The gay liberation movement’s challenge to straight male masculinity offers a unique and revolutionary contribution to the emancipation of the whole of humanity from all forms of oppression and subjugation.
Lesbian and gay liberation is of critical importance to the broader project of human emancipation. It is not merely a minority issue, nor purely a question of civil rights and sexual freedom.
The ultimate aim is a cultural revolution to end heterosexual supremacism and the concomitant cult of heterosexual masculinity which underpins all relations of oppression and exploitation.
This was the revolutionary agenda of the lesbian and gay liberation movement which emerged 20 years ago following the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969.
In contrast to earlier liberal-oriented movements for homosexual equality, the lesbian and gay liberation movement did not seek to ape heterosexual values or secure the acceptance of homosexuals within the existing sexual conventions. Indeed, it repudiated the prevailing sexual morality and institutions – rejecting not only heterosexism but also heterosexual masculinity with its oppressive predisposition to rivalry, toughness and aggression (most potently symbolised by the rapist and the queer-basher).
In contrast the “radical drag” and”gender-bender” politics of the Gay Liberation Front glorified male gentleness. It was a conscious, if sometimes exaggerated, attempt to renounce the oppressiveness of masculinity and subvert the way masculinity functions to buttress the subordination of women and gay men.
Lesbian and gay liberation is therefore truly revolutionary because it specifically rejects the male heterosexual cult of masculine competitiveness, domination and violence. Instead, it affirms the worthwhileness of male sensitivity and affection between men and, in the case of lesbians, the intrinsic value of an eroticism and love independent of heterosexual men.
By challenging heterosexual masculinity, the politics of lesbian and gay liberation has profound radical implications for oppressed peoples everywhere: it actively subverts the male heterosexual machismo‘ values which lie at the heart of all systems of domination, exploitation and oppression. Lesbian and gay liberation is therefore not an issue which is peripheral. It is, indeed absolutely central to revolutionary change and human liberation in general.
Without the successful construction of a cult of heterosexual masculinity and a mass of aggressive male egos, neither sexual, class, racial, species, nor imperialist oppression are possible.
All these different forms of oppression depend on two factors for their continued maintenance. First, on specific economic and political structures. And second, on a significant proportion of the population, mainly heterosexual men, being socialised into the acceptance of harsh masculine values which involve the legitimisation of aggression and the suppression of gentleness and emotion. The embracing of these culturally-conditioned macho values, whether consciously or unconsciously, is what makes so many millions of people able to participate in repressive regimes. (This interaction between social structures, ideology and individual psychology was a thesis which the communist psychologist, Wilhelm Reich, was attempting to articulate nearly 60 years ago in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism).
In the case of German fascism, what Nazism did was merely awake and excite the latent brutality which is intrinsic to heterosexual masculinity in class societies. It then systematically manipulated and organised this unleashed masculine violence into a fascist regime of terror and torture which culminated in the holocaust.
Since it is the internalisation of the masculine cult of toughness and domination which makes people psychologically suited and willing to be part of oppressive relations of exploitation and subjection, repressive states invariably glorify masculine “warrior” ideals and legally and ideologically suppress those men – mainly homosexuals – who fail to conform to them.
Given that this internalisation of masculine aggression within the male population is a prerequisite for injustice and tyranny, love and tenderness between men ceases to be a purely private matter or simply a question of personal lifestyle. Instead, it objectively becomes an act of subversion which undermines the very foundations of oppression. Hence the Nazis’ vilification of gay men as “sexual subversives” and “sexual saboteurs” who, in the words of Heinrich Himmler, had to be “exterminated- root and branch.”
In conclusion: the goal of eradicating injustice and exploitation requires us to change both the social structure and the individual personality to create people who, liberated from masculinity, no longer psychologically crave the power to dominate and exploit others and who are therefore unwilling to be the agents of oppressive regimes (whether as soldiers, police, gaolers and censors or as routine civil servants and state administrators who act as the passive agents of repression by keeping the day-to-day machinery of unjust government ticking over).
By challenging the cult of heterosexual masculinity, lesbian and gay liberation politics is about much more than the limited agenda of human rights. It offers a unique and revolutionary contribution to the emancipation of the whole of humanity from all forms of oppression and subjugation.
An edited version of this article was published in “Labour Briefing”, 1989. See also “Beyond lesbian and gay rights”, Interlink. May /June 1989.