The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 43 (Spring 1993).
Gays and lesbians face a growing attack. Well-financed fundamentalist Christian organizations are leading a political offensive against gains won since the 1970’s. But it is not just a fringe attack. The mainstream parties and churches encourage the homophobic mood. The shocking growth in physical assaults has been met by the refusal of city governments, Republican and Democratic, and their friends the cops, to defend gays and lesbians. And Bill Clinton, the supposedly pro-gay president, is playing the same treacherous game.
Unfortunately, many gays and lesbians are swallowing hopeless reform solutions. Militant struggle won significant if limited changes during capitalism’s postwar boom period. Now, when the economy is going downhill and the attacks sharpen, gays are being detoured into a tight electoral alliance forged between their leaders and the Democratic Party. In exchange for mostly nominal gains, the struggle against oppression is being gutted.
Right after the election, a furor broke out over Clinton’s pledge to end the military’s ban on gays. The gay establishment not only supported this reform but cheerled for Clinton. Yet somehow Clinton refuses to play his assigned role of gallant crusader for gay rights.
Clinton picked this issue knowing that the ban is likely to be eliminated anyway through the courts. Then he subordinated the principle of gay rights to negotiations with Congress and the military brass. He accepted a six-month delay during which gays are still being penalized. And he agreed to stiffen the “conduct” codes that will inevitably victimize gays far more than heterosexuals and hit working-class recruits, the bulk of gays in the military, far more than officers.
Clinton’s talk of reforms for gays, like his quick repeal of the anti-abortion gag rule, was meant to shore up support among liberal professionals – as he prepared to attack the working class through economic austerity. If he were really interested in ending gay oppression, he would have fought to decriminalize sodomy in Arkansas when he was Governor; he would now end the army policy forbidding anal and oral sex.
Don’t hold your breath. He has also refused to fight for domestic partnership laws that extend legal benefits of marriage to gays, both in Arkansas and now as President. It is no coincidence that the one issue he picked forces gays to wrap themselves twice as tightly as non-gays in the American flag to prove their acceptability.
There is reason for the armed forces to repress gay rights. Imperial domination, the business of the U.S. military, depends on inculcating attitudes of contempt and brutality among the troops. It often includes condoning rapes of women. The Tailhook scandal, where dozens of Navy brass looked the other way while junior officers pawed every woman in sight, was no aberration. In this culture, welcoming gays into the military undermines such “manly” traditions.
We warn gays in the military against relying on presidential promises for personal safety: to “come out” under present conditions could cost your life. The democratic fight of women and gays against all forms of discrimination, even in the military, deserves support. But for oppressed people to join the imperialist U.S. armed forces is to sign up with the enemy of oppressed people here and across the globe. It is the wrong side.
Since middle-class gays are generally the ones who can more easily afford to come out, anti-gay reactionaries manipulatively portray all gays as well-off and therefore alien to the interests of the beleaguered sectors of society. This false stereotyping is abetted by the strategy of pro-capitalist gay leaders: aligning with elitist forces who many working-class people view as threats to their well-being. The alliance thus helps the anti- gay campaign extend its mass base.
Take the fight over the “Rainbow Curriculum” in New York. This document, a teachers’ guide proposed by Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, contains a brief section encouraging teachers to help students with two parents of the same sex feel accepted, starting in elementary school.
The guide was attacked by churchmen and politicians. Some local school boards simply ignored it, but homophobic president Mary Cummins of a Queens district banned it, with enormous media publicity. She and fellow reactionaries demanded that teachers not mention homosexuality at all or else denounce it as a vile perversion.
At several local school board hearings, speakers divided into two antagonistic, screaming sides. One was led by right wingers spewing hatred for gays. The other featured liberals defending gay rights. But the anti-gay side included working-class people, many of them Black and Latino parents.
Why would working people of color align with reactionaries who feed off their oppression? After decades of declining wages and collapsing public services, people lose hope. Crime is everywhere; drugs proliferate; gangs expand. Adults fear aimless youth who see no alternative to anti-social behavior, Parents see their children heading nowhere. They pray that an education will help them get a decent job.
As the social fabric unravels, families tear apart. Mothers are forced to work, but the system provides no child care. Parents can’t control their kids; at least, they pray, the schools will keep them in line. Schools in New York, like elsewhere, are losing teachers, classrooms, books and working toilets. In many decaying schools the only hope is for survival, not education.
In this situation, the middle-class gay organizations sprang to the defense of Fernandez, who many parents see, correctly, as an elitist helping to drain the schools of funds and resources. Cummins and her ilk claim that Fernandez and gays are part of the attack on the family, while children get no education and are encouraged to run wild. Thus advocacy of gay rights is manipulated to appear to be a grave inequity, not the fight for justice it is.
The Blacks and Latinos who backed Cummins were taken for a ride by a leadership steeped in racism and reaction. The Marxist leader August Bebel once described anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools”; homophobia by workers today is a similar idiotic delusion. But it should be just as obvious that working-class gays and lesbians, in fact all those who want to end anti-gay oppression, should object to their cause being hijacked by forces whose social goals only help build a mass homophobic movement.
The truth is that Cummins & Co. are merely the local agents of the right wing of U.S. capitalism, led recently by Reagan and Bush. They blame not only gays but working women and people of color for the decay of “family values.”
But the truth is also that Fernandez and Mayor David Dinkins are local agents of the Democrats and the liberal wing of U.S. capitalism. They “defend” rights of the oppressed in form but not content. Remember the adroit use of the Democratic convention to celebrate “the year of the woman” – as a cover for a program forcing working people to sacrifice (working-class women are hit especially hard), and for shunting Black demands aside.
Of course, Reagan-Bush-Cummins agree with Clinton-Dinkins-Fernandez that it’s the masses who must sacrifice. Their differences are over how to get the oppressed and the exploited to go at each other’s throats, blaming each other for the growing horrors capitalism is inflicting on all.
One strategy of liberal gay and lesbian leaders is to emphasize how pro-family and pro-establishment they are. Although many gays are conservative, the visible existence of gays and lesbians is becoming too great a challenge to the reactionary ideology of the nuclear family. (See Proletarian Revolution. No. 34 for an analysis of how the family maintains the oppression of women and exploitation of workers.) Trying to portray gays as defenders of the family will never work. The only alternative is to point out the truth, that “family values” garbage is used to promote racist and sexist stereotypes needed more and more to shore up the system.
Homophobia is not a psychological disease, as the term might imply; it is backward consciousness propagated by the ruling class to deflect struggle from the real enemy. It also reflects the ignorance and prejudice that capitalism fosters about sexual matters in general. The Rainbow Curriculum fiasco shows that capitalism prefers not to tell children that gay and lesbian alternatives to “traditional” families exist, much less offer the kind of sex education kids really need.
It is not just evil people who drive the oppressed against each other. The system compels it. But “socialist” gays and non-gays think it the height of political savvy not to publicly challenge capitalism, offering the excuse that the masses do not accept revolution as an alternative. Thus they help teach workers that capitalism is the only reality. It is only communists who tell the truth about capitalism and fight for working-class revolution to liberate us all.
The working class can be won to support gay liberation in the course of struggle. For example, during the British coal miners’ strike of 1984-85, the strikers faced not just an invading army of police but an unremitting barrage of attacks from the media. But various working-class and other organizations rallied to their cause, joining the picket lines against cops and scabs. These included gay organizations, appearing under their own banners, who recognized that the state and cops were a common enemy. The miners at first felt dubious about these unexpected allies, but many came to welcome them and to rethink their attitudes toward homosexuality.
There is another roadblock facing gays and lesbians who are looking for serious alternatives. Given the political crimes committed against gays in the name of “socialism,” it is no surprise that there is much anti- Marxism among gays. But in fact the Russian revolution meant major advances for gay rights. In a backward country, even before the United States deigned to grant women the vote, the Bolshevik workers’ state explicitly acknowledged equality of gays and lesbians with heterosexuals, which years of gay struggle under capitalism have yet to achieve. The fact that these gains were set back and betrayed in the Stalinist counterrevolution is a further condemnation of capitalism, not socialism.
Today, success for anti-gay forces is by no means guaranteed. For the working class to be won to a revolutionary perspective, and for phony political misleaderships to be defeated, the kernel of the proletarian revolutionary party has to be built now. There will be no liberation for gays and lesbians until capitalism is overthrown.