The “rainbow capitalism” lie: Why LGBTQphobia is part of the system

By Conor Payne

This Pride Month we will see, as we do every year, major companies putting out pride-themed advertising, changing their social media profiles and putting out anodyne statements about inclusivity. On one level, this is a fairly simple attempt to cash in on Pride, a tradition whose real roots are in the struggle of the LGBTQ+ community for equality and liberation. At the same time, it also reflects a deeper trend – sometimes called ‘rainbow capitalism’ – whereby LGBTQ+ rights are used to try to launder the reputation of an increasingly discredited system. Capitalism is linked to social progress and personal freedom instead of the rampant inequality and oppression which are its real face. 

Nearly every Pride event will be packed with mega corporations and establishment politicians, many of whom only became ‘allies’ of the queer community after our movements had already succeeded in winning increased legal rights and public acceptance. Of course, the ‘freedom’ offered by rainbow capitalism doesn’t mean much for trans people who can’t access healthcare; for LGBTQ+ young people who can’t escape unsafe family situations due to the housing crisis; or to refugees who face deportation to countries where they will be persecuted for who they are. 

Right-wing backlash 

The difference now is that under this system we are not seeing steady progress for LGBTQ+ people but the opposite – a growing and international right-wing backlash which targets us all, and in particular the trans community. The capitalist media, politicians and an emboldened far right are pushing a moral panic based on fear and misinformation about trans people, drag queens and the ‘indoctrination’ of children. This is part of a broader right-wing backlash which also targets migrants, the global feminist movement and the left. It’s a strategy not just to reverse the achievements of movements of oppressed people, but to stabilise an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism around a reactionary authoritarian programme. 

In this context, we will see more and more the shallowness of the commitment of capitalism to LGBTQ+ rights. In the US, we have recently seen a small example of this in Target, a major chain retailer which has removed Pride merchandise from its shops in response to an organised right-wing campaign of pressure. 

Its not just that capitalism isn’t a route to real liberation – there are reasons why this system continually gives rise to homophobia and transphobia. They are in its DNA. 

History of gender oppression 

Early human societies were organised on the basis of equality, including gender equality, and sexual freedom. The development of class society and a propertied elite brought with it the systemic oppression of women and enforced heterosexual family structures as a means of securing a line of inheritance for accumulated wealth. With the development of capitalism, the idealised nuclear family was the sphere where women would do the unpaid domestic labour necessary for the reproduction of the system – including child rearing, cooking and care work – while in the capitalist workplace women could be exploited as a low paid section of the workforce. 

This is not just history – capitalism still relies on the oppression of women today. While the traditional nuclear family has been weakened in certain ways, capitalism still relies on the idea that care and domestic labour are private responsibilities rather than the concern of the whole community. The value of women’s unpaid labour is estimated at nearly $11 trillion a year globally. 

It’s not possible to maintain a setup like this without an ideology of rigid gender norms, or without the social control of gender and sexuality. Queer people are targeted because they exist outside these idealised conceptions of masculinity and femininity and the nuclear family structure. Capitalist societies have, in general, subjected LGBTQ+ people to criminalisation, pathologisation and stigmatisation. Backward ideas about gender and sexuality have been transmitted in capitalist society by some of its key institutions, including religion, the media, the education system and the state. 

Socialist struggle for liberation 

In recent decades, the struggles of LGBTQ+ people themselves have won significant progressive changes, and also had a huge effect on the attitudes of ordinary working-class people, although of course homophobia and transphobia remain part of daily life even in the most ‘progressive’ capitalist countries. However, capitalism itself has not been altered fundamentally and this system in crisis is now dredging up every prejudice in order to tie working-class people into its continued rule. 

It’s no surprise that many LGBTQ+ young people are convinced that to really achieve liberation we need to end this system and fight for an alternative. That alternative is a socialist society based on equality and solidarity, where wealth is taken from the hands of the capitalist elite and controlled democratically for the needs of all. 

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