The Dialectics of Gay Liberation
: A marxist history of the gay liberation movement in Britain in the 1960s and 70s

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is a historical inquiry into the politicisation of sexuality by the gay liberation movement in Britain. Its methodology folds together archival research methods and marxist critical theory, presenting a history of sexual struggle during the sixties and seventies that is simultaneously a history of capitalist social relations. Its central argument concerns the contradictory status of gay liberation as both a historically situated social movement and a visionary political horizon, deferred by the social crises and processes of restructuring unfolding from the mid-seventies.

Rather than approaching critique as an external model, to be applied onto the material of history, this thesis combines historical and theoretical modes of inquiry within the same space, arguing that they are mutually and reciprocally constituted. Influenced by the critical social theory of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and the subterranean tradition of open marxism, it marks a decisive departure from structuralist and positivist forms of historical materialism that reduce social and cultural transformations to the effects of abstractions such as "the economy." Consulting an expansive archive of gay life during the period, it instead advances a form of marxist history that foregrounds how lived experience registers and expresses the contradictions underpinning capitalist social relations. Accordingly, it relates to the archive of gay liberation not as a source of empirical data drafted in to support theoretical claims, but as an archive of critical and cultural knowledge in its own right. Its own theorisation of the role of capitalist social forms and institutions is consequently anchored by and articulated in dialogue with gay liberation's novel social critique.

The thesis' dialectical methodology is developed over the course of its investigations into the gay liberation movement's conflict-ridden relationship with British social institutions. Its chapters follow a thematic structure, each focusing on a particular arena – the street, the psychiatric clinic and the household – as a site of social and sexual antagonism. They situate the gay liberation movement within a constellation of emergent countercultural and social movements, and within the context of evolving forms of sexual surveillance and abjection within the British state. Citing archival accounts of the period, these chapters reconstruct gay liberation's radical critique of various social institutions and expand on their insights through a sustained engagement with open marxist theory. Throughout, the tensions between gay liberation's political vision and the limitations of its historical conditions repeatedly come into view. I argue that such tensions express a dialectic of freedom and compulsion underpinning gay life during the period of study and continuing to structure class antagonisms in the present.
Date of AwardMar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorRebecca Searle (Supervisor), Clare Woodford (Supervisor) & Graham Dawson (Supervisor)

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