When Communism was QueerRoundup
tags: Cold War, Communism, EAST GERMANY, LGBTQ history
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Germany and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University.
Cuba is considering a new family code that could allow marriage equality for the first time in the communist nation. In the last year, the Cuban health ministry unfurled an enormous rainbow flag to mark International Day Against Homophobia, and former president Raúl Castro declared that confronting homophobia remained one of the government’s chief goals.
To some Americans, these developments might seem to fly in the face of the country’s communist history. After all, Fidel Castro’s government interned gay people in camps in the 1960s and sent HIV-positive individuals to government sanitariums in the 1980s. As one columnist wrote of the American left in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “it is remarkable that any [liberal] could look at the Castros’ history on race and sexuality and conclude they had shared values.”
It has been common for U.S. commentators to use queer people to discredit socialism — a kind of pinkwashing in reverse. But doing so flattens the historical relationship between queer politics and communism. Centering only the homophobic elements in communism, this rhetoric ignores the truly impressive advances made by some communist regimes on queer rights (and papers over long histories of intolerance of LGBTQ people in non-communist countries). A more careful examination of this history shows us that communism and queerness might actually belong together.
Sexuality was not a preoccupation of communism’s earliest theorists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who penned “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, had little to say on the topic. What they did was contemptuous.
But other early leftists were not so dismissive. August Bebel, leader from 1892 to 1913 of the German Social Democratic Party, the largest socialist party in Europe, was a forceful proponent of legalizing homosexuality. He even took to the floor of the German parliament in 1898 to demand a repeal of the country’s sodomy law. Similarly, after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they introduced a modern penal code in 1922 that abolished Russia’s sodomy law. In the 1920s, communist and socialist parties were often proponents of legalizing same-sex acts.
The middle of the 20th century, however, witnessed a backlash. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s regime recriminalized male homosexuality and imprisoned thousands of gay men under the new law. Communist partisans also came to see accusations of homosexuality as a convenient way to smear their right-wing enemies. The famous gay author Klaus Mann, an exiled opponent of Hitler’s government, complained in 1934 that queer people were becoming “the Jews of the antifascists” — the left’s favored scapegoat. Gay men and lesbians were not only convenient targets, whose persecution allowed communists to cast themselves as morally superior to their foes. In transgressing gender and sexual norms, they also fit poorly with the increasingly macho ethos within communist parties and regimes.