Workers.org

Support
anti-war,
anti-racist
news

:: Donate now ::


Email this articleEmail this article 

Print this pagePrintable page


Email the editor

 

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 10

'People of the moonlight' in the dawn of revolution

By Leslie Feinberg

The Bolshevik Party did not merely scrap anti-homosexual tsarist laws. Sexologist Wilhelm Reich, in "The Sexual Revolution," described the intent of the Bolsheviks' political position. They felt it was necessary to tear down the walls that divided homosexuals--also known in Russia as "people of the moonlight"--from the rest of society.

The revolutionaries tried to examine sexuality and gender as they did all social and economic relations--through a scientific lens. Reich explained that the Bolsheviks believed same-sex love harmed no one and that it was wrong to punish anyone because of their sexuality.

And as Lenin and his party won over segments of the middle classes to the goals of the socialist revolution, the young workers' state drew strong support from prominent homosexuals. Russian literary historian Simon Karlinsky, no friend to socialist revolution, admits that, "With remarkable unanimity, all male gay and bisexual writers welcomed the October takeover." That included Mikhail Kuzmin, author of "Wings," and Nikolai Kliusev, considered the unofficial poet laureate of the Russian peasantry.

Historian Dan Healey puts this accomplishment in a larger historical context. "Soviet Russia was by far the most significant power since the French Revolution to decriminalize male same-sex relations, while Britain and Weimar Germany continued to prosecute homosexuals. Soviet health authorities courted the left-leaning sex reform movement headed by Berlin sexologist and homosexual rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld.

"Biologists and doctors chiefly sponsored by the Commissariat of Health began to investigate homosexuality as a scientific and medical phenomenon, often from sympathetic perspectives that were in comparative terms markedly advanced."

The weight of material suffering during those years was unbearable. By early 1918, after nearly four years of devastating imperialist war, the urban food ration was four ounces of bread a day--and nothing else. ("Soviet Women")

During the years of "war communism"--the civil war of 1918 to 1921--when the workers' state was surrounded and under siege, internally and externally, there is little record of any "gay life."

The revolution had occurred in the weakest link of the capitalist chain. Russia was semi-feudal and profoundly under-developed technologically, making the task of raising production to meet the needs of all more onerous. And the workers' state was an island in a sea of raging imperialism, determined to engulf the first successful socialist revolution.

New Economic Policy

In order to rebuild the productive apparatus, Lenin called for a partial and temporary return to a market economy in 1921 with the adoption of the New Economic Policy. His arguments for the NEP included frank warnings of the dangers inherent in reintroducing capitalist relations in a planned economy.

Healey has produced valuable accounts on this period. "Surprisingly, despite the seven-year hiatus of war, revolution, and civil war that concluded in 1921," he writes, "much of the male homosexual underworld that existed before 1914 reconstituted itself in the early years of the New Economic Policy. Street cruising and male prostitution returned to Moscow and Petrograd, with the same toilets, parks, and boulevards providing arenas for the market in both paid and unpaid sex between men." ("Russian Queen")

He emphasizes that the homosexual male "subculture" under tsarism had relied in part on privately owned commercial spaces like bathhouses and restaurants. These small-scale capitalist enterprises were closed down by the reorganization of a planned economy, which impacted on patterns of the "commercialization" of same-sex relations.

"Despite homosexuals' increasing difficulty under Soviet rule in controlling private spaces," Healey adds, "they occasionally managed to use domestic or other semiprivate venues (halls, cabarets) to gather. ... The relative openness of homosexual entertainments tapered off rapidly after the civil war, but a few sources hint at their more discreet continuation. Many of the best records of gatherings come from the Petrograd-Leningrad subculture, where a tradition of popular private homosexual assemblies was well established."

During the NEP, he documents, "Antinoi (Antinous), a private arts circle devoted to the appreciation of 'male beauty' in prose, verse, drama, and music, functioned in Moscow during the early 1920s, staging readings of consciously homosexual poetry, recitals of music by 'our own' composers, and even an all-male ballet. The group made plans to publish an anthology of homosexual verse from ancient to modern times, an attempt to construct an ennobling past."

However, the group seemed to have disbanded after finding it difficult to rent meeting space or publicize its events.

"But it would be misleading to claim that Soviet policies alone 'drove people into the toilets,'" Healey concludes. "Marginal public spaces were well-established sexualized territories, geographic expressions of a lively urban male homosexual subculture. After 1917, male homosexuals and their male sexual partners continued resorting to public lavatories and other civic amenities like parks and boulevards because they were spaces where participants could recognize and meet each other according to familiar rituals."

The position of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s was very clear. They opposed the economic exploitation of women, men and children represented by prostitution, but they were not for penalizing the prostitutes. And they did not believe that sexuality was a matter for state intervention.

Next: 1920s: Scientific, not utopian

Reprinted from the Aug. 5, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe to WW by Email: [email protected]
Donate to support pro-labor, anti-war news.
HOME | NEWS | SEARCH | SUBSCRIBE | WWP | SUPPORT WW