Finding love and keeping it true to one’s politics can be difficult, particularly at election time. Back in the 1980s, the mouthpiece of the Eurocommunist movement in Britain, Marxism Today, was there to help publishing its own lonely hearts column. This can be found in the magazine’s classified ads at the back along with the warning that ‘we try hard to avoid all those awful stereotypes […] energy and enthusiasm for life isn’t the monopoly of the Right’. For around 50p a word, an individual could run their advert in two issues and hopefully find a companion with just the right kind of politics. Noticeable straight away is the mix of different ages, interests, and sexualities. These were not columns divided into gender or sexual orientation, instead they provide a snapshot of the magazine’s readership all jumbled together.
Although Marxism Today featured advertisements throughout its publishing life, principally for campaign organisations, conference notices, and books, the personal ads did not appear until September 1986 when the magazine featured its ‘Left in Love’ column for the first time. At the time a personal ad cost 20p a word (although the run for two issues was a standard from the outset) rising to 50p by January 1987 and 70p by the early 1990s. As Jeff Meek notes in his analysis of gay personal ads in Scotland, this was a column relatively devoid of the acronyms that since became a staple of the genre. In September 1986, no-one was seeking a reader of Marxism Today with a GSOH. Instead they were after likeminded individuals. A young male anarchist in that first column, for instance, sought a young female anarchist to ‘make Syndicalism’. Certain features do stand out: whereas most of those seeking a heterosexual partner were willing to take a chance based on common interests, several of the young gay men who took out an ad refused to countenance an approach unless a photograph was included in the reply.
As might be expected in a magazine of this kind, with a particular appeal to the British left, the language employed in the ads evokes political interests and lifestyle choices. For instance:
Uninhabited (!) bored, punky, male likes films, new music, clubs, non-authoritarian politics seeks meatless Emma Goldman/Siouxsie o.n.o. London.
Tyneside, gay leftie, 25, seeks comrade.
Young leftie man wants help resolving being right-on and the joys of hedonism (drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll).
Dyke – camp soulgirl – lookin’ for action.
This kind of language reminds us that the development of the personal column and lonely-heart advertising was piecemeal and only slowly became what readers from the 1990s would recognise. Instead it is more direct, defining very particular characteristics that would help to match to partners. As Meek writes, ‘what is evident is the explicit articulation of potential friends’ / lovers’ qualities’. Here we can see the emergence, I think, of a variety of different masculinities and femininities which responded both to the potential of the period and to the different countercultures within British society. This is particularly the case for the LGBT community, as will be seen below, but it is also evident in the case of heterosexual adverts place in Marxism Today. Cutting across this gender spectrum is the question of age, regional identity, and politics.
Historians have long undertaken content analysis of personal ads seeking to understand the ways in which gender and sexuality are replicated, relayed, and represented, in the language used by the advertisers. In an early study, Harrison and Saeed suggested that ads were framed in a ‘matching’ mode with the desired characteristics being sought also being offered by the advertiser. For example, in this advertisement from 1987:
Lively intelligent woman seeks attractive man (30+) into food, filmgoing, political argument and frivolity.
They also argue that women were more likely to offer attractiveness and seek financial security, whereas men were more likely to offer financial security and seek attractiveness. Not unsurprisingly, it was women that were more likely to mention physical appearance rather than men. Thus this, admittedly quirky, example, also from 1987:
Wanted. Michael Ignatieff look-alike or even the real thing. By 30 year-old feminist.
Or this one from 1988:
Sperm donors, health, reliable and genuine, wanted by lesbian.
Historians have interpreted these differing emphases as resulting from traditional stereotypes operating in mainstream society, that is with women being viewed as sex objects and men as success objects (to adopt Simon Davis’s terms). Davis’s research, which used the Vancouver Sun from September 1988 to September 1989, found thirteen characteristics coded into the ads, ranging from physical appearance to a call for a photograph to intellectual capability. These ultimately proved consistent with traditional gender roles. The ads in Marxism Today seemingly present a challenge to these findings – although more research is necessary before we may conclude this comprehensively. I say this because, in fact, in the heterosexual ads we are as likely to find calls for partners on the basis of emotional and intellectual parity, than we are to find a search for a physically attractive partner. For example:
Male socialist, 40. Likes Orwell/Camus/ French Impressionists/ Cyndi Lauper and Victoria Wood. Seeks humorous female.
Bright, petite woman (31) seeks man with sense of humour and liking for the pleasures of life.
More consistent with historiographical expectations are LGBT ads. Here certain types of physicality are very clearly in demand. Thus in October 1986, one man, describing himself as a ‘slim, good-looking white guy’ placed an ad seeking ‘stocky, good-looking black guys for safe fun’. The physical characteristics are very deliberate. They also avoid what Meek calls ‘obvious references to masculinity’. At this stage there is not yet the same kind of focus in the gay ads placed in Marxism Today on effeminacy – relayed in ‘non-camp’ or ‘straight-acting’ – as there were in newspapers and magazines targeted directly at the gay community. It was undoubtedly present, as this example from April 1987, illustrates:
Gay male, mid-thirties, Wiltshire, seeks new friends any area […] No stereotypes or humourless ideologues.
In fact, the phrase ‘straight acting’ (or its variations) does not appear in an advert until 1990. In it the man describes himself as:
27, attractive, well-built, straight-acting, outgoing, seeks pref. non-scene guy in 20s for friendship, possibly more.
And the language developed into rather more overt hostility to feminine characteristics, as this example from December 1990 illustrates:
27, leftist, intelligent, attractive, non-scene, seeks similar. Camp vacuous tarts need not apply.
There was, clearly, an emphasis on masculine traits and a rejection of stereotyped attributes, not unsurprisingly given that, as Paul Baker has suggested, ‘masculinity, as a gendered practice, is often stereotypically associated with heterosexual men’. For straight and gay men alike, then, signs of effeminacy were a stigma which did not fit with expectations of the masculine ideal – something prevalent in the late-1980s and as much today: as Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian last year, ‘gay men have a big problem with camp’.
One element of the LGBT ads which is not apparent in the heterosexual personals, for obvious reasons, is a sense of an individual ‘coming out’ and then seeking friendship and companionship in environments where this was less readily available. An early example of this appears in 1987 when a 21 year old man from East Sussex appealed for friends to overcome the loneliness and depression brought about by his homosexuality.
Left in Love or MT Hearts as it later became can be read, then, as a snapshot of attitudes on the left of British politics. From the disaffected New Statesman reader seeking a socialist feminists to talk things over with to the vegetarian gay men from Tyneside after a bit of sex and chats about contemporary music, the language used in the ads tell us much about the cultural influences on Marxism Today readers and their own attitudes to sexuality and gender. For just over 5 years, from 1986 until the magazine’s closure in 1991, Marxism Today provided an outlet for lonely hearts across Britain and an alternative to the newspapers and specialist press that would otherwise have published them.