The following is an episode of Feinberg’s “Lavender & Red” series on the intersection of LGBTQ2S+ and socialist history, which appeared September 27, 2007 in the Workers World newspaper. The 120-part series was published between 2004 and 2008 and can be downloaded for free at workers.org/books.
Wherever class-divided societies overthrew matrilineal-community groupings, laws began to punish sexualities, gender expressions, and bodies that did not fit new patriarchal family patterns. The status of women, who had played a central role in pre-class societies where the bloodline was drawn through women and not through men, deteriorated with the ascendancy of patriarchal class rule.
The ruling class enforced adherence to a father-dominated family unit, rather than the old mother-right gens, as it ensured the transmission of wealth to male heirs.
As the ruling classes grew stronger and expanded their territories by overthrowing neighboring communal societies by force of arms, they violently imposed their legal codes and social order on the militarily conquered peoples.
The European ruling classes exported laws against same-sex love all over the world as they established their colonial empires. European colonialism used the terror of the Inquisition to enforce these laws against homosexual love and gender variance. The violent legal restructuring of Indigenous societies – which affected economic organization, kinship, family/community organization, sexualities, gender and sex roles – served for the enslavement, exploitation and ‘oppression.
These beleaguered Indigenous societies were diverse. For example, the Gay American Indians History Project, first published in the 1988 germinal book “Living the Spirit”, lists 135 indigenous peoples on the North American continent, who made room for many more roles of sex/gender than European nations.
Midnight Sun (Anishnabe) offers a historical-materialist view of sex/gender systems in these diverse Indigenous societies in one of the book’s essays. Titled “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America,” it explains: “Social life, and more particularly sexual life, is embedded in the economic organization of society – an organization that gives rise to a variety of cultural forms.
“The cultural construction of gender and sexuality must be seen in terms of the sexual division of labour, modes of subsistence, social relations and male-female relations. In this context, ideology is not an arbitrary, discrete force – rather it serves to reproduce and perpetuate social forms, behaviors and individuals suited to a particular mode of production.
The roots of Abu-Ghraib
European colonialism exported its national and counter-revolutionary Inquisition around the world, beginning with Portuguese expansionism around 1500 CE. The first era of direct colonial rule reached its peak more than three centuries later with the British rule of India in 1857.
Queer Heritage reports that in 1551, “Portuguese missionary Father Pero Correia, writing from Brazil, asserts that homosexual eroticism among native women is quite common, in fact as widespread as in Africa, where he was previously in Indigenous Brazilian women, he observes, carry guns and even form same-sex marriages.
In 1646, the Portuguese colonial lords expanded their laws against same sex to include women, as well as men. The sentence was to be burned alive at the stake.
Max Mejía states that with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the western hemisphere, “an absolutist discourse enveloped homosexuality in the concepts of ‘infamous sin’, ‘sin against nature’, corruption of the soul and alliance with the devil. They punished its practice without distinction, both among the laity and among the clergy.
“Furthermore,” concludes Mejía, “the conquerors treated ‘sodomy’ as a special Indian sin and hunted it down and punished it as such on a large scale. They orchestrated crusades like the Holy Inquisition, which began burning sodomites at the stake as a special occasion, such as in the memorable auto-da-fé of San Lázaro in Mexico City.
During Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s colonial expedition through Panama, he “saw men dressed as women; Balboa learned they were sodomites and threw the king and 40 others to be eaten by his dogs, a fine deed from an honorable, Catholic Spaniard.
Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba castrated those they considered “sodomites” and forced them to eat their own earth-covered testicles.
When the Spaniards invaded the West Indies and Louisiana, “they found men dressed as women who were respected by their societies. Thinking they were hermaphrodites or homosexuals, they killed them.
Wealthy Dutch merchants imposed the pre-Napoleonic Roman-Dutch common law, which criminalized “sodomy” and “unnatural sexual offences”, from Indonesia to South Africa.
The colonial legislation that Dutch merchants brought with them to Cape Africa in the 17th century formed the basis of [anti-LGBTQ] laws in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
The sun never sets on Britain’s anti-sodomy laws
The British imposed on the people of Ireland a 1634 law that made same-sex relations between men punishable by death. Later, the British Labouchere Amendment of 1885 was the law under which female homosexual writer Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labor. [in prison].
Laws criminalizing same-sex relations in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei all bear the same name — “section 377” — because the same colonial power wrote the law: Great Britain. Legislation drafted during the colonial era is misleadingly called the “Indian Penal Code”. Hindu law did not punish consensual sex.
Historian Douglas Sanders explains: “Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 made ‘unnatural carnal intercourse’ an offence.
The British imposed this legislation in the straits settlements of Singapore, Penang and Melaka in 1872. In the late 19th century, Britain also enforced the law in Hong Kong, Fiji, the Malay Peninsula and Burma .
Korea Herald journalist Benjamin Jhoty quotes Utopia-asia.com, which offers insight into Asia’s same-sex scene: “Asia has rich and unique gay traditions almost everywhere you look. The real enemy of homosexuality in places like Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are old colonial laws and homophobic non-Asian religions that intimidate citizens with a skewed view of the natural world.
Sanders noted [in 2007], “This provision, or something very close to it, is currently in force in all former British colonies in Asia except Hong Kong.” He adds: “Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Papua New Guinea have the key wording of 377, but different article numbers. Parallel formulations appear in the penal laws of many former colonies in Africa.
Historians Kevin Botha and Edwin Cameron write, “The systems of law which the colonial powers (Dutch and later English) introduced greatly influenced the customary law of the African communities they subjugated”.
The British “Queensland Penal Code” of 1899 was “adopted in northern Nigeria in the 19th century, later becoming the basis of a uniform federal code in Nigeria in 1916. The Indian Penal Code had been used in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but these laws were later superseded by drafts based on the Nigerian penal code Sudan used the Indian penal code In 1960, northern Nigeria enacted a separate penal code, based on the penal code Sudanese.
Similar laws were imposed in “British” Honduras (now Belize), Jamaica, Anguilla, “British” Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Bahamas, Tobago, Turkish Islands and Caicos Islands and Saint Lucia.
The British also imposed anti-‘sodomy’ legislation in Canada in 1892, New Zealand a year later, and Australia in 1788 and again in 1899.
Capital offense in colonized North America
Civil liberties historian Tom Head explained, “When Spanish, French, Dutch, and English settlers began to settle North America in the 17th century, they brought with them a catalog of very specific laws prohibiting various acts sexual. The purpose of all these laws was to make monogamous, homosexual and heterosexual marriage a compulsory institution and to punish all sexual activity outside of this institution.
The first anti-“buggery” legislation was passed in the Colony of Virginia on May 24, 1610, and quickly spread to all colonies and later to all states.
Historian John D’Emilio wrote, “In every colony sodomy was a capital crime—at least five men were executed at this time—and other homosexual acts, from ‘sodomy practices’ to lust between women , were punished with lashes and fines.
“After the American Revolution, although states reformed their penal codes in the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy, the revision of sodomy laws and “crimes against nature” laws came very slowly; North Carolina has not eliminated capital punishment [for sodomy] until 1869. Thomas Jefferson proposed replacing death with castration. Additionally, over time, legislatures and courts have expanded statutes to include a wider range of acts, such as oral sex between men and sexual activity between women,” D’Emilio concluded.
In the United States, anti-gay and anti-miscegenation laws have also been weapons of state repression against African and indigenous peoples, who have become internal colonies. In 1898, the US imperialists also brutally enforced these laws in countries they subjugated militarily.
After seizing Puerto Rico as a colony in 1898, the United States imposed a law against same-sex love on the island that was a carbon copy of California state legal language. And in 1938, under American rule, the Cuban Penal Code – the “public display law” – was enacted in that country.
Unsourced accounts can be found in Feinberg’s “Transgender Warriors” (Beacon, 1996), the first Marxist analysis of transgender life and history.