[Marxism] David Thorstad's paper

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 28 15:13:26 MDT 2006

Marriage, Marketing, Tailending: The U.S. Left and Same-Sex Marriage

by David Thorstad

(Socialists and Marriage Conference, Paris, October 7, 2006)

“Leftists and gays . . . must argue and fight for everyone to be involved 
in the battle for gay marriage, no matter what their position is on the 
issue.”  This overheated call to arms typifies the attitude of most 
American left groups, whether Trotskyist, social democrat, third campist, 
anarchist, or Stalinist.  Surprisingly, it appeared in the CPUSA’s magazine 
Political Affairs in January 2005. Yet neither the CP, nor the Maoist 
Revolutionary Communist Party, which also supports gay marriage, has ever 
done a self-criticism of their decades-long dismissal of homosexuality as a 
bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, or even fascist, perversion.  Of all the U.S. 
leftist groups, only the Spartacist League, an orthodox Trotskyist group, 
which also supports gay marriage as a “democratic right,” has placed it in 
the context of a Marxist critique of marriage. All others seem to regard it 
as a progressive demand.

Perhaps the left’s enthusiastic embrace of gay marriage reflects relief at 
the taming of gay liberation now that homosexuals, instead of challenging 
hetero institutions, are trying to join them.

Marriage is the downside of “Come out!”  During the 1977 fightback against 
Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children crusade against homosexuality, homosexuals 
poured out of their closets and gay lib became a mass movement for the 
first time. After radical activists made it safer to be openly gay, the 
middle class, the psychotherapists, the religious, the businessmen, the 
bourgeois politicians began to come out.  Marriage became a key demand for 
mostly middle-class homosexuals. Children became a football for both sides 
of the issue.

The marriage campaign suffered serious legal setbacks in July in five 
states:  New York, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Washington. The July 6 
ruling against same-sex marriage by the New York State court of appeals on 
constitutional grounds may have sounded the death knell for this issue in 
the United States, even if it did not drive a stake through its 
heart.  This traditionally liberal court ruled that any extension of 
marriage rights would have to go through a legislative process. That could 
take a long time indeed.

The campaign for gay marriage shows the limitations of identity politics, 
as well as its accommodation to the status quo.  The same could be said of 
the two other main planks in the homosexual agenda in the United States 
today:  joining the imperialist military to kill Third World babies for 
Wall Street, and passage of so-called hate-crimes laws (aka thought-crimes 

It is striking how far gay lib has strayed from its post-Stonewall vision 
of sexual liberation and freedom for all.  The scope of this devolution is 
dramatic if the utter conventionality of the marriage demand is contrasted 
with a 1969 slogan of New York’s Gay Liberation Front:  “Do you think 
homosexuals are revolting?  You bet your sweet ass we are!”

But this should be seen in historical context.  The embrace of 
conventionality and conservatism is not surprising in view of the death of 
so many gay male sex radicals of AIDS; antimale, antisex campaigns since 
the late 1970s by bourgeois feminists, in league with the state, against 
pornography, prostitution, public sex, SM, and pederasty; the elimination 
of radical black groups through murder or co-optation; a trend to the right 
in virtually all sectors of society; the increasing atomization of the 
working class and the incorporation of trade unions into the capitalist 
system, and their failure to rise above mere trade-union issues to fight 
for radical change; the resilience of the capitalist system, which has 
succeeded in commercializing, marketing, absorbing, and co-opting every 
sectoral challenge (by students, women, blacks and other Third World 
peoples, homosexuals)­all this despite a growing crisis of the capitalist 
system, even as globalization extends the reach of imperialism and 
bourgeois ideology into the world’s most remote hamlets.

The flip side of the marketization of homosexuality and the assimilation of 
middle-class homosexuals into the capitalist system is a trend toward the 
criminalization of almost everything, especially anything sexual that falls 
outside bourgeois conventionality.  The United States is today a police 
state. Tens of thousands of innocent citizens are falling into the black 
hole of prison for crimes they did not commit, or for violating sexual 
taboos. The old idea that there must be a victim for there to be a crime no 
longer holds. Prisons can’t be built fast enough to hold all the new 
criminals. As under the Nazis, bad thoughts are sufficient today for 
permanent incarceration, or worse. This is happening with the support of 
the majority of the population.  Liberal capitalist society increasingly 
looks like totalitarianism.

This is the context in which the American left­what remains of it­finds 
itself. Despite crisis, incompetence, and blatant criminality by the ruling 
gang, the left seems unable to mount even a modest challenge to the system. 
The youth radicalization of the 1960s, of which gay liberation was a part, 
had the power to transform individual lives for the better, but it has had 
little lasting impact on society as a whole.

Young people today are brainwashed, beaten down, and lacking in optimism 
for the future. The left’s influence has dwindled to near irrelevancy. Even 
an ostensible anarchist like Noam Chomsky urged people to vote for a 
capitalist during the last presidential election.

The left’s embrace of the gay assimilationist agenda­marriage, joining the 
military, hate-crimes laws­is not surprising given the fact that it views 
sexual issues through a liberal lens.  Sexual liberation is put off till 
the ever-receding socialist future­what the Wobblies called “pie in the sky 
by and by when you die.” Everything is reduced to a low common denominator 
of achieving “civil rights” within the framework of the capitalist 
system.  This stagist (Menshevik) approach is embraced even by most 

During the early 1970s, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party held a 
three-year internal debate on homosexuality and gay liberation that was 
more extensive than any on the left anywhere to this day. It ended with the 
party adopting a position of supporting equal rights for “gay 
people”­something any liberal capitalist could support.  It suspended 
judgment on whether homosexuality was a natural feature of human experience 
and the mammalian heritage. That was dismissed as a scientific question on 
which a Marxist party­despite pretensions to “scientific socialism”­could 
take no position.  But Marxists do take positions on scientific questions, 
including whether a deity created the universe, whether women are inferior 
because of their biology, whether the Earth is flat, and so on.  At the 
time, some of us argued that there was no such thing as “gay people”­only 
homosexual acts­that this was an abstract concept that erased fluidity and 
ambiguity and discovery, that diverted attention from decriminalizing 
consensual sexual acts that everyone had the potential to engage in, 
regardless of their sexual identity, and that turned freedom from sexual 
oppression into a question of mere identity politics.  Instead of seeing 
gay liberation as seeking to liberate the repressed homoerotic capacities 
of everyone, it relegated gay liberation to a nearly weightless interest 
group, merely tinkering with the status quo.  This liberal approach 
typifies most left groups today. It is perhaps not coincidental that when 
the SWP made a “turn to labor” in the late 1970s­which went hand in hand 
with an attack on man/boy love and a withdrawal from the gay movement­many 
of its cadres found marriage and having children to their liking.

Today, the “gay people concept” has degenerated into absurd alphabet soup 
acronyms, ostensibly under the guise of expanding inclusion, but turning 
identity politics into a reductio ad absurdum:  GLBT, LGBT, GLBTQIA, 
etc.  Even “queer,” which used to be the worst verbal abuse of gay men (it 
was used by commanding officers to get reluctant GIs to fight in Vietnam, 
the Village Voice reported), has, under the prodding of mostly lefty 
academics, been stripped of this meaning and expanded to include even 
straight women, in the process erasing gay men.  There is no such thing as 
a “GLBT person,” or, in current pc-speak, an “LGBT person,” let alone an 
“LGBT community.” These are political constructs designed to reassure the 
heterosexual dictatorship and to create a constituency for a liberal 
agenda.  Identity politics provides labels for a strategy based on victimology.

“2, 4, 6, 8, how do you know your wife is straight? 3, 5, 7, 9, hey, lady, 
your husband’s mine!” Gay youth chanted this slogan at the 1985 New York 
City gay pride march. They were quickly shushed up by an adult monitor­less 
for the slogan’s implied subversion of marriage than for its suggestion of 
youth–adult sex.  It is impossible to imagine gay youth chanting such a 
slogan these days, now that the state is financing adult gay and lesbian 
baby-sitters to keep them in line.  As Malcolm X pithily put it: “Once they 
lay those dollars on you, your soul goes.”

Liberating sexuality from the constraints of heterosupremacy has been 
scrapped in favor of seeking legal rights for a sanitized and unthreatening 
fixed behavioral minority.  In all the ink spilled over gay marriage, other 
forms of marriage are not even countenanced, such as polygamy or between 
men and boys, as in Siwa Oasis.  The marriage campaign is stuck in a 
provincial, conventional, conservative, mostly Western framework. That is 
hardly surprising in an era of globalization when, with Soviet Communism 
having gone tits up and China capitalist in all but name, the whole world 
lies at the mercies of capitalist penetration.

Oddly, left groups that uncritically support gay marriage are silent about 
the way marriage is treated in Cuba.  Mariela Castro (Vilma Espin and Raúl 
Castro’s daughter and Fidel Castro’s niece), who is director of the 
government-funded National Center for Sex Education in Havana, was recently 
asked if gays in Cuba are going to demand a right to marriage.  She pointed 
to Cuba’s casual approach to marriage and its no-fault divorce:  “Marriage 
is not as important in Cuba as in other more Catholic countries,” she said. 
“Here consensual pairing is more important.  What matters is love.”  So 
far, Cuban gays have not demanded marriage.  If they use their head, they 

Public Television’s Frontline reported on the matriarchal Mosuo tribe in 
the Yunnan and Szechuan regions of China where no one gets married, and 
where children are raised by their uncles, the woman’s brothers, and the 
father plays no role at all in his offspring’s upbringing.  One young 
tribal woman voiced astonishment that anyone would want to get 
married.  “When people get married,” she said, “they start to fight.”

The state should get out of the marriage business. Society should extend 
recognition to all kinds of civil union arrangements between consenting 
individuals, whether man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, man and 
boy, grandparent and grandchild, communal arrangements, and so on. Marriage 
should be relegated to the purely private and religious domain. Every 
citizen should be treated equally before the state and be guaranteed the 
same rights and privileges without regard to conjugal or marital 
status.  Separate church and state!

Gay-identifieds have become the new straights.  They act like straights; 
they seek to justify their sexuality by appealing to straight norms. Both 
the gay movement and the left are mired in a liberal approach to sexual 
oppression.  Instead of challenging heterosupremacy and capitalism, the gay 
movement has made peace with them, and the left tailends this 

In the 1970s, much of the left seemed to discover that the proletariat was 
unlikely to play the historic and revolutionary role assigned to it by 
orthodox Marxism. Leftists began to look around for ersatz “new mass 
vanguards” and “new social movements” such as students, women, gays, Third 
World peoples.  None of those agents have proven viable alternatives to a 
proletariat that, in the West at least, shows no sign of acquiring a 
revolutionary consciousness, or even of acting in its own 
self-interest.  And none have proven more easily co-opted by the capitalist 
system than homosexuals.  This is the meaning of the marriage campaign.


[David Thorstad is a former president of New York’s Gay Activists Alliance, 
a cofounder of New York’s Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a cofounder 
of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, coauthor of The Early 
Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935), and editor of Gay Liberation and 
Socialism: Documents from the Discussions on Gay Liberation inside the 
Socialist Workers Party (1970–1973).



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