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Desire, Repression, Revolution: Jean Nicolas and “The Homosexual Question”

In the 1970s, Jean Nicolas, Trotskyist militant and activist of the French Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action, published “The Homosexual Question,” a brilliant analysis of the history of the oppression of “homosexuals” and the struggle for liberation, as connected to the struggle for socialism and new human relations.

Ana Rivera

June 15, 2019
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The 1970s were a moment of worldwide revolutionary upsurge: from the French May to the feminist movement, the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. anti-war movement, the Argentine student and workers movement and Chilean revolution to the Prague Spring, from the black liberation movement to the LGBTQ+ riot at Stonewall. Deeply influenced by the revolutions in Cuba and China, the working class and the youth were becoming radicalized and were shaking the bourgeois social order to the core, defying capitalism and the bureaucracies held up by the USSR. Everything was subject to struggle and transformation: capitalist exploitation, colonial domination, racism and sexism, everyday relations, the family.

“The Homosexual Question”* was written in France in 1966, a few years before the French May of 1968 (during which students launched their war cry “All power to the imagination!”) and the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York. It would not be published until a decade later, in the December 1976-January 1977 edition of the theoretical journal of the LCR, Critique Communiste. The author, Jean Nicolas, sought new links between the Marxist left and the effervescent sexual liberation movement, of which he was a participant, being a member of the Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action and later the Homosexual Liberation Group.

His reasons for the article were two-fold: “On the one hand, to convince the workers’ movement of the importance and significance of the struggle for homosexual liberation, and on the other, to convince the homosexual movement of the need to combine its struggle for sexual liberation with the struggle of the working class for socialism.”**

Sexuality: Between Normalization and Desire

Marxists inscribe gender and sexual relations in the realm of social relations. Thus, sexuality is historically determined by the dominant relations of production. According to Jean Nicolas, “homosexual oppression” is part of a historically constructed “process of sexual normalization.” The bourgeoisie appropriates this process with the goal of consolidating monogamous heterosexual marriage based on private property, women’s and children’s oppression, and the repression of everyone’s “latent homosexuality.” The aim is to reproduce social relations that conform to the capitalist mode of production and to create people who can insert themselves into it. These relationships get deeply ingrained in our psyche; they stain our daily lives, our emotions, our conscience: they are part of a process of submission that is indispensable to bourgeois domination. The heterosexual norm is inculcated by the family, the school, and the church.

Although there is a normative social discourse on sexuality, it cannot completely quell desire. Sexual practices and aspirations of sexual and social life never completely correspond to the norm: there is a permanent mismatch. There is always a rebellion of desire against social imposition. Depending on economic, demographic, historical, and political needs, “deviation” from the sexual norm will be sanctioned in one way or another. The bourgeoisie manages to establish a normative discourse about sexuality and commercialize it, profiting from sexual repression.

“Homosexuality” and Repression

In many indigenous communities with communal property, same-sex desire and gender fluidity were strongly integrated into society. LGBTQ+ oppression is a result of societies that are based on private property and is deeply connected to women’s oppression. The development of monotheism and the emergence of the state and the family were also part of this historical process. Inheritance from fathers to sons was the basis of the taboo of homosexuality and the repression of female sexuality. Ancient societies that allowed or valued some level of sexual and gender diversity were forced to become societies based on the patriarchal family, with sharpened restrictions on sexual freedom. Later, the Christian tradition took up the taboo against homosexuality, and the Church became the guardian of the social discourse about sexuality.

Nicolas argues that the criminalization of same sex desire arose in the late Roman Empire when Christianity became a state religion and Constantine criminalized “sodomy,” punished by the death penalty. During the Middle Ages this repression developed further. The myth of the homosexual relationship as an unnatural act was created by St. Thomas, a myth that still persists today even after being destroyed by Freud. The sodomite was a heretic and the heretic a sodomite: These accusations of sexual perversions were a weapon against those who dared defy religious power, and also a tool to undermine the power of feudal lords and keep their lands. 

But the bourgeoisie also destroyed the family unit on which it was based. “It inexorably tore apart the variegated feudal ties that joined man to his natural superiors, and left standing no other bond than plain interest, that hard cash, which has no heart,” Marx said in “The Communist Manifesto.” The center of human life is the person themselves — as long as they can afford it. How to maintain that order, then? How to replace the fear of God with the fear of leaving the modern flock in capitalism? By establishing categories of “excluded,” “asocial,” “deviant,”  and “sick”; by reinforcing state power and creating institutions for the marginalized, like prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

These deviants are precisely those who are not integrated into the social body, those who are outside the production and reproduction of the capitalist system. For the first time there is a “homosexual identity”: Homosexual “acts” are no longer punished; there are instead maladapted individuals who are criminalized or pathologized. They, as people, are the deviants, the sick. At the same time, capitalist society suppresses homosexual desire in everyone, arbitrarily dividing people between heterosexual and homosexual categories. Yet psychoanalysis has shown that one is no more natural than the other, and that it is only under the effects of society that normative heterosexuality develops.

This is why Jean Nicolas argues that there is a “myth” of homosexual identity, affirming that in a society that does not systematically oppress homosexual desire, the arbitrary division between homosexuality and heterosexuality would dissolve, giving way to authentic sexual liberation. For this reason, he criticizes the theories of homosexuality as a “third sex” that emerged at the end of the 19th century. These theories sought to provide theoretical foundations to the first struggles of the homosexual movement, arguing that homosexuality in itself represents a subversion against the existing social order. The identity of “homosexual,” the appropriation of the taboo that comes with being stigmatized as a “faggot” is the response to systematic repression and devaluation, to attempts to “cure,” to depression and to suicide. In that case, the bourgeoisie confines those who identify themselves as “homosexuals” to their own ghetto.

The Homosexual “Ghetto”: If You Can’t Beat Them, Make a Profit From Them

The multiple forms of confining homosexuals are not only prisons and psychiatric hospitals, but also commercialized or noncommercialized spaces in which “homosexuals” can exercise their desire in a more or less clandestine way. Nicolas differentiates between an unmarketed ghetto in public spaces, parks and restrooms, which “homosexuals” frequent for clandestine encounters, and a ghetto marketed at parties, clubs, bars and “gay-friendly” bowling alleys that can be accessed only by those who can afford it. He points out that the bourgeoisie has a special interest in systematically repressing noncommercial spaces in order to channel homosexual desire into a commercial circuit from which to profit, while trivializing gay identity and normalizing it.

This analysis is increasingly relevant, with the flood of pinkwashing and all kinds of commodities, events and spaces for LGBTQ+ consumption. Of course, this is available only for those who can afford to buy their way into this consumption. Entire cities are marketed as gay friendly, even though gays, lesbians and trans people suffer discrimination in the workplace, police violence and lack of rights. Brazil is marketed as an LGBTQ+ paradise, yet it has the highest number of trans femicides in the world.

“It is foreseeable,” Nicolas writes, “that if it continues, the current trend towards a relative ‘banalization’ of homosexuality, the power will try to eliminate the untraded ghetto, to clean up public places, while benefiting the expansion of the commercialized ghetto over which it can, moreover, exercise its control more easily.” Nicolas seems to be talking about the present situation.

That’s why Nicolas raises the need for revolutionary Marxism to fight the repression directed at the ghetto, and to be part of the struggle of those who rebel against police brutality. But the ghetto and its systematic repression will persist as long as the roots of the oppression of homosexuals remain. In France there was a massive struggle against the anti-homosexual legislation established by De Gaulle and exacerbated by the Mirguet amendment. The government called for an end to the “social plague” of homosexuality and punished “unnatural relations.”

In Russia this meant a strong fight against the Communist Party and the Stalinist currents that revived homophobic prejudices in the working class, rejecting homosexuality as an inheritance of “bourgeois decadence.” Right after the revolution, the Bolsheviks transformed Russia into the first country to legalize abortion and decriminalize homosexuality.

Stalin repressed LGBTQ+ people in the USSR, eliminating many of the revolution’s enormous gains for LGBTQ+ people and for women.

Generations Fighting for Our Rights

“The three generations of the homosexual movement” is the title of perhaps the most interesting and moving chapter of Jean Nicolas’ book. It marks the emergence of the movement, which continues to this day, in Germany and Great Britain toward the end of the 19th century. It was then that Karl Ulrisch, who went down in history as the first lawyer of the “homosexual” cause, led the fight against Prussian anti-homosexual legislation, which spread throughout Germany with the famous Paragraph 175, which established prison for the crime of sodomy.

Paragraph 175 had existed in different forms until 1994, and hundreds of thousands of people were sent to prison for gay sex and for defying gender norms. Although the Ulrisch did not succeed, he helped create the first generation that would fight for our rights. This first generation of the homosexual movement, despite being driven by sectors of the bourgeoisie, was supported by Marxist organizations. The German Social Democratic Party, for example, publicly supported the struggle against homosexual legislation. This included Ferdinand Lasalle, August Bebel and Eduard Bernstein (who publicly defended the writer Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for his homosexuality).

This generation and the homosexual movement were brutally annihilated by fascism. Tens of thousands of people were locked up in Nazi concentration camps for being “homosexual,” marked with the pink triangle. The full extent of the horror of concentration camps toward its sexual and gender deviants did not come to light until decades later.

Stalinism, on the other hand, was in charge of wiping out the traces of revolutionary Marxism’s solidarity with the homosexual cause and brutally persecuting those deemed homosexuals in the USSR. The second generation of the homosexual movement emerged after the Second World War, in the 1950s and 1960s, aimed at achieving legal reforms.

Nicolas marks the emergence of a third generation, a radicalized homosexual movement that criticized the integration of homosexuality into bourgeois society. While the foundations were there before, the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 was the spark that spread like wildfire. This generation pointed to capitalism as the root of oppression and argued for the need to unify the struggles of women, Black people, and all oppressed sections of society. Links to the labor movement were more complex, especially due to the reactionary ideology of the Communist Parties and reformist organizations in the labor movement that reproduced homophobic prejudices and distanced LGBTQ+ people interested in joining their ranks. Jean Nicolas writes about the roots of this movement, attempting to build ties between “homosexuals,” workers and revolutionary organizations.

True Sexual Liberation

For Jean Nicolas, the ideological repression of homosexuality has a material basis in capitalism. Thus, he refuses to reduce the struggle against oppression to the struggle against normative culture: The power of the bourgeoisie lies in the power of capital over labor, and all types of oppression are inscribed in it and reinforced by it. It would be futile to fight capitalist exploitation without fighting oppression, as the working class is diverse and capitalism is fed from oppression. It would also be useless to struggle for sexual liberation without attacking the source of bourgeois rule: the appropriation of the means of production and the control of social wealth.

Capitalism condemns us to sexual misery, owns our bodies in painful working days, and governs or removes our desires. Without liberating bodies from wage slavery, authentic sexual liberation will be impossible to achieve. Nicolas argued that our society could easily reduce work hours as a way towards true sexual enjoyment for all:

“One of the preconditions for genuine sexual liberation is the overthrow of capitalist production relations and a massive reduction of working time. Indeed, it must be stressed that one of the most powerful foundations of sexual misery in the capitalist regime comes from the subjection of the body of the workers to prolonged and painful work. The possibility made concrete today thanks to the development of automatism, of massively reducing working time and eliminating those heavier tasks, opens the way to an authentic sexual liberation in order to undermine, at the same time, the foundations of bourgeois ideology, which values work while trying to repress sexual activity. … This is how the body, freed from long and painful work and from the weight of an unwanted motherhood, can truly give itself to pleasure.”

We live in a time when pinkwashing reaches obscene levels, and LGBT rights are turned into a way of legitimizing neoliberal governments. There are even extreme right figures who are gay or lesbian, like Germany’s Alice Weider, who is openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic. Additionally, the repression of LGBTQ+ people is intensifying in the heat of the international capitalist crisis. The struggle for genuine sexual liberation and for unity between the LGBTQ+ movement and the working class against the capitalists, who condemn us to exploitation and oppression, is stronger than ever.

*Homosexual is not the preferred term of for Left Voice, but it is the term used by Jean Nicolas. Thus, we will use it in this text when referring to his work.

This article was originally published in Spanish on la Izquierda Diario. It was translated by Natalia Pons.

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