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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 accepted.

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 biological anomaly.

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 society.

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 difference.

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.

Two-line struggle

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 farmers."

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 by 1933.

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 factories.

"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 imperialist powers.

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 untrustworthy.

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 progressive position.

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 Homosexuality")

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 were.

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 collectivization."

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 market.

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 Germany."

Reprinted from the Oct. 7, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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