Gay Liberation and the Taboo on Male Homosexuality

The following comments were made at a panel on the topic “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” May 19 at a conference titled “Which Way Forward for Psychoanalysis?” and sponsored by the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry at the University of Chicago.  While Freud and psychoanalysis were a focus on the event, other themes running throughout were Marxism, gay liberation, drugs, and the Left.  Besides a number of therapists, psychoanalysts, and academics, other participants included Chris Cutrone, a founder of Platypus; Yasmin Nair, lesbian writer and cofounder of Against Equality; Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization; and Jay Stevens, author of Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.

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Frank Browning’s article in the Gay & Lesbian Review fifteen years ago (1998) begins with the following observation, pertinent to this panel’s topic even as it directs its critique toward the gay establishment:

Dissident desires win tolerance and respect in America only after they have been rendered and processed into the language of politics, law, and commerce.  The subtle, shifting force of desire itself is seldom defended except in spiritual terms.  Homosexual sex — indeed sex at all — remains untouchable territory for public discourse.  We can use its dressing, its symbols, to sell blue jeans, power drills, and Chevies, but the thing itself remains oddly embarrassing even in the flourishing gay press.  Nowhere in the major gay magazines do we read writing that dares to be as psychologically rich and sexually evocative as Genet or Proust or even Lawrence.  (Indeed, general interest magazines like The New Yorker, Harpers, and Granta are the only commercial magazines that publish first rank fiction or poetry on homosexual themes.)  Instead, the gay media publish heroic or disturbing stories of marriage, career, adoption, entertainment, health, and business — the public benchmarks of an emerging social constituency. . . .

Desire, however, scares us. . . .  Ours is a culture — and has been since its founding — that requires not merely the sublimation of desire . . . but the active, concentrated suppression of public discussion of sex.

(An exception to critique of superficiality and lifestylism in the gay media is the recent excellent special investigative series on the law and homosexuality in Chicago’s Windy City Times.)

The two main contributors to American attitudes toward homosexual behavior are the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the Anglo-Saxon legal heritage.  The taboo on (male) homosexuality goes back to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The legal reform of sex law in the Napoleonic Code bypassed for the most part the Anglo-Saxon countries.  Other reforms of the Western capitalist reality under liberalism, Marxism, and Communism have been scattershot and inconsistent.

The following comments can hit only the surface of the topic.

The Taboo on Male Homosexuality

The taboo on male homosexuality in the West has taken two main forms: sodomy (or “laws against nature” or “deviate sexual intercourse”) statutes and age-of-consent laws.  The two can be related, and to some extent overlap, but age-of-consent laws came into effect much later and have their origin in the regulation of marriage — for which the age was set as low as 7 and, in some states in early America after the whites arrived, at 10.  Both forms of the taboo are complex, inconsistently applied, and have evolved over time.  This subject is too complicated to address briefly, so I will only touch on some salient aspects, especially as they pertain to the modern gay liberation movement.

In the immediate post-Stonewall period, a key demand of the American gay liberation movement was to abolish the sodomy statutes.  These criminalized various behaviors, usually between unmarried persons, including oral and anal intercourse, sex with dead people, birds, or animals, and (in Colorado in the late nineteenth century) even solitary masturbation.  The proscribed acts could apply to both same-sex and other-sex behavior, though more often they were used against homosexual acts.  Homosexuality per se was never illegal, only certain acts.  In 2003, when the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, declared the remaining sodomy statutes unconstitutional, it did so on privacy grounds, and applied the ruling only to consensual acts between adults, without challenging the laws’ underlying religious or antiscientific rationale.  Some states still have sodomy laws on the books, criminalizing not only acts like bestiality, but also anal or oral sex when prostitution is involved.  Already by the mid-1970s, however, the gay movement was increasingly focusing more on civil rights than on removal of sodomy statutes.  New York’s Gay Activists Alliance was so concerned about this shift that in 1975 it published a pamphlet titled Repeal the New York Consensual Sodomy Statute!  One of the main arguments by activists against the law was that it violated the principle of separation of church and state.  In fact, it was GAA and a coalition of New York groups that first raised “Separate Church and State!” as a gay slogan in the 1970s.  Around this time, I was asked by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund to be the plaintiff in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the New York law.  The challenge was thrown out on grounds that I lacked standing since I hadn’t been arrested under the statute.  I then proposed that I perform sodomy in my apartment with a friend before invited members of the press, but that idea was shot down because it would have raised the distracting issue of public sex.

There were various reasons for the shift toward focusing on the more liberal issue of rights rather than sodomy repeal: sodomy statutes raised the uncomfortable issue of religion — particularly Judaism and Christianity — since they traced their origin back to the biblical anathema in the book of Leviticus; the laws were not consistently enforced, so it was not easy to find plaintiffs who had standing to challenge them; and the question of nondiscrimination and equal rights was an easier one to argue in the public sphere.  Few people would want to admit to bigotry or discriminatory attitudes.  And fighting for city, state, and national measures to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation offered an opportunity for homosexuals to put their case before the public, and to chip away at some forms of overt discrimination.

The elimination of sodomy laws has been, in my opinion, the most important gain of the gay liberation movement, at least in the legal arena.  It would, of course, probably not have happened had it not been for the radical and confrontational challenge to heterosupremacy by a gay movement that had grown out of the youth and countercultural revolt of the 1960s.  Getting rid of the sodomy laws removed the legal underpinning of the taboo on homosexual behavior.  It did not, however, remove the taboo from legal and social life.  It merely shifted the ground onto the question of age and other aspects of gay life.  The result has been an even harsher oppression of some forms of homosexual behavior — especially pederasty.

Assimilation and Purification

Today, in the West, the taboo on (mostly male) homosexual behavior seems to be in retreat, or even to have been overcome.  Homosexuality is increasingly accepted or tolerated — a change in public opinion that would never have happened without struggle and the visibility created by millions coming out of the closet.  (It is no coincidence that the first post-Stonewall publication of the Gay Liberation Front was called Come Out!.)  Even rich and formerly closeted homosexuals now feel safe to come out, and their more conservative ideology has changed the movement, strengthening elitism and mainstreaming homosexuality through organizations tied more to the ruling class than to the rabble or the working class.  The gay liberation movement has become a movement focused on identity politics and assimilation into the heterodominant society in its current LGBTQQ2SIAAetc. avatar.  The earlier challenge to heterosupremacy, with a view to liberating the repressed sexuality of everyone, has been replaced by a conservative, conventional focus on winning acceptance by that heterosupremacist, capitalist society.  This is most obviously reflected in the quest for marriage and open participation in oppressive institutions such as the military, as well as in appeals to strengthen the state’s repressive forces through so-called hate-crimes laws.

But this assimilationist arrivisme was made possible only through a purification process that anathematized forms of same-sex love and behavior that the hetero establishment found unpalatable.  Foremost among them is pederasty (to a lesser degree, perhaps, SM).  Pederasty is the main form that male homosexuality has taken throughout most of Western — and not only Western — history.  It represents the high points of Western civilization: ancient Greece and the Renaissance.  Pederasty (also called man/boy love today) was an integral part of the early homosexual movement in Germany and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  But in the rush to accommodate the hetero powers that be, it has been toppled from its historic perch and, where possible, sent to prison.

An early sign of this was the resolution adopted by the National Organization for Women in October 1980 condemning pederasty, public sex, sadomasochism, prostitution, and pornography.  (The resolution was submitted by NOW’s Lesbian Rights Committee and contained the novel definition of pederasty as unwanted sex between a man and a young girl!)  Pederasty is a consensual sexual relationship between a younger male (usually a teenager) and an older man; it has nothing to do with sex with females.  This anathema against man/boy love grew out of the crusade by Anita Bryant to “save our children” from homosexuality, and the campaign of some feminists against pornography — both of which gained prominence in the late 1970s.  The witch hunt against man/boy love began in 1977 in Canada against the gay paper the Body Politic for publishing a rather tame article titled “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” and the arrests of men in Massachusetts for sex with teenage boys — a witch hunt abetted by openly lesbian legislator Elaine Noble.  NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) was founded in 1978 in a reaction to this growing witch hunt.

The anti-boy-love hysteria and hype have sought to marginalize and demonize this issue, thereby purifying the gay movement.  It has gone hand-in-hand with a child-abuse industry that has given rise to draconian sex-offender laws that have ruined untold numbers of lives, including of youngsters.  The taboo on male homosexuality has branched out to encompass multitudes of sexual behaviors, including those that are completely consensual, and given rise to an antisex industry that regards the erect penis as a weapon of torture, not an instrument of pleasure.  The gay and lesbian, as well as feminist, movements have been complicit in this demonization.  Few remember that in the immediate post-Stonewall period, repeal or reform of age-of-consent laws was a demand of some gay groups (including GAA and some European groups).  But age-of-consent laws punish only good forms of sex — namely, consensual ones.  They do nothing to protect children or youths from unwanted sex, but rather punish both them and their older partners for sex and friendships that both want.  In that sense, these laws are a fraud and a misnomer.  Young people can and do consent to sexual pleasure all the time, and they should have a right to do so without fear of being dragged through the courts or branded as sex offenders.  Laws against rape or coercion already address cases of genuine violation of the rights of others.  If the law gets involved, the issue could be treated on a case-by-case basis.

What began as a sexual liberation struggle has morphed into its opposite: today, family values, marriage, monogamy, child rearing, patriotism, and conventionality show how far the former gay liberation movement has accommodated itself to the hetero establishment and its prejudices.

The Left and Sexual Liberation

The LGBT movement is not the only one to accommodate the hetero powers that be.  So has most of what remains of the left.  As American society has moved to the right since the rebellious 1960s, so has much of the left.

Marxism is a method for critiquing society, but it provides no prescription for sexuality in the future socialist utopia.  That is not to say that socialists have not tried, nor that some hints cannot be found in a Marxist approach to social issues.  The results, however, are varied, and even contradictory.

The most farsighted, advanced thinker about sexuality in the socialist tradition is the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, who wrote his book Le nouveau monde amoureux around 1817 to 1819.  In fact, his views on the new society, which he called Harmony, were so radical that his epigones suppressed them for 150 years, until 1967.  His utopia provided for homosexuality, including lesbianism, and even for boy-love.  He considered laws against sexuality to be “spider webs that stop only the small gnats and let the big ones through.”  In the late nineteenth century, the great social-democratic German leader August Bebel was an early proponent of removing Paragraph 175, the law against certain sexual acts between males (though not mutual masturbation).  A number of communists and anarchists were also vocal supporters of sexual freedom, among them Alexandra Kollontai (famous for advocating “free love” during the Russian Revolution) and anarchist Emma Goldman.  Two of the biggest steps forward in removing penalties against homosexuality were the French and Russian revolutions.  And it could be argued that it was leftist radicals who gave birth to a gay movement.  A number of leading figures in the early homosexual rights movement in Europe were either socialists of one kind or another (such as Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee; Edward Carpenter; Oscar Wilde), or anarchists (such as Adolf Brand, founder of the pederast Community of the Special, the first gay group in history), or communists (Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society).

Today, on the Marxist left, however, even where hostility is absent, the tendency has been to regard sexual liberation not so much as an immediate goal as something to be put off until arrival of the future socialist utopia — what the Wobblies called “pie in the sky by and by when you die.”

Where tolerance on the left toward homosexuality was reversed in the 1930s under Stalin, and subsequently by Maoists and most other communists, it would take a new wave of sexual freedom struggle following Stonewall to undermine hostility to same-sex love.  Today, support for gay rights is pretty much universal on the dwindling left, as well as among capitalist parties, but it is generally limited to the low common denominator of equal rights in areas such as marriage, getting into the imperialist military, and so on.  Hardly anyone anymore, whether on the left or among same-sexers, espouses a more radical vision of sexual freedom, or even of freeing homosexuals jailed for their consensual acts, let alone the need for emancipation of minors statutes to empower youth.

So, while gay liberation has had an enormous and salutary impact on society as a whole, and has the power to completely transform individual lives, its gains have not benefited everyone, and have left some worse off than they were before Stonewall.

One of gay liberation’s important victories has been to counter the decades-long crusade by psychiatry, based on superstition rather than science, to condemn same-sex love as a perversion, as something sick and alien to “normal” sexuality (that is, heterosexuality), and providing the pseudo-intellectual basis for social oppression and criminalization of homosexual behavior.  For decades, homosexuals have regarded the psychiatric profession not only as quackery, but as one of the main pillars of our oppression.  We zapped and struggled in the 1970s against its three main spokesmen: Irving Bieber, Charles Socarides, and Lionel Ovesey.  Thanks to those struggles, their unscientific, heterosupremacist views today have been largely discredited.

David Thorstad is a former president of New York’s Gay Activists Alliance, a cofounder of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a cofounder of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, coauthor of The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), and editor of Gay Liberation and Socialism: Documents from the Discussions on Gay Liberation inside the Socialist Workers Party (1970-1973).  His writings are available at <>.

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