Queer Marxism

Session Report
Aishwarya Dutta

In celebration of pride month, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, in association with Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), initiated An Online International Summer School Program | A Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India.

Day three of this riveting programme was led by Professor Pushpesh Kumar, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.

The session was set about with welcoming remarks by Professor Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Professor at IMPRI and a former Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.  She reiterated the proceedings of the previous day and emphasised on the focus of Day 3: Discovering the Less Explored Areas of Queer Studies.

Professor Kumar undertook a Marxist approach towards gender non-conformity and sexual and erotic marginality. He also addressed why the American LGBTQIA movement maintained a distance from Communism and Socialism and also the emergence of Queer theories in the 1980s and early 1990s. There was a cultural and performative turn which aimed at disrupting the heteronormative concerning itself with the question of class and material inequality.


Queer Theorists over the Years

A group of queer theorists in America met in departure by developing a thorough critique of mere cultural and performative hearing and reconsider it with a perspective as a transformatory tool. He took us throughout this whole trajectory.

He started with one of the classic articles by Heidi Hartmann in 1979. The unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism was evident in Hartmann’s work. She talks about many stances of patriarchal privileges of Socialist and Marxist men in her article which precluded possibilities of incorporating gender and sexualities in revolutionary mobilizational agendas. To Hartmann sex conflicts were not allowed to interfere with class solidarities. Pressure of feminist issues were declining during this time as she highlighted in her article. Daycare has been disappearing from left conferences. Not much attention to women’s issues were given.

These issues were labelled as silly stuff. Men were asking women to talk about serious issues and not bring up “silly” issues. Revolutionary men were not quite happy with the issues brought up by women at that time.  There was widespread prevalence of masculine domination.

Friedrich Engels, a well known leftist leader used to romanticise family as an organisation.  Engels died in the year Oscar Wilde was arrested, then there was the amendment of the law under which Oscar Wilde was tried.  Other than Marx and Engels not many of the communist leaders were concerned about this.  He then goes on to talk about Alexandra Kollontrai, a marxist revolutionary. She talked about women’s freedom and advocated the freedom to love. She talks about the new communist morality and free, open and equal relation of love. Talking about women’s freedom she feels isolated. This isolation and lack of political support from the men who were part of the communist regime made her feel very dejected.

This lack of support for advocating gender and sexual freedom shows how sexuality was kept aloof from the socialist class struggle in the 1930s. 

In 1930 under Stalin, homosexuality became a criminal offence  in the USSR. Abortions were made illegal and prostitutes were arrested. He then quotes Jeffrey Wicks who was a scholar who wrote extensively on homosexuality, and states that homosexuality was a decadent bourgeois deviation constituted to dominate marxist orthodoxy after the 1930s.

Coming to the US, the 1950s US cold war politics suspected a close alliance between homosexuals and Communists because both the communists and the homosexuals were subversive. This led to a mass persecution of the gay and lesbians during the 1950s.

The steer of communists was known as ‘reddish scare’ and for the homosexuals it was ‘lavender scare’  which symbolised the erotically marginalised subjects. The homosexuals were seen as threatening as they might share confidential matters of the US with the USSR.

American Senator McCarthy who took over in 1950 and there was homosexual repression in America. Even the media was reinforcing the idea that gay men have unconventional morality and they are vulnerable to blackmail  by the communists. To McCarthy homosexuals were unusual  individuals who were active members of communist organisations.  He thought the communist cells and homosexual agents are in alliance within the federal jobs. Several committees were constituted to detect perverts in the Civil Services.

Between 1945 and 1960s thousands of gay, lesbian laws were passed and unknown number of gays and lesbians were stripped of their livelihood, faced embarrassment and unemployment and so took their own lives. He also talked about a book by David Johnson which talks about the ‘Lavender scare’. Communism was regarded as a major security threat to the nation.

It was only in 1965 that the gay and lesbians took to the streets to convince the mainstream society that they are as loving and as good as the mainstream society. Thus they dissociated themselves from a very confrontationist approach. The protests were still in the realm of civil rights. There was no protest for economic rights thus reflecting that American gay movements have no sign of marxism.

But the new left movement started post 1969. It started with a revolutionary marxist agenda The 1960s and 1970s America have witnessed a lot of overlapping movements like the women’s movement, the Black Rights movement, and working class movements simultaneously occurring with the LGBTQ movement. These movements are identity-related movements. He then cited several instances of the injustices done to the people belonging to this community in the US. Even in Britain a number of scholars were focusing on lesbians and gays and also prostitution and wrote extensively on them, there were immense number of contributions to gay left.

The writings of Antonio Gramsci, Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault reflected the synthesis in marxist writings. The centre of gay left was shifted to North America in the 1970s. Several prominent figures were fighting for gay rights. The myth of the old left that the homosexuality was a bourgeois deviance was broken by the new left.

In 1980 Judith Butler became a very prominent figure in American academia and also in queer theory. She discouraged the whole question of the left. She defines gender as a repetitive performance of culture and science, it is a stylized performance of the body.

Butler’s idea becomes very textual, she talks about the materiality of the body which is different from the marxist conception. There are also queer theorists who talk about materiality of social life and of body and these theorists include Nicola Fields, Rosemary Hennessy and others. Thus visibility is materialised by the capitalists in America and even in India.

Butler talked about playfulness of gender and performative subversion which according to Rosemary Hennessy is not enough for queer politics. Chants like ‘we are here, we are queer’ became famous throughout America. There are also instances of trans-killings in America. The vulnerability of being a black trans woman in America was also highlighted.

Professor Kumar’s presentation was very insightful and he talked about a subject which is very rarely taken up by mainstream scholars.

Read more session reports from Day 3 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:

Attempting to measure sex, gender and sexual identities in varying contexts including Research.

Issues in Queer Mental Healthcare in an Indian Context: Ageing, Substance Abuse and Access.

Transformation required from Homo Economicus to Homo Ethicus.