis for analyzing society is to look at how people organize themselves to provide food, clothes and shelter, and give birth to and raise a new generation. That is the economic base, the infrastructure. However, there are other institutions that regulate and maintain society, and Marxists call this the superstructure.   The superstructure must ultimately conform to the economic foundation of society; however the economic foundation of society can host a wide variety of superstructural institutions that can change over time.

Engels explains in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

“According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor, on the one hand, and of the family on the other. The less the development of labor, and the more limited its volume of production and, therefore, the wealth of society, the more preponderantly does the social order appear to be dominated by ties of sex. However, within this structure of society based on ties of sex, the productivity of labor develops more and more; with it, private property and exchange, differences in wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labor power of others, and thereby the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which strive in the course of generations to adapt the old structure of society to the new conditions, until finally, the incompatibility of the two leads to a complete revolution. The old society, built on groups based on ties of sex, bursts asunder in the collision of the newly-developed social classes; in its place a new society appears, constituted in a state, the lower units of which are no longer groups based on ties of sex but territorial groups, a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggles, which make up the content of all hitherto written history, now freely develop.” (Preface to the First Edition, 1884)

Capitalism, like other class societies, has developed social institutions which, as Engels explained, are conditioned by the economic infrastructure. As mentioned above, Marxists call this the superstructure. The individual family itself would be considered part of the superstructure; although it predates capitalism, it was a component of it from the start.  It serves the function of allowing society to raise the next generation and allows privately owned property to be passed down to future generations. The state is another example. Like all class societies, capitalism needs an army, police, courts and prisons to protect their property from foreign nations and from the majority of the population of its own country who own little or nothing.  Without a state, why would the majority put up with oppression and exploitation?  The ruling class needs these institutions to maintain their wealth and privileges.

Religious institutions, which play a role in maintaining ideological conformity do provide some social and economic support to people ravaged by capitalism (charity). But at root, they defend the socio-political status quo, and have reinforced the male domination of woman and an entire moral code limiting sexuality to the male-female nuclear family.

Although these institutions must have views that reflect the needs of the underlying economic system, this does not mean that the system cannot exist without particular superstructural institutions. Hence, in present-day capitalism, the old institutional religions (Catholicism, mainstream Protestantism) have lost much influence in society. However, at the birth of American capitalism, religion played an important role and had much influence on the state.

Part Two


Want to get involved? Drop us a line to join the fight for socialism in our lifetime:

Donate to Socialist Revolution

ISSUE 22 IS OUT NOW!
Socialist Revolution Cover Fight Police Terror with Revolution

US IMT Logo

Socialist Revolution is the official publication of the US Section of the International Marxist Tendency.
Contact us at info@socialistrevolution.org or 646-791-6279
STAY CONNECTED