As part of OULC’s virtual Pride celebrations, our LGBT+ caucus rep Beth Nott has put together a history of the Labour Party and the LGBT+ community. Each week during Pride month, we shall be releasing a separate blog post documenting a period in this history. This week, we focus on the 19th Century.
To many of our generation, it seems like LGBT rights are completed. We have equal marriage, equal adoption rights, protection against discrimination and yearly pride parades in major cities. Taking this attitude, however, conceals both the incredible history of LGBT activism and those rights not yet secured. In this essay, I will be looking at the history of those who fought for LGBT rights, both within the community and allied to it, through the lens of the socialist movements that were the foundations of the British Labour Party and on to the current day, and briefly taking a look at those parts of the movement where we still have room to grow. For succinctness (and my own personal sanity), I will only be looking at socialist and LGBT movements in Britain, and those around the world that directly impacted British politics, since the time when the word socialism was coined.
The very earliest socialists were the 19th century utopian socialists, notably Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Marik (2004) suggests that, through their ideals of equality of the sexes and abolishment of constructs like marriage and private property, utopian socialists were open to non-traditional couplings such as homosexual and polyamorous ones, for example Fourier recognised what we would today call a fluidity of sexuality and gender expression (Fourier, 1971). Love was to be the lifeblood of the new utopia – one follower of Owen proclaimed that “the love of human kind at large finds its highest expression, and is…brought to focus in the free and unthwarted union of individuals of different sexes” (Brooke, 2011). However, when early LGBT activists, such as Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, approached Marx and Engels for their support of LGBT emancipation in the 1860s, it is said that both lashed out in disgust at the thought of homosexual rights (Marx & Engels, 1988). This detour from the history of British socialism is to point out that socialism and LGBT liberation do not inherently go hand in hand; instead many leftists, Marx included, are and were influenced by the heterosexist cultures surrounding them, forgetting the goal of socialism is liberation for all from the chains of capitalist society – LGBT people included.
Moving forward to the beginning of the 20th century, we meet Edward Carpenter – a socialist, poet, philosopher, gay rights activist (Smith, 2000), and introducer of Britain to sandals (The Open University, 2020). Carpenter was a significant figure in the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation which was one of the founding movements of the British Labour Party. His works Homogenic Love and its Place in a Free Society (1894) and The Intermediate Sex (1912) were both widely influential. The former was the fourth in a series of pamphlets on gender and sexuality, but unlike the preceding three could not find a publisher so was initially circulated privately. A quote from Homogenic Love resonates even today, expressing the alienation LGBT people feel in a society that others them:
“It is difficult for outsiders not personally experienced in the matter to realise the great strain and tension of nerves under which those persons grow up from boyhood to manhood – or from girl to womanhood – who find their deepest and strongest instincts under the ban of the society around them, who before they clearly understand the drift of their own natures discover that they are somehow cut off from the sympathy and understanding of those nearest to them, and who know that they can never give expression to their tenderest yearnings of affection without exposing themselves to the possible charge of actions stigmatised as odious crimes” (Carpenter, 1894, p. 36).
Carpenter was also very active in new socialist circles, during the early years of British socialism when the scene was in turmoil. While conventionally middle class, after studying at Cambridge he began lecturing in Leeds with the University Extension Movement – with the wish to expand adult education to the working class. After Leeds, he taught at Nottingham, Hull and Sheffield – finding that the Movement mainly attracted the wives and daughters of the upper class. Becoming more involved in socialist movements, he participated in the so-called “Bloody Sunday” demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1887 against Irish repression, and publishing a pamphlet arguing that rent should go to “a common fund for roads, the care of old people and higher wages” (Thain, 2009). Carpenter argued that the root of homophobia was capitalist society’s rigorous control of women’s sexuality (in order that male rulers could keep track of their heirs) and strict gender roles and the discrimination that resulted against LGBT people. His solution to this is, of course, a classless society where these incentives would melt away.
The Labour response to the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 was lacking, to say the least. The leader of the Independent Labour Party (the precursor to the modern parliamentary party) argued that homosexuality was the “filthy abomination” of the rich, a symptom of a degenerate bourgeois system (ibid.).
After this, sexual politics in socialist movements were pushed to the side somewhat – Fabians, including Sidney Webb, pragmatic about the problems Labour would face in office, argued that socialists should study “the facts of modern industry rather than the aspirations of socialists” (Marsden, 2014).
Brooke, S., 2011. Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning, and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day. s.l.:Oxford Scholarship Online.
Carpenter, E., 1894. Homogenic Love: an Essay. s.l.:Sheffild Archives & Local Studies.
Fourier, C., 1971. The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier tr. Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. s.l.:Beacon Press.
Marik, S., 2004. GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN EARLY MARXIST THOUGHT. Proceedings og the Indian History Congress, Volume 65, pp. 946-963.
Marsden, G., 2014. Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth Century Society. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. Marx-Engels Correspondence 1869. In: Collected Works. New York: International, p. 295.
Smith, W. A., 2000. Who’s who in hell: a handbook and international directory for humanists, freethinkers, naturalists, rationalists, and non-theists. New York: Barricade Books.
Thain, M., 2009. Edward Carpenter: red, green and gay. Socialism Today, September.
The Open University, 2020. Edward Carpenter | Making Britain. [Online] Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/edward-carpenter [Accessed 21 05 2020].