Repression of homosexuality began in the Americas as soon as the Europeans landed. As explained above, the native peoples felt the wrath of the Europeans right from the beginning. Many of the American colonies adopted laws against “Sodomy.” It is estimated that at least seven men were put to death specifically for sodomy between 1607 and 1740. Many others received jail or other punishments, and some were executed and/or tortured by a lynch mob.
Even during the revolutionary war, soldiers in the revolutionary army were tried on sodomy charges. The repression against gays in the military literally goes back to George Washington. Even after the American Revolution, there were anti-sodomy laws in the various states, which were not eliminated nationally until 2003! The continued persecution of gays and lesbians made it less likely that people would strive for visibility. Given this oppression, the lives of lesbians and gays went underground.
It is interesting to note that the Stalinists and Maoists, many of whom assert that homosexuality is a byproduct of the decline of capitalism and the decay of its society, do not seem to have an explanation for why American capitalism would need to viciously repress something that should not exist in its infancy.
The Bolshevik Revolution
While LGBT people faced state repression in the USA, the victory of the workers’ revolution in Russia meant new freedom there. Women were given legal equality and the right to vote well before women in the U.S. had this right! The Bolsheviks ended the criminalization and arrests of prostitutes, but only arrested their patrons. They also tried to help prostitutes transition to other forms of employment by providing job training and housing. There were also attempts to provide universal child care, as well as communal restaurants and laundry facilities.
In addition to this, the Bolsheviks eliminated laws against homosexuality. The Soviet government sent delegates to the World League for Sexual Reform, set up by German reformer Magnus Hirschfeld, whom today we would describe as a gay rights activist.
“In the words of Dr. Baktis’s The Sexual Revolution in Russia: ‘As for homosexuality, sodomy, and whatever other forms of sexuality that are considered as moral violations by European legal codes, Soviet law treats them just the same as so-called natural intercourse. All forms of intercourse are private matters.’” (As quoted from the book The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement by Barry Adam)
The progress in the Soviet Union was short lived. Socialism must be built on the best technology and highest productivity developed by capitalism. One of the reasons socialism is superior to capitalism is that it will use the international division of labor to benefit humankind as a whole, while under capitalism, this division of labor and competition ultimately aggravates the crisis of the system.
The Bolsheviks saw the Russian Revolution as only the first step in the world revolution, that the revolution would spread to Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and so on. The revolution did spread. However, the absence in these countries of a trained revolutionary Marxist leadership, which could help orient the working class toward the seizure of political and economic power, eventually allowed the counterrevolution to triumph.
The capitalists were not strong enough to directly overthrow the revolution, but the revolution was isolated in a backward country, and this meant that a peculiar development occurred. A bureaucratic caste rose up in the Soviet Union, headed by Stalin, which took the political power into its own hands, while maintaining the state-owned planned economy. Gradually, this bureaucracy eliminated all remnants of Soviet democracy and physically exterminated the Marxists who led the Russian revolution.
Needless to say, the Stalinist regime distorted Marxism and socialism. Policies were changed 180 degrees and “justified” with political rhetoric. These changes included, in 1934, the re-criminalization of homosexuality and mass arrests of gays in Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov and Odessa.
The dominance of Stalinism in the world communist movement meant that the LGBT community was not going to find an ally there to lead it toward liberation from oppression.
Capitalism: Divide and rule
Modern American capitalism was also quite ruthless in its oppression of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals. In addition to the anti-sodomy laws and police prosecution, homosexuality was given extreme social disapproval. Any ability to live one’s life as a homosexual had to be done in an underground manner.
This was reflected throughout American capitalist culture. As an example, movies made in the 1930s to the early 1970s tended mostly to ignore homosexuality, but if there was a gay character, this person was portrayed as a villain or a clown, and most likely would commit suicide before the end of the movie.
Marxists understand that capitalist ideology also exerts its influence on science and medicine in order to perpetuate, justify, and enforce its own worldview. This was the case with official, mainstream psychiatry in America, which listed homosexuality as a disorder in its diagnostic manual until 1974! This was used to literally justify torture, such as shock treatments, lobotomies and other such methods, so that the patient could be made to be “straight.”
Interestingly enough, an American mother wrote to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, about her homosexual son in 1935. Freud wrote back to her on April 9 of that year. Here is part of what Freud had to say:
“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and a cruelty too.” (As quoted in Gay/Lesbian Almanac, A New Documentary by Jonathan Ned Katz)
The purpose of this quote is meant to show the difference in Freud’s approach versus the approach of the American medical community at the time. Marxists would not agree that homosexuality is an “arrest of sexual development.” Still, the quote above shows that at that time, Freud was ahead of his American brethren. Apparently, until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association would rather consult religious institutions than their “founding father” Freud himself.