Marriage, Marketing, Tailending: The U.S. Left and Same-Sex Marriage

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Marriage, Marketing, Tailending: The U.S. Left and Same-Sex Marriage by David Thorstad

(Speech to Socialists and Marriage Conference, Paris, October 7, 2006)


“Leftists and gays . . . must argue and fight for everyone to be involved in the battle for gay marriage, no matter what their position is on the issue.” This overheated call to arms typifies the attitude of most American left groups, whether Trotskyist, social democrat, third campist, anarchist, Maoist, or Stalinist. Surprisingly, it appeared in the CPUSA’s magazine Political Affairs in January 2005. Yet the CP has never done a self-criticism of its decades-long dismissal of homosexuality as a bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, or even fascist, perversion. Of all the U.S. leftist groups, only the Spartacist League, an orthodox Trotskyist group, which also supports gay marriage as a “democratic right,” has placed it in the context of a Marxist critique of marriage. All others seem to regard it as a progressive demand.

Perhaps the left’s enthusiastic embrace of gay marriage reflects relief at the taming of gay liberation now that homosexuals, instead of challenging hetero institutions, are trying to join them.

Marriage is the downside of “Come out!” During the 1977 fightback against Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children crusade against homosexuality, homosexuals poured out of their closets and gay lib became a mass movement for the first time. After radical activists made it safer to be openly gay, the middle class, the psychotherapists, the religious, the businessmen, the bourgeois politicians began to come out. Marriage became a key demand for mostly middle-class homosexuals. Children became a football for both sides of the issue.

The marriage campaign suffered serious legal setbacks in July in five states: New York, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Washington. The July 6 ruling against same-sex marriage by the New York State court of appeals on constitutional grounds may have sounded the death knell for this issue in the United States, even if it did not drive a stake through its heart. This traditionally liberal court ruled that any extension of marriage rights would have to go through a legislative process. That could take a long time indeed.

The campaign for gay marriage shows the limitations of identity politics, as well as its accommodation to the status quo. The same could be said of the two other main planks in the homosexual agenda in the United States today: joining the imperialist military to kill Third World babies for Wall Street, and passage of so-called hate-crimes laws (aka thought-crimes legislation).

It is striking how far gay lib has strayed from its post-Stonewall vision of sexual liberation and freedom for all. The scope of this devolution is dramatic if the utter conventionality of the marriage demand is contrasted with a 1969 slogan of New York’s Gay Liberation Front: “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!” But this should be seen in historical context. The embrace of conventionality and conservatism is not surprising in view of the death of so many gay male sex radicals of AIDS; antimale, antisex campaigns since the late 1970s by bourgeois feminists, in league with the state, against pornography, prostitution, public sex, SM, and pederasty; the elimination of radical black groups through murder or co-optation; a trend to the right in virtually all sectors of society; the increasing atomization of the working class and the incorporation of trade unions into the capitalist system, and their failure to rise above mere trade-union issues to fight for radical change; the resilience of the capitalist system, which has succeeded in commercializing, marketing, absorbing, and co-opting every sectoral challenge (by students, women, blacks and other Third World peoples, homosexuals)—all this despite a growing crisis of the capitalist system, even as globalization extends the reach of imperialism and bourgeois ideology into the world’s most remote hamlets.

The flip side of the marketization of homosexuality and the assimilation of middle-class homosexuals into the capitalist system is a trend toward the criminalization of almost everything, especially anything sexual that falls outside bourgeois conventionality. The United States is today a police state. Tens of thousands of innocent citizens are falling into the black hole of prison for crimes they did not commit, or for violating sexual taboos. The old idea that there must be a victim for there to be a crime no longer holds. Prisons can’t be built fast enough to hold all the new criminals. As under the Nazis, bad thoughts are sufficient today for permanent incarceration, or worse. This is happening with the support of the majority of the population. Liberal capitalist society increasingly looks like totalitarianism.

This is the context in which the American left—what remains of it—finds itself. Despite crisis, incompetence, and blatant criminality by the ruling gang, the left seems unable to mount even a modest challenge to the system. The youth radicalization of the 1960s, of which gay liberation was a part, had the power to transform individual lives for the better, but it has had little lasting impact on society as a whole. Young people today are brainwashed, beaten down, and lacking in optimism for the future. The left’s influence has dwindled to near irrelevancy. Even an ostensible anarchist like Noam Chomsky urged people to vote for a capitalist during the last presidential election.

The left’s embrace of the gay assimilationist agenda—marriage, joining the military, hate-crimes laws—is not surprising given the fact that it views sexual issues through a liberal lens. Sexual liberation is put off till the ever-receding socialist future—what the Wobblies called “pie in the sky by and by when you die.” Everything is reduced to a low common denominator of achieving “civil rights” within the framework of the capitalist system. This stagist (Menshevik) approach is embraced even by most Trotskyists. During the early 1970s, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party held a three-year internal debate on homosexuality and gay liberation that was more extensive than any on the left anywhere to this day. It ended with the party adopting a position of supporting equal rights for “gay people”—something any liberal capitalist could support. It suspended judgment on whether homosexuality was a natural feature of human experience and the mammalian heritage. That was dismissed as a scientific question on which a Marxist party—despite pretensions to “scientific socialism”—could take no position. But Marxists do take positions on scientific questions, including whether a deity created the universe, whether women are inferior because of their biology, whether the Earth is flat, and so on. At the time, some of us argued that there was no such thing as “gay people”—only homosexual acts—that this was an abstract concept that erased fluidity and ambiguity and discovery, that diverted attention from decriminalizing consensual sexual acts that everyone had the potential to engage in, regardless of their sexual identity, and that turned freedom from sexual oppression into a question of mere identity politics. Instead of seeing gay liberation as seeking to liberate the repressed homoerotic capacities of everyone, it relegated gay liberation to a nearly weightless interest group, merely tinkering with the status quo. This liberal approach typifies most left groups today. It is perhaps not coincidental that when the SWP made a “turn to labor” in the late 1970s—which went hand in hand with an attack on man/boy love and a withdrawal from the gay movement—many of its cadres found marriage and having children to their liking.

Today, the “gay people concept” has degenerated into absurd alphabet soup acronyms, ostensibly under the guise of expanding inclusion, but turning identity politics into a reductio ad absurdum: GLBT, LGBT, GLBTQIA, etc. Even “queer,” which used to be the worst verbal abuse of gay men (it was used by commanding officers to get reluctant GIs to fight in Vietnam, the Village Voice reported), has, under the prodding of mostly lefty academics, been stripped of this meaning and expanded to include even straight women, in the process erasing gay men. There is no such thing as a “GLBT person,” or, in current pc-speak, an “LGBT person,” let alone an “LGBT community.” These are political constructs designed to reassure the heterosexual dictatorship and to create a constituency for a liberal agenda. Identity politics provides labels for a strategy based on victimology.

“2, 4, 6, 8, how do you know your wife is straight? 3, 5, 7, 9, hey, lady, your husband’s mine!” Gay youth chanted this slogan at the 1985 New York City gay pride march. They were quickly shushed up by an adult monitor—less for the slogan’s implied subversion of marriage than for its suggestion of youth–adult sex. It is impossible to imagine gay youth chanting such a slogan these days, now that the state is financing adult gay and lesbian baby-sitters to keep them in line. As Malcolm X pithily put it: “When they lay those dollars on you, your soul goes.”

Liberating sexuality from the constraints of heterosupremacy has been scrapped in favor of seeking legal rights for a sanitized and unthreatening fixed behavioral minority. In all the ink spilled over gay marriage, other forms of marriage are not even countenanced, such as polygamy or between men and boys, as in Siwa Oasis. The marriage campaign is stuck in a provincial, conventional, conservative, mostly Western framework. That is hardly surprising in an era of globalization when, with Soviet Communism having gone tits up and China capitalist in all but name, the whole world lies at the mercies of capitalist penetration. Oddly, left groups that uncritically support gay marriage are silent about the way marriage is treated in Cuba. Mariela Castro (Vilma Espin and Raúl Castro’s daughter and Fidel Castro’s niece), who is director of the government-funded National Center for Sex Education in Havana, was recently asked if gays in Cuba are going to demand a right to marriage. She pointed to Cuba’s casual approach to marriage and its no-fault divorce: “Marriage is not as important in Cuba as in other more Catholic countries,” she said. “Here consensual pairing is more important. What matters is love.” So far, Cuban gays have not demanded marriage. If they use their head, they won’t.

Public Television’s Frontline reported on the matriarchal Mosuo tribe in the Yunnan and Szechuan regions of China where no one gets married, and where children are raised by their uncles, the woman’s brothers, and the father plays no role at all in his offspring’s upbringing. One young tribal woman voiced astonishment that anyone would want to get married. “When people get married,” she said, “they start to fight.”

The state should get out of the marriage business. Society should extend recognition to all kinds of civil union arrangements between consenting individuals, whether man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, man and boy, grandparent and grandchild, communal arrangements, and so on. Marriage should be relegated to the purely private and religious domain. Every citizen should be treated equally before the state and be guaranteed the same rights and privileges without regard to conjugal or marital status. Separate church and state!

Gay-identifieds have become the new straights. They act like straights; they seek to justify their sexuality by appealing to straight norms. Both the gay movement and the left are mired in a liberal approach to sexual oppression. Instead of challenging heterosupremacy and capitalism, the gay movement has made peace with them, and the left tailends this accommodationism.

In the 1970s, much of the left seemed to discover that the proletariat was unlikely to play the historic and revolutionary role assigned to it by orthodox Marxism. Leftists began to look around for ersatz “new mass vanguards” and “new social movements” such as students, women, gays, Third World peoples. None of those agents have proven viable alternatives to a proletariat that, in the West at least, shows no sign of acquiring a revolutionary consciousness, or even of acting in its own self-interest. And none have proven more easily co-opted by the capitalist system than homosexuals. This is the meaning of the marriage campaign.

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