Capitalism and homophobia in Australia – a Marxist analysis

Published: 30/11/2009

By Rachel Morgain, Edited by Kate Jeffreys


Capitalism and homophobia in Australia
Sexual oppression in Australian history
Fighting back
Queers, class and sexual liberation
Further reading


By Kate Jeffreys

Today there is widespread public support for gay rights. A 2009 Galaxy poll showed that 60 per cent of Australians support same-sex marriage - a slight increase in support from 2007. The increased support follows the 2008 introduction of reforms that remove discrimination against same-sex couples from a wide range of Commonwealth laws.[i]

The 2009 Not So Private Lives study by researchers at the University of Queensland found that close to 80 per cent of same-sex attracted people thought that marriage should be an option for same-sex couples, although a much lower number (54 per cent) selected marriage as their personal preference for their own relationship. As UQ School of Psychology researcher Sharon Dane commented, it is clear that ordinary LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people do not see civil unions as an adequate “substitute” for marriage - whether or not they would personally choose to marry.[ii] We need to keep fighting for full marriage equality. Shelly Argent, national spokesperson for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) expressed this succinctly with her challenge to the Rudd government in a national advertising campaign for Australian Marriage Equality, saying: “I am the proud mother of two sons. My eldest son is gay, my youngest is straight. My gay son should have the same rights as his brother, including the right to marry the person he loves.”[iii]

Although homophobia persists in Australian society, research data show that attitudes are variable and highly dependent on demographic factors. For example, attitudes to homosexuality tend to improve after high-school.[iv] And breaking down the results of the 2009 Galaxy poll, we can see that support for same-sex marriage is very strong amongst young people, at 74 per cent.[v]

Public support for same-sex marriage has increased dramatically from 2004, when an SBS Newspoll showed only 38 per cent in support.[vi] This is no surprise, given that 2004 saw Howard's reactionary amendment to the Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage.

These varied attitudes and shifts in public opinion show that while voting out the Liberals and reforming some aspects of discriminatory law won't demolish homophobia, these things do influence how people think and feel about LGBTI people. Social attitudes are not fixed, and can be changed if we continue to fight.

In the meantime, Labor maintains a situation in which the majority of states and territories do not permit same-sex civil unions. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is also determined to uphold Howard's ban on same-sex marriage and its accompanying heterosexism and rigid views of gender roles.

But across the country, studies, polls, campaign groups and community organisations indicate that ordinary workers and students are far ahead of state and federal governments in our attitudes to LGBTI rights. August 2009 saw the largest display of public support for LGBTI rights in Australia since the 1970s. This should inspire us in present and future struggles for sexual liberation.

This pamphlet is a socialist contribution to the movement for LGBTI rights. To fight homophobic oppression, we need to understand how it works, whose interests it serves, and the role it plays in perpetuating the class structure of a modern capitalist economy.

The following article by Rachel Morgain originally appeared in Class and Struggle in Australia (ed. Rick Kuhn, Pearson Education Australia 2005) and is reproduced here with permission. I have edited the text only to include legislative changes that took place under the Rudd government, and to supplement sources with more recent studies where available.

Capitalism and homophobia in Australia

by Rachel Morgain

Over the past three and a half decades, the social conditions of lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities in Australia have undergone dramatic changes. Whereas there was a resounding silence about sexual relationships between women until the 1960s, laws against homophobic discrimination today cover most lesbians. Whereas the media once consistently depicted gay men as perverted and their sexual activity was subject to severe penalties, now some Australian legal systems recognise that many gay men play an important role in the lives of their partners and their partners’ children. The struggles against sexual oppression in Australia began in earnest during the early 1970s and won significant improvements, major changes to the law in all States and Territories, and widespread social acceptance of same-sex relationships.

In November 2008, the Same-Sex Relationships Bills were passed, removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality from 84 federal laws.  This means that in all states and territories, committed same-sex unions are treated as de facto relationships for a range of purposes including taxation, social security, superannuation, child support and employment entitlements.[vii] The broad range of reforms followed a national inquiry into sexuality discrimination by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.[viii] 2008 also saw reforms to Victorian laws regulating assisted reproductive treatment, such that eligibility conditions no longer discriminate against lesbians or single women.[ix] 

Yet lesbians and gay men continue to experience oppression, and legal equality is still far from being a reality. Lesbians are still restricted from accessing assisted reproductive services in some states. Civil unions for same-sex couples are only permitted in Tasmania and the ACT.[x]  And in September 2009 Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls announced that religious groups in Victoria would continue to be permitted to refuse service or employment to people who they believe may “undermine their beliefs”. This includes lesbians, gay men and single mothers.[xi]  Similar amendments to state laws in South Australia allow religious schools to discriminate against gay teachers.[xii] Adoption laws in most States and Territories continue to reflect the homophobic idea that same-sex parents cannot meet a child's best interests. Only Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory permit same-sex couples to adopt children under the same restrictions and considerations applied to opposite-sex couples. In Tasmania, same-sex couples can only adopt a child who is a biological relative to one member of the couple; and in all other states and territories, there is no provision for lesbian or gay couples to adopt children.[xiii] State and federal governments continue to send a message that discrimination against lesbians and gay men is acceptable. For example, the final report of an inquiry into state adoption law by the New South Wales parliament's Standing Committee on Law and Justice recommended that state laws should be amended to allow same-sex couples to adopt, but it also specified that “faith-based” adoption agencies should be exempted from the Anti-Discrimination Act when considering prospective parents.[xiv]

Furthermore, lesbian and gay oppression is a much deeper problem than legal inequality. It takes the forms of a pervasive culture of homophobia, systematic discrimination and ideological assaults by media commentators, politicians and other public figures. From 1996, the conservative Government of John Howard mounted a series of attacks against queers (people whose sexuality does not conform to conservative heterosexual norms), accompanied by widespread media vilification. The most drawn out episode occurred when the doctor of a Victorian woman successfully contested the State Government’s ban on access to fertility services for single women and lesbians, by appealing to federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of marital status.

The case sparked a strong conservative reaction. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne suggested that the court finding created a ‘massive social experiment’ that would give rise to ‘a generation of stolen children’, a concern echoed by independent Senator Brian Harradine.[xv] The federal Government attempted, unsuccessfully, to change its anti-discrimination legislation to undermine the judgment. Then, in an unprecedented move, it granted the Catholic Bishops Conference the right to appeal the findings to the High Court.[xvi] Their arguments centred around the claim that allowing a woman without a male partner to reproduce would violate the rights of her child. Howard claimed that all children should have ‘the prospect of the care and affection of both a mother and a father’.[xvii] Though the appeal failed, the fertility services licensing agency in Victoria interpreted the original decision as applying only to medically infertile women, thus excluding other single women and lesbians from access to safe donor insemination services.[xviii]

Similar arguments underpinned the Government’s ban on gay marriage. Howard claimed that marriage was about ‘providing for the survival of the species’, implying that only reproduction in a heterosexual union could be considered as contributing to humanity’s well being.[xix] When Labor spokesperson, Nicola Roxon, announced her Party’s support for the legislation, affirming that marriage should be ‘a union of a man and a woman’, she received a standing ovation from representatives of religious organisations at a forum on marriage in Parliament House.[xx] The Catholic Bishops Conference, backed up by a Vatican report labelling same sex relationships ‘deviant and immoral’, also loudly supported the ban.[xxi] Such arguments enshrine the heterosexual nuclear family as the norm, link homosexuality to fears about social decay and reinforce perceptions of lesbians and gay men as unnatural, selfish and particularly unsuited to caring for children. And they are only part of the process that sustains prejudice and discrimination against people who are not regarded as ‘normal’ and heterosexual. In schools,[xxii] in magazines and at the movies, for example, portrayals of lesbians and gay men are often stereotyped, unrepresentative or simply negative.  As a consequence, homophobic attitudes pervade Australian society. For example, 2004 data gathered by Roy Morgan Research has found that a third of Australians agree with the statement: “I believe homosexuality is immoral”.[xxiii] Many queers feel isolated because of their sexuality.

Lesbians’ and gay men’s experiences of abuse reflect the pervasiveness of homophobia. In a 2003 study conducted by NSW government organisations, 56 per cent of participants had experienced homophobic hostility or violence in the past twelve months. 85 per cent had experienced such treatment at some point in their lives. Homophobic hostility included verbal abuse, spitting, being followed, written threats and vandalism, as well as physical and sexual assault.[xxiv] A study of homophobia in workplaces found that just over 67 per cent of lesbians and 57 per cent of gay men had experienced homophobic hostility or violence, including ridicule, sexual harassment, accusations of paedophilia and threatened or actual physical and sexual abuse. A significant proportion reported being denied workplace entitlements, one in six believed they had been refused a job and one in twenty believed they had lost their most recent job as a result of their sexuality. Many reported stress, depression and illness as a consequence, and a large number had thought about suicide.[xxv] Given such findings, it is not surprising that people in sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexuals to suffer from anxiety and depression, contemplate suicide and misuse alcohol.[xxvi]

The consequences of homophobia can be particularly severe for young people, who are generally dependent on the support of their families and schools for physical and emotional security. Many young lesbians and gay men feel isolated, confused and severely depressed.[xxvii] Research on young gay men showed that nearly one in ten had been bashed and almost 15 per cent had been refused service because of their sexuality - both around twice the rate experienced by older gay men.[xxviii] Young gay men are at least three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Among young lesbians the rate of suicide attempt appears to be even higher.[xxix] Young people who are rejected by their families because of their sexuality lose an important potential source of assistance in finding work or continuing to study. Many are traumatised and some become homeless, making them particularly vulnerable to self-harm and suicide.[xxx] Homophobia appears to be widespread in schools too; discrimination, harassment, abuse and lack of support from peers and administrations is often intensified by a curriculum that fails to acknowledge or value homosexuality.[xxxi] The children of lesbian and gay parents also suffer from this kind of homophobia. One research project reported that almost half of those interviewed had experienced bullying or teasing about their parents’ sexuality and most received little or no support from their school.[xxxii]

Sexual oppression has far-reaching implications, shaping the way that all of us experience our sexuality. Two studies show that there is a substantial group of people who identify as exclusively heterosexual even though they have had sexual encounters with members of the same sex or report being attracted to the same sex. This group is many times larger than those who see themselves as homosexual or bisexual.[xxxiii] Levels of psychosocial distress are generally higher in these three groups than among those who report exclusively heterosexual desires and experiences, and were greatest among those who said they are attracted to members of the same sex but have never acted on that attraction.[xxxiv] These statistics indicate that a large number of people are, with good reasons, reluctant to identify themselves as bisexual or homosexual.

Sexual identity is not a straightforward, static feature of an individual’s personality. Common sense ideas, public policies and laws encourage some expressions of sexuality and repress others. Furthermore, what is regarded as ‘normal’ sexual behaviour has differed dramatically over time and among different societies. These differences are conditioned by the interests of classes grounded in production: other modes of production have given rise to different forms of family and ways of understanding sexuality. In classical Greece, for example, it was considered natural for adult men to develop a sexual desire for boys. This was related to the separation of sexuality from reproduction. As the bulk of the slave labour force was bought outside Greece, rather than being born there, and because having many children would spread the available surplus more thinly in slave-owning families, reproductive sex was not a priority. Sex between men and boys was an acceptable alternative to heterosexual sex.[xxxv] In capitalist societies, the nuclear family is the most important institution for the reproduction of the working class. It provides the primary care for the existing labour force and produces new generations of workers. The repression of queer relationships is part of the massive ideological process that props up the family, the oppression of women and the sexual division of labour. In this way, it helps ensure that working class women undertake the enormous amounts of unpaid labour the institution of the family entails. Sexual oppression has been a means of reordering and stabilising social relationships in the interests of dominant classes.

Sexual repression, sustained by capitalism, also profoundly shapes our personalities. Marxist theorists who reinterpreted Freud’s psychoanalytic theory - notably Reich and Marcuse - identified the key role of sexual repression in maintaining capitalist hierarchies and working class quiescence. Reich argued that sexual repression leads children to develop ‘character structures’ that inhibit workers’ inclination to challenge the existing social order and promote their acceptance of repetitive work over which they have no control.[xxxvi] For Marcuse, the restriction of sexual drives to a narrow reproductive sexuality, confined to brief periods outside working hours, encourages the sublimation of workers’ sexual energy into productive labour.[xxxvii] For both theorists, sexual repression involves much more than discrimination against queers; it disposes workers to obedience in the alienated labour of capitalist production.

Sexual oppression in Australian history

Sexual repression is an important pillar of capitalist class structures, hence its importance in the history of white Australia. Perhaps the most common belief about the origins of lesbian and gay oppression is that it is just a hangover from earlier historical periods, the product of bad ideas linked, for example, to the medieval Christian church. Certainly some aspects of the repression of homosexuality in modern societies draw from the repertoire of Christian ‘sins’ outlawed in the Middle Ages, most notably laws against sodomy and buggery. Yet prosecutions for sodomy were sporadic and generally very rare until the seventeenth century and, until the nineteenth century, these laws both in theory and practice covered a wide range of sexual acts besides those between men and between women, including bestiality and heterosexual anal intercourse. Furthermore, key features of lesbian and gay oppression are distinctly contemporary phenomena. It was only in the late nineteenth century in Britain and Europe that the range of criminalised sexual acts was expanded to include all expressions of sexuality between men. New legal and medical approaches transformed sexual oppression. Previously laws had been designed to suppress particular acts, which all sorts of people might commit. Now the concern was to repress a newly invented category of people: ‘homosexuals’.[xxxviii] Sexual oppression in its current form is not simply the legal or ideological expression of an unfortunate Western cultural quirk called homophobia, it is the product of industrial capitalism.

The history of sexual oppression in the Australian colonies parallels that in Britain and Europe. In one sense, persecution of homosexuality (at least between men) was inscribed in the new colony from the beginning. In 1787, before the colony of New South Wales was even settled, the soon to be Governor Phillip wrote about two crimes that would merit death: murder and sodomy.[xxxix] This reflected an attitude to sodomy between men that had emerged in England to justify greater social control over the new, overworked, overcrowded and disorderly working class.[xl]

Despite Governor Phillip’s enthusiasm, however, it was four decades before anti-sodomy laws were systematically implemented in the new colonies. Only in 1828 did the first hangings for sodomy take place in NSW and Van Dieman’s Land. The majority of sodomy trials in NSW before the middle of the nineteenth century happened in just one decade, the 1830s, and the last execution occurred the year before transportation ceased in 1839. In Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony for recalcitrant prisoners from other Australian colonies, where transportation continued longer, the incidence of execution was higher than in NSW and lasted into the 1860s.[xli] During the 1840s, official reports started moralising about lesbian activity among convict women and there were cases of women being punished for such behaviour in the female prisons.[xlii]

This shift in official treatment of same-sex activity among convicts seems to have been precipitated by the rapid expansion of the convict population, particularly during the early 1830s.[xliii] This was a decade of growing ferment, as convicts became more difficult to manage. Prosecutions for sexual activity were part of a general disciplinary crack down: hangings in Sydney reached a record high around 1830, and floggings were administered liberally for minor offences, such as neglect of work.[xliv] At the same time, sections of the British and NSW ruling classes sought to abolish the expensive system of transportation in favour of free settlement, as surplus labourers became a more pressing problem in Britain than the disposal of criminals. Scaremongering about widespread ‘depravity’ in the convict population supported the case for ending transportation.[xlv]

Control of convict homosexuality was also an aspect of the colonial rulers’ efforts to ensure an orderly assimilation of freed convicts into the emerging working class.[xlvi] The authorities regarded marriage as a key part of this process. Consequently they also punished heterosexual extramarital sex among convicts and granted considerable privileges to those who married.[xlvii] This campaign to tighten sexual mores and push people into marriage worked. Up to about 1820, marriage was largely irrelevant to most of the working population. But, thanks to these measures, it was a dominant institution by the 1840s, and the family became a fundamental means of social control and population growth.[xlviii] The persecution of homosexual activity between convicts was first used to manage a rapidly expanded convict population and later to transform penal colonies into ‘free’ societies. This shift from a semi-slave society to one based on ‘free’ wage labour involved less reliance on the overt repression of chains, the lash and the gallows and more on subtle mechanisms of control, including the family.

From the 1860s until the turn of the century, the colonies developed increasingly sophisticated methods for policing social behaviour. The program to organise the population into families intensified. Pregnant convict women had been seen as a burden by the colonial authorities.[xlix] Without transportation, the colonial ruling classes now saw working class families as crucial if the population was to continue to grow. In the oldest colony, NSW, births easily took over as the main source of population growth once transportation ceased.[l] As Henry Parkes stated to the NSW parliament in 1866, ‘Our business being to colonize the country, there was only one way to do it - by spreading over it all the associations and connections of family life.’[li]

Policy makers also became concerned about working class living conditions and life-styles. They worried that lack of parental supervision of children, poor housing and rising infant mortality rates would threaten the health and discipline of the labour force in the future.[lii] Sexual morality became an important issue in the push to ensure that the relationships formed by members of the working class met standards of ‘decency’. Women’s relationships were increasingly controlled by their economic dependence upon men and the social denial of their sexuality.[liii] Among men, policy makers and police repressed a wide array of ‘deviant’ sexual activities, along with ‘larrikinism’ - associating in groups on the streets and engaging in behaviour offensive to bourgeois morality.[liv] It was during this period, from the mid-1860s to the early 1890s, that colonial governments systematically criminalised men’s homosexual activity, with the introduction of provisions for acts of ‘indecent assault’ or ‘gross indecency’ between men creating a range of new offences and ensuring easier convictions.[lv] As in Britain and Europe, criminalisation of male homosexuality was part of a process of organising the working class into respectable heterosexual nuclear families.

From the 1920s, a thriving underground ‘camp’ scene emerged in the major cities. But the 1950s witnessed another serious crackdown against male homosexuality in Australia. This was again an element in a campaign to reinforce the nuclear family. The years following the Second World War saw a drive to consolidate the family, encourage women to have children and push them out of unconventional war-time jobs, so that there would be positions for returned soldiers. The campaign against homosexuality in the 1950s was an escalation of this process, seeking to rectify the decline in social discipline that conservatives argued had occurred during the war.[lvi] Over a few years, there was a sharp increase in the number of people charged with and convicted of homosexual offences. Police actively entrapped homosexual men.[lvii] A special squad targeting homosexuality was set up in the Victorian police and the NSW police superintendent labelled homosexuality ‘the greatest social menace facing Australia’.[lviii] Homosexuals in the public service became particular targets. There were moves to isolate homosexual men in NSW prisons and to have them locked up in mental institutions.[lix] The tabloid press was filled with scandals about gay men. What little coverage there was in the quality press sent a clear message to anyone thinking of straying from the heterosexual norm: that path could lead only to shame and arrest.[lx]

Far from there being consistent victimisation of homosexuals, which one would expect if it was the consequence of a cultural logic inherited from an earlier era, those in power have varied the intensity of sexual oppression to suit their needs. Churches have been complicit in this oppression, but they have not been the driving force behind it. In fact, the laws against homosexuality in the late nineteenth century were introduced when the state was reducing its support for the established Anglican church and its influence was in decline.[lxi] The repression of homosexual behaviour in Australia has been an important and increasingly sophisticated tool used by the state to discipline the working population, convict and free, and to encourage the working class to reproduce.

Fighting back

In contrast to the dismally repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, the subsequent decades witnessed a flourishing of lesbian and gay activism. Increasingly bold civil liberties groups emerged in the 1960s to argue for homosexual law reform.[lxii] With the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, during which lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities fought back against police harassment, Gay Liberation exploded on the scene, spreading to Australia in subsequent years. Growing out of the broad radicalisation of Australian society - expressed in rising levels of strike action, the struggles against the Vietnam war and the development of women’s liberation - the movement’s organic relationship with the emerging new left lent it a critical edge. In contrast to earlier groups, activists in Gay Liberation regarded society’s treatment of gay men and lesbians not just as a kind of discrimination, but as a deeply rooted form of oppression, intimately intertwined with other forms of capitalist oppression and exploitation. The choice of the word ‘liberation’ was significant - militants in this movement sought nothing less than the overthrow of society’s restrictions on expressions of sexuality and gender, and the institutions that supported this repression.[lxiii] The radical movement thrived on and off campuses, and the first celebrations of gay pride took place in 1973. The struggles the movement waged during the early 1970s prompted public opinion to shift dramatically in favour of lesbians and gay men.[lxiv]

There was another upsurge in struggle in the last years of this decade. The police attack on the first Mardi Gras in Sydney and arrest of 53 people, on 24 June 1978, was crucial. The Mardi Gras was part of a day of international gay solidarity. The arrests sparked a major campaign which focussed public attention on the movement against sexual oppression. Protestors took to the streets across Australia over subsequent months, and Sydney witnessed its largest ever protests for lesbian and gay rights. Although 130 more people were arrested, the campaign succeeded in making the arrests a national political issue. By December 1979, the NSW government had dropped all the charges and liberalised its protest permit laws.[lxv] Meanwhile, the Festival of Light, a right wing Christian group, had organised a tour of British ‘morals campaigner’ Mary Whitehouse for September 1978. Gay and women’s liberation activists organised small but frequent demonstrations calling for an end to anti-homosexual discrimination and anti-abortion laws wherever she spoke. They succeeded in keeping her audiences small. The Festival of Light reported a significant financial loss as a result, leaving them thousands of dollars in debt.[lxvi]

Many working class lesbian and gay activists recognised that their class position shaped their experience of discrimination. They began to organise as workers, fighting for their unions to oppose discrimination against them in the workplace. The unions of teachers, social workers, public service clerical workers and plumbers were among the first to take up the issue.[lxvii] In 1978, the Victorian Gay Teachers and Students Group produced a booklet for release in schools, ‘Young, Gay, and Proud’. Its sympathetic and positive spin on homosexuality was groundbreaking and the booklet was very popular.[lxviii] Lesbian and gay workers formed gay trade union groups in Sydney and Melbourne, and marched as contingents in the May Day marches.[lxix] In the last years of the 1970s, the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations (the peak body of white-collar unions) adopted anti-discrimination policies and convened a national meeting on homosexual workers.[lxx]

By the early 1980s, however, the movement had fractured. Radical activists continued to theorise the relationship between capitalism, lesbian and gay struggles, and other forms of oppression. But serious political differences emerged about the best strategy to adopt during an increasingly conservative period, as levels of social struggle turned down. Some argued for a turn towards the emerging gay communities and moderation of political radicalism. Others advocated a more critical approach to the communities and the need for a continued orientation to activism and, in particular, to the working class.[lxxi] Overall, the numbers of people active around lesbian and gay issues declined sharply. Gay liberation as a movement effectively disappeared.[lxxii]

From the early 1980s, many gay activists became involved in combating the AIDS epidemic and efforts by conservatives to use it to roll back acceptance of queers. They helped shape one of the most effective responses to AIDS in the world. The approach of the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, to treat the issue as fundamentally about public health rather than an opportunity to attack homosexuals, was also important. But Labor’s cooption of activists into consultative bodies and public institutions also reinforced the conservatising effects of the down-turn in social struggles amongst politically involved queers. The direct-action approach of ACTUP in its campaigns over the rights of HIV-positive people was, in part, a reaction against this process.[lxxiii]

Sporadic struggles since the 1980s brought about further changes in legislation that discriminated against homosexuals. The campaign in the 1990s to decriminalise male homosexual acts in Tasmania, one of the last Australian jurisdictions to reform its laws, included protests, civil disobedience and consumer boycotts. Although Australia has now been outpaced internationally on same-sex marriage reform, in 2005 Tasmania had some of the most progressive relationship laws in the world.[lxxiv]

Gay Liberation and later campaigns by queer militants achieved a great deal. Lesbians and gay men still experienced disadvantages at work, under the law and in society as a whole. But the movement had won recognition for lesbians and gays, and a significant change in public opinion about homosexuality had taken place.[lxxv] Along with the fight for women’s liberation, these struggles had shifted attitudes to the family. It was no longer possible to argue that heterosexual monogamy and the nuclear family were universal. The struggles of activists were crucial in changing the political climate, opening the way for governments to decriminalise homosexuality and introduce anti-discrimination and same-sex relationship legislation. But the ultimate goal of sexual liberation - the capacity to form relationships free from control by the state, the dominance of the family and the constraints imposed by the ruling ideologies of homophobia and sexism - remains.

Queers, class and sexual liberation

Many of the problems that affected the late gay liberation movement are still apparent today. The priority given by most activists to building lesbian and gay communities that began in the 1980s continues. Political campaigns are often limited to the lobbying activities of lesbian and gay rights groups. The queer activism that emerged in universities during the 1990s tended to be much more radical, but was limited by its identity politics – the belief that queers have common interests, regardless of class, and that subjective perceptions are very much more important than objective circumstances in organising against oppression. Recognition of the links between exploitation and oppression, queer struggles and class struggle receded.

Many lesbians and gay men think that queer communities can overcome the social and political isolation and discrimination that they experience. Such communities do provide an important source of support. But, for cultural, geographical and financial reasons, they are more accessible to middle class lesbians and gay men than to members of the working class. If coming out of the closet may mean alienating family, friends and co-workers, or you live outside inner city suburbs or don’t have the money for an up-market lifestyle, then it is harder to participate in the gay milieu.[lxxvi]

The promotion of the ‘pink dollar’ - the idea that queers have a high disposable income and should be seen as potentially valuable customers - is frequently considered as a key means to gain mainstream acceptance.[lxxvii] Yet, contrary to the assumption that lesbians and especially gay men are more likely to be affluent than heterosexuals, the available Australian evidence suggests that the situation is much more complicated. Over half of all women who identify as homosexual have above average incomes but, overall, women who report same-sex attraction or experience are much more likely to have low incomes than heterosexual women. Men who identify as homosexual are less likely than heterosexual men to have very low incomes, but those reporting same-sex attraction are more likely to be in the lowest income range.[lxxviii] This suggests that low incomes play a significant role in preventing women and men who are attracted to the same sex from identifying as lesbian or gay. This, in turn, is likely to undermine a sense of belonging to lesbian and gay communities amongst those who are not ‘out’.

Even where working class queers identify with their community, their class position shapes their experiences of it. This is not only a question of their ability to consume what the community offers. The interests of workers and bosses in queer-owned businesses are diametrically opposed, just as they are in society at large. Fear of persecution outside the queer community can lead queer workers to accept lower pay or worse conditions in order to work within the community. Queer bosses profit from this, while lower wages for queers tend to undermine the conditions of heterosexual workers. Identity politics – the idea that class is less important than sexual identity in shaping political concerns – papers over these core differences. It suggests that working class queers have more in common with the lesbian or gay business owners who profit from their labour than with sympathetic heterosexual workers who ultimately have no stake in perpetuating sexual oppression.

More fundamentally, an uncritical approach to lesbian and gay communities ignores the way sexual oppression serves the interests of the capitalist class. Solidarity with other workers rather than ruling class lesbians and gay men is needed to challenge sexual oppression and the capitalist organisation of production and reproduction that sustains it. While it is often argued that members of the working class are, on the whole, too homophobic to fight for the welfare of lesbian and gay workers, there has been a long history of labour movement support for lesbian and gay rights.[lxxix] For example, when a gay activist was expelled from a residential college at Macquarie University in 1973 and later when a lesbian student’s teaching scholarship was revoked, the left wing Builders Labourers’ Federation banned construction on the campus. Notwithstanding the macho culture of the union, workers had no hesitation about taking industrial action.[lxxx] Similarly, when a gay man was evicted from Melbourne University’s Graduate House in 1979, university café workers from the Liquor and Allied Trades Union held a stopwork meeting in solidarity, threatening further action until he was allowed to return.[lxxxi] When they act together, workers - gay, lesbian and straight - have vastly greater power than queers do on their own.

The dominance of identity politics through the 1980s and 1990s has, in recent years, begun to break down. Queers formed contingents in Australian mobilisations that were part of the international movement against corporate globalisation, notably the Melbourne blockade of the World Economic Forum on 11 September 2000. When, in 2002, plans for a new union building at Victoria University lacked space to replace the queer room, queer students turned to the construction union for support. A basic sense of justice prompted workers to ban construction until the university administration gave way.[lxxxii] These developments indicate an awareness of the connection between class interests and sexual oppression.

The struggle against sexual oppression has not occurred in isolation. The broader radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the gains of the women’s liberation movement, have led to changes in sexual relationships. Yet sexual oppression still plays a central part in maintaining the kinds of social relationships crucial to capitalism. Even though lesbians and gay men currently enjoy many of the rights of heterosexuals, maintaining the second class status of lesbian and gay relationships makes it harder for people to form same-sex relationships and helps enforce heterosexuality. This is the underlying issue in debates about gay marriage, particularly the argument that legalising it would undermine traditional marriage.[lxxxiii] Although the consequences are exaggerated by bigots, gay marriage could indeed help to undermine traditional marriage, by removing one of the ways in which the heterosexual family is made to seem exclusively desirable and natural. Furthermore, unpaid labour in the family relies heavily on a division of labour between women, as the primary child rearers, and men, as the primary breadwinners. Queer families can undercut people’s conscious and unconscious acceptance of sex-role stereotypes by providing striking examples of women and men in ‘opposite’ roles.

Maintaining heterosexuality as the norm involves imposing it on young people. As a result, some of the most enduring forms of discrimination against lesbians and gay men involve restricting their contact with children. Denying state support for lesbians and gay men to become parents, for example by refusing reproductive services or adoption rights, and placing restrictions on lesbian and gay teachers, are aspects of this process. Limiting the relationships that children can have with lesbians or gay men, often by making the false accusation that queers are a greater threat to children than straight people, makes it more difficult for them to understand sexuality in any but narrow heterosexual terms. It also reinforces the effects of compulsory heterosexuality on their personality structures and hence their acceptance of capitalist hierarchies.

The links between class and queer struggles have sometimes been indirect. Nonetheless, class it is still central to understanding this movement. Gay liberation grew out of the radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s, which included high strike rates. Lesbians and gay men were involved in fighting in their unions and workers have organised against sexual oppression. Class position makes a significant difference to queers’ experiences of their communities and many of the gains made have mainly benefited middle rather than working class lesbians and gay men. Most importantly, sexual liberation is not possible as long as the ruling class gains advantages from controlling workers’ sexuality. Sexual oppression is more than simply the marginalisation of a particular group. It is the systematic restructuring of social relationships - and our humanity - to serve the interests of a ruling minority. Fighting for sexual liberation means fighting for a sexuality freed from the distorting influences of capitalism.

Further reading

Carlin, Norah ‘The roots of gay oppression’ International socialism 42 Spring 1989, pp. 63-113

Marcuse, Herbert Eros and civilisation: a philosophical inquiry into Freud Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1956

Ollman, Bertell Social and sexual revolution: essays on Marx and Reich Pluto, London 1979 pp. 159-203

Robinson, Shirleene (ed) Homophobia: an Australian history The Federation Press, Sydney 2008

Willett, Graham Living out loud: a history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia Allen and Unwin, Melbourne 2000

Wolf, Sherry Sexuality and socialism: History, politics and theory of LGBT liberation Haymarket Books, Chicago 2009

Wotherspoon, Garry City of the plain: history of a gay sub-culture Hale & Iremonger, Sydney 1991


[i]     'Rise in support for gay marriage' The Age 16 June 2009,, accessed 7 November 2009.

[ii]    'News: National survey gay marriage' School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane 2009,, accessed 8 November 2009.

[iii]   Australian Marriage Equality advertisement,, accessed 9 November 2009.

[iv]   Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton 'Mapping homophobia in Australia' in Shirleene Robinson (ed) Homophobia: An Australian history The Federation Press, Sydney 2008, pp. 17-20.

[v]    'New poll shows Australians overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage' Australian Marriage Equality media release, 16 June 2009,, accessed 8 November 2009.

[vi]   ibid.

[vii]  'Adoption by same-sex couples' New South Wales Parliament Legislative Council Standing Committee on Law and Justice, Report no. 39, July 2009 p. 16.

[viii] Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry into the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law reform) Bill 2008, Sydney 2008.

[ix]   'Singles, lesbians win fertility rights' The Age December 5 2008,, accessed 8 November 2009.

[x]    'Labor turns down gay marriage' ABC News, 1 August 2009,, accessed 8 November 2009.

[xi]   'Government bows to religious right' The Age September 27 2009,, accessed 7 November 2009.

[xii]  'Greens see red over changes to gay rights in South Australia' The Advertiser April 8 2009,,,25308681-2682,00.html accessed 7 November 2009.

[xiii] 'Adoption by same-sex couples' New South Wales Parliament Legislative Council Standing Committee on Law and Justice, Report no. 39, July 2009 p. 6.

[xiv] ibid., Foreword, p. x.

[xv]  Jenni Millbank ‘From here to maternity: a review of the research on lesbian and gay families’ Australian Journal of Social Issues 38 (4) November 2003, pp. 542-543, 581-584. 

[xvi] ibid pp.542-543.

[xvii]         ‘Lesbians protest IVF ban plan’ 3 August 2000,, accessed 31 July 2004. 

[xviii]        Millbank ‘From here to maternity’ op. cit. pp.542-543.

[xix] ‘PM joins opposition to gay marriage as cleric’s election stalls’ Sydney Morning Herald 6 August 2003,, accessed 31 July 2004.

[xx]  Rodney Croome ‘Fundamental flaws and dangers in moves against same-sex marriage’ Canberra Times 16 August 2004; Nicola Roxon ‘Call for balance on same-sex debate’ Canberra Times 18 August 2004.

[xxi] ‘Bishops Conference head welcomes Howard comments on gay marriage’ Catholic news 6 August 2003, accessed 31 July 2004; ‘PM joins opposition to gay marriage as clerics election stalls’ Sydney Morning Herald 6 August 2003,, accessed 31 July 2004.

[xxii]         Martin Mills ‘Homophobia and anti-lesbianism in schools: challenges for social justice’ Melbourne studies in education 40 (2), pp. 105-126; Lynne Hillier and Jenny Walsh ‘Abused, silenced and ignored: creating more supportive environments for same sex attracted young people’ Youth suicide prevention bulletin 3 1999, pp.23-27; Vivien Ray and Robin Gregory ‘School experiences of the children of lesbian and gay parents’ Family Matters 59 Winter 2001, pp.28-34.

[xxiii]        Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton 'Mapping homophobia in Australia' in Shirleene Robinson (ed) Homophobia: an Australian history The Federation Press, Sydney 2008, pp. 17-20.

[xxiv]        Attorney-General's Department of NSW You shouldn't have to hide to be safe: A report on homophobic hostilities and violence against gay men and lesbians in New South Wales – executive summary Attorney-General's Department of NSW, December 2003,$file/Hide2BSafeExec.pdf, accessed 8 November 2009.

[xxv]         Jude Irwin The pink ceiling is too low: workplace experiences of lesbians, gay men and transgender people Australian Centre of Lesbian and Gay Research, Sydney 1999, pp.28-42.

[xxvi]        Anthony F. Jorm, Ailsa E. Korten, Bryan Rodgers, Patricia A. Jacomb and Helen Christensen ‘Sexual orientation and mental health: results from a community survey of young and middle-aged adults’ British journal of psychiatry 180 2002, pp.423-427.

[xxvii]       Hillier and Walsh ‘Abused, silenced and ignored’ op. cit. pp. 25-26; Vic Barbeler The young lesbian report: a study of the attitudes and behaviours of adolescent lesbians today Young Lesbian Support Group, Sydney 1992, p.28.

[xxviii]      Van de Ven et al ‘Homophobic and HIV-related abuse and discrimination’ op. cit. pp. 148-149; see also Hillier and Walsh ‘Abused, silenced and ignored’ op. cit. p.25. 

[xxix]        Jonathan Nicholas and John Howard ‘Better dead than gay? Depression, suicide ideation and attempt among a sample of gay and straight-identified males aged 18 to 24’ Youth studies Australia 17 (4) 1998, pp.28-33; Barbeler The young lesbian report op. cit. p.28.

[xxx]         Sue Dyson, Anne Mitchell, Anthony Smith, Gary Dowsett, Marian Pitts and Lynne Hillier Don’t ask don’t tell. Hidden in the crowd: the need for documenting the links between sexuality and suicidal behaviours in young people La Trobe University, Melbourne 2003, p.36.

[xxxi]        Mills ‘Homophobia and anti-lesbianism in schools’ op. cit. pp.105-126; Hillier and Walsh ‘Abused, silenced and ignored’ op. cit. pp. 23-27; Christopher Kendall and Sonia Walker ‘Teen suicide, sexuality and silence’ Alternative law journal 23 (5) October 1998 pp. 216-221; Barbeler The young lesbian report op. cit. p.50.

[xxxii]       Ray and Gregory ‘School experiences of the children of lesbian and gay parents’ op. cit. pp.28-34.

[xxxiii]      Michael P Dunne, J Michael Bailey, Katherine M Kirk and Nicholas G Martin ‘The subtlety of sex-atypicality’ Archives of Sexual Behaviour 29 (6) 2000 pp.549-565; Anthony M. A. Smith, Chris E. Rissel, Juliet Richters, Andrew E. Grulich and Richard O. de Visser ‘Sex in Australia: sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience among a representative sample of adults’ Australian and New Zealand journal of public health 27 (2), April 2003, pp.138-145.

[xxxiv]      Smith et al ‘Sex in Australia’ op. cit. p.143.

[xxxv]       Norah Carlin ‘The roots of gay oppression’ International socialism 42 Spring 1989, pp.69-73.

[xxxvi]      Bertell Ollman Social and sexual revolution: essays on Marx and Reich Pluto, London 1979, pp.182-5. When he was a Marxist, Reich’s own position on homosexuality was tolerant rather than positive, Wilhelm Reich The sexual revolution Simon and Schuster, New York 1974, p.221.

[xxxvii]     Herbert Marcuse Eros and civilisation: a philosophical inquiry into Freud Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1956, pp.44-49. 

[xxxviii]    ibid pp.74-83.

[xxxix]      Robert French Camping by a billabong: gay and lesbian stories from Australian history Blackwattle Press, Sydney 2003 p.5.

[xl]   Carlin ‘The roots of gay oppression’ op. cit. pp.87-88.

[xli]  French Camping by a billabong op. cit. pp.6-7.

[xlii] Joy Damousi Depraved and disorderly: female convicts, sexuality and gender in Colonial Australia Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 1997, pp.69-72.

[xliii]          Peter N. Grabosky Sydney in ferment: crime, dissent and official reaction 1788 to 1973 Australian National University Press, Canberra 1977 p.14; see also Robert Hughes The fatal shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 Collins Harvill, London 1987, p.144.

[xliv]         Grabosky Sydney in ferment op. cit. pp.11-14.

[xlv] Katrina Alford Production or reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1870 Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1984 pp.84-85; Robert Hughes The fatal shore op. cit. p.265.

[xlvi]         Damousi Depraved and disorderly op. cit. pp.66-69,154-157; Alford Production or reproduction? Op. cit. pp.24-32.

[xlvii]        Damousi Depraved and disorderly op. cit. pp.154-157.

[xlviii]       French Camping by a billabong op. cit. p.9; Alford Production or reproduction? op. cit. pp.24-32, 56-57.

[xlix]         Damousi Depraved and disorderly op. cit. pp.67-69.

[l]     Alford Production or reproduction? op. cit. pp.56-57.

[li]    Anne Summers Damned whores and God’s police: the colonization of women in Australia Penguin, Melbourne 1977 p.291.

[lii]   R. W. Connell and T. H. Irving Class structure in Australian history: poverty and progress (second edition) Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1992, pp.104-105; Sandra Bloodworth ‘The poverty of patriarchy theory’ Socialist review 2 Winter 1990 pp.10-12.

[liii]  Denise Thompson Flaws in the social fabric: homosexuals and society in Sydney George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, London 1985, pp.78-80. 

[liv]  Grabosky Sydney in ferment op. cit. pp.81-86.

[lv]   Walter J Fogarty ‘“Certain habits”: the development of a concept of the male homosexual in New South Wales law 1788-1900’ in Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (eds) Gay perspectives: essays in Australian gay culture University of Sydney, Sydney 1992, pp.59-76; John Lee ‘Male homosexual identity and subculture in Adelaide before World War II’ in Aldrich and Wotherspoon Gay perspectives op. cit. pp.95-112; Bruce Baskerville ‘“Agreed to without debate”: silencing and sodomy in colonial Western Australia, 1870-1905’ in Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (eds) Gay and lesbian perspectives IV: studies in Australian culture, University of Sydney, Sydney 1998, pp.95-115; Adam Carr ‘Policing the “abominable crime” in nineteenth century Victoria’ in David L Phillips and Graham Willett (eds) Australia’s homosexual histories: gay and lesbian perspectives V Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay research, Sydney 2000, pp.27-40; Clive Moore Sunshine and Rainbows University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland 2001, pp.40-43.

[lvi]  Garry Wotherspoon ‘“The greatest menace facing Australia”: homosexuality and the state in NSW during the cold war’ Labour History 56 1989, pp.15-16.

[lvii] Graham Willett Living out loud: a history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia Allen and Unwin, Melbourne 2000 pp.10-15; Wotherspoon ‘“The greatest menace facing Australia”’ op. cit. pp.15-28.

[lviii]          Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.10-11.

[lix]  ibid pp.11-13; Wotherspoon ‘“The greatest menace facing Australia” op. cit. p.15.

[lx]   Willett Living out loud op. cit. p.15.

[lxi]  Class structure in Australian history op. cit. pp.106.

[lxii] Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.33-52.

[lxiii]          ibid pp.55-71; Liz Ross ‘Escaping the well of loneliness’ in Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (eds) Staining the wattle: a people’s history of Australia since 1788 Penguin, Ringwood, pp.100-108.

[lxiv]         Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.59-63, 108-111, 122-124.

[lxv] Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.138-139; Graham Willett ‘Gay liberation’s rise and fall’ Battler 23 June 1984, p.2.

[lxvi]         ibid pp.136-138; Ross ‘Escaping the well of loneliness’ op. cit. p.105.

[lxvii]        Ross ‘Escaping the well of loneliness’ op. cit. p.107; Martin Peers ‘Gay unionists fight for labor movement recognition’ Tribune 15 December 1982, p.5.

[lxviii]       Tim Carrigan ‘Homosexual teachers organise’ Gay changes 2 (2) Summer 1978 pp.8-10; Barry Nonweiler ‘Young gay and proud: after publication’ Gay changes 2 (3) Autumn 1979 pp.25-27.

[lxix]         Adam Carr ‘A gay and militant mayday’ Gay community news 2 (5) 1980 p.7.

[lxx] ‘ASCPA victory’ NSW gay trade unionist group newsletter 3 December 1978.

[lxxi]         Gay Walsh ‘Our liberation…a troublemaker’s appraisal’ and Craig Johnston ‘The new gay radicalization’, papers presented to the Socialism and Homosexuality Conference, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, 25-26 April 1981; IS Melbourne Gay Fraction ‘On socialists and the gay liberation movement’ International Socialists c. 1981, accessed 21 August 2004; Adam Carr ‘Lifestyleism and kindergarten economism: the socialism and homosexuality conference’ Gay Community News 3 (4) May/June 1981, pp.10-11.

[lxxii]        Willett ‘Gay liberation’s rise and fall’ op. cit., p.2; IS Melbourne Gay Fraction ‘On socialists and the gay liberation movement’ op. cit.

[lxxiii]       Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.166-192.

[lxxiv]       ibid pp. 231-237; ‘Tasmania first on gay unions: reform package for “significant and caring” personal relationships’ Canberra Times 3 January 2004.

[lxxv]        Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.111, 132.

[lxxvi]       M. J. Chapple, S. Kippax and G. Smith ‘“Semi-straight sort of sex”: class and gay community attachment explored within a framework of older homosexually active men’ Journal of homosexuality 35 (2) 1998, pp.65-83; Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.213.

[lxxvii]      For a contradictory account see Willett Living out loud op. cit. pp.207-218; for an early critique see Tim Carrigan and John Lee ‘Male homosexuals and the capitalist market’ Gay changes 2 (1) Spring 1978, pp.28-30. 

[lxxviii]     Smith et al ‘Sex in Australia’ op. cit. pp.141-143.

[lxxix]       Shane Ostenfeld ‘Interactive movements: gay lib, the women’s and student movements, and the trade unions’ in Garry Wotherspoon (ed) Gay and lesbian perspectives III: essays in Australian culture Sydney, University of Sydney 1996, pp.189-206; Shane Ostenfeld ‘Identity politics and trade unions: the case of sexual minorities in Australia’ at, accessed 26 July 2004.

[lxxx]        Jack Mundey Green bans and beyond Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1981, p.106; Liz Ross ‘Gay Liberation: pink triangles, red banners’ Socialist Action 13, October 1986 available at; Willett Living out loud op. cit. p.90.

[lxxxi]       Warren Talbot ‘Support for Terry Stokes’ Gay community news 1 (1) November 1979, pp.7-8; ‘Union makes stand for gay rights’ The gay trade unionist 9 October-November 1979, p.1.

[lxxxii]      Catherine Watson ‘Hands off!’ Melbourne community voice 76, 24 May 2004, p.1.

[lxxxiii]     Laura Kipnis Against love: a polemic Pantheon, New York 2003, pp.149-153.