Capitalism Made Gay Identity Possible. Now We Must Destroy Capitalism.

John D'Emilio

Gay identity became possible thanks to capitalism’s emancipatory side: its liberation of the individual from material dependence on the family. But that sexual freedom wasn’t automatic — it required decades of militant struggle. Today, we need more such struggles to combat the oppressive aspects of capitalism, which keep gay and straight people alike from living fully free lives.

A gay liberation group from Northwestern University attends an anti–Vietnam War demonstration in Washington DC. (Wikimedia Comons)

Interview by
Meagan Day

John D’Emilio wrote the first draft of “Capitalism and Gay Identity” in 1979. Originally delivered as a speech and later published as an essay, the ideas in it were informed partly by D’Emilio’s intensive political self-education in a gay men’s Marxist reading group in the years between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis.

Gay activists diligently studying Marx’s Capital together has not necessarily been a frequent occurrence throughout American history, but phenomena of this type did occur more frequently during a few years in the seventies, when activists briefly understood anti-capitalism to be a self-evident component of gay liberation. In keeping with those politics, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” ends with an exhortation to oppose not merely homophobic oppression, narrowly defined, but exploitation and economic inequality writ large.

“Capitalism and Gay Identity” presents a Marxist history of the emergence of modern gay subjectivity, grounded in an analysis of changing modes of production and material conditions. This interpretation of our history is uncommon in LGBT political circles today. So is the idea that modern homophobia is the scapegoating of gay people for the social transformations brought about by capitalism, not all of which have been as liberatory as the separation of sexuality and procreation. These ideas deserve serious consideration from a new generation of LGBT left-wing activists, many of whom are already socialists.

John D’Emilio is the author of several books including Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin and Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to D’Emilio about the parallel histories of capitalism and gay identity — with a focus on homosexuality, though the conversation does touch on transgender issues — and why even though capitalism has generated new possibilities for sexual expression, we must endeavor to transcend it.


MD

When capitalism introduced a new mode of production based on wage labor, it dislocated the family as the primary site of production for most people. In “Capitalism and Gay Identity” you contend that this transformation resulted in expanded possibilities for acting on and building a life around same-sex attraction, which then eventually led to the emergence of gay communities, identities, and politics.

We’ll work through this whole idea, but let’s begin by establishing what was it like before this transformation occurred. What was the mode of production prior to the introduction of capitalism? We can restrict this to the United States to make this enormous topic a little more manageable.

JD

In the colonial society that becomes the United States — not within the system of slavery, but within the system of free labor — you basically have a system in which most people are producing what they consume, as opposed to working for someone else for a wage and then going out and buying the things that they need to survive. In this kind of system, where production and consumption are so interconnected, people really survive through the creation of reproductive units that produce their own labor force in the form of children.

In a world like that, it’s not as if there aren’t people with same-sex desires. As far as we know, you can find evidence throughout history and across cultures that there were people who had same-sex attraction and acted on it. But you couldn’t construct a life around those feelings. Today, we’ve come to think of sexuality as this very personal thing that’s based on who we’re attracted to and who we love. But sexuality in the colonial world I’m describing was marshaled for the creation of a labor force which was necessary for survival.

As you move through the nineteenth century, a transition is occurring in the United States toward capitalist forms of production, where more and more people are going out and earning a living by doing work for someone else and bringing home wages. It’s mostly men who are doing this at first, while women are still doing a lot of work at home, cooking and making clothes and so on. But the main consequence is that because more people are able to work for wages, more people are able to live outside of a reproductive family unit. For people who have strong same-sex desires, this generates new possibilities.

Given inequalities based on gender, race, and class, this shift doesn’t have the same impact on everybody at once. White men who work for wages are able to construct lives outside of the heterosexual family unit first. But by the late nineteenth century and certainly early twentieth century, one is beginning to find evidence of many different kinds of people living in accordance with their same-sex desires.

For example, as the progressive movement begins to establish settlement houses, you find women who no longer need to be married and raise children for survival living together in lifelong relationships. Likewise, when African Americans start moving out of the sharecropper system and into the cities where they perform wage labor, one begins to see evidence of what today we would call gays and lesbians in black communities in American cities.

MD

Another shift that occurs at this time, you argue, is that the ideological function of marriage changes.

When the expansion of wage labor displaces the reproductive family unit as the locus of life-sustaining production, marriage doesn’t go away. Actually, marriage remains very important in the organization of society, but it shifts meaning and becomes a site of personal emotional fulfillment. Meanwhile, when children are no longer necessary for survival, they begin to represent familial love and domestic happiness. They become symbolic of the success of the marriage.

Once marriage changes its meaning in this way for people, critical questions are posed to all of society: What kind of intimacy do you desire? What kind of partnership is going to emotionally fulfill you? Once these questions are posed to people en masse, new answers become possible.

In this context, you begin to see an accentuation of the idea of same-sex attraction. It’s not that homosexual desire wasn’t there before, but it is emphasized because the individual’s intimate desires and attractions in general are emphasized, whether they’re heterosexual or homosexual or otherwise. Am I getting this argument correct?

JD

That’s correct. In US history, one really starts to notice by about the 1920s that the language and ideology of marriage begin to shift. It’s not that people aren’t having children, but marriage is increasingly something that you choose on the basis of love and intimacy rather than economic necessity and design, with the production of children as a labor force at the center.

Changes in the material conditions of life have continued to allow for the development of different ideological understandings of marriage, family, intimacy, and sexuality. As time goes on, and particularly as one moves past the mid-century baby boom, not only are choice, attraction, and desire figuring more centrally in how most people marry, but also marriage itself is becoming less necessary for people to express that love and affection.

So you have increasing numbers of people in the post-1960s world living together for portions of their life before they get married, or maybe never getting married, which wasn’t true a century earlier. This is not coincidentally a world in which women are also increasingly working for a wage. Eventually, you end up with a situation where many heterosexuals are in intimate relationships without being married or having children, which opens up even more space to imagine building a life around same-sex attraction, because it’s really not so different from what many heterosexuals are doing.

MD

Let’s go back to the specific transition that occurs in the early twentieth century. First, as you write in your essay, gay communities started to appear in cities, but they were mostly covert, informal, and diffuse. Then something really significant in this story happens at just the right time: World War II. Can you talk about the role of World War II in transforming American gay urban life and identity into something more stable, visible, and concrete?

JD

On the one hand, World War II is understood as this heroic age of fighting and defeating tyranny, and then returning to a nation that becomes prosperous, which leads to the baby boom of the late forties, fifties, and early sixties. What could be more heterosexual than the postwar baby boom and the culture it created?

But World War II also does something else. It takes sixteen million young men away from their families, away from their towns and neighborhoods, away from everything they’ve ever known, and puts them in an all-male environment. Of course, they can go out and leave, and we know that entailed plenty of heterosexual activity. But this world of young men also creates room for homosexual expression to occur covertly. In this context, men who have strong attraction to other men are more easily able to find one another.

Something similar happens, though not on quite the same scale, for young women. Many young women, too, participate in the domestic war economy. Some of them leave their smaller towns and move to urban environments to do this. Many are living in all-female boardinghouses and working factories where almost all of the workers are women, because the men are off fighting the war. Young women who desire other women are placed in a position where they’re more easily able to act on those desires.

And when the war ends, some of those young men and women don’t go back home. They stay in the larger cities they had moved to or where they were discharged at the end of the war. The result of this is the creation of a small community — at the time, they would have called it a subculture — of people with same-sex desires who have expanded freedom to act on it.

MD

And they weren’t random cities. They were cities that were important to the war effort like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, which of course flourished as centers of gay life in the next few decades.

It’s important to observe the role of wage labor here as well, because when people can sustain themselves by working for a wage, there’s no economic mandate to return to the places they’re from or to get married and live a double life. There’s still social pressure to do these things, but they’re not necessary for survival.

This leads to the creation of more stable gay communities, which in turn lays the foundations for gay identity and politics. Can you talk about that transition in the decades after World War II?

JD

It was a complex process. On the one hand, I’ve just talked about World War II as opening up all of these possibilities. But on the other hand, within a few years you have fierce McCarthyist anti-communism, the Red Scare. Alongside that, you have this other moral panic that gets described by historians now as the Lavender Scare, in which the oppression of gay people suddenly becomes much more overt and intensified, with the police and the FBI actively going after people, creating lists, raiding bars, and so on.

So in the 1950s, you simultaneously have a semi-underworld of same-sex desire showing up in cities while at the same time people are having to be very careful. The word we would use today is closeted. There are gay and lesbian bars, but many of the people who go to them use pseudonyms until they know they can trust someone. It is in this context of expanded freedom and overt oppression that you see the beginnings of organized activism in San Francisco and Los Angeles, like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

Occasionally, during this period you’ll have an activist who comes from a political background and is willing to be more radical in their analysis. But for the most part in the fifties and into the sixties, activism was very careful. If you looked at the covers of some of the magazines that these organizations produced, you would never know you were looking at a gay or lesbian magazine.

In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, a few gay activists start becoming a little more militant and daring and begin putting themselves out there, but it’s a very small number. It really is the perfect timing of Stonewall at the end of the 1960s, when a major part of a generation is already out there protesting and challenging everything both politically and culturally, that a larger LGBT movement comes out of the closet and into existence.

MD

There’s a parallel here I want to draw to the Great Migration, when African Americans left the rural South where they were mostly sharecroppers and went to the cities where they became wage laborers — not just cities in the North and West but also in the South itself, like Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery.

Sociologist Jack Bloom has argued convincingly that this transformation was a precondition of what became the Civil Rights Movement, in much the same way that moving into the cities and into the capitalist labor market was a precondition of gay politics. To be clear, capitalism exerts enormous pressure on workers and is predicated on their exploitation. But the modern mode of production has for some people carved paths to a more civic or political life, at least compared to being an impoverished black sharecropper under Jim Crow, or a same-sex-attracted person who needs to be married and have children to help out on the farm in order to survive.

But here is another parallel: just as the Civil Rights Movement generated “massive resistance” from white racists, the emergence of gay politics sparked an intense backlash, one that was more popular-facing and in many ways more virulent than the Lavender Scare. How would you describe that new wave of homophobia?

JD

There are two different versions of a politicized homophobia that emerge in the twentieth century. There’s the earlier version that emerges in the context of the Cold War in the fifties and sixties. It’s institutionalized. It’s reflected in sodomy laws, FBI surveillance, federal bans on employment. That’s the kind of homophobia that the gay liberation movement of the seventies starts to challenge. And it’s not as if huge change occurs in the seventies, but there’s enough LGBT activist visibility that some sodomy laws get repealed, some civil rights statutes get enacted at the local level, things like that.

But when that starts to happen, a new round of homophobia emerges from outside the powers that be. This is what we in the seventies began being called the “new right” or the “radical right.” It was often very grounded in Christian evangelicalism, and was politically very closely associated with the shift in the South of whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. It was responsive not just to LGBT activism but also the wave of feminist activism around issues from birth control to abortion to the Equal Rights Amendment. This new wave of anti-feminism and homophobia helped create the Republican Party that we’re living with today.

MD

I think the Republican Party has fashioned itself into a vanguard of social conservatism mostly through sheer electoral opportunism. The reason those opportunities are available though is that there is genuinely a lot of panic in the general populace about the old ways disappearing.

And social tradition really is in peril. It calls to mind that passage from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto in which they observe that as capitalism transforms the world, “All that is solid melts into air.” By this, they’re not exactly casting judgment. They’re somewhat neutrally observing that capitalism is a continually progressive force, in that it constantly upends the social world, remakes it, and refashions it eternally.

This has positive implications for some people in some areas of their lives, for example, for gay people in the area of same-sex attraction. I obviously consider it a very positive development that I am able to freely and openly love women.

But it’s also the case that capitalism has disrupted families and destabilized life in very negative ways for a lot of people, especially in its neoliberal iteration, which is characterized by privatization, austerity, and unopposed exploitation — which means living costs go up, wages stagnate, and social services diminish. That makes it hard to sustain families and other social bonds, and keep traditions alive that give the individual a sense of meaning and belonging in the world.

Freedom to act on and build a life around same-sex attraction is merely one of many expressions of this broader revolutionary phenomenon. It seems to me that the modern variant of homophobia is actually a reaction to the downsides of the same phenomenon. Gay people — and, increasingly, transgender people, who are rapidly replacing homosexuals as the primary scapegoat — are being accused of causing the dissolution of the traditional social order under capitalism and all the bad things that come with this.

Another way to think about this is that gay people are the object of the radical social transformation brought about by capitalism, but we are accused of being the subject of it. This seems to me to be a more sophisticated analysis of how homophobia fits into capitalism than just the standard explanation that it’s another means of division, which is also true.

JD

Yes, if you look at the homophobia that rises in the right wing in the seventies and eighties, and you look at the language in which it’s expressed, it’s evident that what is motivating it is concern over the decay or the decline of the nuclear family. Well, the decay or the decline of the nuclear family is a real phenomenon. But it did not happen because of the gay liberation movement. It happened because of the continuing growth of capitalism, which disrupted the material conditions that previously kept families together and did not offer a sufficient replacement.

For example, even independently of feminism, capitalism was drawing women into the workforce, giving more women the choice as to whether they want to get married or stay married. Second-wave feminism arose out of this, not the other way around. For better or worse, capitalism is disrupting this old order in which heterosexual nuclear families are everything in terms of the structure of life. And then when people fear that change, they point their finger not at capitalist society or the capitalist system of production, but instead at gay activists and feminists.

MD

In the 1970s, you were a part of a serious gay Marxist reading group. It seems that at that time gay activists felt a responsibility to be anti-capitalist, or believed that gay liberation was synonymous with anti-capitalism. Over the next few decades, that association was mostly lost. What happened to it?

JD

What was called gay liberation comes into existence on the heels of the left-wing radicalism that existed in the latter part of the 1960s, whether in racial justice movements or a version of radical feminism or the antiwar movement. Because it was of a piece with those movements, it began with an impulse to challenge this thing that was then called “the system.”

So when Stonewall happens, there are already riots and protests going on all over the country. Young people are already politicized, and in this context it spreads very quickly and very radically. The first organization formed after Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front, took its name from the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, which was fighting against American imperialism in Southeast Asia. So there’s very much a broad, rather than sharply ideological, leftist stance that early gay and lesbian liberation takes.

It doesn’t last very long. And I mean it really doesn’t last very long. In the early seventies, these gay liberation and radical lesbian groups for the most part don’t last more than about three to four years each. And they’re replaced by other groups that remain militant but are single-issue, identity-based organizations. What I mean is you have organizations out there fighting in the streets, challenging the police, and causing disruption, but all they want is equal rights for gays. The militancy remained for a while, but the multi-issue coalitions that emphasized how capitalism oppresses us all were gone. In that respect, LGBT activism sadly but not surprisingly reflects the larger trends in the society.

The militancy waxes and wanes over the decades. For example, you see a major upsurge during the AIDS crisis with ACT UP. And you even see a move away from single-issue advocacy when ACT UP and other groups begin to embrace issues like health care for all. But for the most part over the last fifty years, leftism has been a thread rather than a major component of queer activism.

MD

In “Capitalism and Gay Identity” you insist on an anti-capitalist gay politics, and you still feel this way decades later. But if capitalism is responsible for people being able to survive and eventually thrive outside of the heterosexual nuclear family, then are gay socialists being disloyal to the system that made us possible? In other words, why should gay people be anti-capitalist given this history that we’ve laid out?

JD

First of all, because in and of itself capitalism hasn’t undone homophobia and transphobia. That’s only come through activism, and all our gains in that regard had to be fought for every step along the way. Additionally, under capitalism, some people can create the lives they want for themselves, but the majority of people can’t, even with new sexual freedoms.

The majority of people, including the majority of LGBT people, are living with a measure of insecurity, where their ability to survive economically is always in danger. You’re not very far from having your savings wiped out or not being able to make your mortgage payment or pay your rent or having to use food banks. Capitalism has provided the material conditions that allowed this identity to emerge and coalesce, but hasn’t provided security for most of those people.

The progressive aspect of capitalism is that the system of private ownership and profit over a long stretch of time has allowed the society to become so much more potentially efficiently productive that, in the end, actually less labor is needed for humans and the society to survive. But precisely because the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit, for many people as much labor is required as ever was, and there’s much less security.

On the one hand, the fact that capitalism allows the individual to function within society opens certain possibilities. But for the vast majority of us, the individualized nature of capitalism creates a long-term sense of insecurity, an uncertainty about who will be there to care for us when trouble arises. What socialism offers is a sense of collective responsibility for individual well-being.

Yes, we’ll still be individuals. We’ll still have freedoms, including our sexual freedoms. But we won’t just be individuals trying to get by alone in this exploitative, unequal system. Capitalism has created new material possibilities. What socialism can create is a different value system, one that ultimately really cares about the individual much more than capitalism does.