How is capitalism useful for understanding queer history?

Introduction

In 2013, Witeck Communications estimated the buying power of the LGBT community in the USA to be around $830 billion, however the commercial viability of the ‘pink pound’ as a market segment is still being contested.[1] Business and media industries in the UK and the USA have both directly and indirectly targeted the queer consumer over the past century. In doing so, they provided the means to achieve communication between individual homosexuals, which I consider vital to the creation of the LGBT community. My essay takes the stance that without capitalism and profit-driven business owners, homosexuals would exist, but the queer community would not as they would not have the economic power, visibility, and spaces in which to form a local, national, or international group identity. This economic approach is therefore useful for understanding the history of the creation of a queer community and highlights the challenges certain subgroups had to overcome in order to join this.

Firstly, I will be arguing that newspapers of the 1950s inadvertently created a means for homosexuals to identify one another. I will then examine how this provoked the formation of a queer community which necessitated the development safe spaces in which gay men could form friendships and relationships. These were often places of leisure, concentrated in urban areas, involving economic transactions which guaranteed them (as the consumer) a degree of safety from homophobia by either securing exclusive membership to a venue or through the business owner’s recognition of the ‘pink pound’. The creation of these social spaces and the acknowledgement of the homosexual market provided the LGBT community with economic power which was used to dominate whole areas of cities and thus increased their visibility and power. This eventually had a normalising effect though which homosexuality became more accepted by the wider society. However, we cannot assume that either of these industries were liberating for the entire queer community. In fact, socioeconomic disparities were reinforced as women were marginalised from the market until they were able to gain independence from men.[2] As this posed another challenge for women wanting to pursue this lifestyle, I will finally consider the lesbian narrative, as this highlights the extent to which sexual identity was reliant upon one’s ability to engage in economic transactions at these social spaces that catered for the queer consumer.

Main Text

Newspapers’ coverage of trials against homosexuality during the 1950s inadvertently contributed to the formation of the LGBT community despite their intention being to condemn this sexual behaviour.[3] During this period, the mainstream media frequently portrayed homosexuality in a negative light to  a voyeuristic audience during a period of severe homophobia.[4] The News of The World, the largest circulating paper at the time, published over one hundred features in 1953 regarding trials of a homosexual nature which would have reached an estimated readership of twenty-four million.[5] Articles covering a trial, as opposed to general homophobic features, would often ‘name and shame’ the accused by listing their full name, address and occupation alongside their ‘crime’ and punishment. This would often result in their social stigmatisation within their local community and prevent them from shedding this by relocating as the paper was distributed nationally.[6] However, given the paper’s wide circulation, it is fair to assume that this paper was being either purchased and read by gay men who could use this information to identify each other, providing them with the knowledge that they are not alone in their sexuality. Women’s homosexuality did not have the same attention therefore lesbians did not have this information so readily at their disposal. The News of the World’s article ‘A Town Rife with Rumour’, lists the personal details of seventeen men accused of homosexual offences, thirteen of whom resided in Rotherham.[7] This clearly identifies Rotherham as an area with a budding gay community. Therefore, instead of evoking fear in individual homosexuals, newspapers were indirectly strengthening the movement by making it easier for individual gay men to locate each other and potentially increasing others confidence to ‘come out’, as there is strength in numbers. This is true of this example as sixteen of the accused walked away from the trial without being subject to legal punishment. Homosexual men therefore, may have purchased papers covering trials of a similar nature knowing that they could be used to find companionship.

Newspapers specifically targeting the queer consumer, such as Gay News of the seventies, also continued to build the gay community through self-advertisement which would often discreetly identify ‘closeted’ men as homosexual. A “muscular married man, 44’ for example, sought ‘similar friend, 30-45…Photo appreciated.”[8] The request for a photo suggests that this anonymous individual is in fact seeking more than platonic friendship as the attractiveness of the respondent is important to the author of the advert. This is a characteristic of many of the listings in this issue, with one man selling himself as a ‘not unattractive 31yr old guy’.[9] Newspapers therefore, both purposefully and inadvertently, provided an innovative platform of communication for gay men which allowed them to build a national identity. Assuming that these papers were being purchased by homosexuals wishing to identify potential partners either from court cases or direct advertisement, this also shows that the desire to pursue homosexual relationships was commodified through the marketization of relational values, as one must purchase a paper in order to look for a partner whose sexual identity may otherwise be closeted by their compliance to social standards.[10] Newspaper coverage therefore allowed for homosexuality to flourish by drawing their attention to those wishing to pursue the same lifestyle, despite its purpose being to quell it.

The media cannot be considered the sole queer community builder as it only draws attention to the existence of fellow homosexuals; once they had been identified, they required a safe space in which to meet and socialise. Focusing on this ‘sexualisation of space’ has, in literary scholar Joseph Bristow’s opinion, been the ‘greatest achievement of much of the new gay historiography’.[11] The study of this however, cannot be detached from capitalism as these relatively safe spaces often took the form of venues of leisure such as theatres, and food and beverage establishments, which made profit from the custom of gay men. Often, these venues were concentrated in urban areas – London is a prime example of this as one of the most diverse parts of the UK.[12] The West End in particular had earned an “imaginary status as a place of pleasure, leisure and consumption” and has been the “heart of public queer life” since the first half of the twentieth century, drawing men from London and beyond.[13] The fact that these venues were heavily concentrated in a specific area of the city implies that business owners were aware of existing sites of queer consumption and considered it marketing sense to continue providing services for the gay community in an identifiable location.[14] It  is for this reason that rural areas did not share this thriving community as they lacked the social and capital to maintain a gay neighbourhood. As a result, there was a lesser sense of pride in their individual ‘outness’ and fewer public displays of affection as their sense of safety was not as strong as those residing in the city, thus highlighting the liberating influence of metropolitan areas.[15]

Since the 1870s, theatres and cinemas in the West End of London provided homosexuals with a comfortable meeting place which gave them a degree of invisibility in the darkened gallery. John Binns recalled an encounter where ‘someone undone [his]…flies and started pulling [him] out at the back of the Islington music hall.[16] The connection between this type of leisure venue and homosexuality was not unnoticed, as John Bull, writing for the Populist Weekly Journal in 1925 stated that ‘better dressed, and more presentable [‘painted boys’] frequent popular West End music halls’.[17] The fact that this suspected behaviour was not prevented suggests that the owners of these venues were more interested in the profit they were making than they were in complying with contemporary legislations against homosexuality. My argument can also be supported by the lack of intervention from staff at the Wal-Mart Supercentre in Springhaven, allowing the Highland Pride Alliance to perform drag down the aisles after having purchased the wigs, make up and tight clothing on sale at the store, suggesting that their customer status granted them a degree of protection against staff who may act upon homophobic attitudes outside of their workplace when their profit and salary is not at stake.[18] A venue’s tolerance for the sake of profit can also be reinforced by the direct action taken by a barman in The Running Horse in the West End, who ushered five drunk men to the exit after they turned hostile towards the ‘poufs in here’.[19] It’s possible that establishments similar to this tavern showed grudging tolerance towards homosexuals providing they were not ‘disorderly’ enough to warrant their closure by the Met (which according to police officer Nott Bower, included the wearing of makeup, kissing, cuddling and sitting on each other’s knees), because they recognised the potential to exploit their search for a place they felt they belonged.[20]

As we can see from the incident in The Running Horse, these venues were still subject to hostility from a homophobic clientele as this space was shared between homosexuals and heterosexuals and were threatened by those who were not prepared to downplay their ‘homosexual appearance’ for the sake of maintaining a good relationship between these groups. This meant that the insurance of safety at these venues was precarious as owners were caught between wanting to make profit from the pink pound yet needing to avoid closure.[21] It is for this reason that exclusive venues opened, catering only for the vetted homosexual market. The Long Bar, which opened in 1896 on the Shaftsbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus corner, automatically excluded anyone below the status of a gentleman due its expenses, thus preventing entry to those likely disposed to turn aggressive as violence is often associated with the lower classes as a result of the natural struggle for resources.[22] During the1950s, the Rockingham operated a similar strict door policy, which not only excluded a potentially hostile public, but also prevented access to the ‘disorderly queer’ who might have threatened an already unstable status quo and sacrifice the reputation of those trying to gain acceptance in wider society; any friction would also ultimately cause the venue to close, which owners were undoubtedly keen to avoid despite their personal toleration of homosexuality, as their profit dependent upon having a reputable establishment.[23]  The precautions taken by venue owners to protect their businesses had a direct impact on the ability of homosexuals to socialise and form relationships. Michael Schofield recalls the ‘ambiance and prohibitive cost’ of the Rockingham, ‘London’s most exclusive homosexual society’ that sought to attract the ‘well educated person…capable of holding responsible high salaried positions’.[24] This suggests that homosexual men of the middle and upper classes were more likely to feel able to express their sexuality as they could buy access a safe space in which to do so, unlike those in the working class who were more likely to be faced with the hostility seen in The Running Horse and depended upon the support of the staff if a similar incident occurred as they could not afford entry into these exclusive places. Mid-twentieth century queer visibility and sociability was therefore dependent upon, and secured by, economic transactions which earned a man entry to a relatively safe venue in which they could pursue relationships with other men.

These exclusive venues for ‘gentlemen’, not only excluded the working class, but also women. This is due to the contemporary society’s gendered roles which made it near impossible for the average woman to express her homosexuality. Notable historian and sociologist, Jeffrey Weeks, argues that it took another generation for lesbians to find the same voice as male homosexuality, which even then was paler and more upper class.[25] Pam Johnson, writer for the Lesbian History Group, makes the bold statement that ‘there can have been no lesbianism before the twentieth century’ as such a polarity would not have been conceivable due to a woman’s economic standing in society.[26] This is because until the expansion of clerical and secretarial jobs that came with a new scale of capitalism and industry in the twentieth century, women had to rely on men, namely their husbands, for economic power.[27] It’s difficult to determine whether lesbianism facilitated a drive in women’s careers out of necessity, or whether the availability of rewarding and better paid jobs allowed for women to pursue lesbianism. Sociologist Gillian Dunne argues that the expansion of challenging and rewarding work made women reconsider the desirability of marriage and heterosexuality and saw the opportunity to pursue another lifestyle completely separate from men.[28] Contemporary women were certainly aware that they would have to become economically self-reliant if they were to follow the lesbian lifestyle, with Fiona stating, ‘[she doesn’t] feel [she has] an option not to work because I won’t have a husband to support me’.  Dusty went as far as to weigh up the pros and cons of her sexuality and admitted that becoming a lifelong worker frightened her initially.[29] The fact that Dusty considered repressing her sexuality for the sake of achieving economic security in marriage, over becoming economically independent, shows the extent to which the lesbian identity was forged out of the ability and determination to produce individual capital.

Although a new world of work had been opened up to women over the course of the twentieth century, they were still subject to negotiating an unequal labour market which put them at a disadvantage in comparison to men. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, and the Sex Discrimination Acts of 1975 and 1986, women’s skills were still being undervalued. In 1994, the New Earnings survey discovered that women were receiving 72% of their male counterparts’ weekly pay. Furthermore, 42% of women (as opposed to 18% of men) fell below the low pay threshold.[30] Janet Siltanen provides us with further insight, determining that 50% of full time working-women in were earning component wages in comparison to 21% of men in 1994. This means they were earning insufficient wages to supply the needs of an individual in a one-person household.[31] Taking this into account, lesbians by economic default were excluded from the leisure spaces available to gay men as they did not have the spare money to pay for entry and bar drinks if they were already struggling to provide the bare minimum. Therefore, whilst the gay market encouraged male homosexuality to flourish, it excluded, and perhaps even initially repressed the lesbian minority as they were denied access to spaces in which they could pursue relationships in a safe environment. The commercialisation of homosexuality therefore, can be either liberating or repressive depending on one’s gender which determined their economic opportunity, which either allowed or prevented them from participating in this newly commercialised sexuality.

Conclusion

In conclusion, newspapers and venues of leisure (particularly those that catered exclusively for the homosexual) facilitated the development of a queer community by making gay men known to each other, either through indirectly naming them in trial coverage or by intentionally creating a space in which same-sex desiring men were able to meet. The underlying economic transactions taking place at these establishments guaranteed homosexuals a degree of safety they had not before experienced which, if the owners were aware of the venue’s queer reputation, provided them with a sense of encouraging acceptance. The eventual acknowledgement of homosexuals as a viable market segment and exclusive catering for them, suggests a positive change in attitude towards homosexuality, even if the motives are purely economically exploitative (particularly with the earliest venues, as the demand for a place to belong was so great it could be taken advantage of). This commercialisation of homosexuality highlights the extent to which identities were forged out of the ability to participate in economic transactions which labelled them as being a queer consumer; the commodification of homosexuality was on the one hand liberalising for middle and upper-class men yet created further challenges for women who were already marginalised by economic inequalities. However, without the greed-driven businessperson, homosexuals would not have the means to establish what is today, a strong group identity. Ultimately, capitalism facilitated the conditions in which the queer community could flourish under, over the course of the past century by increasing the visibility and ability to bring together individual homosexuals. This makes it a valuable approach for historians to take when studying queer history.

Bibliography

Scholarly Texts:

Branchik, Blaine J. ‘Out in the Market: A History of the Gay Market Segment in the United States’, Journal of Macromarketing, Vol.22(1) (2002), pp.86-97.

Bristow, Joseph. ‘Remapping the Sites of Modern Gay History: Legal Reform, Medico‐Legal Thought, Homosexual Scandal, Erotic Geography’, Journal of British Studies, Vol.46(1) (2007), pp.116-142.

D’Emilio, John. ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity,’ in The Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp.100-113.

Dunne, Gillian A. Lesbian Lifestyles: Women’s Work and the Politics of Sexuality, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

Ginder, Whitney; Byun, Sang‐Eun. ‘Past, Present and Future of Gay and Lesbian Consumer Research: Critical Review of the Quest for the Queer”, Psychology & Marketing, Vol.32(8) (August 2015), pp.821-841.

Goh, Kian. ‘Safe Cities and Queer Spaces: The Urban Politics of Radical LGBT Activism’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Vol.108(2) (04 March 2018), pp.463-477.

Gorman-Murray, Andrew; Nash, Catherine. ‘Transformations in LGBT Consumer Landscapes and Leisure Spaces in the Neoliberal City’, Urban Studies, Vol.54(3) (2017), pp.786-805.

Gray, Mary L. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Higgins, Patrick. ‘The Press,’ in Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain, (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), pp. 267-305.

Houlbrook, Matt. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Matthews, Peter; Besemer, Kirsten. ‘The “Pink Pound” in the “Gaybourhood”? Neighbourhood Deprivation and Sexual Orientation in Scotland’, Housing, Theory and Society, Vol. 32(1) (21 January 2015), pp.1-18.

Mort, Frank. ‘Commercial Epistemologies: Advertising, Marketing and Retailing since 1950,’ in Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in Late Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 1996), pp.149-182.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, (London: Quartet Books,1977).

Weeks, Jeffrey. ‘Capitalism and the Organization of Sex,’ in Homosexuality: Power and Politics, ed. Gay Left Collective (London: Allison and Busby, 1980), pp. 11-20.

Weeks, Jeffrey. The World We Have Won: The Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life (London: Routledge 2007).

Newspaper Articles:

Anon., Gay News, (October 19-November 1,1978) n.p.

‘A Town Rife with Rumour’, News of the World, 25 July 1954, n.p.


[1] Whitney Ginder and Sang‐Eun Byun, ‘Past, Present and Future of Gay and Lesbian Consumer Research: Critical Review of the Quest for the Queer’, Psychology & Marketing, Vol.32(8) (August 2015), pp.821-841.

[2] Kian Goh, ‘Safe Cities and Queer Spaces: The Urban Politics of Radical LGBT Activism’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Vol.108(2) (04 March 2018), p.463.

[3]Patrick Higgins, ‘The Press’, in Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain, (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), p. 278.

[4] ‘A Town Rife with Rumour’, News of the World (25 July 1954), n.p.

[5] Higgins, p.275-278.

[6] Higgins, p.281.

[7] ‘A Town Rife with Rumour’, n.p.

[8] Anon., Gay News, (October 19-November 1,1978) n.p.

[9] Anon., Gay News.

[10] Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won: The Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life (London: Routledge 2007), p.128

[11] Joseph Bristow, ‘Remapping the Sites of Modern Gay History: Legal Reform, Medico‐Legal Thought, Homosexual Scandal, Erotic Geography’, Journal of British Studies, Vol.46(1) (2007), p.136.

[12] Weeks, The World We Have Won, p.113-4

[13] Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p.43, p.45.

[14] Frank Mort, “Commercial Epistemologies: Advertising, Marketing and Retailing since 1950,” in Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in Late Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 1996), p.165

[15] Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York: New York University Press, 2009), pp. 89-90.

[16] Houlbrook, pp.56-7.

[17] Houlbrook, p.57.

[18] Gray, p.97.

[19] Houlbrook, p.81.

[20] Houlbrook, p.76; Peter Matthews and Kirsten Besemer, “The “Pink Pound” in the “Gaybourhood”? Neighbourhood Deprivation and Sexual Orientation in Scotland”, Housing, Theory and Society, Vol. 32(1) (21 January 2015), p.95.

[21] Houlbrook, p.92.

[22] Houlbrook, 74.

[23] Houlbrook, p.83.

[24] Houlbrook, p.84.

[25] Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, (London: Quartet Books,1977), p.87.

[26] Bristow, p.119.

[27] Weeks, Coming Out, p.96; John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in The Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p. 100.

[28] Gillian A. Dunne, Lesbian Lifestyles: Women’s Work and the Politics of Sexuality, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), p.105.

[29] Dunne, p.120.

[30] Dunne, p.129.

[31] Dunne, p.131.

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