The class-inflected nature of gay identity

Last week I published a piece in The Guardian titled In Challenging Homophobia Gay Men Have Become Our Own Oppressors. The piece looks at increasing homophobia, sexism, racism and body/personality shaming within gay male communities, questioning why this is happening and what we can do to stop it.

As part of the piece I referenced an article I read a while ago titled “The Class-Inflected Nature of Gay Identity” from Steve Valocchi (if anyone wants a PDF just comment or send me an email and I’ll send it through). I probably first read this piece a couple of years ago (taking notes which I used for the Guardian article) and this week I decided I’d read it again as it is really relevant to my work on Sexy Capitalism.

In Sexy Capitalism I’m looking at oppression of two key groups — women and queer people (in a broad category). This is then interlinked, naturally, with straight-male sexuality, which I would argue is oppressed in other ways (a post for another time!). I’ve done a lot of reading on the impact on changes in capitalism on standard nuclear family types and in turn on the impact on women, but it is often harder to get a sense of queer sexualities. This article is useful for that.

The key theory that I work from when it comes to queer sexualities (and that I’ve written about before) is that capitalists have worked to shape gay identities in order to suit their needs. When industrial capitalism broke out in the late 1700s lots of people moved into cities to work in factories. With new population density people starting forming new social groups, and social identities. New homosexual identities (including the terms homosexual and heterosexual) began to arise. This is in sharp contrast to much of our modern understanding which sees homosexual identities as almost as old as society itself (because we are “born this way”).

What Valocchi’s piece provides though is an important sense of nuance to this theory. It would be really easy to see the identities of homosexual and heterosexual appearing at the start of the growth of global capitalism — new markers based on sexual identity instead of sexual practice. We can sometimes look back to the ‘homosexuals’ of the 19th Century (think Oscar Wilde) to reaffirm this theory. But as Valocchi points out there is much more nuance to this.    

Valocchi points to research from the early half of the twentieth century to investigate these arguments. He states that in this period “men were not gay or straight but pansies, husbands, trade, jockers, and queers. These were not different labels for the same group imposed from outside, but internal demarcators of consciousness and culture.” The same can be said for women. Throughout these periods there were many different modes of what we would now call lesbianism. As Valocchi states, “there were the romantic friendships that dominated the middle class of the early part of the century, as well as the middle class ‘kikis’ who were defined by sexual object choice, secrecy, and respectability. There were also the hutches, femmes, and “crossing women” in working class communities in the twentieth century who were defined primarily by gendered role playing rather than sexual object choice.”

The important defining feature, for Valocchi, in many of these differing identities is class. Those that we would now identify as “gay” or “lesbian” did not coalesce around sexual identities, but rather their class. In working class communities for example, the most visible ‘lesbian’ women were the hutches, femmes and ‘crossing women’, while for gay men it was the pansies and the fairies. Both of these groups were distinguished “not on the basis of sexual object choice or preferred sexual activity but on the basis of their…gender inversion.”

The question we have to ask then is what led us to our sexual identity markers of today, and why?

Valocchi provides a class based analysis, arguing effectively that middle-class queers began to shape sexual identities and in turn enforce these upon our community. As he states:

“It was in middle class communities in the first half of the twentieth century that the core idea of sexual object choice emerged as the defining feature of a homosexual person. Growing up beside the working class gay communities of fairies, trade, and husbands were middle class homosexuals who used these groups as “negative examples” for their own identities; they constructed their consciousness and associations explicitly on the basis of sexual object choice and not on the basis of their gender persona.

This focus on homosexual as being ‘defined primarily by sexual object choice’ occurred due to a number of reasons, the most important being the changes in nature of work and gender relations post the second world war. In this time many middle class men (straight and queer) lost autonomy in the workplace and increased specialisation in their mental labour. Added to this women were gaining more power, particularly due to their entry to the workforce. Middle-class men therefore experience a “crisis of masculinity”. In doing so they turned their attention to the fairies, who were represented by the working class. As Valocchi stated:

Middle class men, both ‘queer’ and ‘straight,’ began to direct increased hostility to the fairy- a sexual style represented in working class homosexual culture. In this climate of change in economic and gender arrangements, the fairy came to embody “the very things middle class men feared about their [now supposedly imperiled] gender status” (Chauncey 1994:115).

These changes had different impacts for lesbian women. The crisis in masculinity for men was counterpointed by woman having more resources to affect changes in their own identity. In particular “erotic interest became divorced from procreation, and ‘normal’ women were now seen as sexual beings.” Previous perceptions of lesbian women saw them as those who were ‘hypersexualised’, a stereotype that could no longer work if all women were seen as active sexual agents.

“Thus, particular sexual interest, rather than sexuality, began to define lesbianism. With women of the middle class, as with men, the categories of association became defined by sexual object choice and the boundaries around those categories started to harden.”

Here where we can see the growth of the use of homosexual as identifiers for both men and women. For women it was a process of dealing with the changing perception of female sexuality, and for men it was an identity enforced upon us in order for straight (and queer) men to deal with their crisis of sexuality.

Valocchi then discusses how, post the second world war, these new identities were oppressed and pathologised, particularly through the medical profession. The medicalisation of homosexual identities (particularly for gay men) reinforced middle class ideals, confirming their own sexualities as the proper way to be. There is a lot more to this that I may be able to explore in another blog post.

I find much of Valocchi’s argument compelling and as I said before it adds an extra layer of nuance to my work (something which I even missed to an extent from my Guardian piece last week). But at the same time I think there is something missing . Why is it that these identities won out, and in particular what did they provide to the capitalist class? Valocchi places a lot (too much I think) of agency onto queer communities ourselves, ignoring what I think are likely to be some of the key economic and external influences that lead to these changes. In particular I think we need to see a greater discussion on the economic imperatives of the post-war period, which demanded growth both of the economy and of the population. This saw shifts back to the home for many women and what some describe as the “golden age of traditional marriage”. Defining queer communities solely through sexual identifiers (gay and lesbian) was useful — a way to create clear demarcations and to pathologise those who fell on the wrong side of that line. This not only made the oppression of gays and lesbians easier but it discouraged others from exploring those boundaries, and in turn encouraged a proper nuclear-family existence.

Either way Valocchi provides some important analysis and I’m glad I went back to him. I’ve now got another long list of references to explore and look forward to getting better insight into this period.

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