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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

A Queer Socialism

A Review of Hannah Dee’s The Red in the Rainbow: Sexuality, Socialism and LGBT Liberation (2010) and an examination of changing struggles.

Hannah Dee’s The Red in the Rainbow places LGBTQ+ struggles within the context of the struggle for socialism. ‘LGBT struggle’, she notes, ‘can only be waged effectively if it is linked to the wider issues that shape our age.’ This is fundamental to the Marxism Dee espouses. It is because the nature of that struggle is shaped by social relations, and the various crises and other struggles those relations give rise to. For a Marxist theory of oppression, full human emancipation can only result from changing society at a fundamental level, and this book makes a strong case for that thesis through one current of such emancipation.

‘For Marxists the key to understanding how people’s attitudes to sexuality, gender and sex are formed, and how they decide what is “normal” in a given society,’ writes Dee, ‘lies in our understanding of the family as an institution rooted in class societies—both capitalist and earlier forms.’ Class society produces certain sets of norms institutions in its composition and as a bedrock for the powerful. This bedrock enables social reproduction and thereby the productive economy that is the lifeblood of our social system. However, many of these norms are antithetical to certain generally occurring ways of life (such as LGBTQ+ lives), and therefore restrictive to human flourishing.

Dee observes that ‘LGBT oppression persists precisely because[…] it is rooted in the wider organisation of capitalist society.’ Most of the book serves as a history of socialism as it interacts with LGBTQ+ liberation. Dee does a splendid job linking the tides of each to the other. For example, assessing the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 80s, she writes perceptively that ‘workers in earlier decades had helped fuel confidence among lesbians and gays in the possibility of revolutionary change. Now their defeats shaped a very different climate in which lesbians and gays also found themselves under attack.’ Workers are also often LGBTQ+, and the fates of their conditions are entwined under capitalist repression. In her historical account, Dee picks out figures of significance to both workers and LGBTQ+ struggles, making the links more apparent:

Edward Carpenter, for example, took up many of the early socialist themes of free love, women’s emancipation, opposition to bourgeois conventions in marriage and the link between the alienation of labour and sexual relationships. He took the “propaganda of the deed” very seriously and spent the latter part of his life living openly with his male lover in a semi-commune in Sheffield, cycling around working class areas giving out pamphlets on free love and spreading the word.

The point she makes, in part, is that full liberation cannot be achieved without revolution; reform is always partial, reversible and makes concessions to reactionaries. To illustrate, Dee examines Magnus Hirschfeld (the most significant member of the first homosexual rights organisation, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, and also a member of the German Social Democratic Party or SPD). His attempts to form a basis for early LGBTQ+ identity are seen as contextually positive but deeply flawed. That is because the basis he uses relies on ‘the invention of biological categories for lesbians and gays’ that rest on ‘pseudo-scientific theories about the “third sex”’ to which LGB people were claimed to belong. These theories reified degrading conceptions of such identities, even as they coalesced the identities themselves and created the ground for agency and struggle.

The charge Dee levels against Hirschfeld can be levelled at Carpenter and others, despite their revolutionary credentials. Such errors are not moral ones, but shaped by the historical horizons of these people. And this fact connects to another of Dee’s core arguments; that self-emancipation historically develops alongside reaction and oppression, that its categories and ambitions are also necessarily historical. Such a rigorous commitment to historicity is something Marxism lends to this concise history of LGBTQ+ struggles. As we will see, this methodological commitment also explains even the very limits of Dee’s own account. (That is, the book’s chief strength is that its core assumptions explain its contingency and the need to update and rethink some of its arguments.)

Betraying its own radical spirit, the SPD remained highly divided over sexual minority rights. Dee sees this alongside a greater split in that party over respectability or radicalism, reformism or revolution. A split that ultimately swung to respectable reformism and would spell a horrifying downfall to Nazism, presaging the atrocity of the Nazi’s Holocaust. This split, in a history of socialism from Chartism to today, is further evidenced in the Stalinist betrayal in the form of a counterrevolution and the rollback of gay liberation after advances in post-1917 Russia.

We move from there to the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Liberation Front and the latter half of the twentieth century, with a slow tendency from big moments of emancipation towards a general failing to link the struggles against oppression and exploitation. This occurred again because of socialists and because of the strategies of much of the more respectable LGBTQ+ movement (some of which formed into separatist blocks, even outright excluding bisexuals and others). Within separatism, Dee argues: ‘Lifestyle choices became a substitute for political action’. Identity is not enough, Dee insists; solidarity and politics needs to go beyond the realm of the personal.

This all culminated in another reactionary period starting in the late 70s, with resistance still often coming in the form of linkages between the oppressed and exploited (which Dee illustrates in the example of the organisation Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). Solidarity extended eventually between miners and LGBTQ+ people; it is exemplary of the kind of movement Dee is advocating. Although the ultimate defeat of the miners, and the Tory’s homophobic Section 28, showed that such a movement still requires significant victories to overcome reaction. The tragedy of AIDs and the state policy many places to ignore or even worsen the deaths of so many LGBTQ+ people compounds this lesson; the stakes are high, and the history of class society is a cruel one.

Nonetheless, significant gains were made. They were not, as some accounts would have it, gifts from above; ‘the Labour government generally followed the call for reform, rather than leading it.’ Dee notes that the increase in rights ‘over the last two decades have been so significant that it appears not a single area of life has escaped the struggle for change.’ She cites changes in attitudes, including by those in power, as well as new equalities law. And in part Dee credits ‘structural changes and social upheavals that took place in capitalism after the Second World War’ including higher education, women’s rights, divorce and abortion law. She stresses the unevenness of these developments; how new gender recognition certificates for trans people necessitated ‘a divorce if they are married’, new civil partnerships enforced a degree of segregation, and that there was an absence of ‘action against homophobia and transphobia.’

What are the limits in Dee’s account? Trans history is minimised in this book. It is odd to touch on Hirschfeld without addressing transgender history. The treatment of the Stonewall riots is better, with the trans struggle framed as less reformist by the nature of the oppression. Trans centrality ‘in the movement was an important factor in shaping a sexual politics that was about breaking in every way from the search for tolerance’. It is a small inclusion, but significant. What is missing is the betrayal of trans liberation by some of the LGB community. When Dee addresses divisions in the LGBTQ+ community she focuses foremost on class (on homelessness, for example), ‘the reality is there are real divisions, not just of experience but also of politics and class interest.’ And even when she expands on ‘political’ divisions, on how separatist lesbians saw ‘gay men as a problem’ and attacked ‘lesbians who engaged in S&M’, trans exclusion is glossed over.

As a book published in 2010, the minimisation of trans history here is perhaps reflective of the nature of the struggle at the time. Pointing this deficit out is certainly not meant as a serious criticism of Dee’s work as a whole. While some of the omission is irksome, it is mostly worth highlighting as a sign of the progress made since the late 00s. I got my copy at a stall in Trans Pride London 2021, an event that recaptured a ‘militant commemoration of the Stonewall riots’ rather than the ‘corporate-sponsored day out’ Dee rightly criticises. I doubt a book published now would cover the trans portion of this history the same way. Dee notes that as historical movements evolve, so does awareness. Transgender people are now suffering heightened reaction, but equally (connectedly) pushing for liberation with greater visibility and numbers, with new and richer conceptions of the identities and politics involved. It is a vindication of Dee’s methodological suppositions that in eleven years the situation has so changed, even beyond the scope of the book itself.

A more substantive and connected criticism can be made over the project to reclaim the word ‘queer’, to which Dee is hostile. She associates this with a broader criticism of the Queer Nation organisation in the 90s. (She notably uses LGBT and not LGBT+ or LGBTQ+.) Dee’s main contention is that the power of the slur is still too harmful to reclaim. Against this position, I would posit that queer has become emblematic of those parts of the movement rooted in ‘breaking in every way from the search for tolerance’, and furthermore that it is precisely in that radicalism the word has taken on special value for the trans community. None of that should discount the complexity of a project to reclaim a word or discount the genuine pain associated with its former use, but this word is now a strong symbol of inclusion and the very radicalism The Red in the Rainbow advocates.

Why does this matter? It is, after all, only a word. What matters is the deeper struggles the word conjures. Dee associates the idea of queerness with ‘the idea that straight society was the problem’—that is, with a form of separatism. But today, transphobic, biphobic, enbyphobic, acephobic etc. groups within the LGBTQ+ umbrella deploy an anti-queer message as part of a wider attempt to delegitimise and exclude such identities. Queer is a highly open term, and has a diversity of possible political articulations. The true separatists of today even actively trade on problematising the use of queer by such marginalised groups to delegitimise bi, ace, nonbinary, trans, etc. people themselves. Queer must be defended now on its own terms, at this historical juncture (even as no identity should be imposed on any of the oppressed). The queer author Andrea Lawlor aptly describes why this term is important to them (and captures why I embrace it too):

I love the word queer, because what's useful about it is that it has the potential to be radically inclusive. I hope it signals an interest in, if not radical political thought, at least a destabilising. Destabilising binary ideas of gender and sex. I really struggled with this feeling of not being trans enough, I don't feel like any of the words really work. I like words that leave things a little unclear. The main thing for me is if you respect people self-determination, and if somebody says they're queer, or they're trans, they are, and it's not that big of a deal.

Dee has a further point to make on this, which joins up with her earlier ones about identity:

Although queer politics originated in the struggles of the late 1980s, it was given intellectual weight by the theories of postmodernism and post-structuralism circulating in academia at the time. These were developed by a generation of intellectuals seeking to come to terms with the failure of 1968 to achieve social transformation, and claimed to offer an alternative to Marxism. They rejected materialism in favour of examining how discourse, ideology and culture shaped the world—and dismissed the working class as a potential force for change.

Marxism must reject such a philosophy, which encompasses thinkers that are somewhat simplistically lumped into the postmodern umbrella. A vulgar identity theory that reifies identities into ahistorical categories, and jettisons the historical agency of workers, is wrongheaded for the reasons Dee argues. But queer is foremost, as Dee acknowledges, a ‘rejection of separatism’ and ‘a step froward from some of the ideas held by lesbian and gay activists in the 1980s’; this includes ideas of gender hostile to the trans community. There is no reason an inclusive queer theory (with its demand of opposing the limited exclusionary identity politics of the past) cannot be married to a materialist Marxism. And on the point on language, for many LGBTQ+ people now, queer simply has been reclaimed. It would be a fruitless endeavour to turn back the clock, and ultimately serve to strengthen those exclusionary identity politics of the 80s Dee rightly calls out.

So much of the struggle for LGBTQ+ emancipation in the UK currently rests not on attempts to recouple that project with socialism (would that we were fighting on that terrain), but in resisting the fracturing of the LGBTQ+ movement. We face a divide and conquer strategy, abetted (shamefully) by the frequent betrayal of the broader left. The transphobic LGBAlliance (a group whose central purpose is to excise the T) and Women’s Place UK are emblematic of our plight. This was not the situation as Dee published The Red in the Rainbow, and her stress on radicalism, on demanding more than tolerance, is a good reason to prioritise resisting divide and rule as well as for linking emancipation from oppression to the abolition of exploitation and class society.

History is always being made, and what takes on significance in the past is evolving in light of that process. This is a Marxist insight, which needs constantly reincorporating into the LGBTQ+ struggle. This book remains powerfully timely for all of my caveats; it makes a case for LGBTQ+ liberation and socialism to be taken on together, a case that will only cease to be timely when class and oppression are jointly overcome and a new human history commences, that outlined by Marx.


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