Gays and the Left

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Peter Drucker

The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935)
by John Lauritsen and David Thorstad
Novato, CA: Times Change Press, 1995,
revised edition, $9.95 paper.

Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left
edited by Gert Hekma, Harry Oosterhuis and James Steakley
Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1995, $24.95 paper.

THE CONTEMPORARY MOVEMENT for lesbian/gay liberation was born out of the ferment of the New Left. Its leftist roots were openly acknowledged.  Theorists such as Dennis Altman, John D’Emilio, David Fernbach and Mario Mieli all identified with one socialist or communist current or another.  They all acknowledged their debt to Marxism as well as feminism and psychoanalysis.

Times have obviously changed.  While lesbian/gay movements have grown and won some significant victories in the past quarter-century, the socialist left has shrunk to a shadow of what it was. Unsurprisingly, lesbian/gay spokespeople and theorists are less likely to identify with the anti- capitalist left than they used to be. This makes it high time to look at lesbian/gay movements’ past links with the left and to take stock of what those links amounted to.

The reissue of John Lauritsen’s and David Thorstad’s 1974 classic, “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement,” reminds us that the movements’ connections with the left go back to nineteenth-century Germany.  The new anthology “Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left,” a result of the recent flourishing of lesbian/gay studies, highlights tensions that existed in this relationship all along.  Both make valuable contributions.

But much more remains to be done. Work done recently by lesbian/gay social historians has far-reaching, barely explored implications for radical history and theory.

Back to Basics

Lauritsen’s and Thorstad’s roots go back to the U.S. Socialist Workers Party.  They broke with that group in the mid-1970s when the word came down from its leadership that lesbian/gay oppression was only a “secondary” contradiction for which members’ energies often could not be spared.  But the 1995 edition of “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement” contains few major changes.  Like the 1974 version, it treats the pioneers of lesbian/gay emancipation with only mildly critical sympathy and stresses the bright side of their alliance with leftist parties.

This makes the book useful reading for anyone who wants to begin by grasping a few basic facts.  For example: the German Social Democratic Party was in the forefront of the fight to repeal Germany’s anti-gay Paragraph 175 in the years before the First World War. Eduard Bernstein defended Oscar Wilde (himself an iconoclastic socialist) in the pages of the SPD’s theoretical journal, “Die Neue Zeit.”  The Bolsheviks repealed anti-gay laws when they took power in Russia, and supported the pro-gay World League for Sexual Reform throughout the 1920s.  The German Social Democratic and Communist parties were the gay movement’s best allies in the 1920s.  These basic facts are worth reiterating, if only because some recent scholarship has managed to overlook them.

There is another side to the story, unfortunately.  Trained in the Trotskyist tradition, Lauritsen and Thorstad have a keen eye for the failings of social democrats and Stalinists, which were many. The German Social Democrats succumbed to the temptation to gay-bait when there were same- sex scandals among the German empire’s aristocratic elite; Social Democrats and Communists succumbed again when Nazi SA head Ernst Roehm was available as a target.

Once Stalin recriminalized homosexuality in the USSR in 1934, Communists turned their back on their earlier stands and identified gays with bourgeois decadence “and” even fascism.  By the time lesbian/gay liberation went though its resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, an uphill battle had to be fought against anti-gay prejudices inside much of the left.

Lauritsen’s and Thorstad’s focus on Germany helps them avoid noting that the left in other countries, for example the United States or the Netherlands, fell short even of the German left’s mixed record.  Beginning late in the nineteenth century saves them from mentioning Marx’s and Engels’ homophobia, which surfaced not only in private letters but in published writings.  Ending in the 1930s saves them from discussing the shortcomings of later, even anti-Stalinist Marxists.

Ambivalent Left Tradition

“Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left” has been put together with more scholarly thoroughness, benefits from two decades of accumulating research, and suffers from no inhibitions about exposing the left’s shortfalls.  The result is a set of some valuable investigations.  The strong development of gay studies in Dutch universities (where two of the three editors are based) is well reflected.

The one contribution that focuses on the Netherlands (by Gert Hekma) is a useful demonstration of just how ambivalent early socialists were about sexuality.  The anthology also does well to look at several different left traditions-“utopian” socialism and anarchism as well as Marxism-in a single volume.  For anyone who wants to learn about topics as varied as how André Gide squared his homosexuality with sympathy for the USSR, what the early Frankfurt School had to say about gays, or the complementary roles of East Germany’s Lutheran Church and Stasi in creating a gay movement there, this book is a good starting place.

Yet most of the authors are hampered by at least three major flaws in their approach.  First, though many of them clearly have leftist sympathies, their methods owe little to the left. They work as empiricist historians; few of them seem to see how Marxism, feminism or any other radical paradigm can help them analyze societies.  Second, the book as a whole is marred by a double standard, in which Marxist traditions are more harshly judged than others.  Third, few of the authors have learned much from social historians’ discoveries about the lives of ordinary gay men and lesbians, who after all made up past movements and parties.

Public vs. Private

In their introduction, the editors say that “socialism is singled out for particular attention here because its project was, and is, to fulfil the emancipatory goal of the Englightenment: the universal liberation of humankind from oppressive ideologies and exploitative social structures.”  (7) This argument for holding the left to high standards is absolutely right.

The editors are also right to criticize socialist credulousness about “scientific” biology and medicine, which contradicted the left’s distinctive emphasis on historical and social factors, and to criticize socialist praise of working-class “manliness, “which ignored the female half of the working class.  But they fail to grapple with the difference between abstract application of principles and a project of liberation carried out by concrete historical agents emerging from really existing capitalism.

Ultimately, when the editors appeal to the classical liberal distinction between public and private realms, they are judging the left by criteria that are alien to the left. “The private sphere has enjoyed far less protection under socialist regimes than under liberal ones,” they say.(16)

They do note in passing that liberals (in the European sense of constitutionalist, secular free-market advocates) were in practice usually even more anti-gay than leftists.  But they fail to explain why. In fact the liberal private-public distinction leaves straight male power in the family unchallenged.  Women’s and lesbian/gay liberation require transforming the family in ways that are bound to “interfere” in “private” life.

The authors’ not very profound methodology sometimes limits their predictive ability.  For example, in his article on contemporary France, Jan Willem Duyvendak moves beyond his earlier work in describing the difficult “balance between desires and interests” that gay movements need to strike.(370) But lacking a deep analysis of how much those desires and interests are reined in in France today, he predicts continuing demobilization of French gays-who in fact began mobilizing in steadily more impressive numbers before the ink on his article was dry.

The book’s liberal critique of the left’s sexual politics is limited mainly to Marxists.  Saskia Poldervaart’s essay on utopian socialists and Walter Fähnders’ on German anarchists are not only sympathetic but almost wholly uncritical accounts, citing inspiring passages from their subjects’ works without paying much attention to the reality of their movements

It is valuable to recover these lost voices of sexual radicalism, to note sex-radical insights in Fourier that Marx dismissed or anarchist pro-gay positions that were better than contemporary Marxists’.  Anarchist Hubert Kennedy also trenchantly exposes Marx’s homophobic attacks on gay German Lassallean leader Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, though without shedding much light on the issues between Marxists and Lassalleans that probably concerned Marx more. Richard Cleminson’s careful, historically informed research on the Spanish anarchist “Revista Blanca” sets a higher standard, however, in an article that shows how anarchist puritanism gave way in the 1930s to greater tolerance.

The articles focusing on Marxists also mostly fall short of Cleminson’s achievement.  In fact, of the ten contributions that deal mainly with avowed Marxists, only two or three show much knowledge of Marxism.  Four deal largely with Stalinist regimes or spies; twenty years after Lauritsen’s and Thorstad’s basic exposition, these articles make little distinction between Stalinist sexual politics and earlier Marxist positions.

Laura Engelstein, writing about Soviet legislation, ends up asking in bewildered ignorance, “Why did homosexuality escape the law between 1917 and 1934?  That is the still obscure and intriguing tale.”(173) Harry Oosterhuis, who chronicles anti-gay statements in Social Democratic and Communist anti-fascist propaganda of the 1930s with justified indignation, blames the homophobia on Marxism as such; he either does not know or prefers to forget that earlier socialist positions were more pro-gay.

David Thorstad, who contributes the one article dealing with the U.S. left, is of course knowledgeable about Marxism.  He lays out the reactionary positions of the CP and Maoists at the time of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, cites the enlightened comments of Panther leader Huey Newton, exposes the limits of the SWP’s position, and contrasts it with somewhat better positions taken by other Trotskyist groups.[1] He rightly criticizes positions that in the best of cases tend to dress up defenses of minority rights in radical-sounding verbiage instead of attacking the deeper roots of heterosexism.

Unfortunately Thorstad chooses as his decisive criterion agreement with his and Lauritsen’s demand for repeal of age- of-consent laws. Thorstad and Lauritsen have every right to be bitter: The attacks on them not only by the FBI and Jesse Helms but also from within the lesbian/ gay movement have been appalling.

Sadly, this seems to sour Thorstad’s vision of the movement as a whole.  The same sourness disfigures the “Afterword to the Revised Edition” of “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement.”  “The mainstream gay organizations of the present” are dismissed as “politically correct zombies,” and the “radicalism of such groups as Queer Nation” as “bizarre and offensive behavior.”  (102) Substantive lesbian/gay radicalism is admittedly on the defensive, but the scene is not quite as bleak as Lauritsen and Thorstad paint it.[2]

Class and Community

Manfred Herzer’s article on “Communists, Social Democrats, and the Homosexual Movement in the Weimar Republic” stands out in “Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left,” not only for its sense for historical context but also because it points to new frontiers for investigation.

Herzer shows how other writers wrench quotations from the Social Democratic and Communist press out of context, simply editing out reaffirmations of opposition to anti-gay laws that are inconvenient for anti-Marxist arguments.

German gay leaders, he shows, whatever their personal politics, acknowledged the crucial support their movements received from the left. But he goes further and deeper, pointing out that gay leaders treated Nazis like Roehm with kid gloves and failed to mobilize their own members against fascism because a high proportion of their membership was right-wing.  Herzer has no explanation for the disproportionate right-wing sympathies of the gay movement’s rank and file: this would require a far-reaching “social” history and analysis of the prewar community.

Only in the last few years have gay historians begun to explore in depth the historical interaction of sexuality and class.  George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” makes a strong case that gay identity as it exists today emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a mainly middle- class phenomenon, while U.S. working-class men continued until at least the 1940s to identify only “passive” male- male sexual behavior with “fairies” and to consider men who fucked either women or men as “real men.”[3]

If this same pattern held true for prewar Central and Western Europe, it could explain many things.  It could explain for example why self-identified gay men in Weimar Germany came largely from middle-class backgrounds and largely shared their class’ conservative politics.  It could also help explain why more left-leaning gay groups, like Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, tended to put forward old-fashioned-seeming “third sex” theories, while a more “modern”-seeming approach was characteristic of more right-leaning groups like the Community of the Special.

All this is speculation.  For the postwar United States, historians like John D’Emilio have already begun linking the social archeology of emerging lesbian/gay communities with the wellsprings of lesbian/gay politics.[4]

For the prewar United States and Europe the work has not really begun, though sex-radical movements are there to be studied.  Left-leaning “sex reformers” like Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Crystal and Max Eastman and Floyd Dell in the United States and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in Holland were increasingly active in the 1910s, and networking internationally by the 1920s.

Studying sexual changes that were happening in the broader societies is difficult, given that almost everyone who was alive then is dead now. All the more reason why all possible sources should be sought out and the exploration begun.


1. Thorstad’s resentment against the SWP leads him to dismiss all groups that resulted even remotely from SWP expulsions in the 1980s, including Solidarity, the group that sponsors “Against the Current.”  (346, n.14) People interested in understanding Solidarity’s lesbian/gay politics should not rely on Thorstad, but read the section on lesbian/gay liberation in Solidarity’s 1986 Founding Statement as well as its 1994 pamphlet, “Socialist Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Liberation”.

2. For another view of the U.S. movement, see Peter Drucker, “What is queer nationalism?” “Against the Current” 43, March/April 1993.

3. George Chauncey, “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940,” New York: Basic Books, 1994.

4. John D’Emilio, “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940- 1970,” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Peter Drucker, an advisory editor of Against the Current and Grenzeloos, is currently compiling an anthology on “same-sex sexualities and popular struggles in the Third World” for Gay Men’s Press (forthcoming 1998).  He has lived in Amsterdam since 1993.

ATC 68, May-June 1997