Queer theory and politics

Issue: 132

Colin Wilson

Some activists and theorists in the field of gender and sexuality have partly or wholly abandoned the designation LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and instead write and organise under the banner of “queer”. Queer theory and politics originated in the 1990s and continue to be influential today. Many books are written from this perspective, and they inform university courses—Leeds University, for example, offers an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory. More importantly, many of the most radical LGBT people identify as queer and adopt this approach to political organising: the last year, for example, has seen the establishment in London of UK Uncut-style group Queer Resistance, and of the trade unionist group Queers Against the Cuts. This article traces the development of queer theory and politics, and assesses their claim to provide a radical alternative to what they see as the LGBT mainstream.

There may be readers, including those who have not encountered such ideas before, who are dismayed to find in the pages of a socialist publication a word which they had previously taken to be a gross homophobic insult. I discuss the use of the word “queer” later in the article.

Forty years of LGBT struggle

It is important to situate queer theory and politics in the context of the LGBT movement, and the developing political ideas of that movement in the context of history more generally.

The 1960s and 1970s: liberation

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an enormously high level of political struggle in US and Western European societies.1 In 1968 student protests in France sparked one of the largest general strikes in history. At the same time in America thousands of black people were members of the revolutionary Black Panthers. A mass movement against the Vietnam War involved millions. In Vietnam, US soldiers rebelled against their officers—there were hundreds of cases each year of “fragging”, in which troops would kill or injure their officers rather than fight. The politics that dominated the worldwide movement was Marxism, though often in a distorted “Maoist” version.2

It was against this background that the modern women’s liberation and gay liberation movements began. In late June 1969 police raided the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York. The Stonewall’s patrons—lesbians and gay men, many black or Latino, some of them drag queens—fought back. In the words of a contemporary newspaper account:

Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows and a rain of coins descended on the cops… Almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving…

Historian John D’Emilio describes the events of the following night:

Knots of young gays—effeminate, according to most reports—gathered on corners, angry and restless. Someone heaved a sack of wet garbage through the window of a patrol car. On nearby Waverly Place, 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…dispersed with swinging clubs an impromptu chorus line of gay men… 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 2,000.3

From the riot was born the Gay Liberation Front (GLF): the movement was established in Britain in the autumn of 1970. GLF formed part of the overall radical movement, though its politics included a wide variety of contradictory ideas. In Britain workers’ struggles—such as the miners’ strike that brought down the Tory government in 1974, were significant, and some GLF members aligned themselves with workers. In both Britain and America gay liberation activists questioned the division of humanity into gay and straight people, working for a society where everyone’s sexuality would be liberated and male and female gender roles abolished.

This rapidly spreading movement opened up a space into which less radical forces also moved. By 1972 the largest British gay organisation was the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, which centred its efforts on law reform and developing social facilities—there were far fewer gay bars and clubs then than there are now—and which stressed its non-political stance, explaining: “We do not believe that prejudice against homosexuals has anything to do with capitalism or the class struggle.” Debates about whether gay liberation meant revolution, or could be achieved within capitalism, to some extent reflected class differences within the new movement. The Joy of Gay Sex, published in 1977, explained that while some gay men rejected marriage as an institution, others wanted same-sex marriage legalised, and described a monogamous gay couple consisting of a “35-year-old lawyer in love with a 35-year-old doctor”, who shared expenses and household chores. Those shared chores reflect a crucial component of a “respectable” lesbian or gay identity, the rejection of masculine/feminine role-playing and indeed of any gender variance—gay men are in this view as masculine as straight men, lesbian women as feminine as straight women.4

Finally, the whole of the gay movement accepted that liberation was the work of gay people themselves. This strategy of “autonomy” was generally accepted in the radical movement as the only way to fight oppression: the Black Panthers did not involve white people, and women’s liberation did not involve men. Partly this reflected existing divisions in society; partly it resulted from the bad track record around sexism and homophobia in organisations—in particular, the left in the US—which were in theory committed to working with everybody. Finally, autonomy reflected the situation of those gay groups that weren’t part of the radical movement—with support from no parliamentary political party, no trade union or no part of local or national government, such groups did have to rely on their own efforts.

The early 1980s: retreat

The election of Thatcher and Reagan at the end of 1970s marked a clear sign of a shift to the right. Both were determined to attack workers and roll back the gains of the movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Thatcher took revenge for 1974 by defeating the miners after a heroic year-long strike. The Tory government also attacked lesbians and gays through Section 28, homophobic legislation effective from 1988 to 2003 (2000 in Scotland) which banned local councils from “promoting” homosexuality and teachers from telling pupils that homosexuality was acceptable “as a pretended family relationship”. In the US these years saw the growth of the Christian right, who had taken part in a successful campaign to overturn gay rights in Florida, and who supported Reagan’s presidential campaign.

To this backlash was added the impact of Aids. The first cases were diagnosed in 1981 and numbers increased rapidly: at this time it was common for people to be diagnosed with HIV infection only when they developed Aids, from which, in the absence of effective treatments, they would usually die within a year. By July 1985 over 6,000 people had died in the US, many of them gay men in areas with large gay populations, such as New York and San Francisco. As the epidemic spread it contributed to the growth of homophobia and panic: in Florida the home of a family whose three haemophiliac children were HIV-positive was set on fire. In Britain a poll of News of the World readers found that 56 percent supported the idea that “Aids carriers” should be “sterilised and given treatment to curb their sexual appetite”, while 51 percent favoured the total recriminalisation of homosexuality.5

Such attacks increased the perception that lesbians and gay men were isolated from society, and strengthened the strategy of autonomy. In particular, a strand of “radical feminism” became prominent, typified by authors like Andrea Dworkin, which rejected any political work with men, who were seen as benefiting from powerful “patriarchal” structures of dominance. Other authors argued for a strategy of “lesbian feminism”—women should reject sex with and emotional support for men, so undermining the patriarchy, while building emotional and political ties with other women, which was what it meant to be a lesbian.6 Lesbian feminism maintained the 1960s and 1970s belief that society could be transformed, but at the cost of becoming increasingly doctrinaire and puritanical: heterosexual sex and gay male sex were both by their nature complicit in the patriarchy, while “lesbian” had been redefined as a badge of feminist approval with no necessary connection to women’s desire for other women.

In general the collapse of revolutionary hopes had led many on the left to join the Labour Party, the left wing of which grew enormously and won control of many local councils in the early 1980s. The councils supported lesbians and gays—in fact, the Tories’ Section 28 was meant to stop them doing so. Finally, gay men as well as lesbians turned towards autonomy and away from involvement in a general radical movement. They looked to intellectual alternatives to Marxist revolution, such as the ideas of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s The Will to Knowledge (also known as The History of Sexuality Volume 1) was first published in paperback in the UK in 1981, and was understood at the time to argue in favour of autonomy-style politics.

The mid-1980s to the early 1990s: the retreat ends

Only in May 1987 did Ronald Reagan finally make a speech on the subject of Aids. Over 36,000 Americans had by then been diagnosed with the disease, and over 20,000 were dead. Almost every gay man in cities like New York knew someone who had died, and some had been to the funerals of dozens of friends. Aids activist Larry Kramer was not alone in coming to believe that American society regarded gay men as expendable, and that the epidemic would continue until every gay man was dead. Faced with inaction from government, careerist bickering between scientists and drug companies eyeing potential profits from the sale of test kits, Kramer was not given to understatement:

Aids is our Holocaust. Tens of thousands of our precious men are dead. Soon it will be hundreds of thousands. Aids is our Holocaust and Reagan is our Hitler. New York City is our Auschwitz.7

Kramer had set up Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which provided health services to thousands of gay men in New York in the absence of help from local or national government. In 1987 he founded ACT UP—Aids Coalition to Unleash Power—a protest group that in many ways anticipated the organisations which began to use the word “queer” from 1990.

Before discussing ACT UP, we need to look some more at the political context of the late 1980s. The political and intellectual rejection of Marxism that had followed the decline of the radical movements in the 1970s was greatly reinforced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire. The position associated with this journal—that by 1989 the Soviet Union had not been socialist for decades—could do little to compete with the chorus of delighted capitalists announcing the death of the left. But, if Marxism declined in influence, so did the autonomy politics of the 1980s. As lesbians worked with gay men and some straight people around Aids, lesbian feminism failed to fit people’s experience. And it was also challenged in a series of disputes so heated that lesbian historian Lillian Faderman refers to them as the “lesbian sex wars”. Lesbian feminists opposed use of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre, for example, by sado-masochist lesbians and by bisexuals. Indeed, exclusion of bisexuals continued for a long while in some organisations—it was only in 2003 that Unison’s lesbian and gay conference voted to become an LGBT conference.8

The Aids epidemic had seen the development of health and social care providers like GMHC in New York and the Terrence Higgins Trust in London, which rapidly grew in size. Staff, including lesbians and gay men, in general proved themselves able to manage large budgets, engage in policy debates and liaise effectively with health workers. In this way, a cadre of LGBT managers came into existence. In addition, if the early 1980s had seen many people accept homophobic ideas, many others had rejected the Tories and homophobia. A political space therefore existed for an organisation which campaigned for lesbian and gay rights, not on the basis of politics which were Marxist or militant, but which reflected the professionalisation of layers of LGBT activists. This was the context for a group of high-profile campaigners against Section 28 to come together in 1989 to form Stonewall.

Larry Kramer’s group ACT UP used militant tactics. In October 1988 they stormed the FDA building (the Food and Drug Administration licensed drugs for the treatment of Aids), an action that involved sit-ins, smoke bombs and burning effigies of Ronald Reagan. Apparently worlds away from Stonewall, the group also reflected the growth of an out gay and lesbian middle class, in that these activities were carefully choreographed according to “professional” standards. Michelangelo Signorile took over as chair of ACT UP’s media committee from an employee at a PR firm and a former TV producer: he commented that:

they had fine-tuned the ACT UP media committee and whipped it into a sophisticated corporate public relations department… The committee was made up of about 12 publicists, journalists, editors and writers, all gay men and lesbians… Everyone had contacts, everyone had connections…

The media committee, Signorile comments approvingly, “organised a well-rehearsed circus”. All protesters had been trained in giving sound bites, all journalists had been given a press kit—personalised for the prominent columnists—a coffee and a doughnut. Signorile concludes that media coverage is what matters: “For the lesbian and gay movements, there would never again be a major demonstration…without press kits, pre-publicity hype and publicists”.9

Larry Kramer also combined militancy with professionalism, remarking in an article subtitled “How to Organise the Gay Community”:

Who among us does not know a potential leader—a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, someone from Harvard or NYU [New York University]? I do not mean to sound elitist, but with education comes responsibility, and if ever we needed responsible, well-educated, presentable leaders it is now.

A further, final contradiction in Kramer’s politics is that, while he was willing to attack various prominent New Yorkers as “equal to murderers” in their response to Aids, he also blamed gay men themselves for the epidemic, arguing that promiscuous sex was to blame:

We appear to be entirely frivolous and, until recently, utterly hedonistic, and this hedonism has resulted in Aids, which we are now expecting the straight world to take care of immediately. Is it any wonder that there is little sympathy for gay people and their plight?

Kramer had bewailed gay male promiscuity since the 1970s—for others, the risks of Aids were a new incentive towards respectable monogamy.10

America since the 1990s

The political histories of Britain and America have diverged somewhat since the 1990s, both in general and as far as LGBT politics is concerned. Overall, the political centre of gravity in the US—a country which had a sizeable left 40 years ago—is now well to the right. This is reflected in national politics on LGBT issues: the Republicans are openly homophobic, with Bush using opposition to gay marriage to mobilise the Christian right vote in 2000, while in 2008 McCain and Palin only disagreed over whether gay marriage should be banned at federal or at state level. The Democrats’ rhetoric on LGBT issues is better, but their track record is unimpressive: in 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act, which defined marriage at a federal level as a legal union between a man and a woman; Obama only repealed the ban on gays in the military, a campaign pledge, two and a half years after his inauguration.

This is not to say that the US is a uniformly or even generally homophobic country. A Washington Post poll in December 2010, for example, found that 77 percent of people agreed that openly gay and lesbian people should be allowed to serve in the military—a large increase from 44 percent in 1993, and including 70 percent of white evangelists who agree to ending the military ban.11 In July 2011 a Washington Post poll found opinion on same-sex marriage to be strongly divided: 51 percent felt it should be legal, while 45 percent felt it should be illegal. Again this has shifted in a pro-gay direction over time: in 2003 only 37 percent thought same-sex marriage should be legal, while 55 percent opposed this.12

Staunchly pro-gay views have little traction in national politics, however, because the Republican right regards same-sex marriage as a key issue—Tea Party congresswoman Michele Bachmann has called gay marriage “probably the biggest issue that will impact our state and our nation in the last, at least, 30 years”—and the Democrats, themselves a capitalist party and not in any real sense left wing, consistently allow the Republicans to make the weather on issues from welfare cuts to the national debt.13

The right wing domination of US official politics, combined with a shift towards pro-LGBT positions, has had several effects. One is the emergence of openly gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan supports war in the Middle East, opposes the welfare state and rejects the idea that the rich should pay higher taxes. His book Virtually Normal, published in 1996, proposed a vision of lesbian, gay and bisexual people integrated into capitalism as it currently exists, in which they would be able to say:

We are your military and have fought your wars and protected your homes. We are your businessmen and women, who built and sustained this economy for homosexual and heterosexual alike… We are your civic leaders, your priests and rabbis, your writers and inventors, your sports idols and entrepreneurs. We need nothing from you, but we have much to give back to you. Protect us from nothing; but treat us as you would any heterosexual.

Marriage, however, is an essential part of this picture—”the only reform that truly matters”, as Sullivan puts it. While he acknowledges that deaths of his friends from Aids played a part in developing his attitude to marriage, his main argument is that it “could bring the essence of gay life—a gay couple—into the heart of the traditional family”. 14 While Marxists had taken the view that LGBT people and sex for pleasure had previously faced repression because they were outside the family and threatened it, Sullivan believed it was possible to win LGBT liberation by integrating us into it—or at least, those of us willing to behave respectably.

The right wing centre of gravity of US politics has had one further effect: a polarisation between right wing reformism, which is able to achieve very little, and a queer politics which is understandably opposed to the right wing reformists, but unable to propose any more successful political strategy. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), for example, is America’s largest LGBT campaign group. HRC works mainly through lobbying, while corporate partners include American Airlines, Bank of America, Microsoft and many more. The problem is that this respectful approach means the group’s agenda is driven by what it’s possible to win from politicians and multinationals. In 2004, for example, it was reported that the HRC would support Bush’s initiative to privatise Social Security, “partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program”. In 2007 the HRC in practice supported proposed legislation that would have guaranteed equality at work while excluding trans people from protection.15

As the HRC embraced corporate America, other LGBT—or more often queer—activists found a home in another US institution, the university. LGBT studies courses are now offered in hundreds of American universities, and being lesbian or gay is no bar to achieving the star status of academics such as Judith Butler.16 These developments are to be welcomed, but it is striking how little influence the academic study of LGBT and queer issues has had in wider American society. As we will see below, one of the basic concepts of queer theory is that sexuality is not the result of biology, since people in many societies are not classified into homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals—concepts regarding sex vary from society to society, and as such are “socially constructed”. Yet such ideas have had little impact on popular discussions of sexuality, which are polarised between a Christian right that sees homosexuality as a wilful and sinful choice, and LGBT campaigners keen to stress the congenital nature of same-sex desire.

Britain since the 1990s

Since the fall of Thatcher in 1990 no significant British politician has consistently promoted homophobia. The Major government reduced the gay male age of consent to 18; the Blair-Brown governments of 1997-2010 brought in a series of measures which have almost given LGBT people formal legal equality with straight citizens—the two most notable exceptions are that same-sex couples cannot marry, while different-sex couples cannot form a civil partnership, and that gay men face restrictions in donating blood.

LGBT people have experienced a remarkably rapid change from a legally persecuted minority to a legally protected one in the space of 40 years. All sexual acts between men were a crime until 1967 in England and Wales, 1981 in Scotland and 1982 in Northern Ireland. The absence of any legal status for same-sex partners meant that, until the 1990s or later, one member of a couple could be deported away from the other, could not inherit a tenancy if their partner died and so might become homeless, and could be excluded from their partner’s bedside in hospital by their homophobic relatives. LGBT people could be legally sacked or abused at work, or refused the use of services. Transgender people using a different name and gender from the one they were assigned at birth could not get documents such as their passport changed and so faced constant difficulties and potential harassment.

Formal legal equality is thus a huge advance, though of course it has not ended oppression, any more than the formal legal equality of women and black people has ended sexism and racism. And, just as the ruling class supports both formal legal equality for black people and institutional racism, legal equality for LGBT people does not mean that the ruling class is “on our side”. However, legal equality has also made it possible for out LGBT people to adopt reactionary political positions impossible 40 years ago. Some such people have taken up places at the heart of the establishment, for example, and have expressed the complacent views that such positions typically involve. Evan Davis now presents the Today programme on Radio 4. In an interview with the London Evening Standard in June 2011 he argued that people should respect homophobes’ right to be bigoted. This is a much easier position to take if you’re insulated by wealth and privilege—degrees from Oxford and Harvard, a flat in central London—than it is if you’re being harassed by your neighbours in a working class area. Legal equality tends to encourage a divergence of views among LGBT people along class lines.17

Legal equality has also made it possible for the ruling class to win the support of some LGBT people for imperialist wars in the Middle East, by using racist stereotypes of Muslims as backward and uncivilised and Islam as inevitably homophobic. The prominent columnist Johann Hari of the Independent has argued in the gay style magazine Attitude, for example, that precisely zero percent of British Muslims find lesbian and gay people acceptable. Peter Tatchell has also made supposedly homophobic Muslims a focus of his campaigning. Anti-Muslim stereotypes have also contributed to the rise of far-right racist organisations such as the English Defence League (EDL). While the EDL exaggerate the scale of their LGBT support, there can be no doubt that some such people exist. In early 2011, for example, EDL supporters responded to an Islamist putting up homophobic stickers in east London by attempting to organise “East End Pride”. The polarisation of LGBT people along class lines, along with this polarisation in terms of political ideas, tends to undermine the assumption underlying identity politics that LGBT people have common interests and form part of a unified
“LGBT community”.18

The movement since Seattle

The protests against the World Trade Organisation in late 1999 gained a global platform for what became known as the anti-capitalist movement. The movement’s style and politics arguably inherited those of ACT UP (leaving out the professionalisation Signorile describes) and have certainly gone on to inform those of current campaigns such as UK Uncut.19 These movements have been characterised by a desire for unity, and an explicit rejection, for example, of 80s-style identity politics and its divisive moralism. At the same time, no political alternative has replaced identity politics as the basis for organising. The desire for unity has thus produced a more inclusive form of identity politics, conceived as a coalition of different identities, and described using cumbersome acronyms such as LGBT, LGBTQIA and so on.

What political ideas form the basis of this unity? There is widespread scepticism in the movement about political ideologies and parties. Systems of political ideas including Marxism, reformist socialism and EU-style liberalism have all lost credibility in different ways, while Maoism and anti-colonial nationalism are long dead as political forces, and the economic crisis presents neoliberalism with problems of its own. If there are many political strands to the movement, and vigorous debate between them, there is also quite widespread acceptance of an autonomist style of organisation:

that of a decentralised “coalition of coalitions”…organising the protests on the basis of consensus through a variety of different methods such as the affinity group, the spokes-council, the convergence centre and Indymedia.20

At the level of ideas, this scepticism, this desire for a plurality of political forces and ideas, has been reflected in a postmodernist understanding of such authors as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Postmodernist ideas call into question fundamental assumptions about how we can understand and change the world, and frequently question whether it is possible to understand or change society as a whole. These are major issues for queer theory. So, having set out their political context, we can now examine the ideas of queer theory and politics in more detail, starting with the work of Michel Foucault.

Michel Foucault

The Will to Knowledge by the French historian, activist and public intellectual Michel Foucault, first published in English in 1979, can be regarded as the founding text of queer studies and politics. This short book includes a number of ideas that together constitute a major challenge to the common-sense understanding of sex in our society.

First, Foucault rejects the idea that sex is simply the expression of human biology. Rather, ideas about sex, and the way that sex is actually lived, change over time and from one society to another. For example, if we look before a certain point in history, we find that humanity is not divided up into “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals”. Instead certain people were condemned for “sodomy”, a category including various sexual acts—but sodomy was a sin which anyone could be tempted to commit, so that committing it did not make you a certain kind of person. Foucault describes the distinction in a passage that has become famous:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood… Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him… it was a secret that always gave itself away… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.21

Foucault locates this change in the 19th century, a period when other controls on behaviour were imposed through medicine, psychiatry and criminal justice. However—and this is Foucault’s second challenge to the common-sense account of sex—these changes cannot be characterised as repressive. It was not that people were forbidden to speak of sex, but rather that the development of such figures as the hysterical woman, the masturbating child and the homosexual obliged them to constantly refer to it. Indeed, sex was constructed as the centre of each person’s being: “We demand that sex speak the truth…and we demand that it tells us the truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness”.22

Foucault’s third major theme in The Will to Knowledge concerns what he calls “power”. Power is not something which the oppressed lack and others have: “We must not look for who has the power in the order of sexuality (men, adults, parents, doctors) and who is deprived of it (women, adolescents, children, patients)”.23

Power is not inherently repressive, but also creative, having developed in the 19th century a whole range of new sexual figures, of whom the homosexual is only one. Certainly power is not to be identified with the state, nor can it be easily distinguished from resistance, with which it has a continuous interrelationship:

Let us not look for the headquarters that presides over [power’s] rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society… Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power…power relationships [depend] on a multiplicity of points of resistance: these play the role of adversary, target, support or handle in power relations… Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case…by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations.24

This conception of power also informs Foucault’s rejection of the idea that sex has been repressed: “Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check.” Therefore, we are in error if we demand the liberation of sex from the constraints of power.25

Foucault’s first claim—that sexuality is socially constructed—has informed an enormous body of historical and sociological writing, and has been shown to be valid in a wide variety of contexts. From the ruling class of Ancient Greece to the working class of 1940s London, it appears that “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” simply do not exist in much of history.26 This perception is also crucial in understanding sexuality in non-European societies. As Marc Epprecht’s book Heterosexual Africa? acknowledges, if we use Western concepts of sex, and go looking for “homosexuality” in traditional African societies, we will not find any. This does not mean that pre-colonial Africans were all heterosexual: it reflects the fact that their concepts of sexuality were different from our own. Likewise, an understanding of the social construction of sexuality is crucial to an analysis of sex between men and between women in Middle Eastern societies. These have become important political issues, as a tendency has developed among some LGBT people to accept racist stereotypes of Europeans as sexually tolerant and of people from Africa and the Middle East as homophobic.27

It has also proved useful to question the nature of categories such as homosexual and heterosexual in our own society at a time when some LGBT activists, particularly in the US, have accepted the crudest biological accounts of sexuality in an effort to prove that they were “born this way”, and as such cannot be condemned for their desires.28 In fact people have a variety of sexual experiences, perhaps better expressed on a scale or spectrum rather than using two or three categories. Their position on the scale can change over time. As well as having various sexual desires and doing various sexual acts, people may have a “sexual identity” in their minds, and other people may attribute such an identity to them. These different levels—acts, internal identity and attributed identity—can combine in different ways: a married man may have sex with his wife, but also have anonymous sex in a gay sauna; he will probably be thought of as straight by his neighbours and workmates; he may think he is really gay, and his married life a painful charade, or he may believe himself really straight, and his same-sex experiences incidental, or he may identify as bisexual. This issue too has proved to be politically important in building an inclusive LGBT movement, since not everyone fits neatly into the lesbian, gay or bi categories.

Finally, recognising the social construction of sexuality helps build a movement that includes transgender people. Current conceptions categorise transgender separately from those concepts, like gay or lesbian, based on the gender of the desired person. As we have seen, there has been a tendency for those lesbians and gay men who seek respectability to distance themselves from transgender, to present themselves as “normally” masculine men and feminine women. The fact that Stonewall campaigns for LGB but not trans people is typically argued by queer activists to be an example of this. Yet transgender people took the lead in the Stonewall riot, and for much of history same-sex desire has been associated with transgender behaviours—a history which understanding the social construction of sexuality helps to uncover.

If Foucault’s concept has these advantages, it also has a grave disadvantage—Foucault does not tell us how sexuality is constructed, by what links conditions in society as a whole result in changes in sexuality. As the French Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre commented:

Foucault does not tell us the thing that would be the most interesting, that is, how each thought is constructed on the basis of these conditions, or how mankind passes from one thought to another… Of course his perspective remains historical. He distinguishes between periods, a before and an after. But he replaces cinema with the magic lantern, motion with a succession of motionless moments.29

One reason Foucault does this in The Will to Knowledge is that he is seeking to deny links between the history of sex and the development of capitalism, regardless of the historical evidence. He comments, regarding the common-sense view which he opposes, that “by placing the advent of the age of repression in the 17th century…one adjusts it to coincide with the development of capitalism: it becomes an integral part of the bourgeois order.” He ironically implores, “May I be forgiven by those for whom the bourgeoisie signifies the elision of the body and the repression of sexuality, for whom class struggle implies the fight to eliminate that repression”.30

This weakness in Foucault’s account can be addressed by methods, such as Marxism, which link changes in ideas to those in society as a whole. There are more intractable problems in his rejection of the idea that sex has been repressed. He is right to say that the Victorians are not silent about sex—prostitution was a major social issue, for example, and the subject of campaigns and public meetings—but wrong to suggest that repression is not a major part of the picture. How else can we describe the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for same-sex acts, the sacking of female servants because they had got pregnant or even because they were in a relationship with a man, or the strapping of children into harnesses to stop them masturbating at night? The notion that no repression is happening is only tenable if we focus on ideas—”an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex”—and ignore lived reality. Foucault’s rejection of any notion of liberating sexuality mean that his ideas, far from being the intellectual support for identity politics they were taken to be in the 1980s, are in many ways fundamentally at odds with those of LGBT liberation.31

Foucault’s concept of power is even more problematic. It seems to conflate a range of relationships, from those within families to those between citizens and the state. What we might think of as “power” within personal relationships is often shifting and ambiguous. Roles such as doctor and teacher often have the potential both to help people and to control them. But the underlying power of the state, based on force and violence, is an unambiguous reality. Foucault’s position is even odder given that, before his work on sex, he had written about madness and prisons. The history of prisons makes the reality of state power absolutely plain, and Foucault, as a campaigner on prisoners’ issues in the early 1970s, had taken a position similar to many anarchists—a rejection of power as a matter of principle.

Foucault’s ideas have been interpreted in different ways in the last 30 years. For queer activists today, they provide support for their radical questioning of accepted ideas about sex. But in the 1980s The Will to Knowledge was used to justify a retreat from radical political activity. The claim that there was “no single locus of great Refusal” but instead “a plurality of resistances” endorsed a rejection of Marxism and revolution, and the retreat into the Labour Party and separate autonomous struggles for each oppressed group.

The development of queer politics and theory

What was called at the time “the new queer politics” began around 1990. A range of organisations and individuals were involved: the most prominent group in the US was Queer Nation, while Outrage! was established in London. Both groups had a militant style and used direct action to oppose homophobia, in contrast to the more respectable lobbying groups developing at this time. Both groups were also associated with the strategy of “outing” high-profile LGBT people who weren’t open about their sexuality. In part the strategy reflected class divisions among LGBT people, and anger at the privileged. Michelangelo Signorile argued that such people made material gains from hiding their sexuality: “It is the closet that keeps your West 34th Street penthouse; the closet that gets you that house on the island; the closet that keeps that bank account full…” Yet implicit in outing was an idea familiar from 1980s autonomy politics, that of a united LGBT community that transcended class divisions, to which rich LGBT people also had obligations. Queer activism was thus, at this time, a more radical form of 1980s identity politics. Indeed it reproduced some of the most divisive aspects of those politics, as reflected in a polemic entitled “I Hate Straights” distributed at New York City Gay Pride in 1990, and reprinted in Signorile’s magazine Outweek. 32 While some American activists later recalled reading at this time what were to become classics of queer theory—such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble—they did not lead activists to call into question sexual identity as the basis for political activity. In any case, by the mid-1990s Queer Nation had ceased to exist in America, and Outrage! had degenerated from an organisation which discussed its activities openly in large meetings to a small group around Peter Tatchell, whose main activity was issuing press releases.

Queer did not go away, however. In media circles, always looking for something new and “edgy” to sell, it became fashionable, as exemplified in the title of the TV drama series Queer as Folk (1999-2000 in the UK; 2000-2005 in its US version) and the makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-7). Indeed, Teresa de Lauretis, a leading advocate of the word “queer” in 1991, had as early as 1994 returned to using “lesbian”, arguing that “my insistent specification lesbian may well be taken as a taking of distance from what, since I proposed it as a working hypothesis for lesbian and gay studies…has very quickly become a conceptually vacuous creature of the publishing industry”.33

In the universities, queer activism combined with social
constructionism—the view that sexuality is not inborn, but that such concepts as “gay” or “straight” are “constructed” differently in different societies—to
produce queer theory, which has had enormous success as an academic trend: the catalogue of Cambridge University Library lists over a hundred books with the word “queer” in the title, including Queer and Catholic, Queer Dickens, Queer Economics, Queer German Cinema, Queer Renaissance Historiography, Queer Phenomenology and Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. It will be clear from the range of these titles that queer theory has moved far beyond the relatively narrow focus of LGBT studies on questions around sexual identity. The expansion of queer theory to address overall issues of sexuality and gender in fields including history, literature, and social and cultural studies greatly enhances opportunities for academics working from this perspective, a material reality which must form part of our overall assessment.

Assessing queer theory and politics

The current understanding of queer, then, has its origins in an encounter in the early 1990s between the radical identity politics of groups like Queer Nation and constructionist accounts of sexuality derived from Foucault. Annamarie Jagose describes the resulting formation:

Broadly speaking, queer describes those gestures or analytical models which dramatise incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire…queer focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire. Institutionally, queer has been associated most prominently with lesbian or gay subjects, but its analytic framework also includes such subjects as cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery…queer locates and exploits the incoherencies in those three terms which stabilise heterosexuality. Demonstrating the impossibility of any “natural” sexuality, it calls into question even such apparently unproblematic terms as “man” and “woman”.34

There is nothing in queer theory as described above to which Marxists could, on the face of it, object. Since the 19th century—as I show below—Marxists have described how ideas of masculinity, femininity, marriage and so forth have developed historically. We accept that sexuality is socially constructed, setting Foucault’s account in the context of the development of capitalist society. We work towards a socialist revolution which will not only advance economic justice but involve profound changes around sex and sexuality, undermining accepted concepts of what it means to be a woman or a man, and vastly extending the choices people can make as regards sexuality.

Marxists’ initial response to queer activists must therefore be one of solidarity. Both Marxists and queers are revolted by the sexism, homophobia and transphobia that blight the lives of so many people in so many ways. We believe that a better world is possible, we long for it, and we commit ourselves to struggle towards it. That commitment means that we have a duty to debate, within our traditions and between them, how to bring about change. It’s in this spirit that I want to comment, from the Marxist side of the debate, on what seem to me to be weaknesses in queer politics—weaknesses in the sense that they make it harder to take the struggle forwards—before making some remarks about the word “queer” and the ideas of Judith Butler, and then finally outlining what seem to me the strengths of the Marxist position.

The first issue is the question of who queer activists believe to be our enemies, the main opponents of the liberatory project I describe above. Some writers identify the enemy as straight people. The anonymous author of “I Hate Straights” does this explicitly, and it’s not unusual to find references to such things as “heterosexual ideology” or “heterosexual world domination”.35 Yet the problematisation of sexual identities associated with queer theory itself would suggest that we cannot think of straight people or their ideas as an undifferentiated monolith. Straight people only exist in some parts of the world and some historical periods; they are divided into different classes, races and sexes. Marxists would point out, in particular, that most straight people are workers and as such have little control over social organisation, and have in fact more in common with LGBT workers than with straight members of the ruling class.

A second enemy commonly identified in queer theory is not straight people, but a minority of LGBT people. Writers, of course, oppose homophobia, and also what they identify as “heteronormativity”—the assumption that different-sex desire is a universal default position, from which same-sex desire is an unusual exception—but they also reject “homonormativity”, the attempt to promote a version of same-sex desire that accepts the values of existing society. Some of their targets here are groups like the HRC in the US and Stonewall in the UK. Now the HRC’s political approach is plainly wrong—they are reformists but have not been able to deliver reforms. Stonewall’s endorsement of partners including IBM and Barclays Bank plays a small role in supporting multinationals whose crimes include the exploitation of both LGBT and straight workers. Both Marxists and queer activists would reject this approach, but it does not make Stonewall our main enemy. Our main enemies are homophobes like the Tea Party, and the powerful corporations and governments that run capitalism, not Stonewall. Indeed, the legal changes they helped bring about have improved LGBT people’s lives. Their position is a contradictory one, based on the mistaken idea that the interests of big corporations and those of most LGBT people are compatible. Queer activists often devote much of their energy to attacks on the “respectable mainstream” of the LGBT movement. I would argue that this reflects the location of many queer activists in universities and the media, where homophobia is generally at a low level—in many other situations it is more important to build unity with other supporters of LGBT people, however moderate their views.

Many queer activists, however, argue against certain reforms—particularly
the legalisation of same-sex marriage, on the grounds that it will make things worse for those who do not marry. Michael Warner claims, “Even though people think that marriage gives them validation, legitimacy and recognition, they somehow think that it does so without invalidating, delegitimating or stigmatising other relations, needs and desires.” Judith Butler argues that “recent efforts to promote lesbian and gay marriage also promote a norm that threatens to render illegitimate and abject those sexual arrangements that do not comply with the marriage norm”.36 But there is no sign in the UK that, since the introduction of civil partnerships, LGBT couples who have remained unmarried have suffered in any way. On the contrary, civil partnerships were part of a relaxation of ideas around marriage compared to previous decades. Of course, marriage and the family are repressive institutions. But, as with gays in the military, to demand equality means that LGBT people must be able to do the same things as straight people. For same-sex couples to be allowed to marry as different-sex couples do is a recognition that LGBT people are of equal worth to straight people, whether we actually marry or not. Again queer activists mistake their target.

A particular ambiguity lies in attacking those LGBT people who are seen as “respectable”. In some cases, this is a recognition of their class privilege. But in others, “respectability” refers to a person’s style of life or sexual preferences—Michael Warner contrasts unpolitical men who “are at home, making dinner for their boyfriends” with people who are into sadomasochism, and with “sluts and drag queens and trannies”.37 The main problem here is the assumption that there is such a thing as “radical sex”, or that doing drag or S/M undermines the present order of things.38 Of course, the right wing condemns various practices and we have to defend people’s ability to make their own choices. But there is nothing about, say, sadomasochism that makes it inherently incompatible with capitalism.

A second ambiguity concerns the category “queer” itself. Is it a new and better identity, or does it involve the rejection of identity politics altogether in favour of another way of organising? Judith Butler has argued for the second of these possibilities:

My understanding of queer is a term that desires that you don’t have to present an identity card before entering a meeting. Heterosexuals can join the queer movement. Bisexuals can join the queer movement. Queer is not being lesbian. Queer is not being gay… Queer is an argument against [a] certain normativity, what a proper lesbian or gay identity is.39

Yet it often seems that, in practice, queer functions as a subdivision of LGBT—a young, hip, boisterous subdivision. While queer activists highlight the inadequacies of identity politics, they fail to advance an alternative model of political organisation, and so tend to end up functioning as a “ginger group” within LGBT organisations rather than breaking from them, which seems the logical consequence of rejecting identity politics.

The word “queer”

Our main response to queer theory and politics must engage with their political ideas, not with the use of a particular word. But the word “queer” itself still remains controversial, and its use is rejected by some LGBT people. A Marxist approach to issues of language and culture begins by recognising their importance. Hate speech such as the N-word and the C-word legitimises racism and sexism: their use demeans black people and women, and so makes it more likely that these people will suffer further harm, beyond the use of words. Because society and language are constantly changing, we need to review from time to time what language is most appropriate: in the early 1960s a person who wanted to show respect for people who desired their own sex would have used the word “homosexual”; after Stonewall, activists and supporters used the word “gay”. So our use of language is a tactical question, in part a response to the changing ideas of the broader movement. In some situations, socialists have used the word “queer” themselves—IS Canada hosted a discussion entitled “The Fight for Queer Liberation Today” at their Marxism event in May 2011.40

Our attitude to language is also part of our general approach to culture as Marxists and materialists. Marx takes the view that the production of material life—people’s efforts to find food, shelter and so forth—set the context for the development of cultural life:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.41

The use of the term LGBT, for example, followed from political changes: a rejection of narrow identity politics and a desire to include bi and trans people in the movement. This is quite different from the idea of “reclaiming” words such as queer, or “slut” in the “SlutWalk” protests of mid-2011: here the assumption is that changes in language cause political change, and thus change the material world.

The appeal of queer, however, is not centrally to do with articulated strategies about reclaiming words or subverting them. Rather it reflects the reality of LGBT oppression. The word’s disturbing, edgy quality reflects the hurt and anger people feel at that oppression, and their determination to oppose the heteronormative powers that be—for example by “queering” the dominant culture, by demonstrating that the supposed naturalness and coherence of such concepts as family, men, women, homosexual and heterosexual are in every case a sham. The roots of the word’s appeal in hurt and anger mean that it is never likely to be reclaimed, if by “reclaimed” we mean “made safe”. Annamarie Jagose writes:

The main reason why the self-application of “queer” by activists has proved so volatile is that there’s no way that any amount of affirmative reclamation is going to succeed in detaching the word from its associations with shame and with the terrifying powerlessness of gender-dissonant or otherwise stigmatised childhood. If queer is a politically potent term, which it is, that’s because, far from being detached from the childhood source of shame, it cleaves to that scene as a near inexhaustible source of transformational energy.42

Those who became politically active in the gay movements of the 1970s and 1980s fought against the use of words such as “queer”, which were, at that time, simply homophobic hate speech: we called on people to use “gay” because it was the word the movement used; it showed respect; it was our word. But now “gay” is used to mean “rubbish” in schools across the country and homophobic DJ Chris Moyles can use it with impunity on Radio 1. “Queer”, activists argue, is now our word.43

Yet some LGBT people, including those who are young and militant, who are fighting homophobia and the cuts, refuse the label “queer”. Often they do so because they are outside those areas of society—universities, the gay scene, the media—where levels of homophobia are generally low. In these few places you can hear the word “queer” without fearing a homophobic attack. But elsewhere “queer” remains hate speech. This means that the use of “queer” can be a mistake if we want to build an inclusive movement that reaches out to people far beyond a few narrow enclaves. This broader perspective explains, for example, the fact that, while the word “queer” is now sometimes used in the trade union movement, all unions continue to call their groups LGBT, not queer.

Judith Butler

I have already repeatedly mentioned Judith Butler, currently by far the most significant figure in queer theory. As with queer activists in general, our response to Butler begins from a position of solidarity. Butler is a political activist as well as an academic philosopher, who has written in support of the anti-war movement. She supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, drawing, she argues, on the values of her Jewish upbringing:

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps… What became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticise Israeli state violence…one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging [in] anti-Semitism… In my view, any effort to retain the idea of emancipation when you don’t have a state that extends equal rights of citizenship to Jews and non-Jews alike is, for me, bankrupt. It’s bankrupt.

In the same interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she links being an anti-Zionist Jew to her rejection of lesbian identity politics:

You’d bring someone home [as a childhood friend] and the first question was “Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?” Then I entered into a lesbian community in college, late college, graduate school, and the first thing they asked was… “Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?”… It felt like the same kind of policing of the community… Is that person really Jewish; maybe they’re not so Jewish. I don’t know if they’re really Jewish. Maybe they’re self-hating. Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man.44

Butler has also been active in LGBT politics, and provoked controversy at Christopher Street Day (CSD), Berlin’s Pride event, in 2010. She refused the Civil Courage Prize which the organisers had awarded to her, arguing that CSD had become too commercialised, that its organisers had failed to fight racism and that they had behaved in a racist way themselves.45

I want to address two issues in Butler’s writing, the concept of “performativity” and the political implications of poststructuralism. Both are issues which she addressed in her first book, Gender Trouble, which brought her to prominence in 1990, and on which she has written many times since then.

It is important to understand from the start that “performative” is a technical term in the philosophy of language. Speech acts, it has been argued, are of two kinds. Some are constative—they seek to describe the world, and are either true or false (“The sky is blue”; “I like philosophy”). Others are performative—they seek to change the world, and cannot be described as either true or false (“I now pronounce you man and wife”; “I promise to ring you tomorrow”).

In Gender Trouble, Butler examines how it is that some people are recognised in society as women. She rejects the idea that those acts that identify a person as a woman reflect an internal, feminine essence. Rather social forces pressure us to behave either as men or as women, and the belief that there exists an internal feminine identity is then the result of those repeated behaviours.

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.46

Indeed, those acts must be repeated because the task is never fully complete; we never quite achieve success at being a man or a woman:

This “being a man” and this “being a woman” are internally unstable affairs. They are always beset by ambivalence precisely because there is a cost in every identification, the loss of some other set of identifications, the forcible approximation of a norm one never chooses.47

Butler is not claiming that the sexed body has no material reality, but rather that our ideas (“discourse”) always play some part in our
perception of it:

To claim that discourse is formative is not to claim that it originates, causes or exhaustively composes that which it concedes; rather, it is to claim that there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body… In philosophical terms, the constative claim is always to some degree performative.48

To refer to someone as a man or a woman, therefore, is not simply to state a fact: such statements always to some extent draw on and reinforce ideas about gender. Gender Trouble thus constitutes, in part, a polemic against feminist identity politics, conceived as a monolithic solidarity between all women, who have in common precisely that internal, feminine essence whose existence Butler denies.

However, there was some confusion about what constituted Butler’s positive agenda, and here the word “performativity” did not help achieve clarity. LGBT activism, since the chorus line at the Stonewall riot, has frequently included elements of theatricality, a tradition continued by Queer Nation. That theatricality drew on older traditions still, such as camp and drag. At the end of Gender Trouble Butler briefly discussed drag, and argued that:

part of the pleasure…is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary.49

This was understood to mean that Butler was advocating drag and theatricality as ways of subverting heteronormativity, and was asserting that being a man or a woman was by its nature a performance—a confusion between “performative” and “performance” seems part of this. In Bodies That Matter Butler clarified her views: she did not believe “that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night”. As regards drag, she commented, “Although many readers understood Gender Trouble to be arguing for the proliferation of drag performances as a way of subverting dominant gender norms, I want to underscore that there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion”.50 The point is of importance because a widespread common-sense had developed that Butler has endorsed certain styles of political protest and ways of living as politically effective, when she has not.

Butler has repeatedly discussed the political implications of her poststructuralist ideas. I want here to discuss her view of what sort of theory queer theory is—what power it has to explain the world, and so to help bring about political change. As noted above, many of the political ideas which motivated people 50 years ago have lost credibility. If that is true of systems of ideas like Marxism or anti-colonial nationalism, it also applies to ideas within the LGBT movement. The radicalism of the early 1970s did not bring the social transformation it promised; lesbian feminism retained the aim of transforming the world, but its impact was almost completely negative. Scepticism has developed towards systems of thought that promise to bring about a wholly different society—or even those that claim to give a coherent account of society as a whole, which are dismissed as “totalising” or “universal” accounts.

Now, does Butler believe queer theory to be a totalising system of thought? One could argue that it is—that to recognise that “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals”, or particular understandings of “women” and “men”, are specific to certain times and places is to make our thinking more generally valid, more universally true.51 In the past Butler—pointing out, for example, that the US went to war in Iraq in the name of supposedly “universal” values such as democracy—has rejected the project of constructing a more inclusive universality, because:

such a tantalising notion could only be achieved at the cost of producing new and further exclusions. The term “universality” would have to be left permanently open, permanently contested…from any historically constrained perspective, any totalising concept of the universal will shut down rather than authorise the unanticipated and unanticipatable claims that will be made under the sign of “the universal”. 52

She put a similar argument in Gender Trouble, where she wrote, in a style that echoed Foucault, that

power can neither be withdrawn nor refused, but only redeployed. Indeed, in my view, the normative focus for gay and lesbian practice ought to be on the subversive and parodic redeployment of power rather than on the impossible fantasy of its full-scale transcendence.53

These apparently abstract questions are politically significant. If we doubt that we can understand the world, we are far less likely to have the confidence to change it. Our fragmentary understanding only leaves us strategies such as subversion and parody: a generalised challenge to accepted ideas is impossible.

In the preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble, however, Butler acknowledged that she had revised the consistently negative view of the universal she held when she originally wrote the book. That more sympathetic view of the universal can be seen, perhaps, in Butler’s contribution to a debate with Nancy Fraser in 1997 about Marxist attitudes to gender and sexuality. In this exchange of articles Fraser articulates what in 1980s socialist-feminist thought was called a “dual systems” theory: Marxism can help us understand economics, but to analyse gender and sexuality we need to turn to feminism. Butler rejects Fraser’s view, stating:

Homophobia, [Fraser] argues, has no roots in political economy, because homosexuals occupy no distinctive position in the division of labour, are distributed throughout the class structure, and do not constitute an exploited class…thus making their struggles into a matter of cultural recognition, rather than a material oppression.54

Fraser argues, according to Butler, that because there are LGBT people in all classes, their oppression cannot be rooted in capitalism. Butler replies by pointing out that capitalism needs not only to reproduce goods but also to reproduce people, including workers—and the institution through which capitalism does this, the family, is central to an understanding of how it creates oppression around gender and sexuality. Butler begins by referencing Marx and Engels, refers to political debates of the 1970s and 1980s, and argues:

Essential to the socialist feminism of the time was precisely the view that the family is not a natural given…scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s sought to establish the sphere of sexual reproduction as part of the material conditions of life… It also sought to show how the reproduction of gendered persons, of “men” and “women”, depended on the social regulation of the family… struggles to transform the social field of sexuality do not become central to political economy to the extent that they can be directly tied to questions of unpaid and exploited labour, but also because they cannot be understood without an expansion of the “economic” sphere itself to include both the reproduction of goods as well as the social reproduction of persons.55

Marx, Engels and the socialist tradition

Such constructive dialogue between the queer and Marxist traditions is, unfortunately, rare. Foucault never engaged with non-Stalinist versions of Marxism, and provocatively dismissed Marx’s own writings: “Marxism exists in 19th century thought like a fish in water: that is, unable to breathe anywhere else”.56 Much of today’s queer theory accepts the common-sense view that Marxism is outdated, made irrelevant in developed societies by the decline of heavy engineering and coal mines, and everywhere by the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is not the place for a general defence of the Marxist tradition. But it is worth saying something about Marxist attitudes to gender and sexuality—beginning, as Butler does, with the works of Marx and Engels.

The first point is that Marxism has never been what many believe it to be, a politics about economic justice with no real interest in human emancipation. From his earliest to his last writings, Marx’s condemnation of capitalism includes its failure to give human beings the dignity they deserve. This process is rooted in the economic nature of capitalism, but goes beyond it:

The worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is…not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside himself.

Earlier in the same passage Marx has explained the effect on the worker of the fact that work under capitalism is not about the worker realising his potential, but necessary in order to live:

Labour is external to the worker…he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself in his work, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.57

Marx refers to this experience as “alienation”, and it affects the whole of capitalist society. Public life is divided from private, and people are encouraged to think that isolated, private individuals are the basic units of society, instead of groups. We are told that the economy, an institution created by human beings, is beyond human control. Eating, drinking and sex, which should be social functions, and so, as Marx puts it, “human”, tend to become nothing more than the satisfaction of physical needs.

Capitalist society contradicts human nature. This is not a fixed human nature but one which is produced by the activity of human beings themselves. The Marxist philosopher István Mészáros comments:

Marx’s protest against alienation, privatisation and reification does not involve him in the contradictions of an idealisation of some kind of a “natural state”. There is no trace of a sentimental or a romantic nostalgia for nature in his conception. His programme…does not advocate a return to “nature”, to a “natural” set of primitive or “simple” needs but the “full realisation of man$7_$_s nature” through an adequately selfmediating human activity.58

Such accounts of history seem, in principle, compatible with the accounts of changing sexuality and human nature that emerge from social constructionist histories.

Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels also comment more directly on sexuality and the family. In the Communist Manifesto, for example, they call for the abolition of the family and condemn bourgeois sexual hypocrisy.59 Late in his life Engels used anthropological evidence—some of the first of its kind—as the basis for his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.60 Just as Marx had sought to undermine capitalism by pointing out that institutions like private property are not natural, but have developed through history, so Engels is concerned to call into question current ideas about marriage and sexuality, to put them into context and show their historical development. Nor is this development a consoling story of advances from “primitive” beginnings to “advanced” civilisation: Engels suggests that the social position of women was much higher in some prehistoric societies, for example. There are problems with Engels’s book: most of the evidence on which it relies is outdated, it lapses occasionally into a teleological view in which human society is pushed forwards by natural selection, and Engels makes, in passing, a couple of homophobic remarks. Yet, in its suggestion that such things as male dominance, jealousy and monogamy are not natural or universal, but socially constructed, the book was enormously advanced for its time, and remains a testimony to Marxists’ involvement in issues of gender and sexuality.

That involvement has continued since Engels: high points of the Marxist tradition of sexual liberation have been those revolutionary or near-revolutionary situations where the struggles of workers to overthrow capitalism have opened up a space where many accepted ideas can be called into question, and sexual freedom advanced, as in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the November 1918 Revolution and the Weimar Republic in Germany, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, leading to the first constitution in the world to guarantee lesbian and gay rights.61

Marxism shares many goals with queer theory and politics, and Marxists accept at least elements of its understanding of history and society. But other aspects of queer theory seem less helpful in taking forward struggles for gender and sexual freedom. Foucault tells us that sexual liberation is a myth; queer political strategies make it harder for activists to relate to moderate LGBT people who might want to marry, or to working class people far outside the campuses; postmodernism tells us that we can only understand the world, and can only change it, in fragmentary and marginal ways.

Yet economic crisis, the growth of fascism and the risk of environmental catastrophe, along with the continuing reality of homophobia and transphobia, make the need for a general challenge to existing society clear. One of the great strengths of the anti-capitalist movement in the first years of this century, after all, was its stress on the connections between different struggles. Marxists argue that homophobia is rooted in capitalism and its promotion of the family: the working class is the key agency in ending capitalism, because workers have the economic power to destroy it. General politics, class struggle, then forms the context for struggles around gender and sexuality, as the historical account above suggests—not the other way around. But this is not to say that sexuality is a secondary issue compared to the economy—the goal of all our struggles is to destroy the society that robs us of our humanity in a hundred ways, including those that involve gender and sexuality. Despite the real differences between Marxism and queer theory, on this we can all agree.


1: For a more detailed history of LGBT struggle see Dee, 2010. Seidman, 1993, covers some of the same ground from a postmodernist perspective, but omits the general political context, which is crucial.

2: See Harman, 1988, chapters 4, 5 and 9, and Neale, 2001, chapter 5.

3: D’Emilio, 1983, pp231-233.

4: Weeks, 1977, chapter 17; Silverstein and White, 1977, pp115, 11.

5: Shilts, 1987, p580; Bersani, 1987, p5.

6: For example, see Rich, 1981.

7: Shilts, 1987, p596; Kramer, 1990, p173.

8: Faderman, 1992; Bi Community News, 2004.

9: Signorile, 1993, pp3-16.

10: Kramer, 1990, pp91, 75, 245.

11: Washington Post, 2010.

12: Washington Post, 2011a.

13: Washington Post, 2011b.

14: Sullivan, 1996, pp176-196.

15: New York Times, 2004; Advocate, 2007.

16: See Younger, 2011, for a full list.

17: Evening Standard, 2011.

18: Hari, 2011; Socialist Worker, 2011.

19: Shepard and Hayduk, 2002.

20: Callinicos, 2003, p80.

21: Foucault, 1981, p43.

22: Foucault, 1981, pp30, 69.

23: Foucault, 1981, p99.

24: Foucault, 1981, pp95-96,

25: Foucault, 1981, p105.

26: See Halperin, 1990, and Houlbrook, 2005.

27: See Epprecht, 2008; Massad, 2007; El-Rouayheb, 2005; Wilson, 2011.

28: See LeVay, 2011. Such ideas bear a striking resemblance to those that dominated the German gay movement in the early 20th century: see Dee, 2010, p62.

29: Eribon, 1992, p163. See also Wilson, 2008.

30: Foucault, 1981, pp5, 125. Historians of pre-modern sexuality such as Randolph Trumbach, for example, argue that identities based on same-sex desire first emerged in the 17th century with the development of the “molly house”, not in the 19th century as Foucault claims.

31: See Huffer, 2010. As Huffer points out, LGBT liberation’s stress on coming out, on winning freedom by speaking the truth about one’s sexuality, is fundamentally at odds with Foucault’s anti-humanist concept of the construction of sex and the subject through discourse.

32: Signorile, 1993, pp74, 82, 69.

33: Jagose, 1996, p127.

34: Jagose, 1996, p3.

35: Warner, 1993, pxvi; Warner, 1999, p6.

36: Warner, 1999, p99; Butler, 2004, p5.

37: Warner, 1999, pp63, 36.

38: See, for example, Califia, 1994, subtitled “The Culture of Radical Sex”. The term “sex radical” is also frequently used.

39: Butler, 2001.

40: Rabble.ca, 2011.

41: Marx, 1975a, p425.

42: Jagose, 1996, pp105-106.

43: BBC News, 2006.

44: Haaretz, 2010.

45: For a translation of Butler’s refusal speech, see Butler, 2010. For further information on the controversy, including the response of local Die Linke queer activists, see Freitag, 2010.

46: Butler, 2006, p34.

47: Butler, 1993, p126.

48: Butler, 1993, pp10-11.

49: Butler, 2006, p187.

50: Butler, 1993, ppx, 125.

51: Kevin Floyd argues for this position in seeking to demonstrate that Marxism and queer theory can be made compatible. For example see Floyd, 2009.

52: Butler, 1992, p8.

53: Butler, 2006, p169.

54: Butler, 1998, p39. For Fraser’s contribution-in fact, a response to Butler-see Fraser, 1998.

55: Butler, 1998, p40.

56: Foucault, 1974, p262.

57: Marx, 1975b, p326.

58: Mészáros, 1970, p82.

59: Marx and Engels, 1973, pp55-56.

60: Engels, 1978.

61: See Dee, 2010, chapters 2 and 3, and pp160-162.


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