Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hannah Dee - The Red in the Rainbow: Sexuality, Socialism & LGBT Liberation

This short, but impressive book is an excellent introduction to a subject that I think has been neglected somewhat by the revolutionary left. The history of human sexuality is a complex one, tied up with the various forms of society that we have lived in and constantly changing.

Hannah Dee starts however, by looking at the modern gay liberation movement born as a result of police raids on a New York gay bar, leading to three days of rioting. The year is significant - 1969 followed the near revolutionary movements that united students and workers around the globe. The Gay Liberation Front that was launched from Stonewall, consciously echoed in its name of the organisation that was starting to grind US troops down in Vietnam, and it was inspired by (and drew support from) the Black Panthers. Dee shows how, for years, Gays and Lesbians had been brutalised, ignored and ostracised. The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of their attempts to organise and fight back, winning much of the rights that we have today. But crucially, as she points out, we still have far to go.

Human sexuality is ever changing. Early colonial visitors to the New World were often dismayed by the lack of moral codes defining sexuality or gender amongst tribes that we would now characterise as "hunter gatherers". But even more recent class societies have had differing attitudes to homosexual love and sex - witness the "highly visible" relationships between men in ancient Greek Society for instance.

Hannah shows how the development of class society changes all this. With the need to protect a "surplus" of food, came social divisions into classes. The exploiters and the exploited. Along side this develops a sub-division were the different genders in society take on different roles in the productive process. In particular, women become seen as those who primarily raise children and men those who do the work. This process takes thousands of years and for the vast majority of human history has not existed. The rise of class society creates and eventually cements this in place. Drawing on the work of Fredrick Engels, Dee shows how this "world historic defeat of the female sex" becomes central to the latest stage of class society - Capitalism.

Under capitalism however, the family becomes increasingly central, and for the rulers it becomes increasingly important to instill a particular vision of what society should be like. It is in this context that sexuality becomes legal and socially restricted in the way we have known it more recently. That's not to say that there was no oppression or restrictions on homosexuality before capitalism, but it reaches its pinnacle with modern capitalism. Henry VIII introduced laws to make sodomy illegal and punishable by death. But the death penality was rarely carried out until the late 18th century.

What is fantastic though, is that at all stages in history, men and women have ignored the law and rebelled against it. Dee shows how various radicals fought and argued for the freedom to love who you wanted. At points of high conflict, when everything is up for grabs, the way relationships are seen is also challenged. So for instance, Dee points out that the "American Revolution of 1766 against British Colonial Rule also decriminalised sodomy".

A central theme of this book, is that the struggle for sexual liberation is inseperable from the struggle for social liberation. In fact, it has often been the working class and socialist movement that struggled hardest for these rights (the "Red in the Rainbow"). Edward Carpenter is one such fascinating figure in this battle and a recent biography by Sheila Rowbotham has done much to rescue him from obscurity. The highest point though of this struggle for liberation was the Russian Revolution. Dee draws out the way in which the first working class revolution, frees human sexuality in ways unimagined in other countries - not just the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but abortion and divorce on demand.

The final part of the book looks at the ways in which the struggle for liberation has ebbed and flowed with the strength of the working class movement. The defeat of the German and Russian revolutions led to vicious attacks on Gays and Lesbians under Hitler and Stalin. But other struggles revived the movement - the chapter on the 1984 British miners strike is inspired. Reagen and Thatcherism's reassertion of capitalism's ideal of the family also hampered the LGBT struggle, and created the terrain upon which the AIDS epidemic could be painted as a "Gay Disease".

The book finishes optimistically, but with determination. LGBT people have not won freedom, but have many freedoms. These will come under attack and the struggle to defend the gains of the last few years will have to be coupled with campaigns to protect much else that is under threat in this period of austerity. But true liberation means breaking free of the class society that imposes such restrictions on our lives, including our sexual lives.

Dee quotes Engels' wonderful paragraph imagining a future society were men and women "make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual" without the restrictions of money, power and class tat capitalism imposes upon us. Such revolutionary dreams might seem unimageinable today, but as Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying on the final page "A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at".

No comments: