"Capitalism and Gay Identity," John D’Emilio
Gays and lesbians have become increasingly accepted by society. There are many more gay communities, facilities, and organizations than ever before and the number is rising. When did gay activity evolve into a lifestyle? John D’Emilio pondered this very question when he formulated his essay, "Capitalism and Gay Identity." D’Emilio argues that the development of capitalism, and its free labor system, has allowed gays and lesbians to create a "homosexual identity" (229), opposing the belief that this identity has always existed for them. D’Emilio makes his points clear and convincing, although he omits many other factors that led to this revolution. The reader can then argue that although capitalism is one of the factors delineating a gay identity, others are overlooked in D’Emilio’s attempt to make a clear correlation between capitalism and gay identity.
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D’Emilio makes a clear distinction between homosexual behavior and gay identity. He admits that there have always been homosexuals, but the identity he speaks of comes from a society that allows them to exist. He points out that in colonial years, society lacked the terms to even acknowledge homosexuals. They referred to this activity as "sodomy among men" (229) and "lewdness among women" (229). In certain states, laws forced unmarried adults to live in "family units"(229) and they were unable to make a way of life through their attractions.
Moreover, D’Emilio goes on to say that capitalism was the cause of gay identity through the breakdown of both the family’s monetary independence and its interdependence on each other. Before capitalism, families were able to support themselves by their own means. As D’Emilio puts it "husbands, wives, and children worked together to produce the goods they consumed"(228). They could rely on themselves to be self-sufficient so long as they had a family. In this way, sex was a means of procreating.
With technological advances and free labor, individuals were forced out of their current lifestyles, and into the work force. People were therefore more able to make same sex relationships with people in the workplace, encouraging gay activity to progress into an everyday life, rather than an unspoken activity. Family units were no longer necessary for survival, and people had the option of being single for the first time. Slowly but surely, the role of sex in people’s lives began to change. Relationships turned away from the need to procreate and "became a means of establishing intimacy, promoting happiness, and experiencing pleasure" (229). Although it had always been a pleasurable experience, the main concern was having children. This was no longer the case. People could have sex for only the enjoyment they obtained. In this way, people were encouraged to find mates who enjoyed the same things as them. D’Emilio reasons that this supported those who were gay to express it, and gave them an outlet to form a life in society. It gradually became more acceptable to have a mate of the same sex.
However, D’Emilio’s insinuation that capitalism was the only cause of the breakdown of family life, and his presumption that this breakdown was the sole reason for homosexual existence in society is inaccurate. He makes many claims that seem absurd to the reader. For example, he claims that "college educated white women could survive more easily without intimate relationships with men" (231). He gives no recognition to any other factors that may have been involved. Just because these women may be more able to support themselves, they become lesbians? Why does D’Emilio single out white women? In another example, D’Emilio claims World War II "freed men and women from the setting where heterosexuality was normally imposed" (231). How can a war account for all gays and lesbians coming out? This seems to be a flimsy argument at best.
As one can easily see, capitalism did influence the societal changes that account for today’s gay identity, but it was not the only factor in this transformation. Progression from all aspects of life is the true motivator of social change. As D’Emilio says, gay identity is "a product of history"(227), but no one segment can fully explain its formation or its solidity. Gays and lesbians can now coexist with society, and find their role in it, based on this newfound identity.
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