(The National Post, 9 April 2016)
In 1869 Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx about a strange new development in society. "The paederasts," he said, meaning homosexuals, "are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state. Only the organization is lacking." He expected they would emerge victorious, eventually.
Engels didn't get everything right, of course, but he recognized where that issue was going over the long term. Still, when it arrived, just a few years ago, it was a surprise.
Nothing in the life of Canada and the United States has changed so much, so fast, as the status of gays and lesbians - a heartening development for anyone with a belief in democracy and individual freedom.
It was only half a century ago, in 1967, that Pierre Trudeau, the federal justice minister, introduced the bill to eliminate the law that criminalized man-with-man or woman-with-woman sex. He explained that, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," phrasing it as if everyone already agreed with what he was doing.
Actually, it was a radical move. Most people had accepted anti-homosexual laws for their whole lives. Even gays expected things to remain as they always had been and adjusted their ideas about the future accordingly.
Since then Canada has endorsed same-sex marriages and same-sex adoptions. We have outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians. About seven out of 10 Canadians (and roughly the same number of Americans) approve of same-sex marriage.
Today the change has reached so far into our national spirit that we routinely denounce as bigots those people who haven't yet accepted it. Corporations fall all over each other proclaiming their devotion to the new order. People who casually called homosexuals "fags" have curbed their tongues and learned to work beside those they once despised.
When the informal alliances of Gay Liberation set out to make same-sex marriage legal, they realized they had to persuade the political establishment. But before that they had to make peace in their own constituency.
Gays were divided.
Among artists, for example, those who acknowledged their sexual persuasion were angry at many of those who did not. Angus Wilson, an openly gay novelist who campaigned for reform, expressed his contempt for E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward, who were gay in secret. Francis Bacon, for a time the most admired English painter, declined to sign a petition against an antigay decision of the British government. "I really hate gays," he said.
These men had for many years seen themselves as outsiders and had defined themselves as non-joiners.
They objected to gay liberation because it was too organized and too politicized, too much like the government that had oppressed them.
The movement for gay rights never had a formal structure - there was no national leader, for example, and no national strategy. Gays first came together during the AIDS crisis, after they concluded both governments and fellow citizens had let them down.
Their great coup evolved as a matter of analogy. They encouraged the public to see their needs were, by analogy, much like equality for women, civil rights for non-whites and justice for aboriginals. A liberalizing society agreed to welcome another demand for fairness. In this atmosphere, gay became normal.
Gregory Woods, professor of gay and lesbian studies at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., has written a book to be published next month by Yale University Press - Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World. Woods has put together a 401-page survey of homosexuals and lesbians in the arts, arguing they have been so numerous and so imaginative that they can be seen as the crest of the wave of originality that created modernity. Their esthetic sensibility seeped into the culture and became a major part of it.
His book's title revives an old joke among gays. The communist parties of the world were once linked by the Communist International, founded in 1919 by Lenin and dissolved in 1943, usually called the Comintern. So in the 1930s someone invented the term Homintern. It expressed no more than the fact that gays could find other gays wherever in the world they wandered. But a few people who deplored homosexuality believed (or said they believed) that it was a serious international conspiracy, with its secret operatives. Over the years it appeared often in the British press as a menace, but (as Woods correctly tells us) it was never more than a play on words. The great poet W.H. Auden liked it so much he used it at every opportunity.
If there had been a conspiracy like the one Engels feared, it would have been aimed at a new life for gays - a life of freedom where they could frankly express themselves and enjoy all the rights of citizenship. The wonder of it all is that, as society adjusted itself and human beings began seeing tolerance as a necessary attribute of civilization, things worked out just as the Homintern, if had existed, would have demanded.