Red & Purple: A Marxist Perspective on Queer Liberation

by Ian Anderson, adapted from a talk presented at Marxism 2010.

What does queer liberation mean?

This article aims to deal with this question utilising historical materialism, the mode of enquiry pioneered by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Historical materialism explores social relations, such as homosexual oppression, by explaining the productive forces that shape them. With a particular focus on New Zealand history, this analysis aims to sketch the material basis of modern queerness, attempts to control or suppress it, and the politics that have emerged from this contradiction.

To deal with queer liberation, we must first define ‘queer.’ This is a heavily contested term, used both as an insult and a chosen identity. Queer theorist David Halperin has this to say:

‘Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normal.’


So, to simplify, queerness is defined not as a thing in-itself, but in opposition to normalcy, or attempts at control. Largely it refers to queerness of sexuality, gender or orientation. The question for Marxists then becomes, how are queer identities defined and formed? What is their material basis?

To answer this question, we need to set up a theoretical framework and undertake a historical analysis. This analysis will rely particularly on the work of Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, and draws on the notion of ‘historical specificity’ which Karl Korsch emphasised in the writings of Karl Marx. Historical specificity means that our analysis must be specific to historical conditions: so it’s not enough, for example, to claim that the National Party is conservative, we have to observe how they have changed and adapted historically.

Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argued that under advanced capitalism, the system that exists in NZ today, the state would not rely primarily on direct repression. This means that they do not regularly use the police, army and other violent means to keep the working class in check. Instead, the ruling class relies on ideological hegemony, a set of ideas maintained through the school system, churches, media and even unions. This forces revolutionaries into a war of position, in which we must develop a ‘counter-hegemony,’ a set of ideas that challenge the dominant system. This analysis will also observe the identity between these opposites; how in struggle they take on aspects of each other.

More recently, critical theorist Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 that the homosexual came into being in 1870, when the word ‘homosexuality’ was first coined. Foucault sees modern homosexuality as a product of medical discourse, which controls and defines the way people live; this argument could be extended to other forms of queerness, and in fact any attempt to define reality. But is Foucault’s thesis accurate?

Foucault’s argument, that homosexuality is a recent phenomenon, is heavily contested. Scholars contend that not only did same-sex activity predate the modern era, numerous nouns predate ‘homosexual,’ for example:

sodomite, tribadist, eromenos.

However, we can accept these criticisms while still arguing that norms of sexual behaviour, and words to describe it, change throughout history. For example, the Greek ‘eromenos’ is a young lover, taken by an older man, in a relationship as much driven by education as sexuality. This is distinct from the modern notion of homosexuality, which can cover any age bracket and doesn’t always serve worthy educational purposes. But what is the material basis of this changing discourse?

In his essay Capitalism and Gay Identity, John D’Emilio fleshes out Foucault’s argument, by explaining the material basis for the emergence of modern homosexuality. D’Emilio argues that the decline of the ‘household economy,’ over the 18th and 19th Century, is a significant factor. As people came to rely on commodities for survival, there was less of a need to rely on the family. Related to this, sex was increasingly separated from procreation, as birth-rates went into decline and children were no longer necessary to perform labour; as a result, sex became more an expression of intimacy.

Another crucial aspect of D’Emilio’s argument was the emphasis on urbanisation and free labour, which enabled the formation of new communities. No longer confined to isolated communities, migrants to these thriving new cities could assemble around bars, parties and drag balls, forming whatever communities they saw fit. This line of argument accurately describes historical development in NZ.

So if capitalism enabled the formation of new, queer communities, why are these communities oppressed and marginalised? D’Emilio argues that as sex is separated from procreation, the newly formed nuclear family becomes a symbol of stability. Reactionaries oppose perceived threats to this stability such as abortion, divorce and queer expression. Certainly this emphasis on one man, his wife and their children runs through reactionary rhetoric, as in a recent Telegraph opinion piece entitled “It Takes Two To Mend a Broken Society.”

So, how about New Zealand? Prior to settlement by Europeans, Maori had no written records, and did not take detailed records of their sexual activities. It is difficult to draw conclusions. However, Maori scholars such as Ngahuia te Awekotoku argue that Maori carvings and oral traditions provide evidence of same-sex activity. For example, Ngahuia discusses a Maori bargeboard which was split into two parts, each taken to a different European museum, which depicts two men caressing each other’s penises. Whatever form this love took in Maori society, we can safely assume it took different forms to emerging European societies.

The process of colonisation in the 19th Century introduced new forms of heavily contested sexuality. As Chris Brickell explains in his recent gay history of NZ:

‘Colonial administrations complained that sexual ‘vice’ was widespread on the frontier. There the institutions of respectable society were weak, they reasoned, and incentives for self-control and clean living were nonexistent.’

Colonial administrations attempted to police this sexual activity. After 1858, when all English laws were extended to NZ, sodomy became illegal in NZ. Later, in 1893, the Crimes Act defined any sexual relations between men as assault. Lesbianism was not legally acknowledged, but women’s sexual behaviour was policed through legislation such as the Contagious Diseases Act, which restricted women’s ability to roam the streets.

Brickell gives examples of deviant 19th Century sexual activity by drawing on court records. For example, in Dunedin circa 1889, two men named Christopher Dreaver and Raymond Burke met outside a theatre and arranged to meet in a hotel the next day. However, Burke’s father told the police and Dreaver was arrested. This demonstrates the potential contained in the new urban spaces being constructed in the colonies; theatres were a traditional meeting spot for men hooking up with each other, and hotels tended to turn a blind eye.

The opportunities for women were more limited. Aiming to balance the gender makeup, colonial adminstrations sponsored female immigration to NZ, while heavily proscribing women’s activities in the colonies. Women did not have the financial independence men had, or the freedom to roam the streets, both of which enabled same-sex encounters. Attempts to change this situation were met with scorn.

Over this period, the emerging medical establishment was entrusted with the role of defining sexuality, and deciding what forms of sexual expression could fit into ideological hegemony. In the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency,” there was increasing negative interest in new queer communities. The term ‘homosexual’ was coined in 1869, but most definitively used in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which defined homosexuals as inverts. This was a shift from the definition of sodomy as a sin, one that tempted all men; instead homosexuality was defined as a state of mental inversion, sometimes linked to weak nerves and other physical maladies. As the medical bureaucracy took responsibility for defining queer communities, tabloids also paid increasing attention to ‘Oscars,’ ‘queens’ and ‘inverts.’

The medical establishment also came to define transgender over the early-mid 20th Century. They formed a discourse of ‘gender dysphoria’ or ‘disorder,’ holding monopoly over the right to legitimise these identities, to define their role in ideological hegemony. This new discourse was distinct from earlier forms such as the Samoan fa’afine (the fifth son raised female) or the South Asian Third Gender (a lower caste than the first and second gender.) In capitalist society, as families became smaller and the medical establishment gained greater power, transgender took a new form. A discourse of gender dysphoria moved into a more sophisticated separation of gender from sex, following the separation of sex from procreation. The first modern sexual reassignment surgery occurred in 1930. In 1966 Benjamin Harry’s The Transsexual Phenomenon clarified the medical view of transgender. This book was passed around trans communities, and pre-op transfolk consciously aped its descriptions to get treatment.

Over the 20th Century, urbanisation played a significant role in the emergence of these new queer communities. In 1881, 40% of New Zealanders lived in cities; by 1976 this had doubled to 80%. While cruising spots had previously existed, in the ‘30s and ‘40s new communities formed around drag parties and queer-friendly bars. In 1955, the New Zealand Pictorial reported “gangs of homosexuals” living together, marking the popularisation of the word ‘homosexual’ which previously was restricted to medical discourse. Restrictions were placed on women’s right to drink publicly, so coffee-bars and bohemian beer-houses also offered an excellent refuge.

The 1960s saw stirrings of gay liberation. ‘Kamp’ folk gathered in sites such as Carmen’s Coffee Lounge in Wellington. Wider society saw mass movements galvanised by the war on Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. With the emergence of birth-control, the separation of sex from procreation also became a tool of counter-hegemony, as activists spoke of sexual liberation – however, many of these sexual liberation groups had strong currents of homophobia and misogyny.

In 1962, gay men founded the Dorian Society, which sought to teach homosexuals respectable conduct. They did not link their struggle with that of other oppressed groups, excluding women from the organization. There was an economic basis for male homosexuality, and the Dorian Society simply sought to make it respectable. The Dorian Society set up the Wolfenden Committee, inspired by the Wolfenden Report which had led to legalisation in the UK, and this committee later became the Homosexual Law Reform Association. It wasn’t until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that the gay liberation movement emerged.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are commonly credited with kicking the movement off. New York had been a centre for queer urbanisation for a long time, and the Stonewall Inn was one of the attractions. While not a gay bar, the mafia-owned inn turned a blind eye to paying customers who did not fit into ideological hegemony; drag queens, hustlers and other queer folk. Then in 1969, in the midst of an international revolutionary upheaval, patrons of Stonewall resisted a police raid. In the ensuing days, residents of Greenwich Village organised a series of violent protests dubbed the ‘Stonewall riots.’ This initiated a wider movement, leading to nationwide protests in 1970.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded. Though it was not an internationally co-ordinated body, this grew to more than 80 chapters in the US and abroad. Members of the GLF saw themselves as part of a broader revolutionary movement, taking their name from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and aiming to destroy the gender-role system as a whole. Their first victory was the redefinition of homosexuality by the American Psychological Association, who struck it from the list of mental illnesses; hegemony was taking on aspects of counter-hegemony.

The gay liberation movement did not hit NZ until the ‘70s. In 1972, Ngahuia Volkerling (later Te Awekotoku) was denied a visa to the US for her lesbian & feminist activism. Activists organised protests against this, and branches of the GLF were founded in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton that year, lasting until 1979. Other, local organizations succeeded the GLF.

These activists saw the intersection between different forms of oppression. Many came from a background in the anti-war movement, and maintained their internationalism by joining the anti-apartheid movement. Lesbian feminists saw women’s struggle for economic independence as central to their struggle to exist as lesbians, supporting the Equal Pay Act and other reforms. Maori queers such as Ngahuia and Lee Smith also negotiated space for distinct forms of expression; they took up the word takataapui, from the myth of Hinemoa, as a Maori word for same-sex love.

Inspired by the wider left movement, and successes including the victory of the Vietnamese NLF and the Civil Rights Act, activists had raised horizons over this period. In 1975 National’s Young Bill proposed to legalise homosexuality, but the Wall Amendment sought to ban people from promoting it. Queer activists were critical of this amendment, and the bill was unsuccessful. In 1979, a new bill proposed legalisation with a 20 year old age of consent, and the National Gay Rights Coalition lobbied MPs to oppose it. The NGRC stated, “[We are] not prepared to accept anything less than full equality with heterosexuals.”

The 1980s was a period of decline in many senses. As workers suffered increasing international defeats, leftist theory increasingly emphasised the division between perspectives. Within left groups, identity increasingly became a basis for organization and conscious exclusion: for example, lesbian feminists would brand women “collaborators” or “male-identified.”

In 1984, the year of the first local AIDs diagnosis, the fourth Labour Government was elected. This government cut benefits and attacked unions. Faced with the prospect of reduced state spending on health-care as AIDs took hold, activists were galvanised.

Before the election, Labour MP Fran Wilde held private meetings with activists, outlining the details of her upcoming Homosexual Law Reform Bill, urging secrecy. Wilde was decidedly an ambassador of liberal hegemony, supporting neoliberal attacks on workers’ rights as well as socially liberal legislation. However, activists silently collaborated given the matters’ urgency, focusing on parliamentary strategy rather than a public campaign.

However, when the reactionary Coalition of Concerned Citizens (CCC) launched a petition against the bill, activists were forced to respond. Pro-bill activists disrupted CCC meetings against Wilde’s wishes.

Even given this attitude however, activists did modify their rhetoric to match liberal hegemony. Lesbian feminists who had previously argued that “any woman can become a lesbian” now argued that sexuality was determined early in life, and those with anti-capitalist politics generally kept their revolutionary beliefs out of the campaign. Faced with AIDs and the decline of the left, counter-hegemonic groups were forced to take on aspects of hegemony to survive.

This was a crucial step in the emergency of a new hegemony, transformed by various left groups. Queers achieved bourgeois parliamentary representation with the emergence of Rainbow Labour and the Rainbow Greens. The new ‘pink dollar’ is represented by widely circulated, ideologically safe publications such as Express. In a 1997 survey of lesbian women, Dunne concluded: “A lesbian lifestyle represents an economic achievement.”

To see how this new hegemony operates, we will look at the passing of the Civil Union Act in 2004. This proposed a limited same-sex equivalent to marriage and, with the Relationships Act, the extension of marriage rights to de facto couples. This legislation was supported by the majority of MPs in both parties.

However, there was criticism of the Act in queer communities, mostly underreported. Feminist and lesbian Marilyn Waring opposed it, arguing instead for amendments to the Marriage Act. She was almost entirely ignored in both mainstream press and queer publications. The Act also had the potential to limit access to income support among lesbians, as they had previously been treated as individuals and would now be treated as couples. Finally, it did not allow for same-sex adoption. Rather than fighting for “nothing less than full equality” however, the bulk of activists accepted these compromises, and coverage focused on the conflict between pro-Bill activists and a minority of religious reactionaries.

We are now in a period of hidden contradictions rather than open struggle. While Georgina Beyer, a transwoman, has been elected to parliament, transwomen report feeling excluded from most workplaces. While the Civil Union Act granted greater rights to queer couples, there was a lack of open discussion on its downsides.

This leads to the perennial Marxist-Leninist question, what is to be done?

Learning from the successes of the past, queer politics must recognise the intersection of all forms of oppression and exploitation. There are promising examples visible in the States, with San Francisco Pride at Work conducting highly visible and entertaining flash-mobs in solidarity with union actions. However, these actions are not explicitly revolutionary, raising the question of the role of revolutionaries and revolutionary organisations.

Broader transitional queer liberation groups are necessary, but if revolutionaries within these organizations compromise their politics, this will simply lead to further compromise. We must keep in mind that nothing is fixed, and in a period of mass-struggle these organisations are more likely to take revolutionary positions.

Necessary to developing a counter-hegemony, workers and revolutionary organisations must also be unwavering in their defence of queer liberation. The revolutionary party acts to centralise working class knowledge and experience, so material on queer oppression must also be compiled, studied and produced. Queer oppression must be seen as historically specific, a product of ideological hegemony, and combated as part of a wider struggle against all forms of oppression.

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