The Political Economy of Homophobia

Christopher Chitty’s posthumously published Sexual Hegemony is an incomplete masterpiece that deserves the widest possible audience.

Review of Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, by Christopher Chitty (Duke University Press, 2020).

In seventeenth-century Valencia, Spain, Juan de la Vega, an impoverished, silk-weaving apprentice became estranged from his family and befriended another teenager, Nicolás González. Procured by Nicolás, Juan and other boys turned tricks for Valencia’s homosexuals (or as they would say, “sodomites”), freemen and enslaved alike, including the relatively well-off Muslim slaves of the city’s most prominent families. Transgressively, these Christian urchins would oftentimes “bottom” (be penetrated by these older Muslim slaves) in exchange for food and money, subverting the reigning gender, sexual, and racial hierarchies in a period when “Christian” would transform into something called “white.” Eventually, Juan snitched his co-workers to the Inquisition of Valencia prompting an investigation that revealed Nicolás’s network of young male sex workers in the city. And most scandalously of all the findings were the revelations of Muslim slaves penetrating, and, Heaven forbid, potentially ejaculating into the bodies of Christian boys. In November 1625, nine Muslim slaves were burned at the stake in an auto-da-fé, while their adolescent sexual partners suffered harsh terms of service in the king’s galleys. In all, documents from over five hundred sodomy cases tried between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries by the inquisitorial tribunals of Valencia, Zaragoza, and Barcelona have survived.

Stories like Juan de la Vegas’s are illuminated in the trailblazing project that is Christopher Chitty’s posthumous work, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System. Lovingly edited by his friend Max Fox, Chitty’s opus argues that the crackdowns and panics whirling around male homosexuality down through the centuries were not only merely motivated by irrational disgust, but by anxieties of status and station rooted in political economy. In other words, he argues that there has long been a class basis to homophobia. He shows that homosexuality’s politicization during such crises became a “lightning rod” for popular anger and fears that reflected the hierarchies of the day. Through scandal and repression, homosexuality itself, in many times and places, became a tool of class struggle, while homophobia was used to legitimize ruling elites in the face of deepening contradictions with the lower orders.

This is an alternative theory of homosexuality’s origins than the one argued by arguably the creator of sexuality studies, Michel Foucault, who argued that sexual identities firstly emerged amongst the self-absorbed bourgeoisie and trickled down to the proles from on high. Chitty defines “sexual hegemony” as a process by which “sexual norms benefiting a dominant social group shape the sexual conduct and self-understandings of other groups, whether or not they also stand to benefit from such norms and whether or not they can achieve them.” Sexual Hegemony doesn’t have the economistic disdain for Foucault that many self-identified Marxists are stuck in. Indeed, Chitty is evidently a discriminating and inspired reader of Foucault. Lovingly and immanently, Chitty buries himself into Foucault as Marx did Hegel, arguing “[Foucault’s] theory of the emergence of modern sexual categories proceeds by assuming bourgeois sexuality to be hegemonic, rather than rigorously accounting for how it came to be so.” Chitty opts for what Marx offers in his tale of the bourgeoisie’s long, dynamic ascendance via class warfare and primitive accumulation, thus queering Marxism itself. Chitty’s argument for homosexuality’s origins is most similar to John D’Emilio’s whom he cites favorably. D’Emilio’s pioneering 1983 essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” deftly brought into the study of sexuality a Marxist focus on class and property, writing, “The expansion of capital and the spread of wage labor have effected a profound transformation in the structure and functions of the nuclear family … It is these changes in the family that are most directly linked to the appearance of a collective gay life.” In other words, once you separate the means of reproduction from production, gays start running amok.

Chitty analyzes the oftentimes lethal repression of homosexuality, and the scandals that sparked repression, across five centuries worth of evidence, organized through the world-systems theory of Giovanni Arrighi. Arrighi advances a theory of hegemony proposing that from the fifteenth century onward, the political economy of capitalism has been organized around the prerogatives of a progression of states, each one dominating a series of “long centuries” or cycles of accumulation. This periodization is structured by the “Genoese-Iberian” period lasting from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, to the Dutch period in the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries, then to Britain’s reign from the mid-eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, and finally the current period of hegemony under the United States, surpassing its forebears in its planet-straddling scope and awesome lethality. He goes on to warn that the telltale signs of a cycle of accumulation’s death throes are evident, in the move to financialization, away from the centrality of the productive economy. Such crises, born out of over-accumulation and under-consumption by saturated markets, breed instability and war. Historically, as told by Arrighi, it is at this point in the cycle that a new hegemonic power rises.

Chitty makes good use of Arrighi’s schema, applying it to a wealth of historiographical information in order to uncover a “Mediterranean sexuality,” one that was born of the severing of young men from peasant lifeways in the fifteenth-century. He argues that these men, alienated from life in the Italian countryside that was once organized by “mastery, reproductive marriage, and agricultural community,“ found themselves immersed instead in a world that was starkly structured by “impersonal, market-mediated” relations of growing urban centers like Florence and Venice. This severance renders these men propertyless, or in other words, “superfluous with respect to inheritance and land,” thus throwing them into novel ranges of social relations, especially the sector of artisanal and maritime labor. For Chitty, the crack between production and reproduction is where homosexuality can make its home. He writes that, “sexuality could only become a problem for societies in which communities of producers have been separated from their means of production” because such a separation “decouples biological reproduction from the reproduction of ownership” of such means.

Released from the strictures of peasant life and laboring in a commercialized city, Florentine boys and men were targeted by the Officers of the Night, founded in 1432 with the express purpose of repressing male-to-male sexual behavior. These refugees from sleepy village life were first drag netted by anti-vagrancy statutes in the fourteenth century, and the office institutionalized what was already in place. And, though exceptionally lenient compared to other contemporary acts of anti-gay policy, nearly twelve-thousand men and boys came to the Officers’s attention and over two-thousand were convicted until the office’s end in 1502, more than any other city in this period. Nevertheless, authorities preferred fines and confessions to public humiliations. Most importantly for Chitty, however, is the fact that the office was most extensively mobilized against the city’s poor and working-class men, with elites getting to throw their wealth and connections around to evade persecution. He writes that homosexual activity was a cross-class phenomenon, yet had intra-class dimensions. Amongst elites, gay sex would be used to curry favors and gain influence. Amongst the down-and-out, especially youths who were apprentices, informal laborers, or workmen in the city’s lesser guilds, it could be a way to build friendships and alliances. Comrades with benefits, if you will. But, “elite men and lower-class boys were more socially troublesome and could magnify uneven relations of power,” with bratty youths abusing their sugar daddies’ wealth and connections for their own gain. With men being apprenticed often well into their thirties residing in the houses of their masters and far away from blood families, relations of dependence and servitude colored male homosexuality throughout the Mediterranean from Venice to Barcelona.

In 1730, a seafaring Dutchman’s arrest and interrogation elicited a confession of sexcapades that launched a sensational crackdown on “a thick web of sodomitical connections” in the United Provinces from Amsterdam to Utrecht. Until homosexuality’s decriminalization under the 1811 Napoleonic Code “a little over 200 men stood trial for sodomy and related offenses” and “[I]n the entirety of the United Provinces, 94 cases of sodomy were punished by the death penalty between 1730 and 1732, suggesting that reports of secret executions were far from exaggerated.” Back-dropping all of this is the rising proletarianization of imperial Dutch society, its burghers bloating from colonial and maritime trade, and severing more people from agricultural labor into the market-mediated social relations of Holland’s mushrooming, chaotic cities or out on the open seas. Holland’s cities especially teemed with roaming, rowdy seamen during the off-season. Roving gangs of boys cruised the scions of Amsterdam’s prosperous elites, “grab them by the crotch, demanding money and issuing threats,” in public places and semi-public, homosocial places such as the public lavatories. While more affluent men could afford to get off scot-free, “[C]onvicted sodomites were lower class, almost without exception.” Chitty emphasizes that homosexuality’s persecution in Golden Age Holland, as in Renaissance-era northern Italy, was a reflection of economic crisis and social anxieties. To keep people in check, Amsterdam’s authorities executed sodomites in front of crowds and organized days-long gallows ceremonies.

Where ought future scholars take Chitty’s pathbreaking insights? In his introduction to the book, Christopher Nealon laments the “unfinished exploration of feminist scholarship” that Chitty might have done, his untimely death notwithstanding. Tragically, it is tasked to the living to cross-reference Chitty’s work with, as Nealon suggests, left-feminist thinkers such as Silvia Federici, Maria Mies, and others. But, what of race and empire? Chitty mentions “colonial territories” alongside “factories, workhouses, standing armies, policing and punitive apparatuses, naval and merchant fleets” as sites where poor, dispossessed, and propertyless people are regulated, but without much comment beyond that. Chitty mentions in passing that the Dutch East Indies Company’s records reveal there to have been five times more sodomy persecutions in Cape Colony, founded in 1652, than in any Dutch city during this era. He expresses hope for further exploration of Ottoman legal records regarding homosexuality. Nevertheless, not much interrogation is done into how race, sexuality, and empire are interconnected despite the essential role of the non-West and people of color in capitalism’s development. However, he does comment on a certain Richard Burton, and tries to rehabilitate his deeply racialized concept of the “Sotadic Zone”, yet with not enough of a critical eye which illustrates the general silence of Sexual Hegemony surrounding race and sexuality.

Burton was a scholar and an official in the British state’s enormous nineteenth century colonial apparatus. His homosexuality has been inferred from his wife’s posthumous burnings of manuscripts and the intimate, almost voyueristic details with which he wrote about homosexuality in Asia and Africa. How, for example, did he know all the ins and outs of Karachi’s boy brothels? He wrote of native Cameroonian men: “The male figure here, as all the world over, is notably superior … to that of the female. The latter is meaningless and monotonous. The former far excels it in variety of form and in sinew. In these lands … there will be a score of fine male figures to one female, and there she is, as everywhere else, as inferior as is the Venus de Medici to the Apollo Belvedere.” His deliberate inclusion of homosexual passages into his ten-volume translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights whetted the Orientalist appetites of gay British and continental readers eager to have their sexuality indulged and accepted. Burton tucked a “Terminal Essay” into the end of the work that provided maybe the only ethnographic synopsis of same-sex practices across the world until well into the present-day. Burton posited the existence of a “Sotadic Zone” stretching from the Americas to the Mediterranean, Iraq, Iran, the Central Asian steppe east of the Caspian, then into Afghanistan, and down into Pakistan, then India, China, Japan, Indochina, and the Southern Pacific, but skipping over Australia and New Zealand for some reason. Here, sodomy and pederasty was endemic, tolerated and even celebrated by the indigenous cultures of these disparate lands.

Chitty and Burton both emphasize that this Sotadic Zone is ultimately bound by climate and geography, not race. Yet Chitty downplays the racialism in Burton’s thought, insisting that while Burton has been “criticized by some scholars for having a ‘racial’ understanding of homosexuality,” such criticsms do not bear scrutiny. To begin with, the climatic dissimilarities between Pakistan and Patagonia ought to be obvious enough to throw the whole idea of a “Sotadic Zone” into the trash. Beyond this, how could we plausibly downplay Burton’s racecraft when he writes in his Terminal Essay that Turks are supposedly “a race of born pederasts?” Or when Burton asserts that homosexuality was imported into Egypt by Persians, into Africa by Romans, or gender-bending and androgyny into the Levant by Egyptians? Uncritically attempting to rehabilitate Burton leads Chitty to ignore the essential role of race and empire in developing conceptions and practices in regards to Western homosexuality.

Both feminist scholarship and an exploration of the relationships between race, empire, and sexuality are unfortunately missing from Chitty’s work. Inventing the homosexual as a new type of person cursed with a malformed essence ran parallel to the discourses of race-making. Sodomy, cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, and all manner of things that we would generally label as “queer” were noted in travelogues and ethnograhies of Europeans for centuries. Such phenomena were often used to help justify the subjugation and dispossession of people of color around the world. Age-old mythologies of hypersexual black men and women, asexual and docile East Asian men, and repressed Arab men are intimately bound up with the dynamics of class, property, and the global color line. If race is an ideological construction that justifies socioeconomic relations across countries and borders, then sexuality is part and parcel of such a process. Race is sexualized, and sexuality is racialized.

Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony is an incomplete masterpiece tragically pre-empted by his suicide in 2015. We can only imagine what its author would have revised in light of the scholarship dealing with queer Marxism, socialist feminism, as well as race and sexuality that has been published in recent years. Kevin Floyd’s Reification of Desire, Holly Lewis’s The Politics of Everybody, Peter Drucker’s Warped, Rudi Bleys’s The Geography of Perversion, and Roderick Ferguson’s work on queer of color critique come to mind as studies that could have expanded the already far-reaching scope of Chitty’s output. But that task is left to us, who are indebted to the devoted labors of Max Fox and friends for keeping Chitty’s mind and work alive. A collaboration reverently fashioned across life and death, Sexual Hegemony is a must-read for all queer socialists, friends and lovers alike.