Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


A theory that is politically useful may be either true or false: its political value does not depend upon its accuracy, but upon its power of persuasion or coercion. Many gay and lesbian activists believe that social constructionism is politically useful for undermining mechanisms of social control and oppression. Many gays and lesbians also realize, however, that essentialism is politically useful for empowering minority groups by giving them a sense of solidarity grounded upon a sense of identity. An effective gay rights movement might well employ strategies suggested by both schools of thought, exploiting each approach according to circumstances, without regard to consistency. This must inevitably raise contradictions, however, and charges of cynicism. My own approach is to argue homophobia is a construct while homosexuality is innate.

In any case, it is naive to think that one theory or the other will inevitably affect the predominantly negative attitudes of modern Western society, and societies influenced by the West. ‘The idea that any particular political posture or strategy would guarantee success in eradicating homophobia is probably wishful thinking. As others of the dispossessed have discovered, where the dominant culture is hostile, it can transform any minority self-presentation into a reinforcement for hostility’ (Duberman 1986, 1991). A major problem with social constructionism is its foundation upon behaviourism, which has been used to defend attempts to change or convert homosexuals. On the other hand, an essentialist view can also be used to justify genetic research, and if a ‘gay gene’ is discovered, society may well attempt to eliminate or modify it.

It does not really matter what view queer historians take, biological scientists will pursue their endeavours. Lobotomies have been performed and have fallen out of favour but few apologies have been issued. Hormonal theory is still somewhat current and chemical castration is still performed. The latest and perhaps most serious development is genetic research that is inevitably linked to eugenics. The Richard Daad research centre at Broadmoor prison in England, opened by the Princess of Wales in 1995, has been coordinating a study of the brain structures and genetic makeup of murderers and violent sex offenders in top-security prison hospitals. According to a report in the Sunday Times (24 December 1995) ‘The specialist psychiatrists involved hope the knowledge gained from the group of "criminally insane" patients will revolutionise the treatment of mental illness, allowing children at risk to be identified early and given preventive drugs.’ There are similar studies in Holland, where researchers believe that they have discovered a gene connected to aggression and ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ (a standard way of referring to homosexuality). The search for genes that predispose one towards ‘antisocial behaviour’ is in vogue, and homosexuality is a popular text model precisely because the majority of scientists think that it is self-evident that same-sex relations are ‘antisocial’ (i.e. nonprocreative, unnatural) and ‘inappropriate’ (i.e. directed to the ‘wrong’ sex). The Forensic Science Service DNA database in Birmingham, England, has the genetic profiles of four million persons not only convicted of crimes but suspected of sex offences.

Moderate arguments from gay activists will have little effect upon how this information will be used. The main opponents of genetic studies are those who espouse the unproven dogmas of social constructionism – e.g. Anne Fausto-Sterling in Myths of Gender (1992) and Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald in Exploding the Gene Myth (1993). It is not likely that such genetic research is going to be abandoned in the light of their critiques. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Hirschfeld and his colleagues developed the idea that homosexuality was innate and congenital and therefore impossible to change, but people are already beginning to argue that it is genetic and therefore possible to change. ‘If (Simon) LeVay is right, it will no longer be tenable to regard homosexuality as freely chosen and therefore "sinful". However, it might instead be seen as a biological defect, which can be diagnosed prenatally and "cured". One researcher in the field, Günther Dorner, director of the Institute of Experimental Endocrinology at Humbolt University in what was East Berlin, already suggests that women bearing male fetuses should have hormone injections to guard against the risk of having a homosexual son’ (Vines 1992).

Investigations into the ‘causes’ of homosexuality (or homosexualities) are almost invariably hostile, and are almost invariably premised upon a concept of abnormality or physical defect rather than mere difference. It is difficult to envisage a time when scientists will regard homosexuality as a variety rather than an anomaly. I have much sympathy with the gay liberationist resistance to the investigation into etiology, and perhaps queers are morally bound not to participate in such research. But to put a stop to such research seems like an admission of defeat. It is better to put our weight behind the argument in favour of the strict regulation of genetic research, and to make the point that if a ‘gay gene’ is found to exist, then genetic intervention is literally equivalent to genocide.

It seems to me that gay and lesbian activists ought to throw their weight behind what is called 'identity politics', which is largely founded upon essentialism principles.

It is sometimes argued that gay people cannot achieve a sense of ethnic identity because their parents are not gay. It is argued that because queer children are not raised by queer parents (most parents will be heterosexual by definition), they can never really form a gay community in the sense that black people or Jewish people will naturally grow up within an ethnic community. However, I disagree with this. I think that 'community' is one instance where this kind of biological determinism is not the overriding influence.

A sense of identity is in fact a cultural perception. It does not derive from the nuclear family of birth, but from a wider group of people beyond the personal family. Many black children develop an awareness of themselves as gay or lesbian before they become aware of themselves as black. Their identity does not spring from their family, but from an interaction between themselves and a wider culture; that is, they perceive that they are sexually different from other heterosexual people, often before they perceive that they are different from other white people. Their gay/lesbian and black identities partly take shape under the influence of homophobia and racism, and they usually become conscious of homophobia at an earlier age than they become conscious of racism. And they usually achieve a sense of black identity not because they identify with their personal family, but because they identify with a wider black-liberation group outside their family. The personal family of birth is not really the only, or even the most important, factor in identity formation. It is quite mistaken to suggest that there can be no queer ethnic community simply because our parents are not queer. Identity and culture are largely determined by peers rather than parents. Gays and lesbians can tune into that as well as anyone else.

Queer theorists sometimes attack identificatory alliances and point out the tensions and conflicts between being black and queer, Jewish and queer, and in one way or another being forced to join an essentialized 'club' that would cut off part of their overall identity. But in reality this sharply exclusive division seldom exists. Many gay and lesbian black people happily identify themselves as both gay/lesbian and black, and the either/or (all or nothing) dilemma arises mainly in the context of the larger black culture (or Jewish culture, or Christian culture, etc.). The pressures are caused by homophobia, not by by ideological concern over the enforcement of essentialism.

Lesbian queer theorists, in their attack on what they consider to be the fallacy of a 'queer community', sometimes cite works by people such as Audre Lorde's Zami, Bulkin, Pratt and Smith's Yours in Struggle and Connerly's "The Politics of Black Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity", which express feelings of exclusion from both the black culture and the gay culture by queers of colour. However, these are works of the 1980s, which reflect the troubled spirit of their times. During the 1990s you can find plenty of lesbian/feminists of colour who have amalgamated their sexual identity and their ethnic identity and who are seeking rather than rejecting 'roots' (that is, they are finding empowerment in a kind of neo-essentialism); for example: Irena Klepfisz (Jewishness and lesbian-feminism) who has edited The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Woman's Anthology; Chrystos who combines the lesbian voice with that of the Native American Indian; Beth Brant (Degonwadonti), a lesbian Bay of Quinte Mohawk, who edited A Gathering of Spirits in 1983; Kitty Tsui (Chinese heritage and lesbian-feminism) who edits New Phoenix Rising: The Asian/Pacific Lesbian Newsletter; Suniti Namjoshi and Gillian Hanscombe who wrote a dialogue celebrating lesbian love against Namjoshi's roots in India; Cherri (Lawrence) Moraga who combines her lesbian and Latina roots by celebrating her mother's Chicana culture. I think this new community spirit is the wave of the future.

One of the main things that queer theorists object to about the concept of queer ethnic community is that it entails an 'essentialist' notion of the self, which is a dirty epithet in their discourse. But the simple fact is that some form of essentialism has been a factor in nearly everything – for good as well as ill — that has taken place during the past three thousand years, because during that time most people have been essentialists. So what else is new? The suggestion that racism, sexism, classism and homophobia are integrally related to essentialism is based upon the false premise that the perception that there is an essential difference between men and women (to take an example) necessarily leads to the view that one is superior to the other (i.e. that men are superior to women). But this assertion of hierarchy (which I agree is integral to sexism, racism, classism, homophobia etc.) is in fact a feature of structuralism – that is, it depends upon the premise that there is a structural relationship between pairs of essences. Basically, queer theorists regularly conflate essentialism with binarism – but in fact binarism is a feature of social constructionism. It is entirely possible to reclaim essentialism from the slander of binarism that has been unwarrantably attached to it, and to pursue an agenda that is premised upon both essentialism and equality.

Discrete sexual identities these days are a political issue. The legislation of sexual rights is linked to the essentialist concepts of a coherent sexual identity and sexual community. Some gay activists, particularly queer theorists, argue that protection of rights will inevitably lead to the lives of gay men and lesbians being mediated and controlled by the state. I disagree. The protection of the rights of sexual minorities is not tantamount to the control of sexual experience or behaviour.

The protection of the rights of sexual minorities in fact goes far beyond the laws that merely define the boundaries of legal/illegal sexual behaviour. To argue that this is the subject of sexual rights legislation is to take a very narrow view of the gay and lesbian community, in fact the queer theoretical view that gay and lesbian people have only their sexual practice in common. This is tantamount to saying that members of the Jewish community have only their religious worship in common, thus wiping away several thousand years of Jewish cultural history. Most gay communities in fact have quite a few things in common: for example Language, Folklore, Culture, Sensibilities, Literary and musical traditions, and Rituals. The abolition of discriminatory sexual laws is just one part of the modern gay rights agenda, which is also deeply concerned about such things as persuading the police to take a serious interest in prosecuting crimes of queer-bashing. In other words, the argument is for the protection of the human rights of sexual minorities, not the sexual rights of minorities (we are not arguing simply for the right to enjoy anal intercourse, from which majorities would benefit, incidentally).

The argument for the protection of the human rights of sexual minorities does not assert that the state should ajudicate sexual acts. It wants the state to adjudicate acts of homophobia. Just as the argument for human rights in general wants the state to adjudicate acts of racist and sexist hatred. The argument for hate crime legislation is part of this, but that is only a small and negative part of the human rights agenda.

Queer theorists' attack on identity politics seems to me to be very misguided. Most of the really important advances in the past thirty years have centered upon the existence of the queer community. In many states and countries laws against homosexuality have not changed very much, but the quality of queer life has nevertheless improved considerably because of the cultural and support networks developed by a community of self- identifying queers into which people could come out. I don't quite understand the concern about "identity police policing the boundaries" in the 1990s, because the boundaries of queer culture are far broader and more inclusive than they were in the 1950s and 1970s. The boundaries of the queer community, as far as I can see, are far less rigidly and rigorously enforced than the boundaries of most other cultural communities. There is a world of difference between the gay world of the late 1960s when men were either strictly effeminate or strictly straight-acting, and the gay world of the late 1990s when diversity is very broadly tolerated. The commercial gay scene today is not the best of all possible worlds, but I cannot sympathize at all with the queer theorist attack on the very concept of community and identity. It seems a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Queer theorists argue that 'If the fight for queer rights is based upon a concrete queer identity based on genital sex, then it is doomed to failure.' What queer theorists want is 'the right to identify and practise any combination of genders, sexes, and practises' -- that is, the name of the queer theory game is diversity rather than identity.

This is politically naive. The key issue of the human rights agenda is that individual persons shall not be discriminated against insofar as they are members of a specific class of persons. That is the premise of the legal definition of discrimination. If you refuse to categorize homosexuals as a class of persons you have lost the argument for any reform based upon human rights. It's a non-starter. No legal expert in human rights legislation would touch it.

The status of homosexuals as a class or group of people who share enough features to be identified as homosexual persons is essential to the advancement of their human rights. You can legally deprive someone of their employment because they are incompetent or sick or dress dirty, but if it can be shown that you have really fired them because they belong to a class such as women, or Jamaicans, or gypsies, then you can be prosecuted in the courts for unfair persecution.

The great struggle of gay rights has been to include sexual orientation as a class or status under international human rights law. Some courts have found that it is 'cruel and inhuman' to forbid homosexuals to engage in homosexual acts (which the Roman Catholic Church would do) because homosexual acts are integral to their identity. To say that sexual identity and sexual orientation are not realities (as many queer theorists do) would conspire with our oppressors and undermine that argument. As James D. Wilets argues in his book The Human Rights of Sexual Minorities (published as an International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Resource in 1997): 'The argument must be made that not only are sexual minorities a global phenomenon, members of sexual minorities should not be denied their human rights simply because they are part of this phenomenon. In addition, the many and varied ways by which members of sexual minorities express their status as sexual minorities are deserving of human rights protection as legitimate political and social expression, and as an integral part of the development of one's full identity.'

When I refer to discrimination I am thinking mainly of Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status', and the struggle has been to persuade the courts to recognize 'sexual minority' as an 'other status'. The rights I am concerned about include rights to marriage, pension and social security, adoption, employment, housing, right of public assembly, right of expression and publication – and all the rights we usually think about when we refer to 'discrimination'.

However, it is equally important to establish that the recognition of the rights of sexual minorities – which involves sexual orientation and identity – also involves a fundamental human right to life, and in order to arouse international outrage about, for example, the murder of gay men and transvestites by the police in Peru and Argentina and Brazil. It is largely due to the efforts of self-identified homosexuals in groups such as the Movimiento Homosexual de Lima that such persecution can no longer be ignored by the international community.

Human Rights Watch changed its mandate specifically to enable it to address the violation of sexual minorities' right to life, and the concept of sexual identity was instrumental in its focus upon this issue. As they declared: 'Human Rights Watch opposes state-sponsored and state-tolerated violence, detention and prosecution of individuals because of their sexual identity, sexual orientation or private sexual practices. Human Rights Watch grounds this policy in the right to life, liberty and security of the person (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 6 and 9), rights of freedom of expression and association (UDHR 19 and 22; ICCPR 19 and 22), the right against arbitrary detention (UDHR 9, ICCPR 9), the right to privacy (UDHR 12, ICCPR 17) and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of status (UDHR 2, ICCPR 2, 26).'

The crux of my argument is that you cannot effectively argue against the persecution of sexual minorities unless 'sexual minorities', 'sexual identities' and 'sexual status' – as opposed to the mere diversity of sexual acts and behaviour – are deemed to exist.

Previous: Discourse versus Desire


Next: Homosexual Identities


(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The Uses and Abuses of Theory", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

Return to Gay History and Literature