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Maoist Homophobia?

Troublesome Reports from Nepal

by GARY LEUPP

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), leading what many have considered the most advanced Maoist movement in the world for the last decade, has recently been accused of attacks on gay people and of indulging in anti-gay rhetoric. Unfortunately the reports seem valid. In January a senior party leader, Dev Gurung, now Minister of Local Development in Nepal’s transitional government, was quoted in the press as stating: "Under Soviet rule and when China was still very much a communist state, there were no homosexuals in the Soviet Union or China. Now [that] they are moving towards capitalism, homosexuals may have arisen there as well. So homosexuality is a product of capitalism. Under socialism this kind of problem does not exist."

The statement seems quite un-Maoist in its description of any twentieth-century socialist experiment as truly "communist." Mao broke from Stalin in emphasizing the long-term nature and fragility of the construction of socialism as a transitional stage between capitalism and the classless society of communism theoretically posited for the human future. And it seems oblivious to historical reality in denying the existence of homosexuality anywhere, anytime in human history. Dangerously foolish (if I can assume that it was indeed said), it was made in the context of reported abuses of gay men and lesbians by Maoists in areas under their control.

Such mistreatment has not been particularly associated with the Maoists in recent years, but indeed more with the old security apparatus of King Gyanendra. It’s not clear that it represents a clear party line; Hisila Yami, a Maoist member of parliament, Minister of Physical Planning and Work and wife of party leader Baburam Bhattarai told a Nepali gay organization, the Blue Diamond Society in January that the party’s policy was "not to encourage homosexual behavior but not to punish homosexuals either." But plainly there is cause for the sort of concern recently expressed by Human Rights Watch in a letter to Khadga Bahadur Biswokarma, a CPN(M) member and now Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare. The letter claims that in December 2006, Maoists in Katmandu ordered homeowners not to rent rooms to gays or lesbians, and that Amrita Thapa, general secretary of the Maoist women’s association, told participants at a national conference in March 2006 that homosexuals were unnatural and were "polluting" society.

I’ve sometimes been critical of Human Rights Watch, which has little sympathy for revolutionary movements and has sometimes sided overtly with repressive regimes. (It congratulated the government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru for capturing Maoist leader Abimael Guzman in 1992 and has done little to protect the human rights of Maoists imprisoned under successive Peruvian regimes.) But here HRW seems to be on target in its criticism.

The communist movement of course has a long sordid history of homophobia—just as does bourgeois liberalism. Up to 1962 homosexual sex was punishable by lengthy jail terms everywhere in the U.S., and it was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court invalidated the "anti-sodomy" laws operative in Texas and several other states. The sentiments expressed by Gurung and Biswokarma are obviously not unique to communists but part of an historical continuum of intolerance that crosses all kinds of ideological lines.

Marx and Engels themselves were, as their private correspondence clearly establishes, distinctly hostile to homosexuality, which they viewed as "unnatural." On the other hand, in the 1890s, the German Social Democratic Party leaders Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, and the socialist Reichstag deputy August Bebel, called for the repeal of the German statute criminalizing sex between consenting adult males. Bernstein called for "a scientific approach" to sexuality rather than one based on "more or less arbitrary moral concepts." (Meanwhile the British socialist Edward Carpenter, influenced by the work of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, argued that "uranians"–or members the "intermediate sex"–served in a positive role as a bridge between [heterosexual] men and women.) Adolf Thiele, a socialist deputy in the German parliament in 1905, declared that he "wouldn’t even admit that [homosexuality] is something sick." It was, he opined, "simply a deviation from the usual pattern nature produces."

Between 1917 and 1933, the USSR pioneered in sexual legal reform. The Bolsheviks in power rescinded all the anti-homosexual statutes in the czarist legal code and sent Soviet delegations to international sexual reform congresses in Europe. The early Soviet state officially declared "the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon." Soviet law regarded homosexual intercourse as the same as "so-called natural intercourse" and was far ahead of (for example) U.S. law at the time.

All this changed in 1933, when the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party introduced a statute penalizing consensual homosexual activity (muzhelozhstvo or sodomy) between men; thereafter Soviet writers increasingly conflated male homosexuality as indeed "unnatural," and associated it with German fascism. Not all Marxist theorists followed the Soviet lead in castigating homosexual activity, but the most prestigious of Marxist psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud’s student William Reich, wrote in 1934 that men of a "homosexual tendency" were easily "drawn toward the right."

Gurung’s association of homosexuality with capitalism echoes the Stalinist line that homosexuality represents "bourgeois decadence." But Gurung should realize that Maoists outside Nepal have largely abandoned the Stalinist legacy on this issue. The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, a close ally of the Nepali Maoists, up until 2001 stated in its program that under socialism "struggle will be waged to eliminate [homosexuality] and reform homosexuals." But the RCP now accepts homosexuality and renounces its past position on the issue (if without adequate self-criticism or explanation for why a bankrupt line was held so long). The Communist Party of the Philippines, another Maoist party with cordial ties to the CPN(M), officially recognized gay relationships among its members in 1998 and has been conducting same-sex marriages since 2005. The Nepali party lags embarrassingly behind.

Many have derived inspiration from the People’s War in Nepal, which in a mere decade acquired control over about 80% of Nepali territory and proved to the world that revolutionary communism remains the hope of the hopeless. I myself was happy to endorse Li Onesto’s first-person and very sympathetic account of her Maoist-sponsored visit to Nepal, Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal (Pluto Press, 2005). The party now shares power with its former foes, heading six ministries in the provisional government. Some who have supported the CPN(M) are expressing grave concern that the party is abandoning its commitment to socialist revolution by its deal with the seven mainstream parties and its abandonment of the People’s War.

The Nepali Maoists deny that that’s the case, and I’d just as soon withhold judgment on that issue. But if the sentiments of Comrades Gurung and Biswokarma are at all representative of party sentiment, and if measures against gays are part of the party’s agenda, the outlook for a new revolutionary model in Nepal is looking worrisome.

* * * * *

Mao Zedong was all about struggle, always stressing that it’s right to rebel against reactionaries. He saw inter-party two-line struggle as a good and inevitable thing. There is already some apparent struggle within the CPN(M) regarding gender and sexuality issues. Earlier this months Maoists protested the television broadcast of the Miss Nepal Pageant. But it went forward, with the support of the new Information and Communications Minister, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, himself one of the newly-appointed Maoist cabinet ministers. He argued "practical considerations" (including a contract between pageant sponsors and the state-run channel) did not allow cancellation.

So—so far—beauty pageant okay, homosexuality "polluting." May the Maoists of Nepal struggle these things out among themselves, with some input from the world, and the correct line win.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu