6 min

What socialism has to say about the gay struggle

Chatting with lesbian activist Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality & Socialism

WORKING CLASS VALUES. People who are working class aren't rich, straight, white men in cahoots against the rest of us, says lesbian socialist Sherry Wolf. Credit: John Webster illustration

To Canadian audiences, accustomed to supporting a moderate social welfare state, the idea of practical Marxist revolt may seem a little naive. So be it. The idea of socialized, universal access to services nonetheless resonates with both gay and straight people north of the 49.

Journalist Sherry Wolf has been cranking out analysis of socialism and gay life for 25 years now. While she toiled away using her own fiery brand of Marxism, she watched the gay movement suffer through the paroxysms of the 1980s and ’90s: identity politics, the “oppression Olympics” (her term) and failed backroom deals with the powers that be.

All that has changed. With a crest of grassroots, bottom-up activity reinvigorating gay politics in the US, Wolf and her mix of historical analysis and practical strategy is reaching a new audience.

The Chicago-based lesbian activist recently released a pocket-sized introduction to the topic: Sexuality & Socialism ($12, Haymarket Books). The book is a primer that both re-conceptualizes the history of gay life and, looking to the future, presents a blueprint for liberation. We reached her at her home in Boston.

Capital Xtra: You spend a lot of time talking about gay liberation rather than gay rights. Can you explain for our readers the difference?

Sherry Wolf: Of course, the two aren’t diametrically opposed. I think one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that the whole idea that we could actually fight for something beyond civil rights reforms, which of course are necessary — urgently so here in the States. We have to fight for reforms, absolutely. But we also have to question how, in those organizing fights, do we begin to develop ideas and strategies for fighting for complete sexual liberation.

CX: The beginning of your book includes an interesting alternate history of why the ruling classes pick on gay people. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of where you think gay oppression comes from?

SW: Sure. We are traditionally trained to think in our western society that there have always been these categories of gay and straight. That is a myth, so that needed to be taken apart. There is a historical beginning to the idea that people have fixed sexual identities.

Obviously, there have been all kinds of sex since people roamed the Earth. People have found innumerable ways to express themselves from the start. So there’s nothing new under the sun, unless you’ve figured out something intimate to do with an iPod.

However, the idea that you would find identity, or that you would be able to lead your life with a same-sex partner or as a gender-variant person — these are modern phenomena. And I believe, as many other sexual constructionists do, that this dates back to more or less the end of the 19th century.

The rise of industrial production, the freedom of people to leave the nuclear family and actually live autonomously in large cities lead to the explosion of sexuality and the rise of “gay” as a sexual orientation.

CX: You’re talking about the rise of cities. Obviously, many gays strongly identify with urban life — what was the effect of urbanization on workers and on gays in particular?

SW: In the United States, in the 19th century, it was illegal for people to live outside of the family. In many other places, that was the case too. People were forced to live in the nuclear family structure.

Where it begins to break down is when you have the rise of industrialization. Production is released from the household and the home. And there you have on a mass scale, for the first time, in major cities like New York, like London, Paris, Berlin — you have huge concentrations of, often, men.

And they lived in dormitories, same-sex living arrangements, tenements, whatever. That was certainly the case in New York, which was the largest repository of mass immigration in the 20th century. With the exception of Jews, who were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, we’re largely talking about young, single guys moving to the city without their families.

CX: At the same time, there’s a rise in repressive state action against gays.

SW: Exactly. The dominant class, the ruling class, the folks who own and control everything — they began to perceive this subculture as a threat to the nuclear family. Correctly so.

And certainly, to this day, in the United States — where we have no state child care or health care, or really anything — the nuclear family plays an important role in allowing the ruling classes to get off on the cheap.

CX: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Why are families so important to social conservatives, even today?

SW: Even if you look back over 100 years ago, the ruling class sees the family as a means — and I don’t mean that they sat around in a room discussing it in those terms, but they do see it that way — by which the current generation of workers is at least reasonably cared for and the next generation of workers, children, are trained in following orders and so on.

I know they’re heartwarming places for many of us — and they’re also harrowing places for many of us — but families become the incubators of gender norms and social norms, as well as where the cooking, cleaning, the housekeeping, the child care are all taken care of on a privatized basis. As opposed to it being perceived as a responsibility of the state, there are a million things that, especially in the United States, are perceived as the exclusive responsibility of individual family members.

CX: So then, what threat do gays and trans people pose?

SW: In a sense, if men and women can work and act as they choose, if there can be families with a mix of different parentage, if families could mean multiple sexual partners with no children — if families could look like what we wanted them to look like, it challenges the idea that women can be paid less than men, that women if they’re in the workforce should stay in positions that are subordinate to men. Even in the current US society, women are earning 73 cents on a man’s dollar, a gap that’s only been closing because men are meeting us on the way down. I’m sure that’s only going to be exacerbated by the economic crisis.

It’s not impossible, under capitalism, to forge some sort of accommodation. There are many western European nations, and to some degree in Canada, where alternative arrangements have arisen. But here at the heart of the empire, the belly of the beast, home to the most powerful ruling class with the most to lose, the stakes are much higher. I think it’s one of the reasons — beyond the ideological specifics of religion and whathaveyou in American society — that drives the family-values discussion that has dominated our lives for the last 30 years.

CX: There’s a biting critique of identity politics and postmodernism in the book; you posit that it turns earlier gay lib activism on its head. What is it about identity politics that’s counterproductive?

SW: I think that political identity and personal identity, there’s nothing wrong with that. What the movement has essentially posited over the past decade — and it’s morphing, even as we speak — is that only those who directly experience a particular form of oppression, whether black, woman, gay, whatever, have a stake in confronting and challenging that oppression.

And, as a corollary to that: all of those who don’t experience that oppression are somehow beneficiaries of it. So that whites become beneficiaries of black oppression, men of women’s, straights of gays’. We must reject those ideas and come to some understanding that, (1), there are people with various types of oppression, so there are black, gay people, for instance, and (2) white people aren’t some undifferentiated group, or men. The idea that straight people as an undifferentiated group benefit from homophobia, for instance — when it’s a very small class of owners and bosses who are in a position to benefit and who are the architects of this oppression — is harmful.

The way that this plays out in politics is actually quite destructive. It actually meant hiving off different groups of people, instead of oppression being a basis for unity.

I refer to the sort of Oppression Olympics. People competed as to who was the most oppressed. It’s a totally unhelpful way of phrasing the question, rather than on what basis are many of us all screwed over by the system, and on what basis can we come together and fight the system.

CX: That can be pretty paralyzing, that’s for sure.

SW: And it was. As someone who was a participant in these movements, I watched it happen. It was quite destructive and also quite alienating to the majority of people who are working class, who aren’t rich white men, or that as straight people, they are universally in cahoots against the rest of us. It led to bitter splits, to hostility toward unions and a serious decline in movement activism that is only now seeing a reversal.

Want more? Check back on Nov 11 for part two of our interview, in which Sherry Wolf shares her thoughts on conservative gay institutions, the Democrats and more.

Sherry Wolf.
$12, Haymarket Books.