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Impact of 'The Gay Question,' 1976

Marxist analysis rocked U.S. left

Lavender & red, part 83

Published Dec 19, 2006 9:45 PM

Workers World Party—a revolutionary communist party in the United States made up of people of diverse nationalities and countries of origin, ages and sexes, genders and sexualities—published in 1976 the first known, fully developed Marxist analysis of how, when and why state repression, social oppression and widespread prejudice against same-sex love arose and developed in human society.

The pamphlet, written by gay WWP leader Bob McCubbin, was originally entitled, “The Gay Question: A Marxist Appraisal.”

The title did not mean that fighting lesbian/gay oppression was a question for the author, who was himself an activist in the movement against the oppression, or for Workers World Party as a whole.

The term “gay question” in the title honors more than a century of Marxist analysis that has brought important social issues—including the battle against forms of oppression above and beyond the overall economic exploitation of the working class—to the fore of the political movement: the national question, the woman question, the housing question. Those who have been introduced to a vulgarization of Marxism offering merely a mechanistic and simplistic view of the relationship between economic and social life—economic determinism—will be pleased to know that.

“The Gay Question” established a foundation and a framework for understanding why repression and oppression of people who love and/or desire people of the same sex rose and developed in human history.

It was not the first time a sexually oppressed Marxist attempted to look back over the vista of history to find clues.

A century earlier homosexual British socialist Edward Carpenter began to dig into history, sifting for answers.

The leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century German Homosexual Emancipation movement did, too. Many of its leaders identified as socialists. At the height of the movement—the eve of fascism in Germany—the Scientific Humanitarian Committee had compiled more than 12,000 books that included cross-cultural and cross-historical references about same-sex love and gender variance. How many analyses were researched and penned in that precious archive before German fascist forces—on their march to power to save and serve big capital—burned it to the ground?

Gay communist Harry Hay founded the first-known widespread grassroots gay movement in California at the height of the Cold War witch-hunt in the United States. He also brought his Marxist tools to history and unearthed a wealth of information. But Hay, who had to leave the Communist Party USA in order to openly do gay mass organizing, was later driven out of that activist role by gay anti-communists. Many of Hay’s public historical presentations appear to be lost to the record.

Marxist analyses about the violent colonial and imperialist suppression of indigenous sexualities and genders may have been developed. But if so, attempts at cultural genocide by the occupier nation prevented international publication and circulation.

Part of what was so significant about the 1975-1976 Marxist analysis in the United States written by McCubbin was that he was a leading member of Workers World Party and he didn’t have to leave the party to publicly formulate a Marxist analysis of lesbian/gay oppression. He had the whole party behind him and behind the politics of the book.

While one member of the organization authored the pamphlet, it represented the contributions of the entire party.

Looking back, McCubbin states, “In the fall of 1975, I finally felt I had, at least minimally, what I needed and sat down to write.” He recalls finishing the first edition of the manuscript in early winter.

McCubbin gave copies of the analysis, which so many comrades of all sexualities had contributed to in ways small and large, to WWP founders Sam Marcy and Dorothy Ballan, and to Fred Goldstein, today a contributing editor to Workers World newspaper. McCubbin said the feedback from these comrades—”whose profound grounding in the science of Marxism and whose analytical abilities I have always admired”—was extremely positive.

The impact of this Marxist analysis on the left-wing movement, and lesbian and gay self-identified radicals and revolutionaries within it, was first politically felt just one month later, in a pre-publication edition of the pamphlet.

A delegation of lesbian/gay/transgender and heterosexual members of Workers World Party traveled by bus from New York City to Chicago through a blizzard to take part in the January 1976 “Hard Times” conference. As part of their political work at the conference, they sold all 300 xeroxed copies of the pamphlet they’d brought with them.

What made the defense of the lesbian and gay liberation struggle at that event particularly important, McCubbin emphasizes, “was that this conference was a gathering of most of what remained of what was called ‘the New Left’—the radical youth movement of the late sixties and early seventies.”

It was not an easy task to politically intervene in the conference with a strong Marxist call to defend lesbian and gay liberation as a dynamically integral and necessary part of battling capitalism—economically and socially, politically and ideologically.

Many white activists there, even those who were lesbian or gay themselves, tried to argue that this oppression was of “secondary” or “tertiary” importance in the overall struggle for liberation.

“It’s hard to understand,” McCubbin notes, “but even at this late date—1976—there was still strong resistance within the progressive movement to acknowledging the legitimacy of the struggles of lesbians and gay men for full equality.”

Workers World Party’s principled position as part of

and in solidarity with the lesbian/gay liberation move-ment of the early and mid-1970s strongly influenced both the left wing of the communist movement and the left wing of the autonomous movement for sexual liberation.

Next: ‘The Gay Question’: Blazing history’s trails

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org