I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.
This statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron was heralded by many as a major win for gay and lesbian people. Lesbian and gay rights had now, it seemed, moved away from being a narrow concern of the Left to become a mainstream issue. With that, full equality was now within reach.
But what did Cameron’s statement actually signify? Did it indicate a final push towards full emancipation of gays and lesbians, or did it instead amount to the integration of gays and lesbians into the structures of the oppressive nuclear family?
In this blog post we’re going to explore the history of queer oppression, and how gays and lesbians have been slowly brought into the fold of the capitalist family.
Let’s start a little bit with a note on language. Debates about rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans*, intersex, queer and other sexual minorities are full of language issues, so it is important to get it right. First, I will use the term “queer” or “queer oppression” whenever I am talking about anyone who does not fit gender or sexual norms — anyone who is not a cis heterosexual person. However each group within this queer umbrella face different issues, so when required I will specifically name each group I am talking about. Given the focus for this blog I will be primarily focusing on “gay oppression” — i.e. oppression targeted at gay men and lesbians.
Where does queer oppression originate?
Modern perceptions of anti-queer feelings a based primarily on the idea they are based in “fear”. Hence the terms “homophobia”, “transphobia” or “queerphobia”. Patrick Strudwick argues that fear underpins the majority of anti-gay sentiment:
Being anti-gay is, without exception, at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of unwanted sexual attention, fear of gender roles being flouted, fear of humanity being wiped out by widespread bumming, fear of a plague of homosexuals dismantling marriage, the family, the church and any other institution held vaguely dear. And, of course, never forget: fear of what lurks repressed and unacknowledged in the homophobe. Irrational fear. It’s a phobia, people.
In mainstream debate this fear is boiled down to narrative of an “inherent conservatism” within our society, based primarily in religious teachings. Hence a teaching of queer history that largely ignores anything prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Much like the story of the patriarchy, queer oppression, we have been told, is as old as society itself.
Unlike the story of the patriarchy however it is much easier to look back in history and find multiple examples that disprove this idea. The most commonly used example is Ancient Greece — a society in which homosexual sex was elevated, seen as “the most praise-worthy, substantive and Godly forms of love.” Yet it is not just in Greece where we find this — we see varied and more progressive approaches to gay and lesbian activity in places varying from Russia to Africa.
So why then, did gays and lesbians suffer oppression in some societies and not others?
To answer this it is worth looking at queer oppression before the rise of industrialised capitalism. Britain for example has seen a long history of repression of homosexual activities. 1533 King Henry VIII introduced the “Buggery Act”, which mandated death for anyone convicted of “buggery” — a term used for any non-procreative sex, which was considered a “crime against nature.” This sort of oppression lasted well into the 1900s.
What was the reason for this? The answer connects largely to the source of the nuclear family as it existed prior to the rise of industrial capitalism — an institution developed based on a need for labour resources to create economic surplus and wealth (primarily in this time to provide labour for farms). Queer sex and activities presented a threat to this norm, and in turn, in particular during times of economic need, these activities were actively repressed. Sherry Wolf describes this when discussing the North American colonies of New England:
The need for labor in the colonies fuelled efforts by New England churches and courts to outlaw and punish adultery, sodomy, incest, and rape. Extramarital sex by women, who were considered incapable of controlling their passions, was punished more severely than extramarital sex by men.
How has this translated during the rise of industrial capitalism? Just as industrialised capitalism had the potential to break the bonds of the patriarchy, John D’Emilio notes it also had the capacity to lead to greater freedoms for gays and lesbians. As noted in previous blogs capitalism weakened the foundation of family life as it brought people away from rural family life into more autonomous lives in the city. This is why Engels predicted capitalism would lead to the end of the proletarian family. This breakdown of the traditional family also allowed for greater autonomy for gays and lesbians. Yet, with this came a problem. While industrial capitalism opened the potential for the breakdown in the family unit, capitalists required families to stay together more than ever — primarily so they could reproduce the next lot of workers. This remains a fundamental contradiction of capitalism.
This contradiction created a very unique situation for gays and lesbians. In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault argues there have been two significant changes in the way our society approaches sexuality. First sex and our sexual desires shifted from something we simply do into something that reveals a fundamental truth about who we are, and second, with this, we have developed an obligation to see out that truth and express it. As Jesi Egan argues, “within this framework, sex isn’t just something you do. Instead, the kind of sex you have (or want to have) becomes a symptom of something else: your sexuality.”
As industrialised capitalism developed sex shifted from something you just did, to something that formed a core part of your identity. In doing so our capitalist society was able to identify and target people who connected to this identity. It’s worth noting that this is an interesting, and largely positive step forward in society. Industrial capitalism allowed for the development of individuality that was not possible in previous social organisations. Despite attempts to oppress this individuality, as occurred with those with “divergent sexualities” this is largely a positive step forward.
Foucault argues the creation of sexual identities was matched with a scientific approach to sexualities — what he calls Scientia Sexualis. The identification of different sexualities allowed for these sexualities to be “controlled” and “cured”.
This is how anti-gay sentiment manifested in the modern capitalist state. Capitalism created the very foundations of the homosexual identity, but also required that identity to be squashed so it did not mess with the norm of the nuclear family, which the state promoted because the breakdown of family structures caused by capitalism threatened wider social breakdown. Hence a process of scientific identification and treatment — treatment designed to bring those with deviant identities back into the fold.
So how does this all relate today? If queer identities are diametrically opposed to the modern state, why are we seeing conservatives such as David Cameron embracing gay marriage?
It is certainly true that equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans* and intersex people has come a long way in the last 40 to 50 years. In the early days of the gay liberation movement this emancipation was connected to challenging the nuclear family, and in turn the state which promoted and defended it. Queer people demanded liberation from (rather than within) capitalism.
Yet, Cameron’s statement indicates a major shift in this view over the past decades. In recent years gay and lesbian activists have become more focused on gaining acceptance within capitalist structures, rather than fighting them, and capitalists have slowly begun to welcome us with open arms – not least of all because queer communities have been increasingly identified as a locus of accumulation. This has occurred through a range of different means — from campaigns for same-sex marriage, to the promotion of gay and lesbian parenting. Gays and lesbians have gone through a process of “normalisation”, one in which they have become part of the capitalist family instead of standing from the outside opposing it.
I will explore these issues, and others, in my next blog post — where we look at how capitalism sells sex today, and how this has allowed the nuclear family to survive.