In a now famous 1934 letter to the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, Scottish communist Harry Whyte argued for the inclusion of homosexual people within the Communist Party and communism as an institution in the USSR. Whyte makes a variety of arguments throughout the letter for the inclusion of homosexual people within the Communist Party, many of which call attention to changes in Soviet doctrine in the years since the 1917 October Revolution and death of Vladimir Lenin. While it is widely understood that Stalin rejected these arguments, calling Whyte a “degenerate,” the extent to which Whyte’s ideas were actually included in Soviet propaganda has not been sufficiently addressed by historians. However, there is plenty of analysis from Soviet historians who specialize in gay subculture on the ways in which Soviet propaganda depicts homoerotic and more apparent homosexual relationships between men of the proletariat. This essay seeks to track the correlation between this letter and later Soviet propaganda.
In his letter to Stalin, Whyte argued that people in the homosexual community should be understood as existing in the same category as “coloured people…and other groups repressed for one reason or another.” Whyte understood that people could be oppressed for their race or sexuality, but he also knew that any of these “social stratum” as he termed them could be further subject to “exploitation and persecution under capitalist domination.” Whyte made a crucial point that if socialism could alleviate the ills of racism and treat “coloured people” as equals in an egalitarian socialist society, then the USSR and other communist parties must do the same or they were no better than capitalist societies. By comparing homophobic persecution to that of racial discrimination, Whyte contended that the Communist Party had the same responsibility to alleviate sexual discrimination as they did racial discrimination. As a result, this commitment would show that communist governments were morally superior to capitalist ones.
This argument is made even clearer when it is evaluated within the larger framework of Soviet laws at the time, many of which Stalin personally advocated for. As she pointed out in How the Soviet Man Was Unmade, Lilya Kagonovsky explores the ways in which the 1936 USSR Family Laws impacted how people understood manhood and homosexuality. Stalin and others within the vanguard party called for a “cult of maternity” (which he believed impossible in homosexual relationships) because it would level all hierarchies between people within the frameworks of the family. This cult of maternity, or the praising of the proletarian mother, is something Stalin sought to establish within the Soviet Union to combat the ideals of chauvinism and misogyny within Russian society. Yet since homosexual relationships featured two men, Stalin contended that a cult of maternity would be impossible within these types of social bonds.
An additional argument against homosexuality was its supposed bourgeois nature and perceived connection to facism and the Nazi party. In his 2002 article, Russian scholar Dan Healey argued that the Soviet Union saw fascism and “bourgeois degeneracy” as going hand in hand. Stalin and other Soviets even went so far as calling European homosexuals “pederasts,” which harkened back to the term for ‘boy-love’ from the times of Ancient Greece. Thus by rejecting two of the things that the Nazis held dear—bourgeois indulgence and Greco-Roman culture—this can also be understood as Stalin’s rejection of homosexuality within the Soviet Union. Whyte’s argument is therefore a clear contrast to Stalin’s belief that homosexual people were the antithesis to all of the ideals that the Soviet Union was founded upon. However, Stalin and his propaganda ministry later contradicted this belief through the imagery of WWII propaganda posters, which were ironically the very same posters used to combat fascism. It has been established that Stalin and those in power with him understood that homosexual oppression existed because of the 1936 Family Laws that they themselves put into place. They may not have seen the Family Laws themselves as oppressive because of the justification that they made within the Family Laws against homosexuality (i.e., encouraging child birth through stipends to boost population etc.), but they participated in active forms of oppression against homosexual people and did so intentionally. However, this homophobic sentiment is a rejection of their own ideals demonstrated within their own propaganda, as homosexuality can be seen below in the propaganda poster that reads “Our army is the army of workers’ liberation—Stalin.”
This poster was created in 1939 and it was meant to emphasize the loving nature of the Soviet army. It may have done more than that as it depicts a soldier kissing a liberated worker. This poster not only highlights the homosexual nature that could exist between workers and soldiers, but it should also be viewed within the context of WWII where the Soviets were supposed to be fighting back against the oppression of bourgeois fascists who presumably engaged in homosexual behavior. This poster demonstrates how much Stalin’s words against “bourgeois” homosexuality deviated from what was actually being put out into the public through the Soviet Union’s homoerotic WWII advertisements. While it is initially easy to say that this poster is just a one-off example, dozens like it exist where “Mother Russia” served as a liberating force for the workers of oppressed areas and “exchange[d] kisses with them.” Thus not only is this propaganda poster acknowledging that homosexuality exists, but it is even embracing and pairing it with a quote from Stalin who had previously argued against including homosexual people in Soviet society.
The final point that draws a line between Whyte’s letter and Stalin’s propaganda posters is the idea that homosexual people were not threatening to Soviet society and were even workers who could contribute to communism. Whyte extensively laid out both arguments in his letter and began by offering a pseudo-scientific explanation that around two million homosexual people existed in the USSR at the time the letter was written. While this claim is almost impossible to verify, what is important is not the exact number of homosexual people but instead the idea that thousands of homosexual people were living in the USSR and successfully contributing to the Soviet mission for achieving “true” socialism. The biggest question, then, is if the USSR was so afraid of homosexuality why would they depict their “friendship” with China in an overtly homosexual way?
In the above 1958 image that reads “Always Together,” a Chinese and Soviet man are portrayed as paternal figures over a Chinese and Russian boy. This images begs the question that if homosexuality was not as prevalent as Stalin and others in the government argued, why would they show something so uncommon and looked down on in a propaganda image? Both questions could lead one to believe that the Soviets must have actually not found much issue with homosexuality, since if they believed homosexuality was an abomination why would they put two men holding two children on a public poster? While a possible explanation for these posters is that the friendship between the USSR and China was becoming so strong it equaled that of a family, it is impossible to ignore the suggestive undertones of these posters. One of the most explicit undertones is the suggestion that a Soviet and Chinese man, through the shared bonds of socialism, could raise an interracial family together which is an idea that is at the very least homosocial if not homoerotic.
This also contributes to the other point made by scholars that there was little empirical reason for the 1936 Family Laws other than maintaining unanimity under socialist law, otherwise they would not have publicly advertised a way of life that they were truly afraid might destroy their society. The last crucial claim that Harry Whyte made in his appeal to Stalin is not only are homosexual people harmless, but they are laborers fighting for true socialism in the USSR. Whyte argued that homosexual workers wanted to be free from “capitalist exploitation” in the same way that heterosexual workers did. Both Stalin and many homosexual people in the USSR agreed that citizens should sacrifice any and all personal interest for the collective benefit, which, in this case, was labor. Many of the images that represent the same Sino-Soviet friendship, such as the one shown below, depict two men touching or holding hands while they engage in labor-related activities, in this case steelwork. The text on top reads “Our Friendship” and then below says “Strong as Steel!”
In this 1950 image, labor and “friendship” (a.k.a. sexual connection) are intertwined as both working men in the photo conduct steelwork together. This piece of propaganda undermined the idea held by Stalin and gulag officials that homosexuality and labor were mutually exclusive and could not exist simultaneously. This confirms the correlation between Whyte’s letter, the propaganda of later years, and the idea that homosexual people could in fact be understood as a positive proletarian force both within propaganda and their society as a whole, as Whyte had first suggested they should be.
- Alexander, Rustam. Regulating Homosexuality in Soviet Russia, 1956–91: A Different History. Manchester University Press, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1p2gjb5.
- Healey, Dan. “Homosexual Existence and Existing Socialism: New Light on the Repression of Male Homosexuality in Stalin’s Russia.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8, no. 3 (2002): 349–78.
- Kaganovsky, Lilya. How the Soviet Man Was Unmade: Cultural Fantasy and Male Subjectivity Under Stalin. University of Pittsburgh Pre, 2008.
- Kirschenbaum, Lisa A. ““Our City, Our Hearths, Our Families“: Local Loyalties and Private Life in Soviet World War II Propaganda.” Slavic Review 59, no. 4 (December 2000): 825–47. https://doi.org/10.2307/2697421.
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- Reed, Adolph. “Socialism and the Argument against Race Reductionism.” New Labor Forum 29, no. 2 (May 1, 2020): 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/1095796020913869.
- Underground, China. “Cool Sino Soviet Propaganda Images.” China Underground (blog), 1950. https://china-underground.com/2012/01/07/cool-sino-soviet-propaganda-images/.
- USSR Propaganda. “Our Army Is the Army of Liberation of Workers by Posters USSR: History, Analysis & Facts.” Arthive, 1939. https://arthive.com/artists/9893~Posters_USSR/works/280754~Our_army_is_the_army_o f_liberation_of_workers.
- Whyte, Harry. “Letter to Stalin: ‘Can a Homosexual Be in the Communist Party?’” 1934. https://www.marxist.com/letter-to-stalin-can-a-homosexual-be-in-the-communist-party.htm
About the Author
Brendan Mahoney (he/him) is a junior history major at Boston College. His research revolves around issues and legacies of the New Left and other radical social movement groups of the “long 1960s,” specifically the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). His work seeks to fill in gaps in scholarship that exist surrounding student radicalism at smaller colleges in New England. Other interests of Brendan’s include Irish American history, the history of Boston, and the evolution of historiography within American history.