Lesbian, gay, bit and trans pride series part 16
Can a homosexual be a member of the Communist Party?
By Leslie Feinberg
Years before the actual 1933 law recriminalizing male
homosexuality appeared on the books in the Soviet Union, the
shift in official attitude within the ascendant political
current was becoming apparent.
The political error evolved out of how scientists and
jurists posed the "nature vs. nurture" debate in regard to
homosexuality. But what fed the ideological problem were the
deep prejudices left over from centuries of unequal and unjust
economic relations, some of which were revived as the
revolution, isolated and embattled, struggled to survive.
Furthermore, there were no cross-cultural, cross-historical
annals of ancient evidence from which to draw a materialist
view of how variance in human sexuality, gender expression and
sexes has been present in all societies and was once
And, to be fair, the same debate about a biological vs. a
social explanation for homosexuality was taking place on a
world scale among progressive sexologists of that epoch. Some
of the leading activist figures of the German Homosexual Eman
cipation Movement were arguing that homosexuality was a
While the debate in the Soviet Union may have taken the same
form, however, context is everything in politics.
In Germany, a significant segment of the biological
determinist wing of science and medicine would go on to
"justify" the fascist state's extermination of millions of
people based on a eugenics argument that these "birth defects"
should be eradicated.
The opposite happened in the Soviet Union. The revolution
brought increasing tolerance for those whose difference was
believed to be a product of birth chemistry. At the same time,
lawmakers and scientists worked to eradicate what they believed
was harmful social conditioning left over from class
For example, in October 1917, revolutionary Bolsheviks
abolished the tsarist anti-homosexual law. The Soviet Criminal
Code established in 1922, and amended in 1926, did not include
homosexuality as an offense. This reflected the belief that
science, not law, should deal with matters of sexual
Historian Laura Engelstein summarized: "Soviet sexologists
in the 1920s participated in the international movement for
sexual reform and criminologists deplored the use of penal
sanctions to censor private sexual conduct." ("Sexual History
of the Political Left")
But conversely, laws were passed against sodomy and the
prostitution of young cross-dressed, feminine boy dan cers in
the Soviet republics of Azerbaijan in 1923, Uzbekistan in 1926
and Turk menistan in 1927. While in part aimed against sexual
exploitation, they were explained as trying to eradicate the
prevalence and acceptance of homosexuality and trans expression
that were "survivals of primitive custom." (From "Homosexual
Desire" by Dan Healey)
This attitude, steeped in unexamined national chauvinism,
was summed up by P. Preobrazhenski in his appendix to the 1930
Great Soviet Encyclopedia, where he argued that the origins of
homosexuality among the peoples of the Far North or the Asian
Republics "bear a social character," not a biological root.
The same two-line struggle surfaced in science. It was
glaringly apparent in a 1929 conference of the leading Soviet
medical body--the Expert Medical Council of the Commissariat of
Health--held to discuss questions of homosexuality,
cross-dressing, transsexuality and intersexuality.
Historian Dan Healey writes that underlying the 1929
council's deliberations "was a sense that the male member of
the 'intermediate sex' was the product of nurture, of
conditions of byt [social life, lifestyle--L.F.] gone
wrong. These were deviations that were evidently preventable
(except in a small number of congenital cases).
"Their sense of the female 'transvestite' was more deeply
'biologized' and intract able: no hormonal injections could
apparently restore her femininity, and indeed, to doctors it
appeared that society might have to adjust to the female
'transvestite' by conceding same-sex marriage."
In the "nature vs. nurture" scientific debate, however,
those seeking a biological explanation for social phenomena
were losing the ideological battle. Accord ing to Healey, a
political struggle opened up against "biologizing" scientists,
charging that to search for the basis of social ills in
individual biology was a form of Menshevik idealism.
This campaign against "biologizing" was rooted in the
economic needs of the Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize
and raise agricultural production, Healey explained. "The
pragmatic turn in public health was signaled by a change of
leadership and a shakeup in the provision of medical care. A
reorganization of the Commissariat of Health was ordered by a
decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on 13
December 1929, directing the commissariat to place more
emphasis on the needs of industrial workers and collectivized
As a result, for instance, the interdepartmental commission,
which came out of the 1929 medical conference and had planned
to meet about transgender expres sion, no longer even existed
And science increasingly lost its dominion over social
questions like homosexuality, which became more relegated to
the realm of the state.
Gay-baiting class enemies
Extra-legal raids in Moscow and Leningrad in which 130 males
were arrested in late summer 1933 were the harbinger of the
re-criminalization of male homosexuality later that year. The
men were accused of being "pederasts"--adult males who have sex
with boys. Since no records of men having sex with boys at that
time are available, it is possible this term was used broadly
and crudely to label homosexuality.
Healey examined what was going on in the Soviet Union in
1932 and 1933 that led to these raids and the subsequent law.
Large-scale attempts to collectivize agriculture were met by
such resistance among the peasants that a mass famine developed
in Ukraine and southern Russia, which reportedly claimed 3 to 5
million lives. Millions of peasants were pouring into the
cities from the countryside looking for work in the
"The flow of new arrivals in the cities 'ruralized' them,"
Healey observed, "bringing thousands of new residents who knew
little of urban and industrial ways."
Officials carried out a purge of the Communist Party in
December 1932-1933, scrutinizing the ranks, which had seen an
influx of worker and peasant members.
"In 1933, urban male homosexuals would fall within the
larger net of these trends. In the case of this group,
international developments also significantly contributed to
justifications for the decision to recriminalize sodomy."
Massive military conscription campaigns for defense of the
Soviet Union had been underway since 1928. They promoted the
role of soldiers as hyper-masculine heroes.
Reports of homosexuality in the German fascist leadership
had been made public in 1931 and 1932. The more conservative
current in the Soviet party, which had by then assumed the
reins of leadership, gay-baited the fascists, as did the
On Sept. 15, 1933--shortly after German -Soviet relations
were severed by the rise of Hitler to power--G. G. Iagoda,
deputy chief of the Soviet political police, proposed the
stricture against male homosexuality.
Iagoda reportedly wrote to Joseph Stalin that the
legislation was a matter of state security because of the
establishment of "networks of salons, centers, dens, groups and
other organized formations of pederasts, with the eventual
transformation of these organizations into outright espionage
cells.... Pederast activists, using the castelike exclusivity
of pederastic circles for plainly counterrevolutionary aims,
had politically demoralized various social layers of young men,
including young workers, and even attempted to penetrate the
army and navy."
Stalin then allegedly forwarded this letter to his Politburo
associate L. Kagano vich, saying that "these scoundrels must
receive exemplary punishment, and a corresponding guiding
decree must be introduced in our legislation."
At no point was lesbianism raised. Masculine lesbians in the
ranks and leadership of the military were seen as strong and
loyal. Feminine male homosexuals were viewed as weak and
On Jan. 11, 1934, the Ukraine--the second-largest republic
in the USSR--became the first republic to incorporate a statue
against public homosexuality and male prostitution in its penal
code. No minimum sentence was set.
And in 1933 and 1934, a prohibition against male
homosexuality throughout the USSR--which created a 5-year
prison penalty--was passed without public fanfare or
explanation. In a study of eight Moscow trials of males accused
of public homosexuality from 1935 to 1941, only one case in
1935 showed awareness of the new law.
'Can a homosexual be a party member?'
The most publicly raised voice of the left-wing opposition
to this legal move was that of a British communist living in
Moscow. Harry Whyte, an editorial employee of the Moscow Daily
News, challenged Stalin on the decree in a long letter received
in May 1934.
"Whyte's long missive opened with a question for Stalin:
'Can a homosexual be considered a person fit to become a member
of the Communist Party?' The journalist laid out Marxist
arguments against the blanket prohibition of sodomy, which, he
claimed, introduced unwarranted contradictions in Soviet social
life by imposing 'sexual leveling' on a harmless minority and
by ignoring science on the issue." ("Homosexual Desire")
Whyte also drew analogies with arbitrary discrimination
against women, national minorities and people of color.
The letter, once received, was promptly archived. Yet it was
a continuation of the history of left communist struggle for a
While publicly ignoring Whyte's letter, Stalin apparently
turned to cultural icon Maxim Gorky. An article by Gorky
entitled "Proletarian Humanism" appeared in both Pravda and
Izvestia on May 23, 1934. In that now oft-cited article, Gorky
offered the "first public explanation of the recriminalization
of male homosexuality, and it placed the question squarely
within the terms of the propaganda war between Fas cism and
Communism." ("Homo sexual Desire")
Gorky maintained that homosexuals were not a social minority
that needed to be defended in a workers' state--an obvious
polemic against Whyte: "In the land where the proletariat
governs courageously (muzhestvenno; also translated as
manfully) and successfully, homosexuality, with its corrupting
effect on the young, is considered a social crime punishable
under the law. By contrast, in the 'cultivated land' of the
great philosophers, scholars and musicians [Gorky meant
Germany--L.F.], it is practiced freely and with impunity. There
is already a sarcastic saying: 'Destroy homosexuality and
fascism will disappear.'" ("Soviet Policy Towards Male
Gay-baiting class enemies
In addition to gay-baiting fascists and fascist-baiting
homosexuals, currents of officialdom also used epithets of
"effeminacy" and "effete" homosexuality to label elements of
the old ruling classes and to help build the image of the
proletarian society and its soldiers as hyper-masculine.
Justice Commissar Nikolai Krylenko referred to the anti-gay
law in his 1936 speech to the party's Central Executive
Committee as aimed at "the remnants of enemies ... who do not
wish to admit that they are doomed by history to finally
concede their place to us."
These charges were also leveled at political opponents.
Some, presumably, were not enemies of the revolution; some
For example, Nikolai Kliuev, the unofficial poet laureate of
the peasantry who wrote openly about being a homosexual, was
arrested on Feb. 2, 1934, and charged with
counter-revolutionary agitation. He had earlier refused a
demand by Ivan Gronski, chief editor of Izvestia, to "write
normal verses." But his arrest, Healey wrote, was "probably
because of the inflammatory invective of his poems denouncing
Certainly the visible social current of the "people of the
moonlight" in Russian history had always come from the upper
classes and the intelligentsia--musicians, dancers, literati
and others. But the point is not to untangle the knotted
charges of homosexuality and subversion. The real matter is
that it is flat-out wrong to link the issues.
Homosexuality and transgender expression appear in all
economic classes in society. Communists need to be able to
stand up against all forms of discrimination and prejudice in
waging the class struggle.
Strengthen the union, don't bust it
A great deal of information about the Stalin period has been
lost today. The Soviet Union was ravaged by World War II,
worker democracy was eroded and a counter-revolution finally
overturned the workers' state in 1991.
But what is clear is that the left-wing leadership of Lenin
and the Bolshevik Party carried out a profound revolution that
uprooted private ownership of social wealth and laid the basis
for socialist construction. It was immediately assailed by the
whole capitalist world. When, after years of imperialist and
civil war, which exacerbated the economic isolation and
technological under-development, the revolutionary momentum
waned and left-wing leaders were suppressed, what was needed
was political renewal, not counter-revolution.
Every rank-and-file labor militant today who is faced with
bureaucratic leadership in their union knows that what's needed
is not to bust up the union but to make it stronger.
The population of the Soviet Union did fight for its
existence, and fought hard. More than 20 million gave their
lives to defend the workers' state against the German
imperialist invasion in World War II.
And despite all the problems and weaknesses of the USSR, and
the errors of leaders, on March 17, 1991, some 75 percent of
the Soviet people, representing the 15 republics of the USSR,
went to the polls and voted not to allow the workers' state to
be dismantled. The highest percentage of this vote came from
the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus, formerly
oppressed under tsarism.
Yet world imperialism and the Russian moneyed class trampled
on this exercise of worker democracy by dismantling the
workers' state soon thereafter. Every error from the Soviet
period--including the backward law against homosexuality--was
used as an excuse and cover to overturn the state. But the aim
was not liberation. It was to subject the vast population of
the USSR to the exploitation of the capitalist world
Today, the modern struggle for world socialism can be
strengthened through an honest analysis of the problems and
weaknesses that developed in the first successful workers'
state, but only if it thoroughly rejects the anti-communism
behind so much of the existing criticism.
Next: Defeat of fascism and birth of "East
Reprinted from the Oct. 7, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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