Hatred of homosexuality

Gegen Kapital und Nation
Streifzüge (April 15 2014)

Theses toward a critique
of bourgeois sexuality

A) Nature, society, individual

Homo-, hetero-, and bisexuality are not biologically determined. Every scientific inquiry into the biological origins of homosexuality seeks to establish statistical correlation between sexual preference and physical attributes. Bigger earlobes, the properties/condition of testicles, shape of the brain, DNA sequences, etc., cannot count as causes, even if correlates exist within the group under review. For, in order to prove cohesion, one has to find not only a formal coherence of phenomena, but material coherence as well. After all, the high incidence of men with white beards and red coats around Christmas Eve does not prove that Santa Claus in fact brings the presents. Human sexuality is a specifically social thing. So it is just wrong to look for purely biological determinants or explanations.1

2 Nature provides the material preconditions of human sexuality: a body equipped with nerves, the brain, diverse fluids, etc. But it’s society that provides the historical conditions under which it takes place: everything from the form of political authority with its rules and acts, the prevailing perceptions, expectations, and aspirations of human coexistence, as well as the available knowledge about sexuality (including stimulants, toys, assorted utilities). The forms and contents of sexuality, however, originate in the thoughts and feelings of individuals who interpret these biological preconditions and sociological conditions.

3 The reason the “nature” argument appears obvious to so many people is that their sexual desires cannot be changed at a mere whim. Even if their sexual orientation changes once again after a certain point in their lives, they quite often think that now they’ve finally discovered their very own, formerly suppressed, true sexual identity. Precisely because modern human beings want to express their true nature in love and sexuality, they also seem to find here the identity of who they really are (not as determined by others). Henceforth, their sexuality and falling in love shall be entirely their own. The long road bourgeois subjects must take from birth so as to develop explicit sexual fantasies and practices — along with the wealth of experiences and decisions, all the sensible and senseless thoughts and feelings about human desire, objects of desire and their behaviors — this then appears to them like the long road to themselves. And all of this is put retrospectively in order to make sense of it. When this result is obtained, the process is at an end.

4 [“Born this way”] sexual inheritance was politically welcomed by the gay movement, because it could serve as an argument against concepts of therapy to reform and punish gay people. It also came in handy to confront fundamentalist Christians with the following question: Why would the Lord create gay and lesbian people, if he hates them so much? The notion of sin implies free will, the ability to violate God’s commandments. If homosexuality is inherited, it can’t be a sin. Yet this argument is defensive, often helpless, but always foolish and dangerous. At worst, it could even have brutal consequences. Defensive because gays appear as predetermined ninnies who might want to be otherwise if only they could, instead of saying that it’s fun and doesn’t harm anyone.2 Helpless because ideologies long ago evolved to reconcile the contradiction between divine creation and allegedly natural homosexuality (e.g., “special burden,” or “we love homosexuals but hate their sinful lifestyle,” etc.). Right-wing moralists will not be dissuaded from their hatred of gays after learning about gay penguins. Foolish and dangerous because the argument affirms biologism, which purports to derive everything from the links between amino acids to unemployment, French kissing [Zungenkuss], as well as Zionism. Manmade affairs are thereby transfigured into unalterable matters of nature. Lastly, it could have at worst brutal consequences, for if homosexuality is seen as an evil caused by nature this might lead to the conclusion that homosexuals and other miscellaneous “deviants” need to be outlawed and marginalized, if not annihilated outright.2

5 Humans make their own sexuality, but they do not make it as they please. They cannot simply undo what has already happened to them, either by or without their consent, as well as what they have (un)consciously made of these experiences. Psychoanalysis once promised to render these mechanisms visible and thereby enable patients to better handle them. That sounded appealing to a number of gay people looking for a psychoanalytic “cure” in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. With regard to homosexuality, over the decades psychoanalysis developed into a form of heteronormative enforcement therapy, in only partial compliance with its founder. It managed to promote some of the silliest and most contradictory psychological theories about homosexuality being conditioned by the family. Either the mother was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent, or the father was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent. Nowadays psychologists will say “multifactorial,” at least putting it on record that they have no idea where homos come from either.

6 Still, this isn’t so bad given that the question itself is somewhat stupid. Usually it’s just a prelude to pathologization or persecution which turns gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people into an anomaly demanding explanation. Rather than, say, putting into question the concept of choosing a partner or fuck buddy based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics, of all things. Even if a certain type of build, one’s hairiness, or the presence of a penis or vagina4 can be more or less sexually attractive:

a) biological sex is, in most cases, simply a matter of chance, since men and women and trans* and intersex are fortunately not as uniform as commonly maintained, and
b) the sexual function of bodily attributes is not independent of the thoughts and emotions people have about it.

Moreover, the commonplace notion is that love somehow naturally coincides with sexual attraction. But that’s not necessarily the way things work. Continue reading

“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

Those who op­pose Marx­ism, En­light­en­ment, or even lib­er­al ideo­lo­gies on the ground that they are Euro­centric or co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tions, and pro­pose as an al­tern­at­ive sup­posedly more or­gan­ic, au­then­tic­ally in­di­gen­ous life­ways and autoch­thon­ous, com­munit­ari­an wis­dom, are them­selves simply vic­tim to an­oth­er European ideo­logy: Ro­man­ti­cism. I hope it is clear in the fol­low­ing that I do not share the views of Mas­sad or Bouteldja.

Homon­ation­al­ism and “pink­wash­ing”

Since her re­fus­al to ac­cept the Ber­lin Pride Civil Cour­age Award, Ju­dith But­ler has been a lead­ing crit­ic of “homon­ation­al­ism” and the closely re­lated phe­nomen­on of so-called “pink­wash­ing.” Homon­ation­al­ism is un­der­stood here as an ideo­logy which uses a na­tion’s lib­er­al at­ti­tudes to­ward ho­mo­sexu­al­ity as a means of en­cour­aging ra­cist at­ti­tudes to­ward oth­er na­tions, on the grounds that they are sup­posedly less en­lightened. But­ler stated in a May 2010 ad­dress on “Queer Al­li­ance and An­ti­war Polit­ics” in Ank­ara, Tur­key that “in some parts of Europe and surely in Is­rael as well, the rights of ho­mo­sexu­als are de­fen­ded in the name of na­tion­al­ism.” Or as she put it in Ber­lin, what was sup­posed to be her ac­cept­ance speech: “Les­bi­an, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] war­mon­gers in­volved in cul­tur­al wars against im­mig­rants through Is­lamo­pho­bia and mil­it­ary wars against Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. In this time, through these in­stru­ments, we be­come re­cruited for na­tion­al­ism and mil­it­ar­ism.”

Ref­er­ence is only made in But­ler’s lat­ter state­ment to NATO and the US — which partly ra­tion­al­ized their in­va­sions of Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, or at least made them more pal­at­able to left-lib­er­als, by present­ing them as an op­por­tun­ity to lib­er­ate wo­men — but Is­rael is clearly also im­plied. Tel Aviv’s vi­brant LGBT scene has been de­servedly praised for its open­ness and ac­cept­ance of dif­fer­ent sexu­al ori­ent­a­tions and gender iden­tit­ies, but this repu­ta­tion sim­ul­tan­eously serves pro­pa­gand­ist­ic ends. Jux­ta­posed against daily life in the Ga­za strip, where Hamas is in power and things are dif­fi­cult due to crip­pling eco­nom­ic block­ades, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oas­is sur­roun­ded by a desert of Is­lam­ist ho­mo­pho­bia. Is­rael uses this con­trast to present a tol­er­ant im­age of it­self, and to di­vert at­ten­tion away from the bit­ter real­it­ies of oc­cu­pa­tion. For­get for a mo­ment the string of stabbings last sum­mer at the Jer­u­s­alem Pride fest­iv­al by Yishai Sch­lis­sel, an ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jew.

In Novem­ber 2011, New York Times ran a brief op-ed by Sarah Schul­man on the “pink­wash­ing” prac­tice of mod­ern Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to Schul­man, the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment as well as un­of­fi­cial travel agen­cies in­stru­ment­al­ize the coun­try’s strong re­cord on gay rights (com­pared to the rest of the re­gion, any­way) as a “mes­saging tool” to coun­ter­bal­ance some of the bad press it’s re­ceived from on­go­ing hu­man rights ab­uses. Schul­man’s ori­gin­al art­icle was de­cent, but much of the sub­sequent de­bate dis­mal. Dis­cus­sions of Is­raeli pub­lic re­la­tions, com­monly eu­phem­ized as “ex­plan­a­tion” [has­bara], tend to de­volve rather quickly. They either veer in­to con­spir­acy the­ory, re­peat­ing the old charge that Jews (er, Zion­ists) con­trol the me­dia, or end up deny­ing such a policy even ex­ists, when fel­low­ships are reg­u­larly awar­ded to ad­voc­ates on Is­rael’s be­half. For­ward, the bi­lin­gual Yid­dish daily foun­ded in 1897 by fol­low­ers of Daniel De Le­on, had a sens­ible take: “Not all Is­raeli gay mes­saging is pink­wash­ing. Most of it is just ad­space meant to at­tract gay tour­ists to Tel Aviv. Which it does.” Jay Mi­chael­son, the au­thor of the piece, nev­er­the­less took is­sue with a highly ma­nip­u­lat­ive full-page ad placed by Rabbi Schmu­ley in Decem­ber 2014.

But­ler and Schul­man are of course right to point out that Is­rael’s pro­gress­ive views on gay rights do not ex­cuse its na­tion­al op­pres­sion of Palestini­ans or eth­nic chau­vin­ism to­ward Ar­abs, but the in­verse should also hold true: Hamas’ so-called “res­ist­ance” to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism does not ex­cuse its or­gan­iz­a­tion­al an­ti­semit­ism or il­liber­al stance on rights for wo­men and gays.

Se­lect­ive “shib­boleths”

Many left­ists stop short of this ba­sic equi­poise, however. For ex­ample, But­ler her­self is ready to ex­cuse or­gan­iz­a­tions guilty of or com­pli­cit with oth­er forms of op­pres­sion. At a 2006 an­ti­war teach-in, watch­able be­low, she af­firmed the “pro­gress­ive” cre­den­tials of brazenly an­ti­semit­ic and ho­mo­phobic groups like Hezbol­lah and Hamas:

Yes, un­der­stand­ing Hamas and Hezbol­lah as so­cial move­ments that are pro­gress­ive, on the Left, part of a glob­al Left, is ex­tremely im­port­ant. That does not stop us from be­ing crit­ic­al of cer­tain di­men­sions of both move­ments. It doesn’t stop those of us who are in­ter­ested in non-vi­ol­ent polit­ics from rais­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er there are oth­er op­tions be­sides vi­ol­ence. So again, a crit­ic­al, im­port­ant en­gage­ment. I mean, I cer­tainly think it should be entered in­to the con­ver­sa­tion on the Left. I sim­il­arly think boy­cotts and di­vest­ment pro­ced­ures are, again, an es­sen­tial com­pon­ent of any res­ist­ance move­ment.

When these re­marks were brought up again in 2012, But­ler re­vised her claims some­what: “These polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions define them­selves as anti-im­per­i­al­ist. Anti-im­per­i­al­ism is one char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the glob­al left. On that basis one could de­scribe them as part of the glob­al Left.” Even with this qual­i­fic­a­tion, de­scrib­ing Hezbol­lah and Hamas as pro­gress­ive or left­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions based solely on their res­ist­ance to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism is laugh­able. Still, like the Marx­ist aca­dem­ic Susan Buck-Morss, But­ler main­tains that some Is­lam­ist groups may be in­cluded un­der the broad um­brella of a “glob­al left.” Buck-Morss wrote in “Can there be a Glob­al Left?”, the fi­nal chapter of her 2003 book Think­ing Past Ter­ror: Is­lam­ism and Crit­ic­al The­ory on the Left: “Is­lam­ist polit­ics has been mul­tiple and con­ten­tious, span­ning a wide vari­ety of polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions, in­clud­ing a crit­ic­al Left… ‘Left’ here would mean rad­ic­al in the crit­ic­al sense [and] also mean cos­mo­pol­it­an: it would define so­cial justice in a way that ex­cludes no group of hu­man­ity from the be­ne­fits of, and mor­al ac­count­ab­il­ity with­in, the glob­al pub­lic sphere.” For a scath­ing re­view of this work, see Arya Za­hedi’s 2009 piece for In­sur­gent Notes.

Frantz Fan­on was far too com­mit­ted an athe­ist to en­ter­tain the pos­sib­il­ity that re­li­gious re­viv­al might play a pro­gress­ive polit­ic­al role in the struggle against im­per­i­al­ism. Though by then he had aban­doned the cos­mo­pol­it­an hu­man­ism of Black Skin, White Masks in fa­vor of all-out war with co­lo­ni­al­ism and the West, Fan­on con­veyed his skep­ti­cism to his ad­mirer Ali Shari­ati. He wrote in a let­ter to Shari­ati:

Even if I do not share your views with re­spect to Is­lam, I re­spect your view that in the Third World (and if you don’t mind, I would prefer to say in the Near and Middle East), Is­lam, more than any oth­er so­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al force, has had an anti-co­lo­ni­al­ist ca­pa­city and an anti-West­ern nature. I hope that your in­tel­lec­tu­als will be able to in­still life in the in­ert and drugged body of the Muslim East so as to raise the con­scious­ness of the people… in or­der to found a dif­fer­ent kind of man and a dif­fer­ent kind of civil­iz­a­tion. I, for one, fear that the fact of re­vital­iz­ing the spir­it of sec­tari­an­ism and re­li­gion may res­ult in a set­back for a na­tion that is en­gaged in the pro­cess of be­com­ing, of dis­tan­cing it­self from its fu­ture and im­mob­il­iz­ing it in its past.

Later, after he sup­por­ted the na­tion­al­ist up­ris­ing in Al­ger­ia, Fan­on ex­pressed his deep mis­giv­ings. “My left­ist lean­ings drove me to­ward the same goal as Muslim na­tion­al­ists. Yet I was too con­scious of the dif­fer­ent roads by which we reached the same as­pir­a­tion. In­de­pend­ence, yes, I agreed. But what in­de­pend­ence? Were we go­ing to fight to build a feud­al, theo­crat­ic Muslim state in Al­ger­ia frowned on by for­eign­ers?” At least in this re­gard, des­pite his ca­pit­u­la­tion to na­tion­al­ism, Fan­on re­mains su­per­i­or to the “de­co­lo­ni­al” dum­basses who id­ol­ize him.

Sadly, this habit of ig­nor­ing ir­re­con­cil­able points of dis­agree­ment in the name of an anti-im­per­i­al­ist co­ali­tion or pop­u­lar front is not lim­ited to aca­dem­ics. Nu­mer­ous act­iv­ists and even some left-wing pop­u­list (“grass­roots”) politi­cians have suc­cumbed to it as well.

Lind­sey Ger­man, to take one act­iv­ist, no­tori­ously an­nounced in 2004 that she was will­ing to com­prom­ise on cer­tain is­sues but not on oth­ers. At the time, Ger­man was a mem­ber of the Brit­ish SWP and Stop the War co­ali­tion. Wo­men’s rights and gay rights were for her ne­go­ti­able, while anti-Zion­ism was not: “Stu­art King says some Muslims are anti-gay, and this is per­fectly true. But it is not a ques­tion we pose to Chris­ti­ans who join the So­cial­ist Al­li­ance, is it? Now I’m per­son­ally in fa­vor of de­fend­ing gay rights, but I am not pre­pared to have it as a shib­boleth, cre­ated by people who won’t de­fend George Gal­lo­way, and who re­gard the state of Is­rael as some­how a vi­able pres­ence, jus­ti­fied in oc­cupy­ing Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies.” Gal­lo­way him­self is un­will­ing to de­fend wo­men’s re­pro­duct­ive rights in par­lia­ment, de­cry­ing abor­tion as in­fant­i­cide and spout­ing oth­er sex­ist tripe. Of course, none of this mat­ters. His anti-Zion­ism al­lows left­ists to over­look a pleth­ora of re­ac­tion­ary po­s­i­tions, a se­lect­ive blind­ness he is happy to ex­tend to fel­low anti-Zion­ists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyp­tian tel­ev­an­gel­ist cler­ic who de­fends wife-beat­ing and fe­male gen­it­al mu­til­a­tion, as well as cor­por­al pun­ish­ment (either by lash­ing or ston­ing) for those guilty of ho­mo­sexu­al acts — was in­vited to Lon­don by Gal­lo­way in 2005. Ken Liv­ing­stone, the former may­or of Lon­don, lauded al-Qaradawi as “a lead­ing pro­gress­ive voice in the Muslim world.”

Auf­heben, an in­de­pend­ent Marxi­an the­or­et­ic­al journ­al in Bri­tain in­spired by Itali­an auto­nom­ism and Dutch-Ger­man coun­cil­ism, chron­icled the far­cic­al ef­fort of the an­ti­war Re­spect Party to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity.” In its 2009 art­icle “Crois­sants and Roses: New La­bour, Com­mun­al­ism, and the Rise of Muslim Bri­tain,” Auf­heben re­con­struc­ted the tail­ist lo­gic of Re­spect’s SWP lead­er­ship as it des­per­ately sought to house this new mi­lieu with­in its ideo­lo­gic­al head­space. Some of the old Swap­per stances on wo­men’s and gay rights had to be jet­tisoned to make room for this new crowd, it was be­lieved (though Clif­fite Trot­sky­ism al­ways has plenty of room at its dis­pos­al, so vacu­ous is its ideo­logy). Hap­pily, this pan­der­ing was met mostly with in­dif­fer­ence on the part of Brit­ish Muslims:

Vi­tal to the suc­cess of this project, par­tic­u­larly as the anti-war move­ment began to sub­side, was the need to bring the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity” on board. So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP in­sisted that Re­spect es­chew left-wing “shib­boleths” such as wo­men’s and gay rights. They went to the mosques and echoed the ar­gu­ments of the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists by claim­ing that Bush’s “Glob­al War on Ter­ror” was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the at­tack on Muslims in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, but also at home with the suc­ces­sion of anti-ter­ror­ist le­gis­la­tion — that should be op­posed by all Muslims as “Muslims.” And like the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists they de­nounced New La­bour as Is­lamo­phobic and ra­cist. Yet for all their ef­forts to pander to muslim sens­it­iv­it­ies, Re­spect failed to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity,” which re­mained wed­ded to New La­bour.

Is there a reas­on left­ists are so ready to con­demn queer and fem­in­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions that sanc­tion or lend ideo­lo­gic­al sup­port to im­per­i­al­ism, yet hes­it­ate to con­demn anti-im­per­i­al­ist groups which es­pouse hatred and vi­ol­ence to­ward wo­men and gays? To be ab­so­lutely clear, both ought to be con­demned. But left­ists of­ten equi­voc­ate be­fore con­demning the lat­ter. Why are they so re­luct­ant to cri­ti­cize re­ac­tion­ary forms of anti-im­per­i­al­ism, es­pe­cially out­side the West?

Post­co­lo­ni­al par­tic­u­lar­ity

Usu­ally at this point some sort of “ir­re­du­cible par­tic­u­lar­ity” is in­voked, which is sup­posed to pre­vent a uni­ver­sal judg­ment from be­ing formed. Rad­ic­al oth­er­ness [l’altérité rad­icale] de­mands that the ob­ject of cri­tique be treated on its own terms, rather than sub­sumed un­der fa­mil­i­ar cat­egor­ies. (Nine times out of ten, the par­tic­u­lar­ity in ques­tion is cul­tur­al. See, in this con­nec­tion, But­ler’s 1997 art­icle “Merely Cul­tur­al,” de­fend­ing par­tic­u­lar­ism against its uni­ver­sal­ist de­tract­ors). Claims to uni­ver­sal­ity, it is ob­jec­ted, in real­ity fact re­flect the ex­per­i­ence of a very par­tic­u­lar cul­ture — namely that of Europe, or “the West” — which has been sur­repti­tiously el­ev­ated to the status of a norm­at­ive ideal. Ex­pect­ing every­one to con­form to Euro­centric norms of gay rights or gender equal­ity places an un­fair bur­den on non-West­ern cul­tures, to which these con­cepts do not ap­ply. Joseph Mas­sad’s post­co­lo­ni­al read­ing of what he calls “the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al” is at times al­most akin to Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad’s flip reply to stu­dents at Columbia Uni­versity, where he was vis­it­ing in 2007 (and where Mas­sad con­tin­ues to teach). Asked wheth­er ho­mo­sexu­als in his coun­try have rights, the Ir­a­ni­an pres­id­ent answered: “We don’t have ho­mo­sexu­als in Ir­an.” Mas­sad, not to be con­fused with the Is­raeli secret ser­vice Mossad, writes in De­sir­ing Ar­abs:

The ad­vent of co­lo­ni­al­ism and West­ern cap­it­al to the Ar­ab world has trans­formed most as­pects of daily liv­ing; however, it has failed to im­pose a European het­ero­sexu­al re­gime on all Ar­ab men, al­though its ef­forts were suc­cess­ful in the up­per classes and among the in­creas­ingly West­ern­ized middle classes. It is among mem­bers of these rich­er seg­ments of so­ci­ety that the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al found nat­ive in­form­ants. Al­though mem­bers of these classes who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions have more re­cently ad­op­ted a West­ern iden­tity (as part of the pack­age of the ad­op­tion of everything West­ern by the classes to which they be­long), they re­main a minus­cule minor­ity among those men who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions and who do not identi­fy as “gay” nor ex­press a need for gay polit­ics.

Here one is re­minded of Bouteldja’s de­nun­ci­ation of “gay im­per­i­al­ism” [im­pé­ria­lisme gay]. Ac­cord­ing to her, there are no homos in the ban­lieue: “The ho­mo­sexu­al life­style does not ex­ist in the pop­u­lar quar­ters [Le mode de vie ho­mo­sexuel n’existe pas dans les quar­tiers po­pu­laires],” Bouteldja baldly as­serts. For her co-thinkers Félix Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem, gay iden­tity is already a form of co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tion: “Ho­mo­sexu­al­ity is a West­ern in­ven­tion forced upon Africa and Mah­greb via an ‘im­per­i­al­ism of life­styles’ [L’ho­mo­sexua­li­té, in­ven­tion oc­ci­den­tale im­po­sée à l’Afrique et au Magh­reb, via un «im­pé­ria­lisme des modes de vie»].” Something sim­il­ar was claimed by Azed­ine Berkane in 2002, after he was ar­res­ted for stabbing Ber­trand Delanoë, the first openly gay may­or of Par­is. Berkane, a known ho­mo­phobe, ex­plained to re­port­ers his be­lief that “Muslim fags don’t ex­ist [Mu­sul­mans pé­dés, ça n’existe pas].” Per­haps Bouteldja & co. would agree with him? Des­pite dif­fer­ences of con­fes­sion, might they not also agree with Pope Fran­cis’ re­cent re­ac­tion­ary hog­wash about the “ideo­lo­gic­al col­on­iz­a­tion” of less de­veloped na­tions by mar­riage equal­ity and “gender the­ory”? Or Bish­op Vic­tor Mes­salles of Santo Domin­go, who re­cently de­cried “gay im­per­i­al­ism”?

Mas­sad told Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Magliani-Belkacem in a 2013 in­ter­view, tellingly titled “Em­pire of Sexu­al­ity,” that sexu­al­ity as such ori­gin­ated in the West. It was sub­sequently ex­por­ted through im­per­i­al con­quest, along with a set of ri­gid bin­ar­ies like homo/hetero, etc. (Claims that bin­ary think­ing is pe­cu­li­ar to West­ern Europe, and was only brought to the rest of the world on galle­ons and steam­ships, are nev­er elab­or­ated or sub­stan­ti­ated. The as­sump­tion that pre­co­lo­ni­al cul­tures were some sort of gender­queer para­dise seems naïve). At any rate, the no­tion that gay iden­tity is a re­l­at­ively re­cent de­vel­op­ment is plaus­ible. Draw­ing on the in­sights of John D’Emilio, who barely war­rants a men­tion in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, Mas­sad stated:

“Sexu­al­ity” it­self, as an epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al and on­to­lo­gic­al cat­egory, is a product of spe­cif­ic Euro-Amer­ic­an his­tor­ies and so­cial form­a­tions: i.e., a Euro-Amer­ic­an “cul­tur­al” cat­egory that is not uni­ver­sal or ne­ces­sar­ily uni­ver­sal­iz­able. In­deed, even when the cat­egory “sexu­al­ity” has traveled with European co­lo­ni­al­ism to non-European loc­ales, its ad­op­tion in those con­texts where it oc­curred was neither identic­al nor even ne­ces­sar­ily sym­met­ric­al with its de­ploy­ment in Europe and Euro-Amer­ica. John D’Emilio ar­gued many years ago that “gay men and les­bi­ans have not al­ways ex­is­ted. In­stead, they are a product of his­tory, and have come in­to ex­ist­ence in a spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al era… as­so­ci­ated with the re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ism.” We must add… that their his­tor­ic­al emer­gence and pro­duc­tion was also spe­cif­ic to those geo­graph­ic re­gions of the world and those classes with­in them where a spe­cif­ic type of cap­it­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion had oc­curred and where cer­tain types of cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion pre­vailed. As cap­it­al­ism is the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means of pro­duc­tion and it has pro­duced its own in­tim­ate forms and modes of fram­ing cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions, these forms and modes have not been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized across na­tion­al laws and eco­nom­ies, and in the quo­tidi­an and in­tim­ate prac­tices of vari­ous peoples, in the same way.

D’Emilio sought to demon­strate that the ef­fect of cap­it­al­ism on the emer­gence of gay and les­bi­an iden­tit­ies in the West was both an out­come of labor re­la­tions that re­quired new res­id­en­tial and mi­grat­ory activ­it­ies, the dis­sol­u­tion or weak­en­ing of kin­ship and fam­ily ties, and the de­vel­op­ment of a con­sumer so­ci­ety and the emer­gence of so­cial net­works that pro­duce, shape, and ar­tic­u­late sexu­al de­sires that are com­men­sur­ate with these changes, which led to the de­vel­op­ment of sexu­al iden­tit­ies… That Gay In­ter­na­tion­al­ists seek to as­sim­il­ate these iden­tit­ies by for­cing them in­to the frame of the homo-hetero bin­ary is it­self a cul­tur­ally im­per­i­al­ist symp­tom of im­per­i­al cap­it­al’s pen­et­ra­tion of peri­pher­al coun­tries, and not the out­come or ef­fect of such pen­et­ra­tion, since in most cases it was un­able to re­pro­duce or im­pose norm­at­ive European sexu­al iden­tit­ies on the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. Here, we must bear in mind that, as Ed­ward Said re­minds us, “im­per­i­al­ism is the ex­port of iden­tity.” It op­er­ates in the re­gister of pro­du­cing non-Europe as oth­er, and some­times as al­most the same as (or po­ten­tially the same as) Europe.

Non­ethe­less, though he sets out from sol­id found­a­tions (D’Emilio’s), Mas­sad soon finds him­self on un­sure foot­ing. He spe­cifies cap­it­al­ism as “the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means [he prob­ably means ‘mode’] of pro­duc­tion,” but al­ludes to its his­tor­ic spread across dif­fer­ent geo­graph­ic re­gions to even­tu­ally wrap the whole globe. This sup­posedly ac­counts for the “his­tor­ic­al dif­fer­ence” the­or­ized by post­co­lo­ni­al writers like Dipesh Chakra­barty, the un­sub­lated re­mainder left over by pre­his­tor­ic al­tern­at­ives to prim­it­ive ac­cu­mu­la­tion — a re­mainder which can nev­er be fully in­teg­rated in­to the re­gime of ab­stract labor. Chakra­barty des­ig­nates this the second of “two his­tor­ies of cap­it­al.” Where­as His­tory 1 is “the uni­ver­sal and ne­ces­sary his­tory we as­so­ciate with cap­it­al,” His­tory 2 en­com­passes the par­tic­u­lar and con­tin­gent form­a­tions “en­countered as ante­cedents” by His­tory 1. Marx was too stub­bornly Hegel­i­an for Chakra­barty’s taste, or rather in­suf­fi­ciently Heide­g­geri­an: “In a prop­erly Heide­g­geri­an frame­work… both the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand re­tain their im­port­ance without gain­ing epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al primacy over the oth­er; His­tory 2 can­not sub­late it­self in­to His­tory 1.”

Gayatri Spivak and Ed­ward Said are more rel­ev­ant ref­er­ences for Mas­sad, but the schem­at­ic dis­tinc­tion between His­tory 1 and His­tory 2 from Pro­vin­cial­iz­ing Europe is in­struct­ive here. Mas­sad’s ar­gu­ment pro­ceeds along es­sen­tially these same lines. “The cat­egor­ies gay and les­bi­an are not uni­ver­sal at all and can only be uni­ver­sal­ized by the epi­stem­ic, eth­ic­al, and polit­ic­al vi­ol­ence un­leashed on the rest of the world by in­ter­na­tion­al hu­man rights ad­voc­ates whose aim is to de­fend the very people their in­ter­ven­tion is cre­at­ing,” he con­ten­ded in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, an­ti­cip­at­ing But­ler’s speech in Ber­lin a couple years later. Against this par­tic­u­lar­ist on­slaught, what hope re­mains for Marx­ist uni­ver­sal­ism?

To an­swer this, the con­nec­tion between cap­it­al­ism and civil­iz­a­tion must be cla­ri­fied.

Cruising past: Moscow’s forgotten gay history

Agata Pyzik
Calvert Journal
July 17, 2013

In honor of Pride Week, which just passed here in New York, I thought I’d repost this excellent article by Agata Pyzik. Agata is a journalist who writes for the Guardian and author of the recently released Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (My review of it should be published shortly; until then, check out Sebastian Truskolaski’s piece over at Review 31, which gives a great overview of the work). Though Pyzik’s article here takes the form of a review of Yevgeniy Fiks’ photo collection Moscow, it clearly is part of a broader reflection on sexual politics and the Left.

Lately, you see, I’ve been somewhat dismayed by the number of LGBT activists online who’ve expressed admiration for communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Meanwhile, they explicitly rejecting “revisionist” or anti-Stalinist currents such as Trotskyism, revolutionary strains of anarchism, and left communism. Despite being solidly part of the leftist tradition, perhaps even its most historically significant iteration, Stalin and Mao were both cultural conservatives who passed legislation banning abortion and criminalizing homosexual intercourse. Stalin appended the law to the 1934 Soviet Criminal Code under Article 121, which stated that

…sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years hard labor…

Officially, homosexuality was associated with “bourgeois decadence” and immorality, and pathologized as a mental disease harmful to social morality. How any of this squares with their LGBT activism is beyond me. The RCP-USA, I know, held a similar stance until just the last decade, when it apparently underwent an “internal cultural revolution” (whatever that means). For the most part, though, I don’t even see this issue being addressed.

By contrast, the entry on homosexuality in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia just three years earlier was extremely liberal in its tolerance given the standards of the time. While its author, M. Sereinski, did consider it an “unnatural” form of attraction, he was largely sympathetic to the plight of gay men and women who were persecuted in other countries for supposed immorality. Sereinski appealed to the authority of the prominent sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, two early advocates for decriminalization. He asserted that many of history’s greatest geniuses — he names Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — exhibited homosexual tendencies, and further lamented the fact that many attempted suicide due to the social stigma attached to it. “Soviet law does not recognize so-called crimes against morality,” he explained. “Our legislation, based on the principle of social defense, punishes only those cases in which the object of the homosexual’s sexual interest is under age.”  


Homophobia has never been in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoy in Volgograd this May — he was raped with a bottle, castrated, and stoned — shook the public. But not enough, it seems: little has been done to prevent a repeat. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which, apparently, “hurts patriotic feelings.” The authorities did have to admit it was a hate crime and to acknowledge Russia’s homophobia problem; but this is a problem that the government themselves have exacerbated with the recent introduction of a new nationwide law “against the propaganda of homosexuality.”

Russian history does not, however, present an uninterrupted line of hellish homophobia. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, at the same time establishing equal rights for women. And, although homosexuality was banned in the Thirties as part of Stalinist retrenchment, the Soviet landscape did accommodate spaces of social dissent and revolution in which gay men could express their sexuality together.


These spaces — the city’s hidden topography of gay life — have recently been brought to light in the work of New York-based Russian photographer Yevgeniy Fiks. A self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist,” Fiks sees it as his duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding the Cold War period; previously he commemorated the overlooked history of communism in New York. At first glance, Fiks’ plainly titled new book, Moscow, could be just an ordinary photo album of public places in the Russian capital: we see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid architecture of the capital, its greenery and its striking constructivist-classicist constructions and we are impressed by the care taken by the Soviet authorities to make even toilets look beautiful. The pictures emanate a sense of peace and silence. But the way in which we see the locations depicted in these photographs is transformed when we learn that each and every one of them was a Soviet cruising ground.

What we suddenly perceive in these pictures is the eye of the original viewer. Yes, there are a lot of public toilets, but we now see these facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults. These prohibited actions had to take place in hiding, away from prying eyes; paradoxically, this was only possible in public. Fiks has ordered the photos chronologically according to the period in which certain haunts were popular, from the Twenties to the Eighties, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Moscow cruising. But the timescale seems to leave one question unanswered, quite deliberately: what about the years after the transition from communism? Fiks’ photographs seem to distance the author from Soviet, and specifically, Stalinist, times, and to reclaim the public space for a different version of history (not one much promoted in official versions of the Soviet past) and to reclaim homosexuality from today’s horrifically homophobic climate.

As well as a sui generis chronicle, Moscow is also a specific “work of mourning,” in which pleshki — the Russian name for cottaging sites — become unorthodox repositories of collective memory, what Pierre Nora called “lieux de memoire.” Nora’s idea has been influential in Holocaust studies as a term to describe places of extermination and it is striking that the places photographed by Fiks feel completely empty and abandoned, reinforcing the sense of the disappearance and silencing of the victims of homophobia. And these places were dear to many: they acquired a private slang terminology in which the statues of Lenin and Marx that were present in every Russian city were affectionately referred to as “Auntie Lena” and “Director of the Pleshka,” both out of familiarity and as a way of queering them. To use Situationist terminology, gay men were carrying out a détournement of these areas and symbols of revolution — a sort of satirical, subversive reappropriation that demonstrated that there was no real conflict between communist ideology and alternative sexual orientations.

The current spread of far-right, homophobic sentiments cannot be overlooked and marked down as just another effect of the years of communism; instead it must be seen as part of the failed transition to capitalism. The persecution of people with alternative sexual identities must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free from the “eastern barbarism” that this part of the world is still often associated with. If homosexuality had been banned in Soviet Russia, anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument, linking homophobia and the Soviet past; but it wasn’t, or at least not initially. In the Bolsheviks’ original conception of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state; it was there to revolutionize the citizen, with love seen as a public good. Continue reading

What’s wrong with identity politics and intersectionality theory?

A response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting
the Vampire Castle” (and its critics)
Michael Rectenwald
The North Star

Marxist and other “left” critics and opponents of identity politics are often mistaken for opponents of the identity groups that such politics aim to support and promote. Such critics can be easily mistaken as opponents of gay rights, LGBT rights, black and Latino equality, or the like. In their retorts to “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” several of Mark Fisher’s respondents voiced this conclusion about Fisher himself. Such a mistake is often due, in no small part, to the ill stated, incomplete and ad hominem character of the critiques themselves. Unfortunately, Fisher’s article is no exception in this regard.

Rather than carefully explaining the problems with identity politics from a Marxist (or other) perspective, Fisher snidely and blithely dismisses such politics and their proponents as hopelessly “petit bourgeois.” As such, not only does he open himself up to the tu quoque retort (you too are resorting to a politics of identity), he also falls victim to the counter argument that his attack on identity politics is explicable strictly in terms of his identity — as a privileged white Marxist male. I will discuss the circularity of such defenses of identity politics below. My point here is that such epithets as Fisher’s do little or nothing to analyze identity politics and clarify its shortcomings. Rather, Fisher tells us that identity politics pretends to deal with collectivities but instead works to individualize and condemn. We are told that identity politics operates through guilt and serves to incapacitate. We are told that identity politics is petit bourgeois. But we are never told why or how any of this is the case. I’m not referring, as so many critics of Fisher’s article have, to the article’s lack of examples. Instead, I’m pointing to the paucity of analysis.

Much better in this regard is a longer article by the feminist Marxist blogging at Unity and Struggle: “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” Here, while some unfortunate lapses into a humanist essentialism are apparent, the author otherwise argues rather convincingly that identity groups, such as “straight white man,” “gay black man,” “lesbian black woman,” “trans* person,” etc., are not natural categories into which people are born and sorted. Rather, they are relatively recent formations possible only under capitalism, equivalent to occupations with their own forms of alienation attendant upon the division of labor. As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Similarly, identity, like an occupation, is a trap, because it curtails human potential and bars workers from participation in the social totality as fully developing individuals. Identities are reified social categories from which we should emerge, not within which we should be compelled to remain.

The problem with identity politics, then, is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (or members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself. Identity politics fails not because it begins with various subaltern groups and aims at their liberation, but because it ends with them and thus cannot deliver their liberation. It makes identities and their equality with other “privileged” groups the basis of political activity, rather than making the overcoming of the alienated identity, for themselves and all identity groups, the goal. The abolition of the one-sidedness of identity — as worker, woman, man, or what have you — represents real human emancipation. Always failing this, identity politics settles for mere linguistic emancipation, which is offered (and policed so assiduously, as Fisher notes) by the defenders of the sanctuary of identity.

As I suggested above, the most common response to Fisher’s article has been that his position is explicable strictly in terms of his identity. No sooner does one make a critique of identity politics, than is one’s identity deemed the cause of said critique. It is as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Once set, identity is a trap from which no one escapes. Of course, such defenses are circular, reverting to that which is being critiqued to explain those doing the critiquing.

The problem with intersectionality theory

Fisher never explicitly refers to intersectionality theory, but it lurks just beneath surface of his contempt in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Developed in the 1970s and ‘80s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it. Continue reading