c. 1920, photographer unidentified.
Nations,” the Westboro Baptist Church proclaims in its picketing
ministry. Sure enough, “We are Everywhere,” loving across
borders and passionately claiming community with multicultural
expressions of same-sex love. Just as the world economy gathers all
into its grip, more and more people make homosexuality a public
choice and guiding aspect of their lives. While free trade
agreements and information oligarchies render nations obsolete, the
international queer community develops an infrastructure that is
strong and visible.
Same-sex passion has always existed, throughout history and
throughout nature. Being
homosexual is different from this. The public voices and private
lives of contemporary lesbians and gay men have no exact historical
precedent. We have made homosexual desire into a personal identity
and a global community. Queer shapes our lives and our souls.
In the 6th Century B.C. Sappho wrote beautiful and frankly
sexual poems addressed to girls and women. But the lovers of this
most famous Lesbian were not “lesbians” themselves. Sappho is
thought to have run a school where girls were educated before they
married. Their lives as wives may have included interludes of
same-sex passion. Greek men of the period were expected to pursue
sexual attachments to young men. But this “homosexuality” did
not typically interfere with gender systems or matrimony. Even an
acknowledged predisposition to same-sex attachments did not become
an identity or pose an alternative way of life.
Among the Sambian people of New Guinea, boys become men by
years of ingesting the semen of older boys and men. At about eight
years old, a male child is separated from his mother and the world
of women, and his initiation into the fellowship of men begins.
Every day until puberty he sucks the cocks of older boys and men.
After puberty his cock is sucked by a new group of younger boys.
Finally, he becomes manly enough to marry. For awhile he continues
to have sex with both his wife and with boys, but once he becomes a
father, he is expected to have sex only with his wife.[i]
Sambian homosexuality is a constitutive element in a
two-gender system. Because all men enjoy same-sex sexuality, no man
can be homosexual. Same-sex passions are confined to
predictable parameters –
enjoyable, but unremarkable. Only in contemporary capitalist
cultures does homosexuality represent as an alternative way of being.
Looking at the various manifestations of same-sex love in
other times and places can give colour and texture to contemporary
queer identities. But the possibility and promise of homosexuality
has never been so thrilling as it is today. Queer passions do not
fit into the interstices of the patriarchal family, the two-gender
system, and the endless repetition of hereditary privilege.
Homosexuality creates an antonym to expected lifeways and historic
forms of social organization.
For the possibility of queer identity to flourish, we need
something like the material conditions that capitalism provides –
wage labour unattached to family and fealty. John D’Emilio argues
that there are and will be more and more lesbian and gay people, as
capitalism creates a material basis for personal autonomy. He
writes, “Only when individuals began to make their living
through wage labour [in the second half of the 19th century],
instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it
possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity –
an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual
family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to
one’s own sex.”[ii]
Capitalism is scary. It rips people from their roots,
alienates them from their work, dissolves languages and cultures in
a tendency to globalization. It promotes individualism and
individuality, as it brings workers into competition with each
other. It is always seeking the lowest wage and the highest profit.
Capitalism excises the heart and soul of work, family and community.
As a system it is devoid of morality and unimpressed with social
values. Money is the motive force. These are historic facts.
Denunciation is as pointless as celebration. We live inside the
capitalist system and cannot escape its consequences.
acknowledging the pain and destruction caused by the operations of
capitalist economy, we can also embrace the possibilities it allows.
When an economy operates without particular reference to family,
faith, gender and location, it admits the dream of freedom. When
traditional lifeways are destroyed, there is a gap where gender
fluidity and chosen family become imaginable. The possibilities we
develop in queer lives and identities point to these nascent
tendencies inside the capitalist system – tendencies that can
never be realized without radical social change. Like capital, the
queer nation is multicultural and multinational. We hold the whole
world in our minds and hearts, even as we suffer the material
consequences of globalization and fight against the global hegemony
of industrial society. Individual autonomy, chosen family, gender
parity and global equality are always-broken promises inside the
capitalist system. And right at the heart of contemporary economic
practices, homosexuality unfolds as a space in which these promises
Others refuse the broken promises inside the capitalist
system by embracing beliefs antagonistic to its tendencies –
ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, violent homophobia.
Such beliefs are nonsensical. They have no material basis. They
cannot be challenged or modified by experience. But obvious
inauthenticity does not weaken these modes of “thought.” On the
contrary, it is an essential part of the charm. Ethnic nationalists,
religious fundamentalists and violent homophobes can transcend
history and analysis with passion and certainty. They can make a
community with a strong sense of belonging simply by hating what
they are not. Our murder is at the heart of their identity with one
Gay and lesbian people are called to an opposite form of
community. Instead of a sense of belonging that begins in hatred,
ours begins in love. Our community is open instead of closed,
healing instead of murderous, freely chosen instead of compulsory,
broad and free-wheeling instead of narrow and restricted. Community
nurtures us as we build it.
This precious community is just what the democrats would
refuse us. Democrats claim to accept the material conditions and
social tendencies of capitalism. Yet they deny the great collective
forms of being that bring hope to history and give shape to all our
lives. They imagine a social body composed of free individuals. Gay
and lesbian people become, in this view, no more than individuals
who engage in a variety of queer behaviors, and who otherwise are
the same as everyone else. Our private life doesn’t matter, the
democrats say. Whether we are gay or not is of no importance to
them. They don’t need to hear about it or see it celebrated in the
In certain unattainable conditions, like the absence of
homophobia, it may be possible to see ourselves as individuals who
are – almost –
no different. It is a way to deny our power and erase our threat.
Our collective identity as gay and lesbian people is what lets us
witness and practice the possible future inside the present tense.
Individual freedom, global consciousness, gender fluidity and chosen
family do not exist and cannot come into being without us. Queer
community is shaped by history and the economic conditions of
contemporary industrial society, yet we are prescient and opposite.
Without our cultural identity and sense of belonging, our difference
is annihilated. We become what the democrats would have us be –
serial individuals, producers, consumers –
content to run the machines and eat the unripe fruits of free wage
labour. If queer is not the crux of who we are, then we pose no
alternative, assert no ideal, and imagine no different world than
Democrats want to imagine community as an aggregate of free
individuals, as if the inequality and violence of capitalism could
be magically transcended. This community will always stay abstract
and unattainable – a
community that cannot write the songs or empty the bedpans. Our
collective identity and lesbian and gay people is a dynamic
alternative. We can accept both singularity and plurality as
historically constituted facts. We know our solitude and uniqueness
as both a “well of loneliness” and a precious gift. We suffer
our collective identity, and it gives us wings.
We cannot step outside the pain of the present into a utopian
space where the dream of individual freedom and nourishing community
comes true. But we can grasp and craft the possible future that
stands opposite inside the present. Being queer, we choose and
practice the modes of thought and ways of life that are at once
enabled and suppressed by the capitalist system. We are the future
that always emerges, only to be distorted and pushed back, by
contemporary industrial society. On the way to this possible future,
homosexuality is both pathway and vision. Collectively and
individually we create a radical new meaning for the world. ▼
Description based on the research of Gilbert H. Herdt in Papua,
New Guinea in the 1970’s. Reported in Francis Mondimore, 1996,
(16 ff.), and Henning Bech, 1997, (12).
D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Abelove et.al.
I am deeply indebted here and elsewhere in the chapters
“Dirt,” “Money” and “Family” to Jean-Paul Sartre’s
Anti-Semite and Jew.