Oppression, Identity, and Liberation

Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation by Sherry Wolf
(Haymarket Books)

Sherry Wolf’s Sexuality and Socialism is a collection of essays, arranged in the order of the historical eras they examine, that look at the interplay between sexuality and economics, theory, and activism through a Marxist lens. Although the essays wander through myriad topics, the collection as a whole revolves around the core idea that liberation for any oppressed group can’t happen unless organizers build solidarity across different movements.

The first part of the book is devoted to history. Chapter 1, “The Roots of LGBT Oppression,” begins with the premise that what we today recognize as the family, with its accompanying sexual taboos, is a product of class-based societies. She then makes the intriguing claim that while sex acts have been policed for thousands of years, the concept of an LGBT identity is very new. Chapter 2, “Repression, Resistance, and War: The Birth of Gay Identity,” goes on to explain how exactly that identity came about. Shifting societal patterns resulting from immigration and World Wars I and II led to greater independence among LGBT people (little victories included marriage licenses and public displays of affection), which led to a greater awareness among previously isolated individuals that there were others out there like them. These developments led to greater policing of sexuality by the US and other states, which in turn heightened a sense of resistance among those affected by it. In “The Myth of Marxist Homophobia,” Wolf debunks the idea that Marxism is inherently anti-LGBT but then goes on to detail the oppression of LGBT people in self-identified Marxist states like the Soviet Union, and “The Birth of Gay Power” chronicles the Stonewall Riots and the victories and setbacks of other American LGBT liberation movements.

“Whatever Happened to Gay Liberation?” begins the book’s transition from history to strategy and theory, as Wolf takes on the problems that have plagued organizers since the late 1970s, focusing in particular on mainstream LGBT movements’ dependence on the fickle and self-interested Democratic Party. “The relationship between LGBT activists and the Democratic Party has been a dysfunctional one,” she writes;

The Democrats court gays’ and lesbians’ votes and money but offer few gains and a fair share of abuse in exchange. For those LGBT activists wooed by the Democrats, ditching the more militant strategy that won a hearing [with congresspeople] in the first place for a “don’t rock the boat” one is the price to play.

Wolf is exactly right. One can see the reverberations of this strategy in our modern political climate – in the debate over whether to exclude trans people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, in the watered-down No on 8 ads that ran in California last fall. After recounting some of the more shameful losses by Democrats, including Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act into law, Wolf states that “a successful movement strategy… must begin with independence from the Democratic Party.”

But in her tactics, she’s an incrementalist. Although she opposes the actions of the US military and isn’t a fan of marriage as a state institution, she advocates fighting for the right to enter into both, claiming that rather than distracting activists from deeper issues, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA can galvanize support for LGBT issues: “Winning the right to biracial marriage did not divert the Black struggle for civil rights. It amplified and expanded it, just as the struggle for gay marriage today can and will.” This strategy does, of course, leave LGBT people living outside the mainstream stranded. Wolf is right when she says that “any truly oppositional politics must stand unapologetically in defense of the right to same-sex marriage… despite critiques of the state, religion, and monogamy,” but what many (perhaps most) LGBT critics of same-sex marriage oppose isn’t the very existence of monogamy, but rather many people’s perception that the right to a nuclear family is the only important LGBT issue of our time. Although her analysis is spot on, Wolf only responds to a portion of the debate.

In chapters 6 and 7, Wolf tackles postmodernism, identity politics, biological determinism, and even queer theory. She argues that theory originating from academia, where most thinkers enjoy a high level of privilege and material comfort, is too pessimistic and myopic to be of use to activists looking to create real change in society, and then challenges the now widely accepted idea that homosexuality is purely a product of biology, arguing instead that sexuality is produced by a complex mix of genetics and environment. She points out that the biological determinist view has been pushed largely for political reasons, under the belief that LGBT people will experience less discrimination if straight people know that “they can’t help it.” This strategy is ineffective, she claims, because not only has racial discrimination not abated because people of color “can’t help it,” but the right “has been able to co-opt the biological argument, advancing ideas about physically ‘curing’ homosexuality.” Furthermore, whether a trait is voluntary or not shouldn’t even be an issue when basic rights are being discussed.

Finally, in chapter 8, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All,” Wolf makes a compelling case for solidarity across movements, arguing that bigotry is not inherent to human behavior, but rather created by capitalism, which fuels anger and distrust between oppressed groups by creating competition for jobs and other basic needs. The only way to attack the root causes of bigotry is to organize across lines of race, class, and sexuality and focus energies on those in power, who benefit from that competition. Although her claim that capitalism is to blame is a bit shaky – after all, bigotry existed long before capitalism did – the idea that hatred between groups is engineered by the ruling class and fueled by competition for resources is also put forth by Howard Zinn and other writers (not to mention demonstrated by the government-fueled hysteria surrounding “illegals,” “welfare queens,” and other racist caricatures). Wolf dismisses notions of higher rates of homophobia among black communities and the working class, pointing out that a January 2009 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force challenged the California exit polls claiming that 70% of black voters voted for Prop 8, and instead found the number to be closer to 57% – not much higher than other racial and ethnic groups. Solidarity, Wolf firmly believes, is easy to achieve.

And the examples of solidarity she includes are nothing short of inspiring. Anyone who’s seen Milk will remember the successful boycott against Coors, in which gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco partnered with teamsters, Latin@ workers, and other groups and cut Coors’ California sales by 29%. That event is only one in a rich history of partnerships between LGBT organizations and other groups. Unfortunately, though, Wolf’s analysis is punctuated with a puzzling inaccuracy. She claims that the No on 8 campaign “didn’t use [their] money for a grassroots organizing campaign. It didn’t put out a call for activists to hit the phones, knock on doors, and hold rallies and actions to publicly denounce the bigotry of the measure….” By now, everyone knows that the campaign was handled badly, but any volunteer who hit the phones, knocked on doors, and attended rallies can confirm that Wolf’s claim is simply untrue.

The main shortcoming of the book is its unquestioned assumption that Marxist theory is adequate to explain LGBT oppression. That assumption may be fine if her intended audience already identifies as socialists, but what about those of us who remain skeptical? For instance, is capitalism really responsible for the enforcement of the nuclear family? Wolf mentions instances in which the US and the British Empire have enforced gender roles in the name of the state, but the idea that the production of wealth is the sole factor in LGBT oppression seems very reductive. Isn’t it more likely that it’s one of multiple factors? If human sexuality itself is too complex to explain through biology alone, might not the policing of sexuality be too complex to explain just by looking at environment?

Overall, though, Sexuality and Socialism is a wonderful overview of organizing for LGBT liberation with a socialist bent. The history is enlightening. This book is an imperfect but valuable guide for activists or anyone interested in learning about the aspects of LGBT movements that mainstream media are eager to hide.

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3 comments for “Oppression, Identity, and Liberation

  1. shah8
    October 1, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    The biological genesis of homosexuality is one of my pet peeves.

    I fully agree with Wolf‘s analysis. You can be predisposed to being gay, but there is no gene for being gay. It’s just a developmental issue, pretty much the same as Ray Bradbury’s butterfly. Deeply seated, primal preferences are not accesible, nor can they be changed without major damage to the psyche.

    But then, that’s soooo complex and people are idiots, right?

    *pssst* we have homosexuals because homosexuals are good for the rest of us*passiton*

  2. S.A. Small
    October 2, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I third Wolf and second shah8. Thanks for a really engaging book review, Julie.

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