Remembering the LGBTQ Victims of Communism and State Socialism
It’s becoming increasingly common in discussions about capitalism and socialism for advocates of the latter to claim that “if we had socialism, social problem X wouldn’t exist” (often without any explanation or evidence for why the social problem in question wouldn’t exist if the state controlled all businesses and industries.) Of all the issues this assertion has been made in relation to, the strangest has to be LGBTQ issues, with many (though, in fairness, not all) leftists arguing that homophobia would cease to exist if only we adopted socialism. It’s a head-scratch-inducing hypothesis on its own—what exactly do people’s attitudes towards gays and other sexual minorities have to do with whether they operate in a planned economy or a market one?—but it’s downright baffling when you look at the actual, often atrocious record of communist and socialist countries on LGBTQ rights.
Let’s start with the Soviet Union, the very first communist state. Though online leftists love to bring up the fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks decriminalized homosexuality shortly after taking power in 1917, they often neglect to mention that A) it was part of a blanket overturning of the Tsarist legal code (there was no law against murder during this period either, for what it’s worth), and B) there are records of homosexuals and crossdressers being arrested by communist authorities anyway during this period. In any case, this brief period of “decriminalization” didn’t last long, with Lenin’s successor Stalin formally reclassifying homosexuality as a crime in 1934. Faced with the rising threat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet government declared homosexuality a symptom of capitalist hedonism and fascist subversion, with the writer Maxim Gorky even summing up Soviet sentiment at the time as follows: “There is already a sarcastic saying: Destroy homosexuality, and fascism will disappear.”
And try to destroy it they did: Stalin’s NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) sent thousands of gay men to the gulag, the internationally infamous system of penal labor camps where as many as 1.7 million prisoners were executed, starved, or quite literally worked to death. While the gulag was officially shut down following Stalin’s death, homosexuals remained subjected to persecution and imprisonment right up until the USSR collapsed in 1991, one of many grim legacies of the Stalinist terror. Writing from a prison camp in the comparatively less oppressive ‘70s, the imprisoned poet Gennady Trifoniv said “…I have seen daily what it is to be a convicted homosexual in a Soviet camp… I know people who have either forgotten the end of their prison term, or who have not managed physically to survive that long. Their bodies were taken off the electric wire; they were found hanging in prison cells, tortured to death by prisoners in bestial mood or beaten by guards, mad.” Harrowing words, and even more so coming from a state that was hailed by all too many as the inevitable utopia predicted by Marx, willed by history, and awaiting the rest of humanity.
Although Cuba no longer possesses the allure it once did in the imagination of socialists worldwide, the Caribbean communist nation somehow still retains a sliver of its revolutionary mystique among certain segments of the left. That this isn’t a more frequent object of concern among LGBTQ-friendly leftists is surprising considering the Castro regime’s appalling treatment of gay people has been openly documented since at least the ‘60s, when Castro himself denounced homosexuality as “a bourgeois perversion” and bragged that “in the country, there are no homosexuals” (certainly well documented enough for it to figure into the plot of an Archer episode.)
Buying into old Latin notions of machismo as well as the Marxist-Leninist obsession with reeducating “undesirables”, the Cuban government rounded up gay men—along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientous objectors who refused to take up arms for the new regime, hippies, and other “anti-social” elements—and sent them to the "Military Units to Aid Production”, the regime’s fancy name for Soviet-style prison camps where, it was believed, hard labor would “make men" out of them. Toiling in the island’s sugarcane fields from sunrise to sunset without receiving so much as a peso for their work, gay inmates were instead paid with the indignity of being subjected to experimental treatments meant to “cure” them, including chemical injections and electro-shock therapy. But it’s okay, because Castro said “Whoops, sorry about the prison camps!” before he croaked and the government swears it loves The Gays now (aside from the ones it can't control.)
Then there is the case of China. While the traditional Confucian emphasis on filial piety and bearing children has always relegated gays and other sexual minorities to the margins of Chinese society, this relatively “benign" neglect of LGBTQ people gave way to violent suppression in the brave new Red China of Mao Zedong. As part of a wider anti-sex animus on the part of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, homosexuality was condemned as yet another expression of—you guessed it—Western capitalist decadence (that Marxism itself has European origins remains an irony lost on many West-baiting leftists to this day.)
As if that weren’t troubling enough, gays and lesbians were able to have sex without—gasp!—having children: in other words, they could indulge in private pleasure for private pleasure’s sake, a grave sin in the eyes of puritans everywhere but especially to the collectivist-minded revolutionaries who ruled the People's Republic. As even the Marxist author Sherry Wolf acknowledges, “homosexuals faced what is estimated to be the worst period of persecution in Chinese history” during the bloody period of nationwide, state-sanctioned madness known as the Cultural Revolution, with untold numbers of gays and lesbians being slapped with the catch-all charge of “hooliganism” and imprisoned. Or at least, those who were lucky enough to make it to prison were. In an especially horrific account, a gay barber was caught with a 17 year old boy by police and then publicly shot through the head, spraying the man's blood and brains on bystanders who had the misfortune to be nearby. One doesn’t have to approve of the man’s conduct (though for context, the age of consent in China is 14, indicating this was indeed murderous homophobia rather than zeal for protecting the young) to be disgusted by a system that would allow its enforcers to so cold-bloodedly extinguish anyone’s life.
And yet, there’s at least one person reading this who will ask “But what about East Germany??” You see, East Germany has gained something of a minor reputation among credulous socialists as some kind of paradise for LGBTQ people: not only was homosexuality decriminalized in 1968—a whole year before West Germany—but, starting in 1985, the government opened clubs and discos specifically for gay people, a whopping 4 years before their precious “anti-fascist protection barrier” (aka the Berlin Wall) came down and the German Democratic Republic itself came to an end.
Unmatched as these accomplishments may be by anything the decadent capitalist West could ever hope to offer LGBTQ people, they sadly don’t reflect the bleak reality of gay life in the GDR for the vast majority of its 40-year existence. They don’t erase the gay men blackmailed by the Stasi (the GDR's dreaded secret police) into spying on their friends and loved ones, the man shot as he tried to escape East Berlin and then mocked as a homosexual in the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s official newspaper, or the lesbian activists who were arrested and labeled “terror lesbians” for seeking permission to honor the gay victims of a Nazi concentration camp (East Germany, it should be noted, also had an… interesting relationship with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, to say the least.) Even at the GDR’s most “tolerant”, outwardly gay people were treated as second-class citizens by a country that claimed to treat everyone equally, barred from working in the government, security services, and industrial jobs—the cornerstone job sectors of East German society—and forced to make their living as bartenders, booksellers, dancers, and other “lowly” professions. Discrimination? In a socialist state? It’s more likely than you think!
None of this is to take away from the face that the liberal capitalist West has its own history of ugly, government-backed homophobia. Nor is it to say that LGBTQ people here no longer face any hostility or difficulties, impressive as the the strides they have made in the past 50 or so years may be. But if we’re going to compare the records of capitalism and socialism on LGBTQ matters, then perhaps that comparison—rather than focusing on the utopian theorizing of modern Western leftists who do not hold power in any meaningful way—should revolve around the record of countries where socialists were actually in positions of power and their preferred policies were implemented. A good place to start might be to acknowledge the LGBTQ lives lost or ruined by Marxist regimes the way we do victims of Western homophobia, examine the factors that allowed these same tragedies to occur across multiple continents and radically different political and cultural contexts, and determine what can be done to ensure that no state is ever powerful enough to murder or imprison any of its citizens just because they live and love in a way that’s different from others.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.