Friday, January 01, 2010

Sherry Wolf Speaks in San Diego

Socialist Lesbian Outlines the Need for Struggle


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Lesbian socialist activist Sherry Wolf spoke in San Diego at the City Heights Recreation Center December 3. Co-sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), with which she is associated, and the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME), her appearance was partly a promotion for her new book Sexuality and Socialism. Her talk, like her book, was provocative and often argumentative, eagerly bashing some of the myths that surround the history and politics of Queer liberation while buying into others. Not only did she argue — predictably, given her association with a socialist party — that true liberation for Queer people can come only with the overthrow of capitalism, she challenged the dubious notion that people are “born Gay” and said that, although homosexual activity is as old as the human race itself, the idea of a Gay or Lesbian identity is a relatively new one, a creation of the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century.

“There have always been sexual practices, just as there have always been skin pigments, but the concept of race is relatively new,” Wolf explained. Similarly, she said, “It’s a modern idea that a number of people could live out their lives with their same-sex desires as a salient biological feature.” She noted that the ancient Greeks “would not have considered themselves Bisexual” even though, by today’s standards they would be, and that Greek society strictly controlled the expression of same-sex desire — limiting it to citizens (which then meant the aristocracy) and confining it within strict power relationships, with older men playing the active role and younger men the passive.

“People have been having this sort of sex since day one, but the ability to live as ‘openly Gay’ is modern,” Wolf said, citing historian John D’Emilio’s 1983 essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” “Modern capitalism created the social space for a Gay identity to emerge. Cities concentrated people and gave anonymity, and then capitalist society sought to confine and repress this new desire. Old [pre-capitalist] laws prohibited homosexual acts; the new laws regulated identity and made sexuality a public matter. In the Colonial days ‘sodomy’ meant any form of non-procreative sex. Later it came to mean same-sex acts exclusively, and they were punished very differently” from non-procreative acts between opposite-sex partners.

Wolf’s analysis — drawing not only on D’Emilio but on Friedrich Engels’ pioneering 19th century work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State — argued that “with the rise of industrialism and a class that organizes and controls production, communication and transportation, this new ruling class needed to control” the emerging opportunities for sexual expression among people isolated from their villages and families of origin. They did so, she argued, by constructing the ideal of the nuclear family and using it to enforce sex and gender norms. “The family has both a material and an ideological function,” Wolf explained. Capitalism drew people away from the countryside and into large cities, where they had the chance to meet each other and create “sex-segregated environments like YMCA’s, dorms and Gay bars” — but it also created the ideology of “the family” to repress sexual experimentation and ensure that the working class reproduced itself.

One of the most provocative aspects of Wolf’s talk — and her book — is her frontal assault on the biologically deterministic argument that people are “born Gay” and can no more turn themselves straight than Black people can turn themselves white. “The evidence that has been summoned up does not prove it,” she said. Wolf backs this up in chapter seven of her book, “Biology, Environment, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” in which she cites the biological evidence for the “born Gay” myth and systematically debunks it. Rejecting both biological and environmental theories of sexual preference (a term she prefers to “sexual orientation”), Wolf said, “It’s not nature or nurture,” but a complex interplay between them that determines who we love, with whom we express that love and how.

What’s more, Wolf questions the utility of the idea that we’re “born Gay” as a political tool. She’s aware that it’s a deliberate attempt to analogize the situation of Queer people to that of racial minorities — but she ironically points out that, despite decades of organizing for the civil rights of African-Americans and other people of color on the ground that it’s unfair to discriminate against people who are “born different,” racism still persists. Wolf said that when she first came out in the 1980’s as a Lesbian, a socialist and an activist, “the idea that people were ‘born Gay’ and they had a ‘sexual orientation’” was virtually unknown, whereas now those notions are community orthodoxy. She also pointed out that a biologically determinist explanation for Gay and Lesbian identity is good for the Right, too, “because if it’s a mutant gene, it can be cured like Tay-Sachs.”

One of the most powerful points in Wolf’s talk posed the question of how a movement which began with the demand for sexual liberation has now become thoroughly domesticated within the capitalist patterns of business and consumption. She noted that the early demand of Gay liberation was “out of the closets and into the streets,” and to that end the first Pride parades started in the so-called “Gay ghetto” and moved outward — whereas now they’re routed in the opposite direction, moving into the Queer parts of town as a way of encouraging people to spend money in Gay bars and other Queer-themed businesses.

“I wonder what it would mean to talk about sexual liberation,” Wolf said. “It means ending social discrimination, oppression and laws against sex acts. Living under capitalism, it seems even our fantasies must be limited by the world around us. Sex education in the 21st century has been reduced to Puritanical concepts of ‘abstinence only.’ Even Lesbian porn is the product of straight male fantasies. Perhaps the virtual media blackout on LGBT [Queer] sex is a good thing, because the images of straight sex [in the corporate media] are unreal and stoke feelings of sexual inadequacy. Medical and social scientists from Alfred Kinsey to Shere Hite have researched sex practices and pleasures, and Hite says, ‘We haven’t had a sexual revolution yet, but we need one.’”

At the same time, Wolf is all too well aware that the ideal of sexual liberation clashes with the reality of a capitalist society in which the overwhelming majority of the population must spend most of its time working and raising the next generation of workers. “The question bumps up against the material constraints of our lives under capitalism,” she said. “You get up in the morning, get the kids off to school, get yourself off to work and go to a place where you don’t want to be, where you’re going to be subjected to a soul-killing exploitation, and you’re worried about losing it. So the idea that we can explore our own whatevers in the face of an economic collapse and a society organized in an anarchic manner is absurd. We can’t just think about sexual liberation without material and economic liberation. We cannot fuck our way to freedom. We have to struggle and end a society based on oppression.”