Gay oppression: a radical analysis - The Red Butterfly

A Marxist analysis of discrimination experienced by LGB people, published by a section of the Gay Liberation Front in New York in 1970.

Submitted by Steven. on July 4, 2016


    The Gay Liberation movement has forced many people
into new thinking about homosexuality. It has shown this uptight
straight society that there are a lot of gay people around, that we are
articulate, that we can organize and become a potentially important
force for social change. Much of Gay Lib's impact has been on
heterosexuals. Certainly media coverage has focused attention on how
the straight world is reacting to the new gay militancy. But the most
significant effects of the movement have been felt at home: in the
awakening of millions of gay women and men to the possibility of a
better life — and a realization of hot put-down we are. For us,
as for any group which is the victim of discrimination, the first step
toward changing the situation is to become fully aware of what our
actual situation is. To make life bearable, many gay people have
filtered out awareness of their actual social position. The promise of
Gay Liberation is the creation of a new, free way of life in which we
will not have to retreat psychologically and socially to survive.

    Self-understanding is the beginning of genuine
liberation. Several facts are basic for grasping the reality of our
oppression as homosexuals. First, who we are. According to the famous
Kinsey studies of sexual behavior in America, homosexual behavior is
very common among both women and men in our society — more common
among males than among females. Following are some of the Kinsey

50% of American males have been conscious of specifically erotic responses to other males.

37% have had at least one homosexual experience leading to orgasm.

18% have had at least as much
homosexual as heterosexual experience for at least a three-year period
between the ages of 18 and 65.

28% of American females have been conscious of specifically erotic responses to another female.

13% have reached orgasm from at least one homosexual experience.

    (Kinsey repeatedly points out that because of the
savagely repressive attitudes towards homosexuality, the actual
incidence will always be far higher than the collected data indicate.)

    Also interesting is Kinsey's finding that most of
the males who engage in homosexual behavior also take part in
heterosexual activity. In other words, homosexuals are a large part of
the population, a large portion of whom are otherwise
“normal” heterosexuals.

    It is important to note that his high incidence of
homosexual behavior occurs in a society which is extremely hostile and
repressive to all forms of homoerotic activity. This alone negates the
myth that homosexuality is a rare “disease” confined to a
few contaminated areas. Homoerotic drives are powerful forces
throughout our society in spite of heavy repression.

    How is such widespread incidence possible? The
established church of the psychological world, the National Institute
of Mental Health, and other professional circles often have difficulty
in accounting for the near-universality of the “illness”. A
simpler explanation, which carries more evidential weight, is that
homosexuality is a natural and common activity found among nearly all
higher mammals. Sexual response among humans is learned activity. It is
not innate. There is simply no one natural sexual response for humans.
Heterosexuality is not inherited. Cultural conditioning is the main
determinant of the kinds of sexual response an individual will choose.
The “problem” of homosexuality is that straight society
hates and fears it (yet unwittingly inclines large numbers of its own
members to respond homoerotically). The point is that homosexuality is
not sock. It is as valid a mode of human sexual response as
heterosexuality. What is pathological is this society's inability to
give a positive place to homosexuality, thereby excluding and
squandering great amounts of human energy and potential. Homosexuality
is a positive personal and social force. It is the capacity to love
fully members of one's own sex. It is the natural complement and equal
of heterosexuality.

    In short, there are tens of millions of us
throughout all parts of the American population. We suffer from an
oppression based upon irrational concepts, and are subject to the
crudest prejudice and bigotry. Yet, great numbers of gay people appear
to the rest of the society to lead perfectly normal lives.

    What does it mean, then, to claim that we are
oppressed as homosexuals? Oppression is a slippery term, but it can be
given a reasonably concrete meaning. By oppression we mean a situation
in which the growth and development of a group or an individual is
systematically frustrated because of the social position of the
oppressed and/or the structure of the social situation in which they
live. We maintain that all gay people in America are systematically
frustrated in various ways because of their sexual orientation. This
oppression is both psychological and social, and affects all of us to
varying degrees, regardless of the heterosexual component of our lives.
Gay oppression is real, socially as well as psychologically — it
affects us outwardly as well as inside. Gay oppression is harmful: it
inhibits our lives, causing us to be less than we could be. Gay
oppression is a social problem. It is a systematic process which
derives from the narrow roles of our sex negative society and culture.

    Anyone growing up gay in America learns to develop a
mildly schizophrenic personality style. Gay persons experience a split
between what he or she feels toward members of the same sex and what is
socially acceptable. A gay person soon learns to become an expert at
self-censorship, at inhibiting feelings and responses to avoid being
“read” as gay. Under strong pressures at home, in school,
with peers to “go straight”, a gay person has difficulty
experiencing sexuality as a positive force. Sex becomes split off from
productive and active parts of life, draining off energy in repression,
and leaving a sense of being not quite together. Every gay person in
America leads two lives. Within the personality there is a felt
opposition between feeling and socially approved activity. This kind of
self-division is usually termed alienation. The anti-gay pressures of
American society and culture force upon homosexuals peculiar forms of
personal and social alienation.

Alienation In Personal Life

    The deepest problem faced by gay people in their
personal lives is that of positive self=image. American society exerts
strong pressures through most of its institutions to enforce the view
that homosexuality is a negative characteristic. Heterosexuality as an
exclusive way of life is exalted as the only legitimate form of sexual
expression. At the same time, homosexuality is put down in books,
films, “queer” jokes, etc. The first film in America to
deal with gay experience, “The Boys In The Band”, focused
upon a group of male, middle class New Yorkers — the typical
stereotype of “the homosexual”. The film showed gay men
with personal problems such as guilt, self-hatred and failure, all
somehow connected with their homosexuality. Yet, there was no mention
of the kind of social repression which surrounds every gay person,
women as well as men, in our society. This is putting homosexuality

    There are strong influences, including organized
religion and established psychology, which pressure gay people to view
themselves as inferior and sick. This is borne out by the number of
homosexuals of both sexes who seek psychiatric help to be
“cured” of their homosexuality. It is hardly surprising
that this kind of negative propaganda barrage should leave many of us
with feelings of inferiority and self-hatred.

    This lack of self-esteem has had effects on personal
relations. Gay people often have difficulty establishing lasting
relationships, especially with other homosexuals. This reinforces the
pattern of self-hatred and can cause feelings of anxiety and
insecurity. All this affects the way gay people experience their
sexuality itself. The cultural censure of homosexuality usually leads
gay people to suffer from some kind of guilt or anxiety in connection
with their sexual activity. Some seek “cures”, some
depersonalize sex as much as possible, and others avoid sex altogether.
Because of strong social pressure, homosexuals are forced to censure
their sexual feelings much of the time. This makes it very hard to
integrate sexuality into the total personality. For every gay person in
America, sex is a major personal problem in at least some period of his
or her life.

Alienation In Social Life

    The problems gay people experience in their personal
lives largely derive from the conflict between their erotic needs and
the dominant role structure of society. American families condition
many of their children to respond homosexually as well as
heterosexually. As mentioned above, this is natural ind in itself a
good thing. The problem arises because the society not only does not
provide positive roles for gay sex, but attempts to enforce
heterosexual supremacy to the point of suppressing all aspects of
homoerotic behavior. American society denies homosexuals equal status
alongside exclusive heterosexuals — the cultural ideal.
Homosexuals are considered somehow less that fully human. Great effort
is expended to keep homosexuals from participating in important social
roles. Gays are officially barred from influence on the young in
education, from all areas of government employment, and from positions
throughout industry and business. Homosexuals are consciously pushed
out of social functions for which they quality in all ways but sexual
orientation. “Known homosexuals” are a marginal group in
America. Even though most gays carefully conceal their identity, there
is always the threat of exposure and the possibility of being forced
into the marginal category.

    To make clear the impact of falling into the
marginal group, it is useful to recall what open or known homosexuals
are subject to in America. First, physical attack. It is no secret that
“queers” are favorite victims for beatings, muggings and
killings by various segments of the population, including police.

    Second, legal punishment — in some states life
imprisonment — for consenting homosexual acts. Gay sex in any
form is outlawed in every state but Illinois, where severe repression
takes place nevertheless. Third, occupational exclusion. Very few jobs
anywhere are open to known homosexuals. This is the biggest club used
against us. Fourth, psychological oppression in the form of harassment,
abuse, slander and ridicule. Fifth, blackmail. Sixth, housing

    Because of this kind of pressure, most gay people
are forced to conceal and restrict their often vital personal needs in
order to survive. This reinforces the self-censure and the split
between sexuality and other kinds of productive activity. This results
in masquerading — either playing straight of exaggerating one's
sexual style in camp.

    At the center of many gay people's lives is the
painful choice between personal fulfillment and socially sanctioned
achievement. A gay person often has to choose between a job or career
in which sex has to be denied, and an open sex life in a gay ghetto
with little chance for a decent job or fulfilling career. Such a choice
enforces a split personality no matter which option is taken. Either
choice alienated the human capacities for enjoyment from those of
creative production. A chief form of our oppression is this barren
choice of alternatives: love or work, but not both.

    The oppression of homosexuality in America is a
result of the anti-gay bias running through the institutions and
culture of this society. The stifling of growth and potential affects
all gay people (as well as all heterosexuals), leaving few aspects of
our lives untouched. The oppression is intolerable because it is
unjustified and irrational. The continuing oppression of homosexuals is
both humanly degrading and socially wasteful.

    Homosexuality is as “natural” as
heterosexuality, because of the great flexibility of human sexual
response. Homosexuality harms no one and is a valuable form of
relationship. American society's condemnation of homosexuality has no
basis in science or nature. It is prejudice, like racism. Human health
and creativity require integration of the needs for enjoyment and
intimacy with productive activity. Repression of homosexuality
restricts individuals and society as a whole from developing this kind
of healthy integration, causing gay sexuality to be separated from
social life with the consequences noted above. Since the proper
development of sexuality is vital for human growth, the continuing
repression of gay people, especially in adolescence, inflicts needless
suffering on millions of people. As long as anti-gay oppression is
permitted, considerable human resources are being squandered and all
our lives are impoverished and distorted.


    The dominant culture in our society is anti-gay as a
whole. Repression of gay sexuality is enforced through the interlocking
life patterns or institutions which make up this society. These
institutions are man-made and changeable. They interlock, but not
perfectly. Each one represses homosexuality i its peculiar fashion. But
the result of all this is so consistent that it is accurate so speak of
them all as sources of gay oppression.

    1. The family.
In American society the nuclear family, composed of father, mother and
children, is the first institution most people encounter, and it has
the greatest effect in forming personalities. the family is where
sexual response is learned, by a process still little understood. the
American family is also the starting point for anti-gay attitudes.
Unfortunately it is also the institution which conditions other
repressive attitudes, i.e., attitudes which tend to stifle and cripple
people's abilities to develop. the normal family usually fosters male
supremacy, enforces the inferior, dependent status of women, and
confining sex-typing of personality traits, according to which males
should be aggressive and females passive, etc. Sexism, discrimination
against persons because of sex or sexual activity, begins here.

    2. The educational system.
Schools and related youth-oriented programs  in America reinforce
the anti-gay attitudes learned in the family. This is done by enforcing
distinctions between “masculine” and “feminine”
roles and activities, by exalting stereotypes of male and female
behavior, etc. Homosexuality receives heavy negative sanctions both
directly and by treating it in negative and lurid ways. Since the
educational institutions affect development from childhood through
adolescence, their impact is considerable.

    3. Organized religion.
American churches and synagogues reinforce the same configuration of
values developed by the family: sexism, male supremacy,
anti-homosexuality. Further, religious sanctions are used to infuse
attitudes toward homoeroticism with a heavy sense of guilt. Because of
their powerful influence over the lives of many people in this society,
religious institutions are major agents of enforcing the oppression of

    4. Government.
Federal, state and municipal governments exert strong anti-gay
pressures. Anti-gay laws, police harassment, persecution within the
military, and nearly universal job discrimination all act to oppress
the lives of gay people in very concrete and often painful ways.

    5. Business.
Gay people suffer from both discrimination and exploitation at the
hands of large and small business alike. American business enforces
conformism and anti-gay prejudices in hiring practices, in unequal
opportunities for gays within factories, offices, etc. Gays, when
“discovered”, are often fired or never promoted. Open
homosexuals frequently have difficulty finding adequate housing. In gay
ghetto areas housing is available, but usually over-priced and of poor
quality. And homosexuals are exploited through over-priced bars, films,
magazines, clothes, etc.

    6. The Mass Media.
The media extol and reinforce cultural norms, projecting a negative
image of homosexuality. The film & TV industries in particular
emphasize identification with prevailing stereotypes, male chauvinism,
and the negative aspects of homosexuality.

    7. Organized Crime.
In the cities the gay ghetto area is a favorite place for exploitation
by criminal syndicates. The oppressed situation of gay people and our
lack of social support or power make us easy victims of exploitation in
syndicate-owned bars, baths and restaurants. The syndicates exploit our
needs for a relatively safe place to meet and socialize with other gay
people. This kind of exploitation does not exclude threats, and the
reality, of assaults and murder.


    As our analysis indicates, to be gay in America is
to be forced to live under grinding psychological and social pressure.
It means having to frustrate one's own desires and conceal the gay
aspects of one's identity, or face strong economic, social and legal
sanctions. Freedom means to be and feel “together”, to
experience sexuality as a positive force, to see ourselves as equals
with straights and able to control our own destinies.

    Our liberation means the positive inclusion of
homosexuality within a healthy society, the integration of sexuality on
the part of all people within a productive and developing life. Our
liberation is a personal and social process of change. Our goal cannot
be tolerance from straight society as presently constituted. Because of
the roles and patterns of this society we could at best be tolerated as
inferiors and “terminal cases” of an affliction. Existing
American institutions cannot assimilate homosexuality in a positive
way. Liberation will require a resistance to the kind of negative
channelling this society imposes on us and finally a radical overhaul
of the institutions which oppress us — including the removal and
replacement of institutions where necessary.

    Our alienation as gays is in this way like that of
Woman as a whole, of Blacks and other Third World peoples. The social
arrangements of this society as it stands are simply incapable of
meeting our or their needs regardless of the good will, if any, of
those controlling the institutions. To break our chains and become free
we are going to have to work for fundamental changes in the
institutions which oppress us, chauvinism, sex typing of personality
traits and arbitrary labels such as “gay” and
“straight”. But to change any one basic institution will
require changes in related ones. Change in family patterns would mean
changes in education, in the economy, in laws, etc. This will mean
coming up against vested interests, those who gain at the expense of
our oppression. It will mean a struggle to free ourselves.

    To be free to live human lives we as gay people have
to alter the whole interlocking group of institutions which affect our
lives. This is the sense in which Gay Liberation is necessarily a
radical movement. Our project must be to gain power to make changes in
this society, which have to be made if we are to live healthy, free and
productive lives.

    Concretely, this will require two things. One,
getting ourselves and our movement together. For this we need a
realistic set of social and political goals to fit our needs. Two, a
readiness to form alliances with other groups struggling for change. We
cannot remake American society by ourselves. We surely cannot ask those
who are comfortable with the present order, i.e., our oppressors, to
change it for us. But together with others, we may be able to create a
free life for all of us.

    The Red Butterfly maintains that the American
economic and political system, based on the capitalists' pursuit of
profit, cannot incorporate our demands and satisfy our needs for full
social participation any more than it can meet the demands of Black
Americans. Capitalism does not operate directly to serve human needs,
but to increase profits. As recent experience indicates (e.g., Ralph
Nader), the great corporations pursue this policy as well as small
businesses. To achieve full participation in social life and access to
the economic necessities for the good life, we need to take control of
the economy out of the hands of the profit-seekers and substitute
rational planning and control of economic life by all the people.
Furthermore we need guaranteed protection for the economic, social and
political rights of all minorities, including homosexuals. Together
with public and cooperative ownership of social wealth, this is
democratic socialism.

    We hold that only such an economic and social
democracy, in which people have genuine control over the institutions
which affect their lives, can provide conditions in which we can work
out a free society, in which gay people can live full and creative
lives and in which “gay” and “straight” can be
buried along with other labels of division and oppression.

Copyright 1970 by The Red Butterfly

Other pamphlets: Gay Liberation by The Red Butterfly and A Gay Manifesto by Carl Wittman with Red Butterfly discussion.

The Red Butterfly is an association of gay men and women who as
revolutionary socialists see their liberation linked to the class

We are engaged in study and writing projects to develop a comprehensive
radical analysis of Gay Liberation. On-going projects include critiques
of religion, the family, and Women's Liberation. For additional
materials, or a speaker for your group or school, write us.

The Red Butterfly

Box 3445

Grand Central Station

New York, NY 10017

Note: The above address has not been valid for several decades.