Homosexuality and the American Left
The Impact of Stonewall
by David Thorstad
|[The following article appeared simultaneously in
| Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 29, no. 4 (1995) and |
| Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left, ed. Gert Hekma, Harry Oosterhuis, and James Steakley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Harrington Park Press, 1995), 319–49.]|
Following the Stonewall Riots in New York City in June 1969, the left had to reassess negative appraisals of homosexuality that prevailed among virtually all leftist currents. Pressure for change came from within and from without.
By the mid-1970s, three approaches had emerged:
| (1) radical support for sexual liberation and acceptance of same-sex love as being on a par with heterosexuality; |
| (2) liberal support for the civil rights of homosexuals but without challenging heterosupremacy; and |
| (3) continued adherence to the (Stalinist) view that homosexuality is a form of “bourgeois decadence” alien to the working class. |
This essay assesses the ways in which the left adapted to the new challenges that confronted it, with particular focus on attitudes toward the nature of homosexuality and its relation to the broader goals of the left.
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The Man-Boy Love Issue
Most left-wing groups have had trouble dealing with the taboo against intergenerational love, although a few have taken a libertarian stand on the issue.
Some, fearing that any restrictions on free speech could jeopardize their own, have expressed support for the civil liberties of pederasts and their right to organize. When the FBI targeted the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in December 1982, several left papers (the Guardian, Workers Vanguard, Workers World, Torch) defended the group’s rights.
[* 18] On more substantive issues of man/boy sexuality, positions varied.
The WWP [Workers World Party], for example, supports age-of-consent laws.
“Age of consent laws were a progressive victory that stopped some of the most blatant exploitation of children, such as the selling of young girls into marriage,”
it asserted, apparently unaware that such laws were instituted to control youth sexuality and in no way protect children from abuse.
The WWP sidestepped the fact that the age of consent varies greatly (from twelve to twenty-one, depending on the country or state) and did not say which one it supports. Historically, the age had nothing to do with “protection”—least of all of boys—but rather represented the age at which a young girl was legally marriageable. It would be stretching it, to say the least, to describe the age of consent in, say, Elizabethan England (where it was set at ten) as a “progressive victory.” On the age of consent, many leftists defer to prevailing ruling-class or feminist prejudices.
In 1982, the staff of the Guardian, an independent weekly, held an internal discussion on the question and, in deference to feminists, adopted the position that man/boy love equals child abuse. Only one staffer—a gay man who came out as a pederast after leaving the staff—opposed the position. The staff rejected his proposal that it meet with radical boy-lovers before deciding on a position.
The Guardian never reported on this internal discussion. Instead, the editor chose to announce the paper’s position in the letters column—without mentioning the internal debate that had produced it:
We strongly support laws protecting children against sexual abuse by adults and reject any suggestion that this position is “puritanical.” We would, of course, oppose the use of such laws as a pretext for sweeping attacks on the rights of gays and lesbians, but we don’t share the view of some in the gay/lesbian community that the issue of pederasty is mainly one of the civil liberties for the adult involved.
Subsequently, in an article defending NAMBLA against state harassment, the Guardian expanded on its position but did not acknowledge the right of a young person to choose sex with an older person. It made no distinction between a small child and an adolescent youth, nor between a young girl and a teenage boy
(even though the consent issues involved in sex between a sixteen-year-old gay-identified boy and his twenty-one-year-old gay lover are very different from those, say, between a six-year-old girl and her father):
The issue of sexual relations between adults and young people is a controversial one within the lesbian and gay communities. Most left groups, including the Guardian, do not condone sexual relations between adults and children, arguing that truly consensual relationships are not possible given the disparity in power, experience, and physical and emotional development. The rights of children, they stress, must be paramount and protected.
This surrender to bourgeois morality and antisex feminists avoided obvious questions:
| What is a “child”? |
| If a state defines a “child” as someone under the age of eighteen, yet sets an age of sexual consent at sixteen, should the age of consent be raised to coincide with the higher age? |
| Since it is legal for a sixteen-year-old to consent to sex in New Jersey but illegal cross the Hudson River in New York, should New York sixteen-year-olds wait until they are seventeen? |
| Do gay youths have a right to sex with older gays if they choose (many feel safer with gay men than with other teens)? |
| If laws against same-sex activity between adults—long supported by the left—are now wrong, why are laws setting widely disparate ages of consent more reasonable? |
| Do children have a right to sexual pleasure? |
| If a teenage girl should have the right to an abortion without her parents’ consent (a position endorsed by most leftist groups and by NAMBLA), why should a teenage boy not have the right to enjoy his body with an older man (or woman)?|
The most vociferous hostility on the left to man-boy love came from the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. In 1979, the SWP abruptly withdrew from activity in the gay movement and reallocated its cadre to jobs in industry. Its involvement in gay liberation had been sporadic in most places (New York being something of an exception). But after two years of involvement during a time of mass mobilization in the gay community, it had recruited no new members from it and was facing yet another internal debate on gay liberation. Its leaders played up the man/boy issue to help justify their decision to “turn to labor” and withdraw from the gay movement:
The age-of-consent issue has recently been foisted on gay rights organizations by a small group called the North American
Man-Boy Love Association. A central leader of this group is David Thorstad, who . . . argues that supporters of gay rights must take up the fight against all age-of-consent laws. . . .
The repeal of age-of-consent laws is a reactionary demand, even though its supporters try to pass themselves off as defenders of adolescents against legal victimization.
The campaign around this demand has nothing to do with the totally progressive stance of defending the right of teenagers not to be penalized for their sexual activity. On the contrary, the advocates of repealing age-of-consent laws are primarily adult men who believe they should be unrestricted in having sex with children.
Saying that children have the “right” to “consent” to sex with adults is exactly like saying children should be able to “consent” to work in a garment factory twelve hours a day.
| Don’t some children “consent” to being used in brutal pornographic films? |
|Don’t child prostitutes “consent” to their miserable and terrifying existence?|
. . .
Laws designed to protect children from sexual and economic exploitation by adults are historic acquisitions of the working class and should be enforced. An anti-working-class, anti-child, campaign against the age-of-consent laws has nothing to do with gay rights or human rights of any kind. It has no place in the struggle to end discrimination against lesbians and gay people.
The most libertarian views on man-boy love came from two small groups, the Trotskyist Spartacist League and the Revolutionary Socialist League. The Spartacists ridiculed the SWP’s position:
Revolutionaries, unlike the social-democratic SWP, oppose any and all legal restrictions by the capitalist state on effectively consensual sexual activity. Get the cops out of the bedrooms! We know that such measures are not designed to protect children but to enforce the sexual morality of the nuclear family which is at the root of the oppression of women, youth and homosexuals. The case of Roman Polanski, the Polish-born director, dragged through the courts, sent to jail and forced into exile for his liaison with a precocious Hollywood 13-year-old, was only a highly publicized example of the reactionary purpose of age-of-consent laws.
Several years later, the Spartacist League defended NAMBLA against FBI harassment:
Perversion, it has been noted, seems to be not what you like, but what other people do. As we wrote five years ago during the persecution of Polish film director Roman Polanski, who was witchhunted for having an affair with a 13-year-old girl:
“As communists we oppose attempts to fit human sexuality into legislated or decreed ‘norms.’ The guiding principle for sexual relationship should be that of effective consent—that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion . . . the state has no business interfering.”
This ought to be the guiding principle not just for Marxists but for any democrat on such social questions. Determining what is effective consent is always tricky, and particularly with youth there is a grey area. But such a judgment must be case by case, not categorical as it is with the reactionary age-of-consent laws. The act of sex in itself is not prima facie evidence of abuse or coercion. And the
NAMBLA activists are being witchhunted for things nowhere close to where their real interests and activities lie.
The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which was active in the gay movement until it disbanded in 1989, went farther than other U.S. groups in integrating sexual liberation into its program. Age-of-consent laws, it said, are
“one of the primary ways in which a repressive sexual ‘morality’ is imposed on young people.”
“is to take away from a young person any power to give consent, or in fact to play any role whatsoever in making decisions about his or her sexuality at an important age of development. Instead, this power is placed in the hands of the state or, in some cases, the state in conjunction with the parents.”
The RSL summarized its views in a June 1980 leaflet:
We believe that all consensual sex is the business only of those involved. The state has no business regulating in any way expressions of sexuality between consenting persons of any number, sex, or age. The state’s attempt to regulate youth sexuality in particular is rooted in young people’s position as property of their parents and/or wards of the state. Young people are jailed in schools, economically exploited, and denied the most basic political rights. Society maintains this oppression by imposing the idea that young people are not capable of determining their own wants and needs, in particular their sexual needs and desires.
We oppose age of consent laws. These laws deny the ability of young people to determine their own sexual needs and desires. They maintain the status of youth as property, and reinforce the closet for gay youth.
The SL and RSL positions hold several elements in common with the views of radical boy-lovers: a pro-sexual outlook; a recognition that young people are sexual and have a right to choose their partners; support for individual rights; a recognition that every case is different and should be treated on its own merits; opposition to age-of-consent laws and other laws that discriminate against young people; a rejection of any role for the state in restricting consensual activity.
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|To go back to the text, click on the number [* ..] of the
This series of events is recounted in A Witchhunt Foiled: The FBI vs. NAMBLA (New York: NAMBLA, 1985), available for $6.95, postpaid, from NAMBLA, P.O. Box 174, Midtown Station, New York, NY 10018.
For an analysis of the relationship between man/boy love and the left, see David Thorstad, “Man/Boy Love and Sexual Freedom: A Radical Perspective” (see note 3), which is based on a talk before the New York Marxist School sponsored by the Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists on January 6, 1983.
In addition to discussing the American left, the article analyzes the position of the French Trotskyist group, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.
The positions of foreign groups on man-boy love and homosexuality lie outside the scope of this article.
In her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), Camille Paglia says this about state harassment of pederasts:
“These days, especially in America, boy-love is not only scandalous and criminal but somehow in bad taste. On the evening news, one sees handcuffed teachers, priests, or Boy Scout leaders hustled into police vans. Therapists call them maladjusted, emotionally immature. But beauty has its own laws, inconsistent with Christian morality. As a woman, I feel free to protest that men today are pilloried for something that was rational and honorable in Greece at the height of civilization” (116).
For an overview of the relationship between pederasty and gay liberation, see David Thorstad,
“Man-Boy Love and the American Gay Movement,” in Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives, ed. Theo Sandfort, Edward Brongersma, and Alex van Naerssen (Binghamton, N.Y.: Harrington Park Press, 1991) (simultaneously published in Journal of Homosexuality 20.1–2), 251–74.
Preston Wood, “Frameups Spark Anti-Gay Media Campaign,” Workers World 24.52 (December 24, 1982), 11. Curiously, the practice of selling girls into marriage—and even of female infanticide—is not uncommon even today in China, despite Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” which the WWP welcomed.
Private communication to the author [by the gay Guardian staffer, Frank Elam, who died in 1991]. In subsequent public statements of its position, the Guardian avoided the explicit and crude equation of pederasty with “child abuse,” preferring more roundabout formulations. This equation was feminist-inspired; in October 1980, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had adopted a resolution—submitted by its Lesbian Rights Committee—condemning pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism, and public sex. The Guardian staff accepted feminist arguments unquestioningly while sweeping aside those of radical pederasts. The Guardian folded in 1992.
Guardian 34.34 (May 26, 1982), 22. In a letter to the editor (Guardian 34.42 [July 21, 1982], 18), I explained that pederasts did not regard the issue as
“mainly one of the civil liberties for the adult”
but as a
“fundamental question of the civil and human rights of the young person”:
We radical homosexuals are fed up with leftist groups reasserting their heterosexism. Do you take your cues from the New Right, the FBI, the Moral Majority, and the Pope? Your attack on man/boy love was not merely puritanical, it was reactionary. . . . In general, man/boy relations are far less exploitative than heterosexual relationships.
John Trinkl, “Cops and Media Target ‘Man-Boy Love’ Group,” Guardian 35.13 (January 5, 1983), 7. Several months later, the Guardian published a discussion piece by Steve Ault, “Man/Boy Love Can Be Defended, but So Can Some Limits,” Guardian 35.36 (June 8, 1983), 23.
However, it did not publish any of the letters it received as part of the “discussion.”
By the late 1970s, the Guardian carried regular news stories on gay rights as well as discussion articles; see, for example, David Thorstad, “Linking the Left and Gay Movements,” Guardian 31.41 (July 18, 1979), 17.
Rich Finkel and Mathilde Zimmermann, “The Class-Struggle Road to Winning Gay Rights,” The Militant 43.14 (April 13, 1979), 24–25. This statement rivaled the rhetoric of the right wing. Most odd was its comparison of
man-boy sex to twelve hours of work in a garment factory—the authors seemed unfamiliar with either man/boy sex or factory work. For an answer to the Finkel-Zimmermann article, see David Thorstad, “The Socialist Workers Party vs. Gay Liberation (or the Cuckoo Builds a Strange Nest),” in Gay Activist 8.3 (June–July 1979), 12–16, and in Gay Insurgent, no. 7 (spring 1981): 17–23. Both are reprinted in Thorstad, Gay Liberation and Socialism (see note 13), as is David Thorstad, “A Statement to the Gay Liberation Movement on the Issue of Man/Boy Love,” Gay Community News 6.23 (January 6, 1977), 5, which Finkel and Zimmermann denounce.
“SWP: From ‘Gay Is Good’ to “Save Our Children,’” Young Spartacus, no. 74 (summer 1979), 5.
“Defend NAMBLA!” Workers Vanguard, no. 321 (January 14, 1983), 14. Nine years later, during another media frenzy that attempted to get NAMBLA thrown out of the Potrero Hill public library in San Francisco, where it had been meeting for two years, the Spartacist League published an article under the same title defending the group; see “Defend NAMBLA!” Workers Vanguard, no. 544 (February 7, 1992), 2. During this struggle, NAMBLA was also actively supported by another small leftist group, the Revolutionary Workers League. The RWL participated in NAMBLA’s 1991 Membership Conference in San Francisco, the first non-boy-love group to do so.
Ian Daniels, “NAMBLA, Age of Consent, and Human Sexuality,” Torch 10.1 (January 15–February 14, 1983), 5.
Revolutionary Socialist League, “Lesbian and Gay Liberation through Socialist Revolution,” June 1980. Copy in author’s files.