LGBT politics and sexual liberation

Issue: 114

Colin Wilson

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have won an acceptance in the UK that would have been hard to imagine when sex between men was decriminalised 40 years ago; a similar situation prevails in many other developed countries. At the same time the oppression of LGBT people continues. This article will look at how this situation developed and comment on some recent debates, in particular those that have accompanied the ‘war on terror’.

However, it is first necessary to put current US and European concepts of sexuality into a broader historical context. Today it is generally accepted that human beings can be divided into lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight people. In each category there is assumed to be a straightforward correspondence between which sex a person desires, their sexual behaviour, and how they are perceived in society. In reality, the interaction between desire, sexual behaviour and social identity is more complex. Someone may desire people of the same sex, but not act on that desire; a married man may have sex with other men in a public place such as a sauna, though his friends, wife and children think of him as straight—and he may also think of himself in this way. 1

One response to the absence of a simple divide between lesbian or gay people on the one hand and straight people on the other is to argue that many people are bisexual. Certainly many people do desire both men and women, or have sexual experience with both, but maintaining a social identity as a bisexual seems difficult. Bisexual people have an even lower profile than lesbians and gay men, and many bisexuals have found that both lesbian/gay and straight people put them under pressure to ‘come off the fence’. Research suggests that bisexual people are more likely to feel uncomfortable or uncertain about their sexuality than lesbians or gay men, and are much less likely to tell friends and family. 2

What is more, the categories lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight are a reflection of our own society—they are of little relevance to many cultures outside Europe or America, or even to the UK before the mid-19th century. Sexuality is not a biological essence, unchanging through history except insofar as societies are more or less repressive or permissive: it is ‘socially constructed’. In many societies gay men, lesbian women, bisexual and straight people simply do not exist.

For example, in some Native American societies there are people who anthropologists called berdaches. A berdache is born a man, but wears women’s clothing and does not do men’s work, such as hunting. Berdaches have high status, and may marry men—famous Native Americans such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are believed to have married berdaches as well as women. The men berdaches marry are not berdaches themselves, but live their lives as men. Berdaches often teach children, and play a spiritual role in society. The berdache Terry Calling Eagle described his life in 1982 in the following way:

I was just born this way, ever since I can remember. When I was eight I saw a vision, of a person with long grey hair and with many ornaments on, standing by my bed. I asked if he was male or female and he said ‘both’. He said he would walk with me for the rest of my life… I told my grandfather, who said not to be afraid of spirits, because they have good powers… A year later, the vision appeared again… He told me the Great Spirit made people like me to be of help to other people. 3

This way of life does not fit our categories. Berdaches have sex with other men, but unlike gay men they have a social function involving teaching and spirituality. Gay men have sex with other gay men, while berdaches have sex with non-berdache men, not with each other. A man who has sex with a berdache is not believed to be different from a man who has sex with a woman.

Ancient Greece provides another model of sexuality. We know little about the sexual lives of Ancient Greek slaves or women, but we have plentiful evidence about those of ruling class men. It was taken for granted that such men would be attracted both to women and to adolescent boys. A marriage contract from the 1st century BC stipulates that ‘it shall not be lawful for Philiscus [the prospective husband] to bring home another wife in addition to Apollonia or to have a concubine or boy lover.’ Different men might have preferred women or boys to a greater or lesser extent, but preferring one or the other did not make them into a particular kind of person.

Many further examples could illustrate the theme that sexuality varies between societies as much as language, clothing or table manners. 4 In general more evidence exists of sex and love between men than of relations between women. It may be that in many societies women’s oppression made it harder for women to act on their sexual desires, and that relations between women were in fact less common. However, it is also certainly true that many details of women’s lives went unrecorded: almost all of the texts we now possess from many societies, for example, were written by men. So the lack of evidence does not necessarily prove that love and sex between women did not take place.

The first example in England of anything resembling modern concepts of sexuality occurs in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The ‘molly houses’ of the period involved:

regular meeting places, pubs and back-room clubs in which men drank and danced together, flirted with one another, held drag balls and imitated feminine mannerisms, and indulged in ‘hugging, kissing and tickling each other as if they were a mixture of wanton males and females,’ as a contemporary put it… The men involved were members of the working population of London: masters, journeymen and apprentices representing most of the city’s manufacturing and service trades. 5

If this is the first sign of a subculture of men who have sex with men, who identify themselves as a different kind of person, it is very different from a gay identity. The most striking example of the difference is the ceremonies where a molly would dress as a woman and pretend to give birth to a child, as was recorded in 1728:

They sometimes have a Lying-inn, when one of them is plac’d in a Chair, and the others attending with Napkins, a Bason of Water, &c…with a great Deal of Ceremony, a jointed Baby is brought from under the Chair he sits on. 6

A further example of the difference between conceptions of sexuality in this period and our own is that unorthodox sexuality was often associated with religious dissent. Lord Audley was sentenced to death for sodomy in 1631, with the Attorney General commenting:

When once a man indulges his lust, and prevaricates with his religion, as my Lord Audley has done, by being a Protestant in the morning, and a Papist in the afternoon, no wonder if he commits the most abominable impieties. 7

The development of the subculture can be linked to wider developments in English society. Writing in this journal, the historian Norah Carlin comments that during the late 17th century parts of England such as London saw a growing a divide between a public world of work and a separate private life—a break from the traditional household, which had been the location of both personal relationships and economic production. Carlin also notes that the ‘bourgeois revolutions of 1649 and 1688 had raised the question of individual liberty, especially in religious and economic matters, and had brought about a marked reduction of state interference in these areas of life’. Some of the radicals of the 1640s made even wider claims. In the words of the Ranter Lawrence Clarkson:

What act soever is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely… No matter what scripture, saints and churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned. 8

The rejection of earlier penalties against same‑sex behaviour continued through the eighteenth century, as Carlin describes:

The philosophers of the French Enlightenment considered the punishment of consenting adults to be a superstitious survival on a par with heresy and witchcraft trials… The death penalty for sodomy was abolished as part of the programme of enlightened despotism in Russia, Austria, Prussia and Tuscany, and in the aftermath of the American Revolution in most of the then existing United States. In France, all penalties for consenting adults were abolished as part of the reform of the criminal law by the Constituent Assembly in 1791, at the height of the constitutional phase of the French Revolution. 9

In the 18th and early 19th centuries some women—mostly from the middle classes and aristocracy—formed passionate ‘romantic friendships’. The most famous example is that of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, two upper class Irish women who eloped together in 1778. They settled in Wales, became known as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, and shared every part of their lives for the next 53 years. The strength of their feelings for each other is plain from Eleanor’s diary:

I kept my bed all day with one of my dreadful headaches. My Sally, my tender, my sweet love, lay beside me holding and supporting my head.

Their relationship, far from facing condemnation, was widely celebrated. It was assumed that romantic friendship did not involve sex: as such, it demonstrated the ability of the women involved to show approved feminine characteristics such as strong but delicate feelings and fidelity to a partner. Involvement in a romantic friendship when young suggested that a woman would be a good wife when she was older. The Ladies of Llangollen were also deeply conservative. Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman records that they:

prayed incessantly for the health of crazy King George; at the start of the French Revolution they feared only for the safety of the nobility…and they dismissed a servant who had worked for them for three years when it was discovered that although she had no husband she was pregnant. 10

We are again dealing here with concepts of sexuality different from our own. It makes no sense to ask if these women were ‘really’ lesbians or ‘merely’ heterosexual friends.

The industrialisation of Britain in the 19th century led to major changes in ideas about sexuality. Previously most people had lived in the countryside. Now the majority lived in towns, which grew to an unprecedented size; technical developments such as railways and electricity brought about enormous cultural changes. In particular, the separation between the public world of work and the sphere of ‘private life’ grew even wider. Early industrialisation saw traditional differences between the lives of men, women and children break down as they were all drawn into the factories to find work. These changes caused considerable ruling class anxiety: traditional social controls on family life had been swept away, with nothing to replace them.

By the mid-19th century ‘sexuality was intimately linked to ruling and middle class fears of social anarchy and revolution’. 11 Observers noted that slum housing crammed all family members into one room, and often into one bed. Elaborately dressed middle class Victorians were horrified by the supposed immorality of factories, where the heat forced men and women to work together in light clothing. The social commentator Henry Mayhew claimed in 1861 that over 8,000 women worked as prostitutes in the Regent Street and Haymarket areas of central London alone. 12

The establishment’s desire for reform was not simply a result of moral indignation—there were also clear economic interests at stake. Capitalists were concerned that the working class was failing to reproduce itself, a possibility which threatened their wealth. These fears motivated the ruling class to support the rebirth of the working class family. Carlin writes:

It became evident quite early on in the industrial revolution…that there are many reasons why capitalism does require the labour force to be men, women and children organised in family units. These range from the reproduction of the labour force itself to discipline and hierarchy within the factory, and from the taming of rebellious workers through ‘family responsibilities’ to the perpetuation of capitalist ideas of self-sufficiency and individualism. 13

Reinforcement of the family took legal forms: for example in 1844 the hours that women could legally work were restricted, in 1870 a national system of state education was created and from 1872 new regulations were applied to those who cared for the children of working mothers, which had the effect of discouraging working class women from using them.

The new working class family met with opposition from the left. Carlin notes that the Utopian Socialists of the early 19th century ‘presented a challenge to the family as an institution, from Saint‑Simonian “free love” to Fourier’s vision of large, communal phalansteries replacing family life’. In Britain:

the Owenites gained a significant following in the 1830s and 1840s. Debates on the abolition of marriage and illegitimacy, proposals for the replacement of family life by collective housekeeping, and arguments about women’s right to work and to be trade union members all flourished among Owenite workers.

Other workers, however, took a different approach, and argued for ‘the defence of the working class family explicitly in terms of the gender roles of the man as breadwinner and the woman as housekeeper’. They opposed genuine distress, such as unemployment among male hand‑loom weavers in Lancashire, where only women could get any work, and the breaking up of working class families when they entered the workhouses established by the New Poor Law in 1834. After the defeat of the radical Chartist movement in the 1840s, the family came to seem the best option available for many workers, offering a minimal safeguard at a time when no welfare state existed. 14

The re‑establishment of the family involved the repression of sex for pleasure outside the confines of family life. For example, pornography was restricted by the Obscene Publications Act in 1857. The Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s attacked prostitution in a number of towns—ostensibly in an effort to reduce sexually transmitted disease among the armed forces—by forcing women suspected of prostitution to submit to medical examinations.

During the 19th century the suppression of various forms of sexuality was reinforced by the increasing involvement of doctors in the field. As is widely known, there was widespread concern about children masturbating (particularly boys), which was believed to cause insanity. A host of sexual practices were defined as perversions in medical textbooks, where they gained grand Latin names. It was in such medical textbooks that ‘the homosexual’ first appeared, and from 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act made all sexual acts between men a crime. 15 The idea that such crimes were committed by a particular sort of man was greatly reinforced in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was jailed for two years under the new legislation. Wilde had skilfully cultivated an image as a witty, effeminate, aristocratic fop, and this was to be the dominant stereotype of gay men for decades to come. Prison broke Wilde’s health, and he died in 1900. The case was widely publicised across Europe and America, and terrified men who feared that they might face Wilde’s fate.

The definition of ‘the homosexual’, followed in time by ‘the heterosexual’ and ‘the bisexual’, marked a decisive break with previous ways of thinking. Until then sanctions had been directed against acts; now they were directed against people. The oppressive nature of this version of sexuality seems clear, but the concept of the homosexual was also seen to offer the possibility of liberation. In 1864 Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German civil servant, began publishing pamphlets that described ‘uranians’, men whose bodies resembled those of other men but who had women’s minds, and so felt sexual desire for other men. Ulrichs argued that the biological and therefore unchangeable basis of same‑sex desire made punishment irrational. Indeed, he condemned the oppression of uranians in terms remarkable for his time. Addressing an audience he assumed to be heterosexual, he wrote:

Is it any longer to be endured that you, on the grounds of nothing more than scientific error, deliberately and systematically set out to trample on and destroy the self-respect and happiness of thousands of your fellow human beings—human beings who are just as worthy as you, and who have in truth committed absolutely no crime whatsoever? 16

Ulrichs’s pamphlets had little impact, and his concept of the uranian is not quite the same as that of the homosexual—his description of a woman’s mind in a man’s body is perhaps closer to modern concepts of transgender people. Yet his work provided inspiration for the next generation of campaigners—doctors who formed part of the ‘sex reform’ movement at the turn of the century. Figures such as Havelock Ellis in England, Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and Sigmund Freud in Austria argued for a more enlightened approach to sexuality. They took up Ulrichs’s claim that a minority were attracted to their own sex because it was in their nature—and that it was therefore unjust to subject them to legal punishments. Hirschfeld in particular supported this claim by surveying thousands of homosexuals, drawing up detailed descriptions of their physical and mental characteristics. Some of these supposed characteristics now seem absurd—gay men cannot whistle and have thick curly hair, while lesbians have hairy arms and legs. Hirschfeld’s categorisations resemble those which doctors in the same period carefully made of the characteristics of different ‘races’. 17

Hirschfeld campaigned heroically all his life for law reform, gaining the support of prominent intellectuals, the German Social Democratic Party and later the Communist Party. The social changes brought about by the 1918‑19 German Revolution allowed him to establish a campaigning headquarters in Berlin. But his explicitly reformist strategy, which relied on governments changing the law solely as a result of rational argument, came to nothing. It is striking to compare this with the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Few people in Russia identified as homosexual, but the Bolsheviks swept away what they saw as outmoded Tsarist laws, including those against homosexuality. Such changes had a remarkable effect—in the early 1920s there was even a case where a marriage between two women was declared legal (one partner had been living as a man).

Until the early 1930s the Soviet Union was the acknowledged world leader in sexual reform, feted at conferences such as those organised by Hirschfeld’s World League for Sexual Reform. 18 But then the international left tradition of support for sexual reform was destroyed. In Germany the Nazis took power in 1933, closed Hirschfeld’s institute and burned his books; thousands of gay men were later killed in concentration camps. In the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin rose to power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and wiped out the gains of the revolution. Russia became a police state, women were given medals for having numerous children and homosexuality was again made illegal. 19

Stonewall and since

During the Cold War the oppression faced by LGBT people in the Soviet Union was equalled by that in the US. Judged to be a risk to national security, they were a target of the McCarthy era witch‑hunts—500 homosexuals were sacked from government jobs each year in the early 1950s, and annual discharges from the military totalled 2,000. Lesbians and gay men faced arrest simply for drinking in bars—in 1953, 64 women were arrested in a raid on a New Orleans club, while 162 gay men were arrested in a raid in Baltimore in 1955. 20

In 1951 a former member of the US Communist Party, Harry Hay, established the Mattachine Society, based on the proposition that the ‘homosexual minority’ constituted ‘a social minority imprisoned within a dominant culture’. Organised in a secret cell‑like structure inspired by that of the Communist Party, Mattachine ‘guilds’ initiated new members while standing in a circle in a candle-lit room, holding hands and reciting the following pledge:

Our interlocking, sustaining and protecting hands guarantee a reborn social force of immense and simple purpose. We are resolved that our people shall find equality of security and production in tomorrow’s world. We are sworn that no boy or girl, approaching the maelstrom of deviation, need make that crossing alone, afraid and in the dark ever again. In these moments we dedicate ourselves once again to each other in the immense significance of such allegiance, with dignity and respect, proud and free. 21

By 1953 Mattachine had grown to dozens of groups, and had a membership of around 2,000. But then its leadership changed, and the new leaders were keen to distance themselves from the left wing associations of Hay and the other founders. As historian John D’Emilio documents, they replaced discussion and the assertion of civil rights with drives to get members to donate blood, or ‘the collection of clothes, books and magazines for hospitals, and the like—to demonstrate that homosexuals were solid citizens’. 22 Under the new leadership membership fell.

In the UK campaigning centred on efforts to change the law prohibiting sex between men. In 1957 a government committee recommended abolition of the law, but it took ten more years for this to take place. The committee also recommended that research be carried out to find out how homosexuality, which it saw as a mental illness, could be ‘treated’. The legal reforms of 1967 were partial, leaving in place many offences for which people continued to be imprisoned. 23 The campaign for legal change was moderate by today’s standards, centring on activities such as meetings and letter‑writing—marches and other forms of public protest were unthinkable. Many of those leading the campaign were, of course, lesbian or gay themselves, but never admitted as much in public.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 marked the most fundamental change in ideas about sexuality since the creation of ‘the homosexual’ at the turn of the previous century. In the small hours of Saturday 28 June police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay dive in New York. The people in the bar—many young and non-white, and many of them in drag—fought back. At first they threw beer cans and coins at the police as they loaded other bar patrons into vans. They then threw bottles and cobblestones, causing the police to retreat inside the bar, which the rioters then set on fire. Reinforcements rescued the cops, but rioting continued the next night:

Someone heaved a sack of wet garbage through the window of a patrol car…a concrete block landed on the hood of another police car that was quickly surrounded by dozens of men, pounding on its doors and dancing on its hood. Helmeted officers from the tactical patrol force arrived on the scene and dispersed with swinging clubs an impromptu chorus line of gay men in the middle of a full kick… For the next few hours, trash fires blazed, bottles and stones flew through the air, and cries of ‘Gay Power!’ rang in the streets as the police, numbering over 400, did battle with a crowd estimated at more than 2,000. 24

Today it is hard to understand how astonishing Stonewall was. In the past LGBT people had accepted that they were inferior, that their sexuality was a sickness; now, by rioting, they asserted that they were oppressed. They joined the thousands of black people who had rioted the previous year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The slogan ‘Gay Power!’ echoed the call for ‘black power’ raised by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, and which had inspired revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers. The Gay Liberation Front was founded a month after Stonewall. It was a revolutionary organisation, which took its name from the National Liberation Front—the North Vietnamese army then fighting against the Americans.

Such a change in consciousness was possible because it came in the midst of a radicalisation taking place across American society in the late 1960s. Gay liberation was an integral part of that movement. Gay contingents took part in anti-war marches. Lesbians took part in Women’s Liberation events. Gay Liberation Front speakers addressed a rally in support of imprisoned Black Panther leaders and formed a large contingent at Panther events. By 1971 gay liberation had also arrived in Britain, developing in the context of the anti-war and women’s movements, and the industrial militancy of the early 1970s. 25

The early LGBT movement made great gains. In the US anti-gay laws were repealed in more than half the states, the civil service abolished its ban on recruiting lesbians and gay men, and several dozen cities passed anti-discrimination laws. In the UK the movement rapidly established college societies, a greatly expanded commercial scene and a national newspaper; a TV series was shown in the London area. 26

There was an explosion of ideas and visibility, but there was also a great deal of political confusion. Many people were exhilarated that they could be open about their sexuality, and felt this showed that the fall of capitalism was rapidly approaching. Some believed it was hardly necessary to act to bring about political change, but that people should celebrate their sexuality, live communally and wear drag. Others established community resources such as phone advice lines and support services, or developed profit‑making pubs and clubs. A minority moved towards respectable reformist politics (the Campaign for Homosexual Equality) or the revolutionary left.

The Gay Liberation Front ceased to exist in the UK by the end of 1972, and the election of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 made it all too clear that capitalism had not collapsed. Two trends in LGBT politics became clear in the early 1980s. The first was to seek change through involvement in the left of the Labour Party, which had taken control of local government in many large cities. Councils argued in support of lesbians and gays (as well as other oppressed groups such as women and black people), appointed staff to promote equality, and funded community groups. This was a step forward in the political involvement of LGBT people, though in many ways it reflected changing attitudes rather than driving them. But by the end of the 1980s the Labour left strategy had plainly failed—the Tories had abolished the Greater London Council, the Labour left flagship, and other councils more or less reluctantly implemented Tory policies.

The second trend was that of identity politics, also known as ‘autonomy’ or ‘separatism’. To some extent this was the common sense of the movement from its early history—LGBT people should lead the struggle against their oppression, since only they really understood it: straight people were at best well-meaning but unhelpful and at worst the enemy. However, this approach had been balanced by campaigners’ involvement in a broad movement in which they worked with straight women, straight trade unionists and so on. The decline of that broader movement in the late 1970s removed this practical tendency towards unity, and it became clear that movements based solely on identity tended to be divisive and easily split. Radical feminists rejected any political work with men, and in some cases social contact with them. Women became ‘lesbian feminists’ not because they desired sex with other women, but as part of a political strategy that sought to undermine the oppression of women by withholding sex and emotional support from men. Lesbian feminists engaged with lesbians who enjoyed sadomasochism in a debate so vitriolic that one historian refers to it as ‘lesbian sex wars in the 1980s’. 27

These two trends—towards identity politics and towards the Labour left—may seem contradictory; the Labour Party is not, after all, an LGBT‑led organisation. But both currents reflected a retreat from revolutionary politics and a growing belief that neither radical protest nor the working class could change the world. At an intellectual level, a reading of the ideas of French gay historian Michel Foucault was used to support this belief, claiming to have moved on from Marxism to a new and more sophisticated understanding of society. A further factor, which added to the gloom of the 1980s, was the spread of Aids, which at this time mainly affected gay men.

The Tories sought to drive back the gains made by LGBT people. Section 28, part of the 1988 Local Government Act, made it illegal for councils to ‘promote homosexuality’ or encourage schools to teach that homosexuality was acceptable. The law remained in force for 16 years and in schools it was often understood to have made it illegal to defend LGBT students, contributing to a strongly homophobic school culture that continues to the present. The Tories also strongly enforced the remaining anti‑gay laws. Gay historian Jeffrey Weeks notes that prosecutions ‘reached a height in the late 1980s only previously attained in 1954’. 28

Overall, however, the Tories had little success in returning sexuality and family life to the 1950s. The number of unmarried people cohabiting tripled during the Thatcher years, and the proportion of children born outside of marriage doubled. 29 Tolerance towards LGBT people on the whole continued to increase, particularly after the Aids hysteria of the 1980s faded. Some Tory initiatives also had unforeseen effects. The opposition to Section 28, for example, led to the creation of the campaign group Stonewall, which under New Labour successfully lobbied for the abolition of most remaining homophobic legislation. Unforeseeable consequences also followed from the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Groups of lesbians and gay men campaigned in support of the miners, collecting money in pubs and clubs, which funded the purchase of a pink minibus for Welsh strikers to transport pickets. Members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners also visited the mining communities, and this—along with the huge role of women from those communities in supporting the strike—transformed attitudes to the family and sex. One striking miner told the 1,500‑strong audience at the ‘Pits and Perverts Ball’ in London:

You have worn our badge ‘Coal Not Dole’ and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know…about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same.

The NUM miners’ union subsequently played an important role in winning the Labour Party to support equality for LGBT people. 30

Under New Labour many of these trends have continued. The general level of homophobia in society has continued to fall—the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, for example, was met with no significant opposition. Legal changes have done away with real injustices, for example those inflicted on lesbians and gay men who were unable to visit seriously ill partners in hospital. Transsexuals are now able to obtain full legal recognition for their status, including a new birth certificate so that they do not have to repeatedly explain their history.

Individuals in the New Labour leadership may hold bigoted views—former home secretary David Blunkett has consistently voted against equalising the age of consent—but the overall tone of New Labour is clearly different from the vicious attitude of the Tories under Thatcher. The unions have been one factor influencing the culture of the Labour Party. Former student activists first established LGBT groups in white‑collar unions such as Nalgo (later to become part of Unison) in the 1970s. Today virtually every union has an LGBT group, and LGBT issues have become part of the mainstream trade union agenda.

However, it is not true that Tony Blair’s election in 1997 marked a sudden shift from bigotry to acceptance. Tory prime minister John Major sought to distance himself from Thatcher’s hard anti-gay position, for example meeting Ian McKellen of Stonewall in 1991. 31 It was under the Major government in 1994 that the gay male age of consent was reduced from 21 to 18. Legal change under Blair came slowly—the age of consent was not finally equalised with straight people until Labour’s second term, in 2001, while civil partnerships were not introduced until Labour’s third term, in 2005. 32

New Labour also stresses the role played by the family. In a speech on the criminal justice system in June 2006 Blair claimed, ‘The family structure has changed… The disciplines of informal control—imposed in the family and in schools—are less tight than they were.’ As a result, the state needs ‘far earlier intervention with some of these families, who are often socially excluded and socially dysfunctional. That may mean before they offend; and certainly before they want such intervention. But in truth, we can identify such families virtually as their children are born’. 33 There is a striking continuity here between New Labour’s vision of the family as a source of cheap personal care and social discipline and that of their Victorian predecessors. There is a strand of establishment thought that sees civil partnerships as a way of strengthening the family by incorporating gay men and lesbians.

The attempt to combine pro‑LGBT and pro‑family positions means that there are very clear limitations to New Labour tolerance. The clearest example of this came in October 1998, when Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was involved in an incident on Clapham Common, where many people assumed he was looking for gay sex. Davies resigned amid speculation that the Labour leadership had pressured him to do so; certainly Labour ministers did not say that his sexual life was a private matter and that he should stay. In March 2003 the Sun claimed it had photographs of Davies having sex with another man in a wood. Far from supporting a prominent member facing a witch‑hunt by a right wing newspaper, the Labour Party questioned Davies to examine whether he had brought the party into disrepute. The BBC reported, ‘There is now little sympathy for the former Welsh Secretary at Westminster, with one senior Labour MP anonymously exclaiming: “Enough is enough”.’ Davies gave up plans to stand for re‑election to the Welsh Assembly the following May, and in January 2004 he resigned from the Labour Party—an extraordinary move for someone who had been a member of the party for 40 years and a Labour cabinet member. 34

New Labour’s desire to create a fair society without challenging the status quo means that homophobia is condemned at a rhetorical level, but often goes unchallenged in practice. Further action is needed because, as I show below, LGBT people still face oppression. There is lots of action that could be taken if the government were willing. It could challenge homophobic bullying in schools by launching a high‑profile publicity campaign, including the issue in teacher training courses and insisting that every school adopt policy and practice on the issue. The availability of gender reassignment could be increased, so reducing suicide among transsexuals, the under‑representation of LGBT people in the BBC’s output could be reversed and police could be compelled to patrol cruising grounds to stop assaults.

Despite the acceptance LGBT people have won in Britain, 60 percent of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals report being physically attacked during their time at school, and lesbian and gay young people are up to three times more likely to run away from home than their straight peers. 35 In early 2007 the Catholic church and Church of England attempted to limit the extension of equality legislation in the name of religious tolerance; the Church of England has taken the absurd position that priests can take part in civil partnerships—but only if they undertake not have sex with their partner. 36 As far as media representations of LGBT people go, a Stonewall survey of BBC programmes in 2006 found that, during 168 hours of programmes on BBC1 and BBC2, lesbian and gay people were represented positively for just six minutes, almost all the references being to gay men. 37 Radio 1 star Chris Moyles went unreprimanded after he used to word ‘gay’ to mean ‘rubbish’ on air in 2005: BBC governors judged that he was ‘not being homophobic’. 38

When it comes to employment, a TUC survey in 1999 found that 44 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual trade unionists had suffered discrimination at work. 39 The murder of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham Common in 2005 was only one of the 1,306 homophobic crimes reported to London police in that year, and both police and campaigners agree that many attacks go unreported—one estimate puts victims coming forward at fewer than one in five. 40

The stress caused by oppression affects the mental health of LGBT people—research in 2003 found that lesbians and gay men were around twice as likely to harm themselves as straight men and women. 41 Transsexual people in particular are often driven to desperation by the difficulty of getting access to gender reassignment—some one in three attempt suicide, many more than once. 42

There is also considerable variety in the experience of different LGBT people. Class makes a considerable difference—money gives people more choices, and a greater chance of avoiding much, if not all, homophobia. This is reflected, for example, in The Way We are Now, an anthology of autobiographical pieces edited by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill and intended to provide a picture of LGBT Britain today. Of the 20 contributors, half are either journalists or novelists, while a further six are managers in the arts, an actor, an artist, a photographer and a classical musician. The authors have certainly experienced homophobia, but it has taken the form, for example, of a painful custody battle in a messy divorce: nobody reports being abused or beaten up in the street. 43 It also makes a big difference where people live—in Brighton, where the LGBT community has a high profile, there are 57 gay venues and organisations, while Sunderland, with a similar population, has only five. 44

There are two other important trends that continue today. One is the commodification of sexuality, which has accelerated enormously among straight people with the development of ‘raunch culture’. This is echoed on the LGBT scene: both Gay Times and free magazines available in pubs and clubs have pages of adverts for male prostitutes, and pages more of adverts for sex phone lines. Gay porn is easily available through the internet, and has played a part in promoting the idea that all gay men should look like porn stars—toned, tanned, hairless and perfectly groomed. Not only does this exclude many men—including those who can’t afford the gym, the sunbed and the waxing—but eating disorders have become twice as common among gay men as among straight ones. 45

A final trend is the expansion of the gay voluntary sector, which began in the early years of the Aids epidemic with organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). From its establishment in 1982 by a group of friends, THT has grown to a national organisation providing services for 50,000 people a year. Income for the financial year 2005-6 totalled £12.8 million, most of which funding (£7.7 million) came from government. This money allowed THT to provide a wide range of services including HIV testing, sexual health promotion and services for young and ethnic minority people. Such an increase in the size of the organisation has inevitably meant the development of a ‘professionalised’ culture and a layer of managers. Large amounts of state funding mean that agencies such as THT have inevitably developed close working relationships with government, including relationships at a senior level. 46 Campaigning group Stonewall’s total income for 2004-5 meanwhile totalled £1.7 million, of which 35 percent came from individual donations, 26 percent from government agencies and 19 percent from corporate donations. 47 None of this is in itself to belittle the work done by THT or Stonewall, but inevitably such funding bases have implications for the campaigning stances the organisations are able to take.

The United States

The past 20 years have seen international issues take an increasingly high profile in LGBT politics. This has reflected the spread of the LGBT movement outside the US and Western Europe. The trend has been strengthened recently as the US‑led ‘war on terror’ has become the defining feature of politics—today international affairs affect every political topic, including LGBT issues. In the 1980s it was possible to campaign against attacks on LGBT people, such as Section 28, from a perspective that involved only the UK. Today the LGBT press frequently discusses international issues—in particular those involving Muslim countries.

The politics of sexuality can only be understood in a wider context: that of the world economic and political system which Marxists call imperialism. 48 Imperialism has always involved sexual exploitation as well as economic and political subordination. I hope to give a more general account of this in a future article; the present article comments on three topics—the US, the Middle East and Islam, and Africa.

In any account of LGBT politics the US is of major importance. The modern LGBT movement arose in America, and most major trends in LGBT politics since then have originated there. US economic and cultural dominance means that American ideas about what it is to be an LGBT person are spread globally—whether in films such as Brokeback Mountain, books such as Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series or cultural phenomena such as the rise of ‘queer theory’ in academia.

For over a century the US has presented itself as a land of individual freedom and opportunity, where people can remake their lives free of traditional constraints—an idea with a particular appeal for LGBT people. Since 11 September 2003 the US government has sought to justify its policies through references to equality, democracy and justice, and some supporters of the ‘war in terror’ also invoke concern for LGBT rights. Yet the record of successive US governments on LGBT issues is at best chequered and at worst murderous—it shows many of the trends in the UK but in far sharper form.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats support LGBT rights consistently, if at all. The rhetoric of the Republican right contrasts two groups—millions of ‘ordinary’, hard-working, independent people, typically Christian and committed to family life, and an elite of politically correct snobbish liberals who despise the majority of Americans and their values, and instead support causes such as LGBT rights. This account shifts political debate away from economic questions to ‘moral’ issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and scapegoats groups including LGBT people. A stress on ‘moral’ issues also allows Republicans to mobilise one of their core constituencies, the Christian right—as in the 2004 presidential election, when gay marriage become a key issue.

One reason the Republicans are able to scapegoat LGBT people in this way is lack of effective opposition from the Democrats. The Democratic Party has never been a traditional social democratic organisation like the Labour Party in Britain, but the Democrats have historically won more union funding than the Republicans, and more working class votes. The rise of the ‘New Democrats’ in the 1990s, including Bill Clinton, saw a shift to the right. The Democrats now carried through policies such as draconian welfare cuts. They assumed that these policies would not lose them votes, since there was no credible party to the left of the Democrats for voters to defect to.

So, while Democratic rhetoric on LGBT issues is often better than that of Republicans, the Democrats’ inability to stand up to the right means they cannot be relied on to defend LGBT people. For example, Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act—legislation to prevent states from legalising same-sex marriage—because the act was passed in an election year and he did not want to lose votes. Endorsement of homophobia by the US government has created a climate in which LGBT people have faced violent attacks. The murder of Matthew Shepard provoked widespread outrage in 1998. Shepard was beaten about the head, and then left tied to a fence in rural Wyoming, dying from severe brain injuries five days later. The attack was only one of an estimated 33 anti-gay murders in the US that year. Campaign groups also reported that the homophobia of the 2004 presidential election campaign led to an increase in anti-LGBT violence of 33 percent. 49

Government homophobia is reflected in the US prison system, where male rape is endemic. One study estimates that 200,000 men are raped in American prisons each year, many of them repeatedly. Other research suggests that the number of gay prisoners raped is three times the average at 41 percent. Prisoners are five times more likely to be infected with HIV than the average American, yet only a few states and cities provide condoms for prisoners. One report describes prisoners trying to protect themselves and their partners using ‘improvised barrier methods’ such as rubber gloves or plastic wrap. 50

This appalling record does not reflect American public opinion, which is contradictory. Some two thirds of people polled in 2004 supported same‑sex marriage or civil unions. Yet in other polls over two thirds of Americans consistently support the view that gay sex is morally wrong. The US is not the home of LGBT liberty, but nor is it completely dominated by the homophobia of the Christian right. 51

In part, this apparent contradiction reflects the wide differences that exist within America. The US is a federation of 50 states—legal systems exist at a federal, state and city level. Some states have anti‑discrimination laws; some cities have them though the rest of that state does not; some states guarantee no legal equality to LGBT people at all. 52 The visibility of LGBT people also varies widely: New York and San Francisco are associated throughout the world with gay people, while the state of Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was murdered, has a population of half a million but ‘there isn’t a single gay bar, bookstore, or permanent, public gathering place’. 53

Homophobia in the US also needs to be understood in the context of the widening divisions in American society between rich and poor as welfare has been cut and real wages reduced. Ten percent of workers in Wyoming have three or more jobs; the state also has high levels of domestic violence and drug abuse. Growing bitterness can explode into violence against anyone who appears vulnerable. Shepard’s killers worked as roofers, earning around $900 (£500) a month in take-home pay, while he was from a middle class family and had gone to high school in Switzerland. 54

LGBT politics in the US has historically oscillated between two strategies. The first seeks assimilation into mainstream American society, largely on its own terms—its followers make concession after concession and yet achieve little. The second argues for separate organisation for LGBT people. This appears more radical, but rejects the building of the broader alliances necessary to achieve real change. A significant trend in US LGBT politics now blends elements of these two strategies into a kind of ‘gay nationalism’ (complete with its own rainbow flag). Just as the Empire State Building is lit up in green for St Patrick’s Day, it is lit up in pink for Pride Week. The City of Chicago has officially recognised the city’s gay district, as it previously recognised Chinatown and Greektown. 55

Some LGBT writers have taken this ‘ethnic model’ back to its roots in the early 20th century, claiming that lesbians and gays are biologically different and so should not face oppression. Simon LeVay has described ‘gay brains’ while Dean Hamer has detected ‘gay genes’. A politicised debate has developed over whether people choose their sexuality: gay campaigners claim that sexuality is biologically rooted and unchangeable, while Christian conservatives maintain that people can, with prayer, ‘overcome’ homosexuality and become ‘ex-gay’. 56

Yet, far from being united by their sexuality, LGBT people are as divided between rich and poor, left and right, as the rest of US society. The commercial scene in America attracts huge numbers, including many willing to travel to find a space free of homophobia. For example, 100,000 tourists came to Florida in 2003 for Gay Day Weekend at Disney World. But a ticket price of $60 (£33) for a night’s dancing at the event—in addition to the cost of travel, accommodation and clothes—makes participation impossible for many. 57 Class and political differences within the ‘LGBT community’ are also reflected in the 23 percent of gay voters who supported Bush, despite his homophobic platform. 58

The Middle East and Islam

It has become commonplace in the LGBT movement to assert that Islam is a uniquely and universally homophobic religion. Islamic history tells a different story. In 1845-46, for example, the Moroccan scholar Muhammad al-Saffar visited Paris. One aspect of sexual behaviour there struck him as noteworthy:

Flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful to them. 59

Al-Saffar found such an attitude remarkable because of attitudes which had existed in his own society—the Islamic culture of the Middle East and North Africa—for centuries. Here no distinction existed between homosexual and heterosexual people; it was assumed that all men were attracted to teenage boys. Such an attraction was immoral, but even virtuous men would be tempted. The 16th century Meccan scholar and jurist Ibn Hajar al-Haytami argued:

It is imperative for a teacher to safeguard his sight from the handsome beardless boy as much as possible—even though he is allowed [to look at him] in the absence of lust, for the exclusive purpose of teaching—because it might lead to unsettlement or temptation. 60

Because women were confined to the home, the only romance possible in public life was between men and boys. Teenagers were employed in public places such as coffee houses, and the coffee house owners took care to employ attractive boys so as to encourage custom. The 17th century Damascan scholar Muhammad Najm al-Din al-Ghazzi alludes to this in a comment about coffee—which some scholars held to be an intoxicant, forbidden by the Qur’an:

Consensus has now been reached that [coffee] is permissible in itself. As for passing it around like an alcoholic beverage, and playing musical instruments in association with it, and taking it from handsome beardless boys while looking at them and pinching their behinds, there is no doubt as to its prohibition. 61

The men who pursued such boys would have been married, and a historian of the period comments:

This was not depicted by the sources as in any way remarkable or strange. At most, the husband’s pederastic escapades were said to have led to domestic discord because of resentment and jealousy on the part of the wife. 62

Insofar as pursuing boys was motivated by lust, it was sinful, but it was not characteristic of a certain ‘homosexual’ type of man. Rather, chasing boys went together with chasing girls and drinking wine as behaviour typical of men with no control over their physical appetites. Falling in love with a boy, however, and even expressing that love in verse, was not sinful provided the love was not sexual. The 18th century scholar Abdallah al-Shabrawi was for over 30 years the rector of the Azhar college in Cairo—‘perhaps the most prestigious Islamic college in the Arab-speaking world’. Most of his collected poetry, well known two generations later, was love poetry, much of it directed at a young male. In one poem al-Shabrawi refers to his beloved as a ‘gazelle’ and tells him that ‘you are cold and yet set my heart ablaze’. 63 The youth who was the object of a man’s desire needed to strike a balance—if he refused to respond he might be considered ‘haughty’ or ‘arrogant’; if he gave in he might be dismissed as ‘easy’ or ‘cheap’. While such boys:

submitted to the sexual desires of men only at a peril to their reputation, they could hold a lover (or several lovers) suspended in hope, conceding a rendezvous or a kiss now and then… Some boys clearly lorded it over their lovers, refusing to speak to them unless they composed a love poem, or asking them to prove their love by slitting a wrist or jumping into a moat. 64

All the behaviours so far described counted as ‘normal’, though some were reprehensible or sinful. What was not normal was for an adult man to want to be penetrated. However, seeking penetration was not seen as something men did for sexual pleasure—rather, it was seen as a compulsion which overcame men who were afflicted by a certain disease. One 16th century medical writer suggested that it was caused by the inflammation of veins in the rectum. The person affected ‘was most often effeminate, and typically suffered from flabbiness, cough, a dull, languid look, dried lips, a fleshy face, and a large posterior’. The same author then prescribes various remedies. 65 Altogether, then, as two leading gay academics conclude:

It would be no exaggeration to say that, before the twentieth century, the region of the world with the most visible and diverse homosexualities was not northwestern Europe but northern Africa and southwestern Asia. 66

What about the punishment for homosexuality? British LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell typifies a view common in the movement:

The form of punishment is specified in Islamic law… It demands the death penalty for both lesbian and gay sex. 67

In fact, there are various different strands within the Muslim tradition. On the one hand, some religious commentators denounce anal sex in the strongest terms:

Whenever a male mounts another male, the throne of God trembles; the angels look on in loathing and say, Lord, why do you not command the earth to punish them and the heavens to rain stones on them?

Other sources take a similar approach:

The prophet’s successor and father-in-law Abu Bakr is supposed to have had a luti [a sodomite]…burned alive. And Ibn Abbas said that ‘the sodomite should be thrown from the highest building in the town and then stoned’. 68

Yet there have existed other interpretations of Islamic law, which in practice allow much more leeway in their response to same-sex behaviours, while always starting from the position that sex between men is sinful. The Qur’an does not call on people to punish others for every sin they commit: human beings need only punish certain sins. The appropriate response to sex between men is as follows:

If two men commit a lewd act, punish them both; if they repent and mend their ways, leave them alone—God is always ready to accept repentance, he is full of mercy. 69

Anyone convinced that Islam is an inherently homophobic religion should compare this with the following text from the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 70

Schools of Islamic law differed on the appropriate punishment for sex between men. Sunni schools, for example, regarded all acts except anal sex as minor sins for which punishment was discretionary; one Shia school considered them all major sins to be punished by a hundred lashes, with execution for repeat offenders. All schools held that anal sex merited severe punishment, for example a hundred lashes or stoning to death. However, men could only be convicted of these crimes if they confessed voluntarily, or if there were witnesses. Male, Muslim witnesses were required; they were to be of good character (not sinners themselves), and they had to testify that they had seen the genital contact involved—it was not enough to have seen two men together under a blanket. So, while a conviction often meant death, convictions were very difficult to achieve in most cases. This was not considered a problem: as long as offenders did not flout their misbehaviour, it was considered inappropriate to pursue every sin people committed. 71

Attitudes in the Middle East today reflect elements of these different traditions, both of aggressive condemnation and of tolerance (though not acceptance) in practice. Violent oppression certainly exists—one study tells the stories of gay men and lesbians who have been beaten up by their families, forced into marriage or made to go to therapists who claim they can ‘cure’ them. In 2003 a gay Iranian man who had been refused asylum in the UK poured petrol over his body and set light to himself in the offices of Refugee Action in Manchester rather than go back to Iran. In many Arab and Muslim countries homosexual sex is illegal, while in some it is punished with the death penalty. People have been executed in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the last decade or so. 72 Yet the same article that documents some of these attacks also notes that in Middle Eastern countries it is easy for men to meet in parks or on street corners and negotiate sex. How can easily available sex between men exist at the same time as violent condemnation? Part of the answer is that for many people in the Middle East the Western model of sexuality does not apply, and many traditional attitudes remain. A Pakistani author describes the attitudes prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s:

There is no ‘gay life’ in Karachi, in the Western sense of the word: no bars, no newspapers, and few instances of lovers living together. Just as predictably, sex between men occurs often… If a husband takes care of his family’s security needs and sires many children, what he does for personal sexual satisfaction is uninteresting to everyone involved, so long as he is discreet. It is certainly not discussed. It simply does not matter. It is quite irrelevant, and—so long as it is kept private—can be said to be ‘tolerated’. 73

Much of the hostility towards homosexuality—despite the claims of gay campaigners in the West and Islamists in the East—is a recent phenomenon. It is only since the mid-19th century and the dominance of European colonialism that love poems meant for males have been removed from Arabic poetry anthologies, and stories that mention male-male sex deleted from editions of the Arabian Nights. 74

Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor for the Guardian, remarks that it is important when discussing homosexuality in the region to be aware of the international context:

In the Middle East…attitudes towards homosexuality (along with women’s rights and human rights in general) have become entangled in international politics… Cultural protectionism is one way of opposing Western policies that are viewed as domineering, imperialistic etc, and so exaggerated images of a licentious West, characterised in the popular imagination by female nudity and male homosexuality, are countered by invoking a supposedly traditional Arab morality. 75

Middle Eastern rulers thus use issues such as homosexuality to present themselves as independent of the West—while in reality many of them have reached an accommodation with imperialism, if they are not its eager clients. Many of those who openly identify themselves as a lesbians or gay men will be from Europe or America—for example tourists or NGO workers—others will be members of the domestic elite. Badruddin Khan, discussing men who identify as gay in Pakistan, comments:

These men can only come from families in upper-income brackets: their class of peers also includes men who have premarital sex with women, and women and men who have extramarital relationships. 76

People of this class often aspire to be part of a global gay elite. The Australian gay writer Dennis Altman recalls:

In conversations I have had with middle class gay men in south east Asia there are frequent references to bars in Paris and San Francisco, to Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, to American gay writers. 77

So attacks on lesbians and gays often contain elements of bitterness at imperialism and the power of domestic elites. But because such attacks do nothing to threaten class oppression, unpopular and undemocratic regimes, such as the Egyptian government, can safely promote homophobic scapegoating. For instance, in 2001 the Egyptian authorities raided the Queen of the Nile, a boat used as a discotheque, and arrested 52 men, who were charged with offending religion and practising debauchery. A study of gay tourism identifies the Queen of the Nile as one of:

a number of increasingly overt…places where Westernised, Cairo-based upper and middle class Egyptian men who are gay‑identified liaised with overseas tourists… In the words of a 23 year old gay‑identified Egyptian, this was a place where ‘you would walk in on a Thursday night, and it was like you were in a gay bar in Europe’. 78

It is in this context that newspaper headlines such as ‘Perverts Declare War On Egypt’, or the Egyptian government’s absurd claim that there is no tradition of homosexuality in the country, are to be understood. 79


The second focus of international coverage on LGBT issues has been on Africa, and much of the above analysis is also relevant to these countries. If racist ideology saw ‘Orientals’ as decadent, it portrayed Africans as living in a state of nature, uncivilised and backward, but also strong and healthy. As with Orientals, Africans were seen as more sexual than Europeans, reflecting in part the experience of 19th century colonists who had escaped the harsh suppression of sex in Europe at the time. The sexuality of ‘primitive’ people became a political issue, since sexual practices in these ‘natural’ societies, supposedly without civilisation or history, were assumed to reflect an unchanging ‘human nature’. It was from this point of view that the British gay socialist Edward Carpenter wrote Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk in 1914, arguing that European society should adopt some of the same-sex behaviours accepted in other societies. 80

Anti-colonial movements in Africa rejected racist conceptions of Africans as uncivilised and hyper-sexual, but in doing so they accepted European condemnations of homosexuality, particularly those promoted by the churches. So the belief developed, still current today among some African and black nationalists, that homosexuality was unknown in pre‑colonial Africa. In fact, many different patterns of same-sex behaviour exist in African societies. Among the Konso people of Southern Ethiopia some men are sagoda—‘men who wear skirts’. They do women’s work and have anal sex with men, who penetrate them. It was recorded among the Zande, who live in Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo, that in the past young warriors would often take boys as wives. Sex also occurred between women, particularly among the many wives of a king or other person of high status. An anthropologist in the 1950s who worked with the Iteso people of north west Kenya and Uganda reported:

People of hermaphroditic instincts are very numerous… The men are impotent and have the instincts of women and become women to all intents and purposes; their voices are feminine and their manner of walking and of speech is feminine. They shave their heads like a woman and wear women’s ornaments and clothing. They do women’s work and take women’s names. 81

An anthropologist who had observed the Ashanti people and other peoples who use related languages in West Africa concluded that in the 1940s ‘men who dressed as women and engaged in homosexual relations with other men were not stigmatised, but accepted’. 82 In present day Southern Africa, one researcher comments:

I have observed Basotho women—domestic workers, university students and secretaries (but not university lecturers)—kissing each other on the mouth with great tenderness, exploring each other’s mouths with tongues, and for periods of time in excess of 60 seconds, as a ‘normal’—even daily—expression of affection. 83

Of the colonial period, a historian notes that in Zimbabwe 300 cases of homosexuality came before the white magistrates between 1892 and 1923. Ninety percent of these involved sex between Africans. In South Africa in the 1890s a Zulu refugee named ‘Nongoloza’ Mathebula became leader of a group of rebel-bandits operating south of Johannesburg. He ordered his troops to abstain from physical contact with females:

Instead, the older men of marriageable status within the regiment—the ikhela—were to take younger male initiates—the abafana—and keep them as izinkotshane, ‘boy wives’. In 1900, Nongozola was captured [and] testified that homosexuality among warriors ‘has always existed. Even when we were free on the hills south of Johannesburg some of us had women and others had young men for sexual purposes’. 84

The tradition of ‘boy-wives’ continued under apartheid, particularly in the migrant labour compounds associated with the mining industry. One writer records:

A Protestant minister working in Soweto in the 1950s reported that he was approached almost every Sunday by migrant workers who wanted him to bless same-sex ‘marriages’. 85

African governments that attack LGBT people are therefore wrong when they claim they are defending African traditions by doing so. In fact, the situation is similar to that in Egypt—undemocratic rulers seek to drum up support by attacking a minority and portraying themselves as nationalists, when in fact they do nothing meaningful to oppose imperialism. This has been the situation in Zimbabwe, for example. In 1995 Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was banned from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. President Mugabe strongly supported this decision: he publicly described GALZ as immoral and repulsive, sexual perverts on a par with those who had sex with animals. Mugabe’s attempt to portray GALZ as non-African was made easier by the fact that a majority of the group was white. The affair led to a similar attack by the Namibian government in 1996—ministers claimed that homosexuality was alien to Namibian society, was the result of European influence and that those who had gay sex should be ‘operated on to remove unnatural hormones’. The attack makes clear the witch-hunting and rabble rousing nature of such offensives, since no LGBT groups were active in Namibia at the time. 86

It’s useful to compare the records of Zimbabwe and South Africa on the question of LGBT rights. The two countries have much in common—both won victories against white minority rule and now have governments led by the parties that won those struggles. But the Zimbabwean government is fiercely homophobic, while South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in its constitution. To understand the difference between the two we have to see LGBT issues in the wider contexts of political change in the two countries. White minority rule in Zimbabwe was defeated by a guerrilla campaign fought mostly in rural areas. The working class, which was in any case small, was not centrally involved in the struggle. Power was therefore transferred from a white ruling class to a black ruling class—an important change, but one which in itself implied no threat to capitalism in Zimbabwe. The South African working class was much larger than that of Zimbabwe, and played a much more central role in the struggle against apartheid. This involved a serious threat to South African capitalism, and provoked a situation much closer to revolution. Radicalisation produced a context where millions of people were prepared to question accepted ideas. The involvement of openly LGBT people in the anti-apartheid movement—prosecuted in treason trials, for example, or active in the underground—meant that straight people could be persuaded to reject homophobia. The development of the new constitution itself reflected this, involving as it did widespread public consultation and discussion.

Peter Tatchell has conducted a long campaign against Mugabe, at one point attempting a citizen’s arrest when Mugabe visited Britain. It is important to consider how this appears from the point of view of many in Zimbabwe, for whom Britain is a former colonial power and supporter of a racist government. British LGBT campaigners should of course show solidarity with LGBT people in other countries when asked. But the struggle for LGBT liberation in Zimbabwe—as in any country—must be led from within that country. British people are too implicated in colonialism and imperialism to do anything that looks like lecturing African governments on how they should behave, particularly with regard to human rights issues.


The lives of LGBT people in the UK have been transformed in the past 40 years; at present it is hard to imagine that these gains could be reversed. However, attacks on the working class can be expected to produce opposition and anger, which the government, the right wing media and the wider ruling class will seek to deflect by scapegoating minorities. We have seen this with the witch-hunting of supposed paedophiles, and in particular with attacks on asylum seekers and Muslims. LGBT people could also be the targets of such a witch‑hunt. This has already happened in Poland, where economic crisis—including the highest unemployment in the EU—has led to the election of a hard-right government, committed to a ‘moral revolution’. The most disturbing recent example is that of the US, where Bush whipped up homophobia over gay marriage so as to aid his re‑election in 2004.

At present the current trend in the UK is in the opposite direction. The decline of the open homophobia of the Tory years has increased the confidence of LGBT people—many of whom have also been radicalised by involvement in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Others are active as part of the wider movement in trade union LGBT groups. This has led to a decline in the pessimistic identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw joint work with straight people as impossibly risky. Yet people have not entirely rejected identity politics.

In the same way that many in the broader movement look to a variety of theorists for political strategies, LGBT politics is dominated by a mixture of ideas. Identity politics still remains the common sense of many activists, and writers identified with this perspective—such as Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks and Judith Butler—dominate intellectual discussions of LGBT issues. But the tone has softened: ‘lesbian and gay’ has broadened to the more inclusive, but still identity-based, ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’. More people are prepared to take part in constructive, friendly debate on the basis of joint involvement in a larger movement—these are debates socialists should participate in, and sometimes initiate. When it comes to activity, there is currently no LGBT group in Britain based on mass involvement, radical politics and links of solidarity with the rest of the movement. We should look out for opportunities to work with others to establish such a current.

The ‘war on terror’ can be expected to continue providing the context for UK politics, including LGBT politics. UK and US governments will claim that their commitment to democracy justifies their actions abroad. Yet US politicians are happy to attack LGBT citizens to win elections, while New Labour’s reforms have been slow and half-hearted. Campaigners should reject any attempt to use LGBT issues to justify war—for instance, the House of Commons meeting attacking the government of Iran that was organised in July 2006 by pro-war gay MP Chris Bryant, and supported by Peter Tatchell and Outrage. After all, an attack on Iran will hardly improve the regime’s position on LGBT issues, and may well strengthen the most homophobic elements in it.

LGBT people found the confidence to riot at Stonewall and establish the gay liberation movement because they were part of a broader movement against war, sexism and racism. LGBT people in South Africa found strength to change the constitution because they were part of the wider movement against apartheid. In the past few years the anti‑war and anti‑capitalist movements have provided a context within which new groups of LGBT people have started to fight. The first time that LGBT activists marched in Beirut, for example, was as part of an anti-war demonstration on 15 February 2003, the same day that 2 million people marched in London. 87

The 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi provided a platform for Kenyan lesbians and gay men to begin to organise. A Kenyan newspaper commented, ‘Never in Kenya’s history has there been such an open and politically charged gathering of homosexual men and women’. 88 To understand history and to take the movement forward today, we cannot see LGBT issues as a separate campaign to be taken forward only by LGBT people themselves—they need to take their place in the wider radical movement.


1: For the concepts of desire, behaviour and identity used in a major statistical survey of US sexual behaviour, see Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organisation of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago/London, 1994).

2: James Warner, Eamonn McKeown, Mark Griffin et al, ‘Rates and Predictors of Mental Illness in Gay Men, Lesbians and Bisexual Men and Women: Results from a Survey Based in England and Wales’, in British Journal of Psychiatry 185 (December 2004), pp479-485.

3: Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (Boston, 1986), p85.

4: Stephen Murray, Homosexualities (Chicago/London, 2000), describes a wide range of societies. For more on Greek societies, see David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York/London, 1990), and K J Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London, 1978).

5: Norah Carlin, ‘The Roots of Gay Oppression’, in International Socialism 42 (spring 1989), p84.

6: Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 17001830 (London, 1992), p98.

7: As above, p29.

8: Norah Carlin, as above pp84-85.

9: As above, p87.

10: Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1981) pp75, 120-125.

11: Norah Carlin, as above, p89.

12: Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: Volume 4 (New York, 1968), p213.

13: Norah Carlin, as above, p89.

14: As above, pp91-92.

15: Jeffery Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1900 (London, 1981), pp48-52; Norah Carlin, p93.

16: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe: Volume 1 (New York, 1975) p30; Volume 2, p11.

17: Jeffrey Weeks, ‘Havelock Ellis and the Politics of Sex Reform’, in Making Sexual History (London, 2000); John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement 18641935 (Ojai, CA, 1995); Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, in On Sexuality (Harmondsworth, 1979). A different translation of Freud’s essays is available online.

18: Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago/London, 2001), p68. See also the interview with Dan Healey in Socialist Worker, 20 January 2007.

19: John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, as above, pp42-51.

20: John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 19401970, (Chicago/London, 1983), pp44, 50.

21: As above, pp58-69.

22: As above, pp71-87.

23: Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society, as above, pp239-244.

24: John D’Emilio, as above, pp231-232.

25: As above, p233.

26: As above, p238.

27: This is the title of Chapter 10 of Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in TwentiethCentury America (New York, 1992).

28: Jeffrey Weeks, ‘An Unfinished Revolution: Sexuality in the Twentieth Century’, in Making Sexual History, as above, p171.

29: As above, p170.

30: Mike Jackson, Fucking with Miners: The Story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

31: Gay Times, October 1991.

32: Stonewall, Timeline of Lesbian and Gay History—available online at

33:, 29 December 2006.

34: ‘Davies leaves Wales in turmoil’, BBC News; ‘Davies attacks “false sex slurs”’; ‘Davies facing party questions’; ‘Davies defiant over sex claims’; ‘Davies stands down in sex storm’; ‘“Disillusioned” Davies quits Labour’

35: Education for All, Cornerstone Document: Tackling Homophobia in Schools (London), available at; Gwyther Rees and Jenny Lee, Still Running II: Findings from the Second National Survey of Young Runaways, Children’s Society 2005.

36: ‘Church to let gay clergy “marry” but they must stay celibate’, Sunday Times, 29 May 2005.

37: Katherine Cowan and Gill Valentine, Tuned Out: The BBC’s Portrayal of Lesbian and Gay People (London, 2006).

38: Tim Lusher, ‘Programme Complaints: Appeals to the Governors, January to March 2006’.

39: TUC, Straight Up! Why the Law should Protect Lesbian and Gay Workers (London, 2000).

40: ‘Gay Man’s Killing “Tip Of The Iceberg”,’ BBC News.

41: James Warner, Eamonn McKeown, Mark Griffin et al, as above, pp479‑485; Health Toll of Anti Gay Prejudice BBC News; Michael King, Eamonn McKeown, James Warner et al, ‘Mental Health and Quality of Life of Gay Men and Lesbians in England and Wales’, in British Journal of Psychiatry 183 (2003), pp552-558.

42: Press for Change presentation, LGBT History Month Prelaunch event, 20 November 2006.

43: Ben Summerskill, The Way We Are Now (London/New York, 2006).

44:, 23 December 2006.

45: Eating Disorders Association, ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’.

46: The Terrence Higgins Trust, ‘Trustees’ Report and Financial Statements for the Year Ended 31 March 2006’, available at

47: Available at

48: For example, see John Rees, Imperialism and Resistance (London/New York, 2006).

49: National Coalition of AntiViolence Programs, AntiLesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Violence in 2004 (release edition, 2005), available

50: Jonathan Neale, What’s Wrong with America? How the Rich and Powerful Have Changed America and Now Want to Change the World (London, 2004), p92; Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (London/New York, 1999), p185; Stop Prisoner Rape, ‘In the Shadows: Sexual Violence in US Detention Facilities’ (2006), available at; ‘HIV Transmission Among Male Inmates in a State Prison System—Georgia, 1992-2005’, in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 55 (15), pp421-426, (21 April 2006), available at

51: Michelangelo Signorile, Hitting Hard, (New York, 2005), p272; Steven Epstein, ‘Gay and Lesbian Movements in the United States’, in Barry Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak and André Krouwel (eds), The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics (Philadelphia, 1999), p73.

52: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, ‘States, Cities and Counties with Civil Rights Ordinances, Policies or Proclamations Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation’ (2005), available at

53: Beth Loffreda, Losing Matt Shepard (New York, 2000), p63.

54: As above, pp39-41, 138-141.

55: Steven Epstein, as above, pp65, 43.

56: Simon LeVay, Queer Science (Cambridge, MA/London, 1996); Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior (New York, 1994).

57: Gordon Waitt and Kevin Markwell, Gay Tourism: Culture and Context (Oxford, 2006), pp203, 187, 214.

58: Michelangelo Signorile, as above, p279.

59: Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World, 15001800 (Chicago/London, 2005), p2.

60: Khaled El-Rouayheb, as above, p35.

61: As above, p41.

62: As above, p29.

63: As above, pp3-4.

64: As above, pp27-28.

65: As above, pp19-20.

66: Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature (New York/London, 1997), p6.

67: Quoted in Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, p121.

68: Jim Wafer, ‘Muhammad and Male Homosexuality’, in Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, as above, pp89-90.

69: The Qur’an, 4:16.

70: The Bible, Authorised Version, Leviticus 21:13.

71: Khaled El-Rouayheb, as above, pp118‑123.

72: Brian Whitaker, as above, pp17-39; Badruddin Khan, ‘Not-So Gay Life in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s’, in Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, as above, p288.

73: Badruddin Khan, as above, pp275, 277.

74: Khaled El-Rouayheb, as above, pp156-158.

75: Brian Whitaker, as above, p11.

76: Badruddin Khan, as above, p284.

77: Dennis Altman, Global Sex (Chicago/London, 2001), p93.

78: Gordon Waitt and Kevin Markwell, as above, p139.

79: Brian Whitaker, as above, p50.

80: Edward Carpenter, Selected Writings Volume 1: Sex (London, 1984).

81: Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe (eds), BoyWives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities (London, 1998), pp22, 27, 28, 36.

82: As above, p105.

83: Kendall, ‘“When a Woman Loves a Woman” in Lesotho: Love, Sex and the (Western) Construction of Homophobia’, in Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe (eds), as above, p231.

84: Mark Epprecht, ‘Homosexual “Crime” in Early Colonial Zimbabwe’, in Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe (eds), as above, pp205-206, 177.

85: Mai Palmberg, ‘Emerging Visibility of Gays and Lesbians in Southern Africa: Contrasting Contexts’, in Barry Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak and André Krouwel (eds), as above, p269.

86: As above, pp276-284.

87: Ghassan Makarem, ‘Gay Rights: Who Are The Real Enemies Of Liberation?’, Socialist Review, February 2006.

88: ‘Kenya: Backlash Against Gays And Lesbians Starts’, Daily Nation, 28 January 2007. As the title suggests, increased LGBT visibility produced a response. The article also mentions hostility to a Ugandan LGBT activist at the WSF itself.