Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Myth of the Modern Homosexual

Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity

About the Book:

The cover of The Myth of the Modern Homosexual The Myth of the Modern Homosexual demolishes the myth that "the homosexual" was invented in modern times. With careful reasoning supported by wide-ranging scholarship, cultural historian Rictor Norton exposes the fallacies of "social constructionist" theories that currently dominate lesbian and gay studies, and argues the case for the autonomy of queer identities and culture. Addressing the general (queer) reader in clear jargon-free terms, the author unashamedly sites himself within the "essentialist" camp, and presents the evidence that queers are part of a centuries-old history, possessing a unified historical cultural identity. Norton reviews the fundamental historiographical issues about the nature of queer history, arguing that a new generation of queer historians will need to abandon authoritarian dogma founded upon politically correct ideology rather than historical experience. The author argues that queer culture — with its ethnic customs and traditions — is the proper subject of queer history, rather than the usual emphasis upon homophobia, which is little more than a history of heterosexual prejudice. He examines how queer identity has been formed by a sense of historical context as well as a sense of sexual orientation, and re-evaluates the contribution made by culturally identified queers to the recovery of queer history. He offers a clear exposition of the evidence for ancient, indigenous and premodern queer cultural continuity, revealing how knowledge of that history has been suppressed and censored. The author sets forth the "queer cultural essentialist" position on the key topics of queer history — role, identity, bisexuality, orientation, linguistics, social control, homophobia, subcultures, kinship patterns — and redraws the battle lines for future debate.

About the Author

Rictor Norton is the author of Mother Clap's Molly House, the highly acclaimed history of the gay subculture in England 1700-1830. He taught one of the earliest courses on gay and lesbian literature (Florida State University, 1971) and co-edited the first all-gay issue of an academic journal (College English, 1974). After completing his 1973 doctoral dissertation on Renaissance homosexual literature, he emigrated to London, and worked full-time at Gay News, from 1974 to 1979. He has written many articles on gay history and literature, and is a contributor to the New Dictionary of National Biography. He has recently edited an anthology of Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (Gay Sunshine Press).

There was a review in the International Gay and Lesbian Review by James Bohling, who said:

Rictor Norton has produced one of the most important works in GLBT studies with this book, and with it has let loose a devastating round of ammunition at the oppressive blanket of social constructionist theory which has had an unjust monopoly on queer academic discourse for far too long. Furthermore, Norton presents his case for a essential queer identity with accessible and engaging language, which is a welcome relief. Any reader interested in GLBT issues who has felt skeptical or uneasy about the prevalence of social constructionist dogma in the field will greatly profit from reading Norton's book. And those who have felt neither skeptical nor uneasy about such dogma stand to profit even more.

See also a Review by Antony Grey.

Originally published in 1997 by Cassell. Reissued by Bloomsbury Academic Publishing in October 2016.

Synoptic Table of Contents

Social Constructionism and Other Myths

1. The Search for Cultural Unity
The importance of rediscovering historical gay roots for the development of gay pride and cultural identity.

2. Queer BC (Before Constructionism)
The class-based difference between the terms "role" and "identity"; the existence of queer identities and the exclusive homosexual orientation in premodern history; the myth of ancient "bisexuality"; the insignificance of "social control" in shaping identities or regulating subcultures.

3. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual
The myths of "internalized homophobia", "subversion", "modern egalitarian versus ancient transgenerational models", and the absence of demonstrable links between homosexuality or homophobia and bourgeois capitalism or the modern family.

4. It's Just a Phrase We're Going Through
The history of the words "homosexual", "sodomite" and "lesbian"; linguistic evidence for queer identities in ancient, indigenous and premodern cultures; queer languages; the cultural context of queer-words.

The Nature of Queer History

5. What Is Queer History?
Review of the scholarly study of queer history by culturally identified queers; refutation of the charge of "anachronism"; reinstatement of the traditional cultural/historical approach to correct the distortions of modern political analysis of ideological "discourse"; redefinition of queer history as the history of queer culture rather than heterosexual homophobia.

6. The Evidence of Things Not Seen
Review of the suppression, censorship and outright destruction of the main sources of queer history; problems of recovering evidence that has been misconstructed, mistranslated, misrepresented and excluded from historigraphical discourse.

7. Lesbian Historiography
The "standard of proof" for defining lesbian relations; ancient and premodern evidence of lesbian identities; the continuity of lesbian history; cultural traditions of romantic friendship, female husbands, cross-dressing and butch/femme relations; the suppression of lesbian history by lesbian-feminists.

Queer Culture

8. The Great Queens of History
The discovery of cultural identity through lists of famous homosexuals and pairs of faithful friends, icons and the gay literary heritage — a tradition of a unifying historical/cultural contextualization that began centuries before modern gay apologetics and self-justification.

9. Queer (Sub)cultures
The autonomy of queer (sub)cultures, whose features arise independently from the mainstream society and are shaped by working-class ethnic custom rather than homophobia; the queer geography of cruising grounds and pubs; survey of complex queer subcultures in premodern history; dates of the public exposure of a subculture not to be confused with its "birth" or "emergence"; importance of migration in maintaining the historical continuity of subcultures.

10. Queer Folk and Culture Queens
An ethnic definition of queer culture, and survey of queer customs and folklore, queer festivals and costumes, folk narratives and kinship networks, tribal identity and ethnic roots; paradigmatic examples of culturally identified queers. Conclusion: Queer Reconstruction — Problems of reclaiming a culture whose links with the past may have been severed; survey of queer traditions that survived intact for centuries until being destroyed by nineteenth-century colonialism and twentieth-century Westernization; problems of modern decoding and "appropriation"; is AIDS an epitaph?



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