As a contribution to Pride month, SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE reviews a book that raises interesting points about identity and class.
Bad Gays: A Homosexual History
By Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller
Verso, 2022, £16
In the introduction to Bad Gays: A Homosexual History, Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller set out their ambitious aim to investigate “the failure of homosexuality as an identity and a political project”. The book, formed of a series of historical pen portraits, is based on the writers’ podcast of the same name, and is a somewhat dizzying eclectic rush through the lives of their selected protagonists.
Lemmey and Miller say explicitly in the introduction that their approach is story-telling not scholarly. Nonetheless their book offers a wealth of interesting facts and wide-ranging references, many of which can help point to the need for class politics, without necessarily joining all the dots. By examining the development of the ‘homosexual identity’, through repression and struggle, Bad Gays provides food for thought in the ongoing important debate about identity politics and the struggle for liberation from oppression.
As Guardian columnist Kenan Malik has put it, “we live in an age saturated with identitarian thinking”. Identity politics could be summarised as the idea that resistance against discrimination and oppression can and should be organised primarily on the basis of identity. Class struggle is either ignored or attributed a secondary role. The recent predominance of identity politics is a phenomenon rooted in historical conditions.
Following the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR in 1991, capitalism declared itself victorious. The collapse of Stalinism was used in a global ideological offensive against socialism. Socialism was unfairly equated with Stalinism, a dictatorial, bureaucratic system, as part of a worldwide push by most capitalist governments towards brutal, neoliberal policies in defence of capitalist profits. This led to an ideological disarming of workers’ organisations – both the trade unions and their traditional political parties – consolidating the idea that there was no alternative possible to capitalism. Many trade union leaderships turned to individual solutions instead of collective struggle, and failed to resist the attacks neoliberal capitalism rained down on all the past gains of the working class.
The transformation of Labour in Britain from a ‘capitalist-workers’ party’ – with its leaders susceptible to pressure from the working-class base of the party via its democratic structures – into New Labour, an out-an-out capitalist party, meant that the working class had no collective political voice offering a socialist alternative. Tony Blair summed this up when he announced in his 1999 conference speech that “the class war is over”. The final chapter of Bad Gays, dedicated to the late Dutch right-populist politician Pim Fortuyn, describes the effect of this process within gay liberation in this era, with the emergence of a “gay politics… focused on integration into middle- and ruling-class life and the enabling of the seamless generational transfer of property and wealth”.
These conditions, where a class collective response is obscured rather than demonstrated by experience, have contributed to a situation where identity politics have been an inevitable part of the political awakening of many members of oppressed groups within society. Recognising that you are oppressed, as Black, as gay, or as a woman, for example, and that you can fight against oppression through a common struggle with others who share the same oppression, is a vital first step. But Bad Gays includes illustrations of how, in order to challenge discrimination and repression, as well as economic exploitation, a class struggle approach is necessary.
The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) is mentioned briefly in the book. Through the experience of struggle against economic exploitation on luxury liners in the US in the 1930s the MCS opened its membership to Black and Asian workers, and developed a collective response to the attempts by the bosses to use division to prevent them realising their collective strength. An MCS steward explained, in a text referred to but not quoted by Lemmey and Miller: “In 1936 we developed this slogan: It’s anti-union to red-bait, race-bait, or queen-bait. We also put it another way: If you let them red-bait, they’ll race-bait, and if you let them race-bait, they’ll queen-bait. That’s why we all have to stick together”. The historian Allan Bérubé relates that: “The insults keep coming, but the gay stewards are getting bolder because they know their union is watching their backs”. Another MCS member told Bérubé: “The most important thing was not that we had gays. It was that an injury to one was an injury to all – and we practiced it. We took care of each other”. An MCS member later became one of the communist founders of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organisations in the United States.
The deep crises of capitalism of the 21st century have provoked a churning for ideas to fight back. It was inevitable that the ideas of identity politics in this context would be taken up – but it is also inevitable that they will be found wanting. With the onset of the cost-of-living crises since the pandemic there has been an upturn in class struggle with strikes taking central stage. The underlying increase in class anger has worked its way into this book in the many mentions of class and recognition of the significant role of the working-class elements in the movements for rights and liberation.
That is not enough, though. Drawing the conclusions reached by the MCS will be necessary for workers to resist the attempts by the capitalists to use division to prevent the working class realising its collective potential to fight against exploitation and oppression, to get rid of capitalism, and begin the transformation of society – including ending all its rotten ideology. But being armed with a socialist programme and a political vehicle for promoting and realising it is also necessary.
One of the ways ‘identitarian’ thinking has infected even some on the left is the idea that to face oppression as LGBTQ+ somehow automatically makes you radical. This book disproves that with its ‘bad gays’ ranging from the instigator of witch-hunts James VI as part of crushing resistance to his rule, to the architect of McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunts J Edgar Hoover. But today, with no way out of the crisis of their system, and bereft of an offer of a decent future, it is elements of the capitalist class who are turning to identity politics in an effort to distract and deflect anger from their dysfunctional system.
The book specifically sets out to explore “white male homosexual identities”, and only one chapter is about a woman – the American anthropologist Margaret Mead. But Dame Cressida Dick, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, could certainly find a place in the Bad Gay’s hall of fame and, indeed, she has a podcast episode dedicated to her. Under her watch, “the first woman and the first LBGTQ person to hold the rank”, the botched investigation into gay serial killer Stephen Port took place, and the Met stands accused of institutional homophobia. There is nothing automatic about being part of an oppressed group in society and fighting oppression. What defines a person’s politics is which class’s interests they seek to represent and promote.
Family and oppression
In exploring the origins and development of the ‘homosexual identity’ and homophobia the writers tell a story of struggle and repression. The story of class struggle can be glimpsed through their chosen characters. The book covers a number of forms of class society – slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. It does not address directly the role of the family as Marxism does, but its broad historical sweep allows us to see the thread of Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the family as an institution of economic and social control within class society and its impact on society’s views of sexuality.
Engels gets one brief mention in the book, but his enormous contribution to understanding the role of the family is absent. Engels linked the development of private property with the development of the family, class society and gender oppression. Society wasn’t always divided into classes. Over thousands of years, groups, individuals and households emerged who began to see the surplus produced through the development of skills and technique as their own. This was how the first exploiting classes arose. The emergence of private property and class inheritance laid a material basis for controlling women’s sexuality and unequal gender roles, in what Engels called “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.
The word ‘family’ dates to Roman slave society, the period in which the first chapter on Hadrian is set. The Latin word ‘familia’ refers to the total number of slaves belonging to one man. Many of the laws which have governed the family in capitalist society in Western Europe and elsewhere since, also originate here. In telling the story of Hadrian’s pederasty, the chapter illustrates how the ‘patriarchal’ family of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times was a hierarchical economic and social institution which invested authority over wives, children and slaves in the male heads of households, and how marriage for the ruling, slave-owning class was primarily concerned with forming alliances with other families in order to increase their wealth and status rather than love. Subsequent forms of class society, including capitalism, have incorporated and reinforced some of these social structures and ideology, including the family, the second-class status of women, and homophobia.
In defence of private property and their economic rule, the ruling classes, then and since, have used all the means at their disposal to reinforce the ‘ideal’ family. They have many of these means: the legal system, religion, science, education, and ideas generally. The dominant ideas in society are ultimately the ideas of the dominant economic class. The book illustrates how homophobic repression, intolerance of anything that strays beyond the limits of the traditional heterosexual family, was motivated in defence of maintaining positions of power and wealth.
The book points out that the first sodomy laws in England were introduced in 1533 by Henry VIII. The first laws are located in Italy, dating back to the development of the city states but only within the church and not in civil law. Under Henry’s law those found guilty were sentenced to execution with their property and land to be seized by the monarch. The authors explain that this was because Henry was “trying to seize their lands and enclose common lands, wrestling power and wealth from the hands of the Church”.
Henry’s initial sodomy laws were maintained until 1861 when they were re-worked in the Offences Against the Person Act by the now ruling capitalist class. This Act replaced execution with penal servitude ranging in duration from ten years to life. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which prohibited “everything that manifested desire between men was pulled into the remit of the law”. As Lemmey and Miller explain: “Indeed, even today, the provision remains in penal codes across the world, from Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore to Section 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code, in almost identical wording to the Labouchere Amendment, testament to the long and brutal relationship between colonialism and the moral fear of homosexual behaviour”.
The Act, as explained by the historian Jeffery Weeks, became law in a year “in which imperialism and national decline were on everybody’s mind. The issue of Home Rule in Ireland and the threat of a break-up of the United Kingdom were looming… the 1880s also saw the first stirring of socialist propaganda for a generation, and this again seemed to pose a threat to bourgeois hegemony. The puritan emphasis on the family offered an antidote”.
In passing, mention is made of how, in circumstances where working-class interests are reflected, laws can move in the opposite direction. Of the French revolution they say: “Same-sex sexual activity in France had been decriminalised after the revolution when sodomy laws, as with many other laws regulating the behaviour of the popular classes, were left out of the 1791 penal code”. But they do not include the contribution of the 1917 Russian revolution. When the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922, male homosexuality was not included as a criminal act. Before the revolution female homosexuality and ‘crossdressing’ had never been explicitly outlawed, but they were met with heavy repression. In 1926 it became legal to change your sex on passports and intersex and transgender people received access to medical care without state demonization. The advances for women in the early days of the Bolshevik government secured unprecedented freedoms for lesbian and bisexual women.
However, importantly, they do mention the impact of the Russian revolution in another place and time. In the period after world war one, when workers were involved in mass struggle in the US, “the Russian revolution offered a then-hopeful alternative to the US capitalist system”. The development of capitalism meant the development of the working class. With it came confidence to both reject the ruling class’s social mores and the gender norms that served its needs – and confidence to organise and threaten capitalism’s economic exploitation.
This was also the case in the post-war period in the US. As the writers explain, American workers looking to the Soviet Union “deeply concerned the US government, and bosses, fearful that industrial action could escalate into revolution”. Their answer was a combination of anti-immigration propaganda and legislation, bans on communists and attacks on LGBTQ+ people. Sound familiar? Hoover, as head of the FBI, pursued determined campaigns of political persecution against suspected communists and LGBTQ+ people in the Red and Lavender scares respectively. “According to one 1952 article on the subject, homosexuals ‘belong to a sinister, mysterious and efficient international’, clearly alluding to the Comintern (Communist International): the ‘Homintern’, as it was sometimes known”. A comparison can be drawn with the Tory focus on trans rights (and small boats) today.
A recent documentary film, 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture, explains how it was in this period that the word ‘homosexual’ was first introduced into the revised standard version of the bible, lending legitimacy to homophobic propaganda. All means of reinforcing these divisive ideas were employed.
Hoover’s inclusion in the book is also an illustration of how there is no contradiction between those who are reportedly involved in same-sex relationships also being willing to use brutal homophobic attacks in their attempt to divide workers in the service of maintaining capitalism.
In their conclusion, Lemmey and Millar write: “Homosexuality is not an ever fixéd star; it’s a contingent identity, something developed through a slow accrual of meaning over the centuries. Within it are still the remnants of sin, its half-life still slowly poisoning gays millennia on, and sickness, and crime. There are remnants of a heritage of rebellion, of throwing established norms into anarchy, but also of order, of the relentless policing of the self, and of the behaviour of other queers”.
They are correct. Identity is not static but an inescapable product of conditions and especially of class oppression and struggle. It is a mistake of those on the left who fall in uncritically with identity politics but it is also a mistake of those who claim to be communists but take a denunciatory approach to those workers and young people testing out a road to liberation from oppression. Throughout the book are references to splits in movements and organisations – along class lines. While not giving an inch to the bourgeois and petit bourgeois leaders, socialists must strive might and main to find a way to offer a programme for socialist change based on building independent mass workers’ organisation and struggle to all those who seek liberation from the limits on humanity class society imposes. Some of the events in this book can help show the necessity of that approach.