D’Emilio – “Capitalism and Gay Identity”

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity”1983

(summary at the beginning, comments and questions at the end)

D’Emilio opens the piece discussing gay liberation in the 70s and the backlash in the 80s, pointing out the need for new strategies to “preserve our gains and move forward.”  He asserts the importance of “a new, more accurate theory of gay history” as part of this project, in particular overcoming the invented mythology of “silence, invisibility, and isolation” and the consequent “overreliance on a strategy of coming out.” (101)

Thesis: “I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed.  Instead, they are a product of history and have come into existence in a specific historical era.  Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism – more specifically, its free labor system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.”  (102)

The historical trajectory D’Emilio traces begins with the colonial family as a self-sufficient and mutually dependent unit.  With the rise of wage labor, he traces the decline of the self-sufficiency of the family, and highlights the new ideological significance of the family as “the means through which men and women formed satisfying, mutually enhancing relationships… The family became the setting for a ‘personal life,’ sharply distinguished and disconnected from the public world of work and production.” (103) With the rise of wage labor, the birthrate also declined dramatically, and sexuality could then be released “from the ‘imperative’ to procreate.” This separation “created conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex.” The ideological meaning of heterosexuality also shifted from marriage and children to intimacy, happiness, and pleasure.

D’Emilio cites WWII as a time of drastic changes, particularly movement across the country and the re-organization of large groups of people into same-sex living and working conditions. “The war freed millions of men and women from the settings where heterosexuality was normally imposed.” (106-7) Gay and lesbian communities were created following WWII and into the 50s and 60s.  “Gay community was a pre-condition for a mass movement, the oppression of lesbians and gay men was the force that propelled the movement into existence.” (107-108)

D’Emilio explains the persistence of homophobia and heterosexism with “the contradictory relationship of capitalism to the family. On the one hand, as I argued earlier, capitalism has gradually undermined the material basis of the nuclear family by taking away the economic functions that cemented the ties between family members… On the other hand, the ideology of capitalist society has enshrined the family as the source of love, affection, and emotional security, the place where our need for stable, intimate human relationships is satisfied.” (108) “Thus, while capitalism has knocked the material foundation away from family life, lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the system.” (109)

D’Emilio then lists a number of implications for struggle.

1)   “we are not a fixed social minority composed for all time of a certain percentage of the population… Capitalism has created the material conditions for homosexual desire to express itself as a central component of some individuals’ lives; now, our political movements are changing consciousness, creating the ideological conditions that make it easier for people to make that choice.” (109)

2)   “Our movement may have begun as the struggle of a minority, but what we should now be trying to ‘liberate’ is an aspect of the personal lives of all people – sexual expression.” (110)

3)   “The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia.  In the most profound sense, capitalism is the problem.” (110) Specific things to support, as a result, are: “issues that broaden the opportunities for living outside traditional heterosexual family units,” “rights of young people,” and “structures and programs that will help to dissolve the boundaries that isolate the family, particularly those that privatize childrearing.” (111)

D’Emilio concludes by calling for the prefiguring of relationships and society in “the building of an ‘affectional community.’”  Specifically, to build “networks of support that do not depend on the bonds of blood or the license of the state, but that are freely chosen and nurtured.” (111)


I found the D’Emilio piece compelling, accessible, and refreshing to read. While I don’t know much about American sexual history or queer histories, the historical account grounded in an analysis of economic changes seemed convincing, if a bit totalizing. Does anyone know if this analysis of the history of gay and lesbian communities in the US is accurate?

The historical argument does lead neatly into the strategy of creating not only ideological but material conditions that allow for more people to exist outside of the heterosexual family. I appreciated the consequent focus on material needs and building affective communities. This seems to contrast sharply with the focus of contemporary mainstream GLBT struggles for recognition and representation.  I’m curious what other people thought of D’Emilio’s proposal to build affective communities and advocate for material resources and support as a direction of queer / gay struggle. Does this seem compelling? Obvious? Misguided?

Rhetorically, I agreed with D’Emilio that it’s a tactical error to argue against homophobia by saying homosexuality is ahistorical or eternal, biological, etc.  As he points out, this sets up a situation where being gay is assumed to be a poor second, acceptable only if it’s not a choice. This reminds me of a broader strategic point that David Halperin makes in Saint Foucault about refusing to engage homophobic discourse, refusing to enter into debates about truth claims, but instead examining the power relations that allow the question to be framed as such.

That also makes me want to know more about the formation of the heterosexual family. While D’Emilio explores this some in this piece, it seems like he doesn’t go far back enough. He takes as his starting point the colonial New England family. But what is the relationship between colonization and the creation of the family and heterosexuality? And, particularly given D’Emilio’s statement that “gay men and women of the 1940s were pioneers,” what is the relationship of waves of gay migration to frontiers, borders, and to gentrification?


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