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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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