The Skeleton in the Old Left’s Closet
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Published in: May-June 2023 issue.


Queering the History 1930s-1990s
by Bettina Aptheker
Routledge. 255 pages, $44.95


HOMOSEXUALITY has long been a political football. Conservatives have accused queer people of all manner of immorality, criminality, and treachery. Those on the Left have been equally keen to associate same-sex behavior with upper-class decadence, antirevolutionary inclinations, and fascism. Marie Antoinette was defamed as a lascivious “tribade” in anti-monarchical porno-propaganda. Male “sodomy” was regularly criticized as the decadent privilege of aristocrats. Marx and Engels—like most men of their time—found “pederasts” distasteful, and unworthy of the same liberationist energies as the proletariat, Black people, and even women. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917, in overturning feudalism and the monarchy, also abolished the Tsarist criminal code’s antisodomy statute (under the broad principle that “the proletarian state does not intrude into the intimate lives of individual persons”). Some contemporary German socialists, including homosexual sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, lobbied for the repeal of the German anti-sodomy law (Paragraph 175).

            In the 1930s, homophobia became a weapon in the culture wars for both Right and Left. In 1931, German socialists used homosexual outing as a smear tactic against the Nazis. Anti-sodomy legislation was reintroduced in the Soviet Union in 1933 along with other repressive Stalinist policies (such as the recriminalization of abortion). Male sodomy was made punishable by up to five years of imprisonment (Article 154a), and became grounds for sending dissidents and artists to the gulags. Author Maxim Gorky lauded the change, writing in Pravda (23 May 1934) to link homosexuality, the Western petit bourgeoisie, and German fascism:


In the land where the proletariat governs courageously and successfully [i.e., the USSR], homosexuality with its corrupting effect on the young is recognized as a social crime punishable under the law. By contrast, in a ‘cultivated land’ of great philosophers, scientists, musicians [i.e., Nazi Germany] it manifests freely and with impunity. There is already a sarcastic saying: “Destroy homosexuals—Fascism will disappear.”


Quite to the contrary, German fascists were about to exterminate homosexuals. The next month, in the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler began to consolidate power by executing opponents under the guise of purging homosexuals—not just from the military, but from society in general.

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Vernon Rosario is a historian of science and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He is a child psychiatrist with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.