The Communist Party and the debate over gay rights

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One of the areas of the history of the British left that is under-explored is the relationship between the left and gay liberation/rights. Lucy Robinson’s 2007 book is a pioneering work in the field and Graham Willett (who has written extensively about the Australia left and gay rights) has recently contributed a chapter in this collection on the topic. Both Robinson and Willett provide overviews of how a range of left-wing parties engaged with the question of gay rights from the 1960s to the 1990s, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both authors describe how the Communist Party first supported in the pages of the Morning Star a National Union of Students motion supporting gay rights and then after pressure from several local branches at the Party’s 1975 National Congress, the CPGB’s Executive Committee finally issued a statement in September 1976.

This intersects with work done on the CPGB and the shifts in the Party during the 1960s and 1970s that led to the rise of Eurocommunism, Gramscism and the 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism (and to some, the inevitable decline of the Party). The support for gay rights as part of this shift in the outlook of the Party is mentioned in the work by Mike Waite, Geoff Andrews and Richard Cross, for example.

Both Robinson and Willett mention an interview in the journal Gay Left from 1977 with CPGB members Beatrix Campbell and Sarah Benton (editor of the fortnightly Party journal Comment). In this interview (pages 9-13), Campbell and Benton mentioned that this statement supporting gay rights created enormous debate within the Party. Looking through issues of Comment, one can see the differing reaction by different Party members who wrote to the journal after the EC statement was published in September 1976. Although just one resource to look at a major policy debate within the Party (there is probably much more available in the Party archives in Manchester), the articles and letters in this journal provide a different perspective on the Party’s changing attitude towards gay liberation.

Prior to the EC statement, Comment (3 April, 1976, p. 108) featured in its regular ‘Viewpoint’ column a piece by John Gowling, a leading member of the Young Communist League, on the Party’s attitude towards gay rights. Gowling started the piece with:

I think many Communist Party members are unsure as to whether we have a policy on gay civil rights or homosexual equality/law reform…I find it very difficult to discover what the attitude of Communist Party members in this country is towards homosexuality. I have yet to come across a discussion of gay civil rights in our press;…

Gowling’s piece described the difficulties faced by gay people in the 1970s and stated:

The fact is we do exist, therefore we have a right to exist and enjoy equal civil liberties… Homosexuality is a fact of every society, whether repressed or accepted.

And he concluded the piece with:

I do not think that they gay struggle should be shelved by Communists because it is embarrassing. There are many civil rights to be won. These can only be won when we all turn around and face them.

In October 1976, the Executive Committee’s statement was published in Comment (16 Oct, p. 328). It began by stating that the CPGB ‘opposes discrimination and victimisation against homosexuals’ and supported several changes in the law, in particular:

The criminal law should not distinguish homosexual activities from heterosexual activities

Just as there has been legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex or race, so legislation should be passed to outlaw discrimination in the grounds of sexual orientation…

The Party also stressed that ‘much more than legal reforms is necessary to achieve homosexual liberation’ and called for several actions, including an end to the regarding of homosexuality as a mental illness, the end to exclusion of gat parents from having custody of their children, sex education to include discussion of homosexuality, an end to police harassment. The Party announced in the statement:

A fundamental change in attitude will require political struggle and work to change the general climate of opinion which is hostile to, or derisive of, homosexuals…

We must help to combat sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they are found, including among the left, in the labour movement and in our own party.

The Communist Party supports the right of people to be actively and openly gay, and gives support and encouragement to gay comrades to work in the gay movement.

In order to assist these changes in law and attitude, the Communist Party will establish a committee to promote discussion and analysis on gay rights, and assist the party in activity on these questions.

Alongside the publication of the Party’s official position on the issue of gay rights, Comment also published the text of a speech to the EC by the Party’s National Organiser, Dave Cook (16 Oct, 1976, pp. 327-328). Cook claimed that ‘hostile attitudes to homosexuals are essentially sexist’ and reinforced that the Party’s 1975 resolution on women ‘committed the party to fight sexist attitudes wherever they appear’. Cook’s speech reflected the Gramscian/Eurocommunist attitudes within the CPGB in the mid-1970s and was similar in phrasing to the 1977 draft of The British Road to Socialism. He stated:

We as Marxists are concerned with all aspects of oppression… [The Party’s] objectives will themselves be divided and held back if the oppression for example of women, of racial minorities and all other oppressed minorities, homosexuals included, is not actively opposed by the working class.

Cook urged that the CPGB ‘declare itself totally opposed to discrimination and oppression against homosexuals’ and with that, they needed ‘to recognise that this means we must help to oppose sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they occur, including in our own party’. This was not just to be a top-down decision by the EC and Cook advised that several committees (at national and district level) be established ‘to promote discussion and analysis’.

Staring with this issue, Comment’s letters section featured several letters from Party members debating the EC statement and the issue of gay liberation, with both pro- and anti-gay positions reflected. Several of the letter writers identified as gay and wrote to the journal to welcome the EC’s statement. Bill Thornycroft, a veteran of the Party since the 1940s, wrote:

I welcome the EC statement on homosexual oppression, gay civil rights and gay liberation. For far too long have we as a party remained silent in this issue and ignored the growth of the gay liberation movement…

Prejudice and ignorance is widespread throughout the party as well as elsewhere… To dispel this ignorance every branch should hold discussions either with gay comrades or by inviting along to a branch people involved in the gay movement.

Thornycroft concluded his letter with this appeal:

Finally, I would like to appeal to all gay comrades to come out, It’s like getting into a cold bath, the first step is the worst. All the ensuing hassles are nothing compared to the strength and joy we can get from one another – and we can’t get it if we remain invisible.

Another letter in the same issue, written by Eric W. Edwards, argued that while ‘we must agree that the point of view concerning the repressed minority position of homosexuals was correct’, the Party’s position ‘would have been improved by an analysis of what homosexuality is, as well as its relevance to the class struggle as a whole’. Edwards proceeded to concentrate on defining homosexuality and had little to say on the class struggle, calling homosexuality as an ‘anomaly’ and linking it to ‘transvestism, fetishism, sado-masochism and exhibitionism’. Edwards stated:

[W]e can see that homosexuality of the habitual and exclusive kind is a persistent expression of selfish individualism, the socio-political origins and implications of which we should know only too well.

In other words, it is a form of love or liaison that functions as an antithesis of normal, evolutionarily selected but plastic sexual activity.

Therefore, Edwards proposed, ‘gay liberation is a secondary issue to the main direction of the class struggle’ and concluded, ‘Gay liberation without scientific class analysis will certainly create… a diversion.’

These two letters essentially provided the framework for the debate between the authors of the letters sent to Comment in the last months of 1976. In the following issue (30 Oct, 1976, p. 350), Peter Mason argued against the biological determinism of Edwards, writing:

[I]t is not so much that the Eysenckian biological arguments are unconvincing (though they are). It is rather that Marxism has always stressed the need to make the start of one’s analysis the differentiation of mankind from the animal world by its constitution as a society.

For Mason, it was capitalism that transformed homosexuality into a ‘problem’ and in a capitalist society, communist politics was considered just as ‘deviant’ as homosexuality. But Mason also warned against seeing gay liberation as something wholly determined by the class struggle:

The relation of the struggle for sexual liberation to the class struggle is not an either/or situation. Though linked to the class struggle, the gay movement has its own specificity, and its relation to the class struggle is a complex one. The slow rate of development of sexual liberation in a number of socialist countries indicates that the achievement of socialism does not by itself bring about sexual liberation at the same time.

Similar to the words of Cook and the theory of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ being developed inside the CPGB at the time, Mason ended his letter with:

[T]hose sectors who see that the objective conditions of their struggle are similar to those facing the working class in its struggle are people whom the Communist Party must be prepared to support.

In the 13 November, 1976 issue (pp. 365-366), two gay Party members, Frank Langan and Brian Allbutt, wrote to welcome the EC’s statement and suggested that ‘many left wing gays’ viewed it as ‘the most positive statement on gay liberation made by any major political party in Britain’. They described Edwards’ opinions as ‘closer to Catholic puritanism than even the beginnings of a Marxist analysis’ and took further issue with the assumption ‘that homosexuality is a product of bourgeois society and will be resolved in a socialist one.’ Langan and Allbutt wrote, ‘We disagree entirely with the comrade’s assertion that the struggle for gay liberation is a ‘secondary issue’ to the main direction of the class struggle’ and used the text of The British Road to Socialism to reinforce this, mentioning ‘the common factors’ between social movements. The organised gay movement, they argued, had supported the fight against the Industrial Relations Act, the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, the pro-choice movement and the Chile Solidarity Movement, and concluded with this, ‘And yet the comrade accuses us of selfish individualism.’

John Gowling contributed another letter to the same issue of Comment. Gowling also welcomed the Party’s statement, but bemoaned the fact that the gay liberation movement tended to be centred around London and that the struggle was much more difficult in the North, Scotland and Wales. He explained:

The tragedy of London, as I see it, the large drift of Northern and Scottish political and apolitical gays who have left their hometowns because they cannot cope with the isolation; nothing is solved, the same oppression still exists in sizeable Northern towns. Many of these migrants are Communists. I hope the new CP policy will seta precedent, and as a result the heterosexual majority of comrades in town branches and provincial districts will help us gay comrades to fight our oppression. For I believe the gay comrades have much to offer and none of us can turn from one sort of oppression when oppression concerns us all.

While these previous letters were mostly positive, the next letters printed on the topic (11 Dec, 1976, p. 397) were quite homophobic and covered similar ground to the letter submitted by Edwards. The first letter by O.M. Olynyk complained that ‘[w]e seem to have become bemused of late with the homosexual cult’, adding:

Nothing we can do or say makes homosexuality normal and all I see us doing at the moment is making a laughing-stock of ourselves by letting the whole thing get out of all proportion to its importance.

Olynyk, like Edwards, suggested that working on matters of gay liberation diverted attention away from the class struggle and the issues concerning the rank-and-file membership of the CPGB. Olynyk finished with:

Come down from your ivory towers into the ranks of the party, to the branch meetings and find out what our problems really are, instead of being sidetracked into fighting artificial battles which will do us infinite harm.

Long term CPGB member John Hukin also wrote a letter railing against the new position of the Party towards gay rights, using similar arguments to Edwards and Olynyk. Hukin called the statement by the EC ‘ill conceived and premature’ and reiterated the homophobic concern that the Party was wrong to see that ‘homosexuality is a normality, equal to the functions of heterosexuals.’ Like Edwards and Olynyk, Hukin saw homosexuality as a ‘sexual abnormality’ and while he agreed that it should be legal, he was against the ‘absolute free expression’ of gay rights ‘without due regard for society in general’. Like Edwards, Hukin was concerned with the ‘individualism’ of the gay rights movement, claiming ‘the preoccupation of homosexuals’ was ‘the promotion of their own sexual ideas and activities, rather than concerning themselves in the everyday struggle for socialism’.

Hukin argued against the EC’s proposal that anti-gay sentiment should be fought in all arenas, qualifying his statement with:

I suggest these matters depend very much on whether anti-‘Gay’ attitudes have justification or that discrimination is necessary to safeguard others in society…

He also called into question the ‘general conduct of homosexuals themselves’ and suggested that it was their own conduct that made them subject to oppressive laws and societal attitudes. His letter concluded by seeking to ‘draw attention’ to:

The danger of ideas which are directed at promoting sexual self interest which at the same time begin to challenge the very fabric or organised society namely the family unit, which despite all its problems is till and will be the basis of organised society socialist or otherwise.

From these letters, we can see that a number of the Communist Party clung to its social conservatism developed between the 1930s and 1960s and so aptly described by Raphael Samuel in his ‘Lost World of British Communism’ series. As Sarah Benton told Nigel Young in her interview with Gay Left:

There’s a certain puritanism which is very strong on the British left generally, which associates a strong family and straightforward sex with a man and wife, with communist

morality. Bourgeois morality is seen as living in sin, promiscuity. Sexual athletics and bourgeois morality is not seen as good family structure … it isn’t seen as a good solid working class unit.

As Graham Willett shows in his chapter, the progressives within the Party eventually won, despite the Party collapsing in on itself during the 1980s, and most left-wing groups moved in the same direction towards the support of gay rights. Nowadays it would be rare to find a left-wing party that did not embrace gay rights in some way (at least on paper), but this was not so clear in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the movie Pride depicts quite well is that the British labour movement was slow to accept gay liberation as part of its agenda, and arguably the 1976 statement by the CPGB helped to progress these attitudes.



5 responses to “The Communist Party and the debate over gay rights”

  1. Thanks for this Hatful
    Interesting, and seemingly a bit calmer than the debates in the International Socialists during the early 1970s.
    I’ve posted pieces here about it
    and here, where David Widgery said in 1975
    “A modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble for itself.”

  2. “Nowadays it would be rare to find a left-wing party that did not embrace gay rights in some way (at least on paper), but this was not so clear in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

    Even there you are being rather too kind. Like the Revolutionary communist Party of the US, the CPGB was a homophobic party long after homosexuality had been decriminalised in the UK by ‘bourgeois’ parties. LGBT people achieved emancipation despite, not because of, communists. To try and present British communists as merely ambiguous or positive about gay rights is the sort of historical re-writing for which communists are rightly famed – and despised.

  3. […] the 1970s  the party had become the only political organisation to  fully embrace gay rights. At its 1976  conference motion was passed calling for an equal age of consent, end to discriminatio…This was extremely radical for the time. This issue of gay rights in society was extremely […]

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