Mario Mieli’s Elements of a Homosexual Critique was first published in Italy in 1977, amid the country’s tumultuous ‘Years of Lead’ and post-1968 sexual radicalism. Though Gay Men’s Press translated the text as Homosexuality and Liberation in 1980, Mieli was eclipsed by his French contemporaries — notably Michel Foucault but also Guy Hocquenghem and Leo Bersani, who worked within a larger and more visible queer movement, and did not share Mieli’s interest in finding a way to combine the ideas of Marx and Freud. This was his only theoretical work. Mieli killed himself in 1983, aged 30, and did not live to see the HIVAIDS crisis kill Foucault, Hocquenghem, and millions of others, and irrevocably change queer politics.
Pluto Press’s recent edition, re-translated by David Fernbach and Evan Calder Williams as the more eye-catching Towards a Gay Communism (with a shocking-pink cover that captures Mieli’s confrontational, camp persona) appears as many Western activists question the compromises of respectability politics. Like Matthew Warchus’ 2014 film Pride, about the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement, this publication asks what can be recuperated from the period between May ’68 and Stonewall. Unlike Pride, however, it refuses to play down Mieli’s ideology — Warchus’ film never mentions that its protagonist Mark Ashton was the general secretary of the Young Communist League from 1985 until his AIDS-related death two years later.
As with many queer texts of its time, not every premise of Towards a Gay Communism feels reconcilable now. In France, the gay liberation movement split from the lesbian movement over issues of consent. Mieli’s aim to replace identity with a world of erotic abundance suggests a lack of boundaries, and his openness to a range of behaviours — including coprophilia and necrophilia — has aged badly. Likewise with his discussion of children’s sexuality, which was written in an era of harsh repression for young LGBT people, but is nonetheless dangerous. However, his writing in this area does have merit. As states from Russia to Turkey adopt section 28-style laws that criminalise not LGBT behaviour but ‘propaganda’, Mieli’s critique of an ‘educastration’ process that aims to dissuade children from growing into an openness about the endless possibilities of sex and gender still feels revolutionary.
The homo-masculinity of the French movement, and Hocqueghem in particular, was also an issue. Mieli chimes more with the present in his embrace of ‘transsexuality’, which he uses to mean a polymorphic drive that breaks down boundaries between masculine and feminine, male and female, as well as homosexual and heterosexual. Mieli appreciated that gender norms were a vital means of upholding capitalist hierarchies, and that their reproduction within homosexual subcultures meant the reproduction not just of the suppression of femininity, but of conservative divisions of labour.
Had he lived another decade, Mieli may not have placed the idea that nothing horrifies ‘the policeman of capitalism’ more than the thought of ‘being fucked in the arse’ (even if this became even more true during the HIVAIDS crisis), or that anal sex is ‘itself a significant revolutionary force’ at the heart of his thesis. But his awareness that gay identity could easily be co-opted, especially when revolutionary ideas are channelled towards the ‘respectable’ classes, and that legal rights do not mean an end to oppression, seems visionary. His conclusion that the most radical way to reject marginality was to assert a collective refusal of majority viewpoints remains relevant today.