After decades and more of courageous and determined campaigning by sections of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, same-sex civil partnership and marriage are being won in one Western European country after another. It lends legitimacy to the natural optimism that acceptance of gay sexuality is on an exponential upward curve.
Perhaps something undreamed of by nineteenth and twentieth century apologists, who argued heads bowed for society’s tolerance of the ‘affliction’ of homosexuality, could actually come to pass, that people could have the freedom to choose their intimate relationships and family arrangements free from prejudice and discrimination. Does anything more need to be done other than a few tidy-up legal challenges to normalise such relationships? To seek an answer to these questions, an analysis must be made of what gives rise to bigotry and discrimination towards forms of sexuality that have been expressed within human society probably since the dawn of humankind.
Same-sex marriage and equal parenting rights have been achieved in eight European countries and nine American states. It is important to remember, however, that such rights are far from the grasp of those identifying as lesbian or gay in half of the countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by long terms of imprisonment, even death, as witnessed by the 2011 execution by hanging of three men in Iran for “forbidden acts against religion”. Whilst bigoted attitudes are absorbed into society as a whole, it is clearly the religious who foment and perpetuate intolerance most prominently. Relying on ignorance, religious leaders play on backward social attitudes in order to maintain and build a base of support for themselves and their conservative political agendas.
Impact of religion
Islamic law teaches that homosexuality is a ‘vile form of fornication’, punishable by death. Any type of sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage is forbidden. More recent pronouncements about gay marriage from ex-Pope Benedict may have been a little more veiled in recent times in response to the current wider acceptance of gay sexuality in Western society, but do not differ in substance from the 2003 Vatican statement that: “Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved… [They are] a serious depravity… Society owes its continued survival to the family, founded on marriage.” With echoes of the 1950s McCarthyite era, a front-page article in l’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, likens marriage equality to “the egalitarian utopia that did so much damage during the 20th century… deceiving humanity as socialism did in the past.
Social role and context of religion
But religion does not exist independently of society – it is moulded and manipulated by ruling elites to serve their own purposes, a glue to hold society together. Historically religion has been used as a transmission belt for ideologies through which they can exert social control. As a result such ideologies can become fused with the state, influencing government policy and legislation.
Christianity, in particular, wields unprecedented power and notwithstanding the scandal of child abuse which has rocked the Catholic Church in recent times, it holds a uniquely priveleged and powerful position from which it is able to exercise extraordinary influence on governments and, consequently, on the lives of millions of people worldwide. It is the only religion that is an official part of the United Nations (UN) from which it can influence debates on birth control, abortion, gay rights and equal rights. A proposal for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality was opposed by the Vatican in the UN in 2008. 14 of the 27 countries in the European Union are bound to the Vatican by at least one treaty. It also wields huge economic power arising from a wide range of businesses such as hotels, restaurants, shops and private schools, which it can run tax free. On the other hand, it receives enormous sums of public money with more than 4 billion euro paid to them every year from Italian taxes alone (The Guardian, 13.02.09).
At times of social unrest, governments will play on bigotry to divide and distract the masses. Thus Thatcher’s notorious regime of 1980s Britain planted the homophobic Section 28 into the Local Government and Finance Act 1988, in an attempt to divert attention from its real purpose, which was to cut local council services and democracy, onto supposed ‘profligate’ Labour Councils who were ‘wasting’ money on ‘promoting’ homosexuality through progressive educational and support services and grants.
In the aftermath of World War Two, when the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe, the US government feared the spread of socialist ideas and mounted a campaign to root out ‘the enemy within’. During this ‘McCarthyite’ period hundreds were imprisoned and possibly 12,000 lost their jobs after being accused of being “communist subversives”. Trade unionists were a particular target as employers took the opportunity to try and smash the trade unions, but homosexuals were dragged in too, being considered “naturally subversive”.
In post-colonial Ireland, sexuality became a central issue as the ruling elites sought to establish a national identity which became synonymous with a particularly repressive brand of Catholicism. This meant heterosexual conformity and, moreover, the Catholic view of sex being restricted to married couples for pro-creational purposes. This spawned repressive laws such as the constitutional ban on divorce; censorship of information about birth control; and the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 which led to the banning of a wide-range of Irish authors during the 1930s through to the 1950s. Kate O’Brien’s The Land Of Spices was banned for a single euphemistic line about homosexual love: “She saw Etienne and her father in the embrace of love.”
Sexuality – A powerful conductor of cultural influences
Sexuality is a potent force in society. It gives rise to most powerful feelings. Passion and commitment are portrayed as one of the most ‘natural’ aspects of human behaviour but are actually one of the most varied and unfixed aspects of human experience. Sexuality is therefore a powerful conductor of cultural influences and hence a focus for right-wing models of society and how we should live. Attitudes to sexuality have therefore varied throughout history. There is evidence that in some early societies same-sex relations were institutionalised through a mechanism of cross-gender transfer which enabled someone to opt into the role of the opposite sex, thus a man could become a ‘boy-wife’, a woman could become a ‘female husband’.
In early Greek and Roman society sex between men was normal but the passive-active role had a significance attached which was related to social status. In fact, same-sex relations between men were encouraged in the Roman army as a powerful bonding agent. As the Roman Empire became weakened around 3 AD by military defeat, plague and famine, with resultant political instability, old morality laws intended to force the aristocracy to marry and have children were extended to prohibit sex between men and by 4 AD, passive homosexual acts were punishable by burning. Christianity’s condemnation of all non-procreative sex provided a useful reinforcement and it is surely no accident that Rome converted to Christianity around this time.
In Christian-dominated Western feudal society, there was no concept of a ‘homosexual’ as a type of person. Attitudes were around certain sexual acts rather than who participates. All non-procreational sex acts were condemned including, for example, anal sex between a man and a woman.
During the 8th – 12th centuries there was no particular hostility to same-sex relations but as the first elements of capitalism developed and the old order felt under threat as pressure for individual freedom grew, there was a massive backlash by Church and aristocracy to maintain control. They mounted a campaign to assert the heterosexual nuclear family as central to maintaining order and used condemnation of same-sex relations to reinforce the idea. The Church developed the idea of ‘nature’ as the ideal pattern; hence ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ sex which was linked not just to same-sex relations but also non-procreative sex.
The 16th century saw a new surge of legislation against sexual offences in order to maintain control. In England and Wales ‘buggery’ was made a felony by the Buggery Act in 1533, during the reign of Henry VIII. The punishment for those convicted was the death penalty right up until 1861.
Sexuality and the development of capitalism
‘Homosexual’ as type arose with development of capitalism. The increased separation of family and economic life as people moved from countryside to city for work, gave rise to ideas of a ‘personal life’ and ‘individual freedom’. Alongside this came an increasing idea of the right to express sexuality as a person might wish. However, the disruption of working-class family life led to the diminishing of parental power and a weakening of the strict definitions of family responsibilities, not least as women were brought more into the workforce and began organising for equal rights. Fearing social breakdown and revolution, the ruling classes began a campaign to re-assert the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family as a foundation stone of society. Repressive attitudes to sexuality were cranked up and linked to fears of anarchy and revolution.
But it was not just a question of same-sex relations, a spotlight was thrown on the ‘unchastity’ of factory girls; over-crowded slum dwellings were portrayed as hotbeds of lust. The family was promoted as the best way of satisfing personal life including sex life. Unmarried mothers were stripped of dignity and often condemned to workhouses or, in the case of Ireland, the slave-labour Magdalene laundries. Homosexuality was deemed ‘deviant’, ‘depraved’ and, as Oscar Wilde discovered, punishable by imprisonment and hard labour. Divorce was open only to the rich up until 1857 and even after that every obstacle was placed in the way of women who wanted a divorce. It remained so in the UK up until 1969. The beginnings of gay sub-culture emerged as men came together in ‘Mollyhouses’ – the beginnings of a homosexual identity forged by repression. In the late 18th to early 19th centuries, there was a stepping up of prosecutions and executions for sodomy which encouraged homophobic mobs to go on the rampage.
Science was increasingly taking over from religion for transmission of ideas. Medicine and science were enrolled to produce theories to support the primacy of the nuclear family. Certain practices were said to lead to mental illness, insanity, ‘moral degeneracy’, a wasting of vital human energy – dire warnings came not just about same-sex relations but masturbation, with dangerous results such as castration of offenders.
Contemporary society, despite enormous advances for women in terms of access to jobs and education, continues to be hugely role-bound with both gender and sexuality sharply designated. In the modern day, various incentives like tax-relief for married couples have reinforced the status the nuclear family is given under capitalist society.
Role of the patriarchal, nuclear family
The nuclear family has played both a key economic and ideological role for capitalism. It provides a means of socialising people into hierarchical and patriarchal society. It also provides free childcare, free care of the sick and disabled and historically, an excuse for lower wages for women workers since patriarchal society has designated the man to be the main breadwinner. Increasingly, however, the nuclear family has become an ideal rather than a reality and today people live in a myriad of family arrangements; children may be brought up by relatives or incorporated into two or more families as parents separate and establish new relationships; they may be raised by only one parent or by gay parents.
Nevertheless, the increased confidence of LGBT people to be visible, to participate in mass protests and demonstrations coupled with militant campaigning and lobbying by LGBT activists has forced the law to change. The law must either respond to people’s reality, eventually, or become discredited and irrelevant. It is not a trendsetter but can set a standard in society. But, of course, just as much as laws can be made, they can be unmade – witness the persistent attempts to roll back abortion rights in Britain and the USA. In Afganistan the progressive decrees of the People’s Democratic Party who staged a coup in 1978 included compulsory education for girls. Western-style dress became common in cities. In 1989, after the US-backed fundamentalist Mudjahadeen took power, women were denied any right of association, expression or employment and in 1994, an ordinance was passed demanding full burkha coverage for women.
Opponents of civil partnerships, marriage and parenting rights for same-sex couples wail that this will all lead to the disintegration of the nuclear family and society itself. But far from undermining ‘the family’, and notwithstanding these tremendous victories for equality, same-sex relationships are simply, and perhaps cynically, being co-opted into the model. Debates in the Dáil and in the media reflect the conflict between a more far-sighted wing of the establishment versus a conservative and reactionary wing. The former judge that it is better to rule by consensus, and rather than alienate a whole section of society, how much wiser it is to bring them into the fold, to at least appear to give them a stake in capitalist society. At the time of writing, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is still dodging a commitment to gay marriage while his Justice Minister Alan Shatter sees the writing on the wall and has given support to the idea of same-sex marriage, including the promise to update the law on same-sex parenting.
Will prejudice be overcome with legal equality?
So what might normalisation of same-sex relationships and families mean? Can it be that anti-gay prejudice and discrimination will disappear from society? But such prejudice is deep-rooted in the fabric of capitalist society, as a tracing of its origin reveals. Ask any lesbian or gay man if they would feel completely relaxed and safe to walk down any street, at any time, holding hands with their lover and they are likely to reply in the negative. Much as legislation has progressed on LGBT rights, prejudice persists not far below the surface. Witness the use of homophobia to further discredit the UK Liberal MP who was recently found fraudulently dodging penalty points – descriptions of his partner centred on her previous lesbian relationships and reference to her ‘manly’ clothing. Scandal sells papers and whilst gay sexuality is considered deviant and marginal, it is all game for the media. Schools are still rife with homophobic bullying. Ask any black person living in white society do they feel that race relations legislation has abolished racism, and the reply will be in the negative. Ask any woman do they believe that sex discrimination legislation has ended unequal pay or sexism and the reply will be in the negative. In fact an article in The Observer (24.2.13) shows that in the UK, the percentage of women in senior levels of the judiciary, education, the arts, finance, government and the civil service has gone into reverse and is ‘plummeting’ – yet women make up 51% of British society. Ireland scores even worse. Such statistics may focus on the elite of society, but undoubtedly reflect the position of women in society generally.
Divide and conquer
The ruling classes who control the media, education and religion are steeped in the very prejudices they manipulate to maintain their privileged position. At a time when class division is widening, as it is during this deep and unprecedented crisis of the capitalist system, building social consensus where they can is clearly to the benefit of the ruling elite. Whilst the economic pros and cons of conceding same-sex marriage and other rights may be outweighed by the need to build social consensus, bigotry of all kinds will be manipulated to bolster and build a base, and for division and distraction of the masses.
Right-wing evangelical Christianity is big business and whilst Ireland and UK are not such fertile territory these days, a big push is being made on Africa with homophobia and anti-abortion being key ideological tools with which to corral the masses and lobby for conservative policies and laws. The study Colonising African Values: How the US Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa identified three prominent organisations involved in this campaign: Robertson’s ACLJ, the Catholic group Human Life International and Family Watch International, led by the Mormon activist Sharon Slater. These neo-colonisers try to turn reality on its head by “fram[ing] their agendas as authentically African, in an effort to brand human rights advocacy as a new colonialism bent on destroying cultural traditions and values”. Thus homosexuality is painted as a scourge imported from the imperialist West.
Opponents of gay marriage always parrot the idea that children’s interests are best served within the heterosexual family, yet reality is so different. Plenty of heterosexual families abuse or neglect their children. Paramount to the quality of nurturing and the ability to create the best educational and developmental opportunities for a child are state support and decent wages, neither of which are guaranteed by the traditional nuclear family, nor by a government intent on cutting public services and wage packets. In fact, the way this debate is conducted, centring as it does on sexuality, it is actually a distraction from what families really need. Indeed, if these self-appointed guardians of children’s well-being were genuinely concerned for children, then they would advocate same-sex marriage as a means through which to give children the same legal rights and security as regards both parents that children of heterosexual parents enjoy.
Capitalism is a system organised to enable big business to amass profit and so perpetuate the privileged existence of an elite. The raising of human culture is not a priority. Education is put to the service of big business, to churn out professionals, managers and administrators as required. Access to higher and continuing education by wider layers of the working-class and youth comes as a by-product during times of boom when capitalism needs to expand and upskill its workforce. In times of recession, as we now see, access to good education once more becomes restricted to the more monied sections of society, as cuts in school budgets and college grants hit working-class areas hardest. The ability to explore all manner of wider interests similarly becomes harder for those who do not have the money. Capitalism is a system which works to minimise the cost of maintaining its workforce and if it can get away with it, to cast off working-class people who are surplus to their requirements – witness the UK former Prime Minister Thatcher’s classic re-definition of unemployed workers as ‘the underclass’.
Capitalism perpetuates inequality
Capitalism perpetuates inequality – its system cannot exist without inequality and as such it will always and forever keep an armoury of weapons through which it can divide and rule. Ideology is a far more potent weapon of control than physical force and coercion. Thus bigotry of all sorts will be kept alive so long as capitalism is kept alive. The inevitable conclusion must therefore be that whilst every homophobic statement, media rant, attack must be challenged and every law reform to remove inequality fought for, ultimately working-class people within the LGBT community have every reason to fight for an alternative socialist system.
Socialism offers a form of society in which commerce and industry are put to the service of society as a whole and not to feed the greed of privileged individuals. As such it has to encourage unity, human solidarity and cooperation. Bigotry has no place in such a society and would only act to undermine it. There would be every reason therefore for such a society to put resources into banishing ignorance and to give each and every individual the opportunity to develop their talents to the highest level. This current recession has given a glimpse of the extent to which wealth is hoarded under capitalism. While billions of euro are being cut from public services and from workers wages, the huge multi-national corporations such as Goldman Sachs are making vast profits. Trillions of euro worldwide are being hoarded in company accounts while austerity measures cut living standards to the bone. This would be impossible under a socialist society and the vast wealth created by the efforts of working-class people would be put into raising living standards and building high quality and free public services.
Once the family is released from the necessity to provide supports for capitalism, such as free childcare and care of the sick and disabled and, moreover, to socialise people into the hierarchical and patriarchal society required by capitalism, once there is no more need to maintain the fiction of the ‘main breadwinner’, then the necessity to maintain the ideology of the traditional nuclear family becomes redundant. The economic underpinning of this ideology falls away. Constraints on education would be lifted and diversity in society would be normalised. The substrate for bigotry of all kinds will have been removed to create for the first time in human history, the possibility of working-class people being free to choose their sexual and family relationships without fear.
By Helen Redwood