Your Place or Mine ? A 21st Century Essay on (Same)Sex

PM Press has just published a book by Gilles Dauvé, Your Place or Mine ? A 21s t  Century Essay on (Same)Sex. Here is an interview with the author.

Cara: Your Place or Mine challenges contemporary perceptions of class and gender, and provides a truly novel critique of sex identities,  creating a radical theoretical framework that challenges capitalism and the State. What was the inspiration for writing the book and why did you feel it was necessary to publish it now ?

G.D. : Such a book only exists because "sex/gender" became a social issue at the end of the 20th century. As a friend born in 1979 said, "from the point of view of social progress, it is possibly the only thing you can make a good case for serious improvement in my lifetime". With lots of "limitations", he added. Still, it has given birth to important struggles, and substantial positive changes have been achieved.

Let's briefly go back in time. Pre-capitalist societies rested on fixed inequalities: distinct groups had distinct functions and rights depending on sex, ethnic origin, free or servile position, religion, etc. 

What capitalism created is a labour market and a workers' class : each proletarian sells a labour power which is his/her own, which theoretically gives everyone a right over their own body and mind. Wage-labour slowly allowed everyone (men a lot more than women) a degree of autonomy., and some possibility to make his/her choices, sexual matters included.

When more and more men and women were detached from a strictly family-based economy, sex began to move out of the traditional family and community orbit. Factory work made women's collective struggles more frequent and massive. As for same-sex love, instead of remaining individual and marginal, it started becoming a group phenomenon. 

Only in the last decades of the 20th century did this evolution become stronger and more visible. Not a linear trend, of course, more manifest in the US than in Poland, yet overall gender relations change because of structural changes in the capital/wage labour relations.

This is what most of the radical gay, Lesbian, queer, etc. critique finds hard to accept. Probably because radical milieus, even when they share a "class analysis", partake of what could be called a "Foucauldian" mind-set: capitalism is seen as a combination of domination and control relationships, the class factor being only one among others, or even a mere consequence of them.

What is capitalist society based on ? History shows that class relations (and confrontations) structure modern society. Gender does not. (Nor race, but that would require another book.)  The determinant is the dependence of the proletarians - men and women - on earning cash for a livelihood, their subordination to productive labour to earn it, and all that goes with it. In this sense, "class" is a constant, "gender" a variable. So we won't get rid of gender oppression by adding gender struggles to class struggles: the class structure is the focal point that determines historical evolution. 

Cara: You were part of publishing the radical gay magazine Le Fléau Social in the 70s. What was that experience like ? How does the work that appeared in the magazine compare with transgressive writing on sex and sexuality today ?

G.D.: Let's remember that in the late 60s and early 70s, the French gay and Lesbian movement was not on a comparable scale to that in the US: no Paris Stonewall ! At the time Le Fléau Social crossed path with libertarian communism and the Situationist International (which had just dissolved itself in 1972), the social surge brought about by the 1968 general strike was still going, but on a downhill slope. When I met Alain Fleig, he was already fairly isolated, and most of the magazine was written by himself. On the one hand, his critique of gay "reformism" (limiting itself to acceptable demands against discrimination) resulted in his rejection by mainstream gays. On the other hand, his insistence on sex/gender was coming too early for "Marxists" who failed to grasp the importance of the issue.

Soon after we met in 1973, we decided that I'd write a piece on "the woman question". Alain Fleig chose the title ("Feminism Illustrated") and subtitle ("Diana's Complex"), which he inserted between two pictures. One portrayed two arm-in-arm women, not necessarily lovers yet obviously romantically involved. The second picture showed straight-faced Red Army gun-carrying women, probably from Russian civil war times. Alain said these utterly opposed visions typified two diametrically and equally misleading ways to women's emancipation; the illusion of the intrinsic subversive power of love/sex, and the trapping of women as soldiers for a cause they had no control over.

This essay is now available in English: Feminism Illustrated, or Diana's Complex.

The article came out in what was to be the last issue of Le Fléau Social, which sold well, but a rebellious time was gradually closing in, and the mag folded. Alain Fleig realized that he'd have to wait a while for global emancipation, and he did not believe in partial emancipation: a born provocateur, he had no patience for political (or even gay) activists, recognition-seekers, left-wingers, Trotskyists, Maoists, trade-unionists, national liberation supporters, counter-culture followers, etc. As he did not fit in with what was to become the LGBT world, he took up other pursuits, and worked as a photographer and art historian till his death in 2012. 

Le Fléau Social was "queer" in all but name, yet without the attempt to advocate a new subversive identity... in the name of a critique of all identities.

Cara: Can you talk a little about the fragmenting of the gay identities ? Do you see the LGBT+ movement as a cohesive movement ?

G.D. : At the beginning, the belief in "a common cause" was inevitable - and indeed necessary. In their early days, the 1960s and 70s rebels hoped that same-sex assertion and defence were sufficient to bring all gays and Lesbians together. As one of the first French gay groups said, "homosexual militancy transcends membership of any social class, ideology or party". Later, it became more and more plain to see that, on the contrary, a gay, Lesbian or transgender person's life is determined by structural causes, mainly by their social position, which bears heavily on how they can live their sex/gender singularity. Alix, the young Lesbian interviewed in the book, explains that whatever "community" there is, it is "scattered, disseminated, ridden with contradictory struggles and aspirations." 

Now most Western European and North American towns have an active LGBT+ group, and there are far less homophobic stigma and discrimination. 

But let's not delude ourselves.

Society has certainly changed a lot in the last fifty years: for instance, though we may not think of Serbia as a particularly gay-friendly country, an openly Lesbian politician was appointed prime minister in 2017 (and she attended the Pride). It does not mean that a male or female couple can publicly walk hand in hand without fearing harassment in a Belgrade street (very few do in  "safer" London, actually). A minor matter ? Possibly, but this fact, plus a thousand  more important ones, amply demonstrate that we still live in a predominently homophobic - and sexist - world.

  It's this combination of increased acceptance and persisting resistance that gives a "community" the impression of existing. 

Cara : How has this quest for assimilation and respectabilty changed the face of gay politics ?

G.D.: When gays and Lesbians abandoned whatever revolutionary hopes or goals they'd had, it was inevitable that they they'd try to speak to and for all homosexuals, and aim at obtainig visibility and legal rights.  The critique of bourgeois/hetero marriage gave way to a demand for same-sex marriage.

Basically, this is a call for equality.

Fighting against gender (or colour) discrimination is fundamental. This does not mean that a radical critique necessarily emerges from these movements. In fact it rarely does.

Someone might argue that the same applies to workers' strikes: labour also fights to better its condition within the present society.


But confronting the boss (even in a reformist way, which is the case in most labour struggles) is not fighting for equality between wage-earner and bourgeois, because the employee cannot become his/her employer's equal, unless he/she becomes a boss him/herself, which is rarely possible. On the contrary, gays and Lesbians, as gays and Lesbians, want to be treated on the same footing as straights, and quite legitimately so: it boils down to a demand for sex equality, a request present sociaty can grant, up to a point.

As we know, when the real working class fails to meet the revolutionaries' expectations, Marxists often tend to fine-tune the class concept, tiresomely differentiating between various strata within the proletariat. Similarly, the belief in a sex-based commonality has shifted into a search for multiple identities. "Gender" is deemed too exclusionary: we're now told about 4 "main" genders, and globally 7, or 22. What Le Fléau Social could not foresee in 1975 is how much the gay movement was to become  part and parcel of identity politics, and the trouble with identities is that we can never embrace and include enough of them.  

Cara : Can we talk about the research that went into writing Your Place or Mine ?

G.D.: On the sex/gender subject, it is difficult to choose between an abundance of books, articles, testimonies, archives... My concern was to go back to history: Robert Bleachy on Berlin, George Chauncey on New York, John Howard on the US South, Dan Healey on Russia... Also Elisabeth Lapovsky-Kennedy and Madeline Davis on Lesbian life in the 40s.

Some books published in the 70s and 80s, like those of Jeffrey Weeks and John D'Emilio, have been more inspirational than a lot of recent research. I am afraid these writers are now regarded as worthy pioneers... but a bit out-dated, too "class-oriented" in the eyes of academics specialised in women's, gender and subaltern studies.

One last name: Anne Balay. Both an activist and a scholar, she wrote a stimulating book on gays and Lesbians in a steel mill. Though she does not try to make a point, her study is grounded in a strong analytical framework. I'd say there's more theory - and relevant theor - in her book than in many overrated others. 

Cara : Most of the book was written in 2018-2019. Anything you'd like to add in 2022 ?

G.D.: Among other things, I'd like to point out one sadly significant evolution. When I wrote that the USA qualifies as a "reactionary" country in more ways than one, I was referring to how difficult it has become to have an abortion in a number of US states. Since then, the Supreme Court's ruling that overturned Roe vs. Wade is already having devastating effects on women trying to terminate their pregnancy. Actually, anti-abortionists are active in many other countries. Interestingly, these steps have been taken as the same time as women's rights appear to be promoted and protected. Are they really ?, one might ask.

In the 60s and 70s, abortion was one of women's main terrains of struggle, often the most pressing issue, until abortion was finally decriminalised, and made legal on request in many countries, though with very different time limits, and tight restrictions in Japan for example. I'm afraid many feminists and LGBT+ groups have been inclined to take these hard-won new rights for granted. So they failed to perceive the highly serious threat coming from the right-wing political backlash. It makes you wonder whether some people get their priorities straight. 

Cara: Do you think it is possible to create a world where one can be human without having to be classified by sexual practices or gender expressions ? How can we undo the pervasive labelling and fragmenting of identity that has distracted from broader issues of class ?

G.D.: As long as capitalism goes on, we will live in a world of competing identities: national, religious, sexual, ethnic/racial, etc.

Up to now, proletarians have rarely been able to act as a social group with "radical chains", a group large and cohesive enough to overthrow the whole system, but also universal enough to go beyond separate categories, i.e. a group "which cannot emancipate himself without emancipating all other spheres of society". This was how communists defined the proletariat in the 1840s. 

Nearly two hundred years later, we're rather witnessing the opposite: practically and theoretically, the emphasis is not on the universal (what and who hold society together), but on the particular (the various separate constituents of the whole). Capitalism is currently addressed as an addition of criss-crossing dominations. 

Alas, joining distinct agendas does not help them converge.

Pushing the boundaries of identities, however, becomes possible when for instance, as happened in Paris a couple of years ago, hotel cleaners (most of them women, some of them undocumented people of colour) went on a strike that fused wage demands, immigrant issues and gender issues. A small example, but one that starts to go deep into the heart of the matter.

For the moment, we're not done with distinctiveness and labelling.

Cara: So you think revolution is not in the offing : then what about struggles taking place in the "here and now" ?

G.D.: Neither I nor my friends have ever advocated "All-Or-Nothing" or "Only-Revolution-Will-Do" politics.

Despite my reservations about marriage in general and therefore also same-sex marriage, I obviously supported it against reactionary forces. When abortion rights are denied or trampled upon, we naturally take to the streets to defend them. Just as I took part in the demos against the new French labour law in 2016, supported a cashiers' strike, the Yellow Vests in 2019, or recently went to a local march to uphold under-age immigrants rights.

However, taking part in these actions does not imply misinterpreting them as automatic steps to overall change.

That being said, I do not face the world as a prophet and tell it: "Give up your present struggles, they're partial, choose the real ultimate struggle instead". I merely try and explain why partial struggles are taking place and how that situation could change.

Till then, I suppose this book might be read as too class-focused for some radical gays, and too sex- or gender-concerned for a number of die-hard Marxists. Well... I can only quote Kafka: "We should only read those books that bite and sting us".


Table of contents of Your Place or Mine ? A 21st Century Essay on (Same)Sex, PM Press, 2022. 

Prelude: We'Wha in Washington

Chapter 1: The Invention of "Sexuality"

Chapter 2: The Invention of "Homosexuality"

Chapter 3: What Is "A Man" ? Of Fairies & Men in New York

Chapter 4: Sexual Engineering in Moscow

Chapter 5: Sexual Reform in Berlin

Chapter 6: Butch/Fem, or: The Rise & Decline of the Woman Worker Image

Chapter 7: "To Be What We Do Not Know Yet": Stonewall & Aftermath

Chapter 8: Impossible Identity

Chapter 9: Gender & Genre: The Paradox of Gay Culture

Chapter 10: Being Gay or Lesbian in the Work-Place

Chapter 11: Queer, or the Identity that Negates Identities

Chapter 12: Gay-Friendly, with Limits

Chapter 13: Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Chapter 14: Moral (Dis)Order

Postlude: Polysex

PM Press has also published two other books by Gilles Dauvé :

Eclipse & Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement (2014)

From Crisis to Communisation (2019)

For further reading

On the "woman question"

White Riot, 1922: Class & Race in 20th Century Africa