The Neoliberal Fracturing of LGBTQ+ Identities

Left Voice

June 6, 2021

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

Peter Drucker studied history at Yale University and political science at Columbia University. He is a specialist in debates about the LGBTQ+ movement. In this interview, we discuss the central theme of his work: the construction and fracturing of LGBTQ+ identities under capitalism, especially during the years of so-called neoliberalism.

In the political and theoretical debates about oppression based on sexuality and gender identities, two major schools were consolidated during the neoliberal era. The first is what we could call the “identitarian” school, which sees identity (related to ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, etc.) as determining the interests of a certain group, such as “women” or “Black people.” This leaves other material aspects, such as class, in the background, even though class conditions the experience of oppression in capitalist societies. The identitarian school saw its ultimate goal as the conquest of equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people (in comparison to the civil rights of heterosexual people). The method to achieve this was to expand rights within capitalist democracies — here there is a convergence with the agendas of neoliberal parties that integrated demands for “gender equality” or “diversity” into their platforms. On the other hand, and partly as a response to these sectors, there arose a school associated with queer theories, which includes Judith Butler’s theory of performativity.1For a Marxist debate with Judith Butler, see chap. 8 of Andrea D’Atri’s Bread and Roses: Gender and Class under Capitalism(London: Pluto Press, 2020). In contrast to identitarian views, this perspective holds that gender and sex are imposed cultural constructions, which, by defining identity, are repressive and exclusionary. It therefore proposes to subvert these categories through performative practices. This conception devalues the material-economic aspects that shape and condition, in different ways, the experiences and expressions of sexuality and gender in a given historical and social context.

In this framework, Peter Drucker’s reflections, situating the process of the fragmentation of LGBTQ+ identities historically, represent a contribution to this debate. Drucker starts from the emergence of LGBTQ+ identities during the postwar period, as described by historian John D’Emilio, and then discusses the trend toward the fragmentation of these identities under neoliberalism. This is connected to the emergence of new sectors that challenge the image of the “classic” gay-lesbian identity that emerged after 1945. Many of the issues addressed in this interview are developed in his article “The Fracturing of LGBT Identities under Neoliberal Capitalism.”2Peter Drucker, “The Fracturing of LGBT Identities under Neoliberal Capitalism,” Historical Materialism 19, no. 4 (2011): 3–32.

In your article, “The Fracturing of LGBT Identities under Neoliberal Capitalism,” you point out that the construction of lesbian and gay identity in imperialist countries took place alongside that of the welfare state during World War II. How did that identity emerge?

The conclusion I draw from reading the history and other historians is that what took the form of classic gay and lesbian identity was very different from most same-sex relationships that had existed before in human history. For one thing, in most of human history different sexualities were linked to differences in gender. Trans identities are very, very old in human history, going back thousands of years. The idea was that trans people, for example, men who to some extent took on the social roles of women, could also take on their sexual roles.

But in the 20th century, gradually at different rhythms in different parts of the world, you got the idea that gay men and lesbians were men like other men, women like other women, except for their sexuality. So gay men were supposed in principle to be just as masculine as straight men and lesbians were in principle supposed to be just as feminine as straight women. This was connected to a whole number of changes in capitalism. It was connected to the growth of consumerism-oriented capitalism, in which consumers’ desires became particularly important for the economy, and desire for things, for products, was increasingly linked to desires for other human beings.

This was connected to what the historian Jonathan Katz has called the invention of heterosexuality toward the end of the 19th century. That’s the idea that marriage would be founded on love, which was an idea of romantic love, an idea that had only very gradually spread among the population at different times in different classes. Other people and people of a particular gender became an object of desire, and this was first spread socially in the form of heterosexual desire. But quickly after that, it followed in the form of same-sex desire.

This was mostly the case initially among middle-class people. But after the Second World War, with the spread of mass working-class consumption under Fordism, it spread as well among working-class people. That’s why you get this new form of same-sex sexuality, gay and lesbian sexuality, particularly after the Second World War, and particularly in the richest countries where working-class consumption was possible. Also where you had the growth of a certain degree of a welfare state so that people weren’t totally dependent on their traditional families to survive. All this came together to create the classic form of gay and lesbian sexuality and gay and lesbian communities.

You say that the end of the postwar boom was not bad for everyone, and not for all LGBTQ+ people. Who benefited from the beginning of neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism has been a period for the last 40 years or so of deepening social inequality. It means that the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer.

Most working-class people across the world have seen their wages and their living standards stagnate. That’s bad news for most working people, but not all, because you’ve had an hourglass income structure: people on the top, a narrowing group of middle-income people, and a lot of people on the bottom.

For the people on the top, it’s not so bad. The Fordist economy, which was based on a fair amount of consumption, even by people on relatively low incomes, has been increasingly replaced by an economy based on luxury consumption by a minority of the population.

Some proportion of that minority consists of LGBTQ+ people. This is more true in the imagination, more fostered by the media than it is a reality, because a gay lifestyle is associated in all sorts of ways with consumption that lots of people in the world can’t afford.

You have this image of gay men, particularly going to clubs, drinking a lot, using drugs, going to nice restaurants, going on lovely gay holidays, on cruise ships, and whatever. All this is an image of a gay lifestyle that has become more and more possible under neoliberalism as also gay and lesbian people in a whole series of countries have gained more civil rights and been increasingly integrated into neoliberal society.

It’s a minority, I think, of LGBTQ people for whom this is true, but not a tiny minority, a significant minority.

In the mid-1970s, alternative sexual or gender identities began to appear. Could you explain a little more about that process? And, if you know the specifics, how did that process happen in regions like Latin America?

Under Fordism, by comparison with other periods, you had a somewhat more homogenous gay and lesbian community. Bars and saunas were supposed to be places of cross-class socialization and relationships being formed and so forth. Under neoliberalism, that becomes less true. The more or less uniform gay lesbian identity that existed under Fordism begins to fracture in various ways. The elite gay identity emphasizes even more than before the masculinity of gay men and the femininity of lesbian women. This gets to the point by the 1990s that people, LGBTQ+ people who aren’t gender conformist to a sufficient extent, are no longer even counted as gay and lesbian.

There is an emergence of trans identities for those people who don’t fit the narrower definition of what it means to be gay and lesbian. Sexual practices multiply in all sorts of other ways as well. Around S&M, for example, all sorts of things that become the basis of distinctive identities.

The kind of mass working-class consumption in the few decades after the Second World War in imperialist countries was never as established or as pervasive in dependent countries, where working-class incomes were never that high, so this dominant gay-lesbian pattern had less of a chance to get established and the fractures are even more visible. In Latin American countries, for example, there are long-lasting same-sex identities and gender identities that had been around before the establishment of a gay and lesbian community, that had never gone away and become more visible or asserted more under neoliberalism, as the maricones and the locas. Not knowing much, Argentina has been a particularly interesting country with a particularly strong trans movement and queer thought, linked to all sorts of feminist activism that is not necessarily, not always an establishment, institutionalized kind of feminism, but an alternative kind of feminism. There are these new or relatively newer communities, greater diversity, pluralism, and radicalism.

Related to this, you say that at the beginning of the 1980s, aspects of lesbian and gay identity stabilized: its increasing tendency to gender conformity and the marginalization of its own sexual minorities. Can you speak more about what these looked like as neoliberalism was establishing itself?

Traditionally, because for centuries, particularly in Europe and the Americas, same-sex sexualities in general were repressed and people who practiced them were oppressed, you had a traditional association of LGBTQ+ people with the Left. The church—particularly the Catholic Church, but other Christian churches as well—has traditionally been very anti-LGBTQ+, and the church was linked to the Right. So LGBTQ+ people had a certain tendency to move, especially if they were activists, to be open toward liberalism or socialism or communism.

But under neoliberalism, this begins to change. Gradually, there forms an enduring association between the Right, the neoliberal Right, and conservative forms of Christianity, particularly increasing evangelical Christianity. It existed under Ronald Reagan’s administration and across lots Latin America, with the growth of right-wing evangelical forces.

But to some extent, in different countries there was a growth of a neoliberal Right that is not so linked to traditional Christian conservatism. In some countries this creates an opening for the most prosperous gay men and to a lesser extent lesbians to identify within the neoliberal Right. To break the old association between LGBTQ+ people and the Left, you have the growth of gay and lesbian conservativism, particularly gay male conservativism. Particularly first with, in the 21st century, the outbreak of the so-called war on terror and then with the economic crisis from 2008 on. A minority, but a not insignificant minority of gay men, particularly identifies with the Far Right. It’s a very paradoxical process because you look at somebody like Trump in the United States, and he’s rolled back gains for LGBTQ+ people to some extent, but at the same time, he has some very prominent openly gay male supporters, like Richard Grenell, for example, who was ambassador to Germany and really his ambassador to the European Far Right, and has had various other prominent roles in the Trump administration. There have been similar things in other countries. The diversity in the fragmentation among LGBTQ+ people is not only a socioeconomic fragmentation and a sexual fragmentation, it is also a political fragmentation.

In your work, you say one can find a social polarization within LGBTQ+ communities, in which poor and working-class people feel cut off from the established lesbian and gay identities and closer to queer identities, and that this is not necessarily defined by gender identities. What does this process look like?

All these things are very hard to pin down, of course, because what queer means to a specific person can be very different. It’s also a question of language, because the word queer in this sense, I think, was first used in English and then was used by English-language queer theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. You have this international trend, particularly among younger LGBTQ+ people. They tend not to have such very high incomes, often they tend to have a higher-than-average level of education because they’ve been able to read a certain amount of queer theory, either in English or in translation.

They pick up international styles, which are varied and diverse. A queer person traveling from Buenos Aires to New York to Paris can recognize soul mates. I think to a certain extent this goes together with a certain political stance as well. So you’re talking about a certain kind of international queer subculture that’s also, to some extent, a political current, or overlaps with the political currents.

What challenges do you think LGBTQ+ people and communities face in the current world economic crisis?

We know so little about what the world is going to be like in the coming year. There’s a very strong feeling, very widespread in society, that even while, first of all, the pandemic is not going to end uniformly across the world, even if the vaccines prove effective and give a fairly lasting immunity to Covid-19, the world is not going to share equally in the benefits of the vaccines. It has been very clear that Europe, the United States, and Canada have bought up a huge proportion of the vaccines that are going to be available, totally contradicting the rhetoric that was out there. The pandemic will last longer in parts of the world that are not are not so rich, which is most of the world, of course.

This is another battle in an ongoing war that goes back to the struggle against AIDS. There are important continuities between the struggle against AIDS and the struggle against Covid, particularly around the neoliberal economic regime when it comes to trade and particularly when it comes to trade in health products. Following on the international spread of Act Up from the United States initially, but spreading to other countries, particularly when AIDS hit Africa, it was terribly devastating in Africa more than any other region of the world. You had the treatment action campaign in South Africa, which played an international vanguard role in challenging the neoliberal trade regime and particularly the TRIPS regime, as it is called, trade related international property.

Thanks to activism the principle was established that when a drug or a vaccine is crucial to saving human lives, the rights of the pharmaceutical multinationals to their profits can be challenged. Brazil, for example, has been a major country manufacturing retrovirals at a fraction of the price that the multinationals based in imperialist countries have been selling them. With Covid-19, this becomes a struggle all over again. That victory is far from won. This has huge implications for people in general and, of course, including LGBTQ+ people.

It’s clear that the economic crisis that has coincided with the Covid-19 epidemic is making inequality globally much worse than it was before. It was already terrible under neoliberalism. Now it’s getting much worse again. Capitalist ideologues and governments around the world had been boasting that extreme poverty had reduced, showing that this was possible under capitalism. Now tens of millions of people, who, by the narrow definition of the World Bank have escaped extreme poverty, are back in extreme poverty again. This is going to feed into the fracturing of identities and of communities among LGBTQ+ people that I talked about before. Politically, we don’t know yet how it will turn out.

Unfortunately, the decades since the 1990s have not been great for the anti-capitalist Left worldwide for various reasons. That has meant that to the extent that there has been a reaction against neoliberalism, it has in many countries been a fake reaction, one that has benefited the Far Right.

With the pandemic and the crisis, there have been some promising breaks with that trend. For example, the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and of an anti-racist wave of activism in some other countries too. That’s of tremendous importance and promise for the Left. What the balance of forces will be next year and in the coming years, we don’t know yet and it’s absolutely crucial. There are many, many things at stake.

This interview was conducted in English, but originally published in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda on February 28, 2021.

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Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.