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


Many of the early gay liberationists – like most activists in nationalist and ethnic movements – believed, I think correctly, that knowledge of history plays an important role in the development of solidarity. A consciousness of belonging to a cultural community can provide the strength necessary for collective action to overcome oppression. Jonathan Katz’s Coming Out: A Documentary Play about Gay Life and Liberation in the United States of America (1972/73) used some two dozen significant moments in American gay history to promote enthusiasm for the struggle, including the ‘Boys of Boise’ witch hunt, the Stonewall Riot, notable raids and trials in Chicago and New York, along with vignettes of Horatio Alger, Willa Cather, Allen Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman. Gay heritage also formed the basis of one of the earliest pieces of agitprop performed by the Gay Sweatshop theatre company in London in 1976: As Time Goes By, by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, had European queer-cultural set pieces, including the male brothel of the Cleveland Street Scandal in the 1890s, the socialist Edward Carpenter and his boyfriend George Merrill at their home in Millthorpe, and a scene during Weimar Republic 1929–33, with references to Russia and the Nazis, in which two drag entertainers sing to the early gay sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld ‘Dear Darling Doctor Magnus’.

The simple fact of queer survival is itself inspiring and empowering: ‘the history of gay people shows that despite repression, secrecy and shame, we as a people have nonetheless survived, have insisted on our specialness, have developed coping strategies for survival; and therefore this history can provide real inspiration to everyone else to be just as different as they really are – to summon up the courage to insist on their specialness being respected’ (Duberman 1986, 1991). Several queer historians opted for this discipline specifically because it comes within the liberation agenda, as did John D’Emilio (1993): ‘My allegiance to the academic world was, at best, tenuous; only the conviction that the movement would be strengthened by the retrieval of its hidden early history kept me at it.’

Queer history was also important to the earlier ‘homophile’ movement. ONE Institute opened in 1956 and began offering its course on 'Homosexuality in History' in 1957. 'The History of the Homophile Movements of Europe', offered in 1958–59, included visiting lectures by men who personally knew Magnus Hirschfeld. 'The Homosexual in American Society or Sociology of Homosexuality' was first given in 1959–60, and was designed specifically to examine two new ideas: that a ‘homosexual minority’ and a ‘homosexual culture’ existed (Legg 1994). Jim Kepner began his very thorough seminars on 'Homosexuality in Modern German History: From Frederick the Great Through Hitler' in 1959–60. Don Slater began teaching 'The Gay Novel' in 1960, the year in which the Institute issued ‘A Declaration of Homosexual Rights’. Christopher Isherwood was a Director of ONE’s affiliate Institute for the Study of Human Resources from 1976 to 1984, and he researched much of Christopher and His Kind in ONE Institute’s Blanche M. Baker Memorial Library and Archives. Another Director was Laud Humphreys, author of Tearoom Trade and Out of the Closets, the Sociology of Homosexual Liberation (1972). Vern L. Bullough, Professor of History at California State University, Northridge, was closely involved with the Institute from the late 1960s, notably contributing some two thousand entries from his research towards the compilation of A Bibliography of Homosexuality, published in 1976. From 1981 the ONE Institute Graduate School was licensed by the State education authority to offer courses leading to accredited Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Homophile Studies. One of the first dissertations was Michael H. Lombardi’s The Writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1984) (his translation of Ulrichs’s complete writings was published in 1988).

ONE, Inc. is understandably resentful that its activities and publications have been lightly dismissed by social constructionist historians such as John D’Emilio (1992), who claims that when he started graduate school in 1971 ‘"gay history" was a term not yet invented’ – whereas in fact ‘homophile history’ existed as a term in the 1950s, and as a concept since the 1870s. There is a New York versus California element in gay politics, New York being the base for ‘progressive’ politically-based social constructionism, and California being the base for the more personal, developmental, cultural, ‘lifestyle’ and New Age essentialism, much satirized by the New York set with its greater access to publishing power bases and the media. The New York branch of gay liberation has rewritten the history of the homophile emancipation movement and attempted to reserve most of the credit to itself. Dorr Legg’s book attempts to set the record straight, and certainly establishes the fact that an enormous cultural educational programme existed some fifteen years before the supposed ‘birth’ of gay liberation in 1969 in New York’s Stonewall riots.

In 1957 Henry (Harry) Hay began working on an article whose title neatly sums up the historical theme I will be focusing on in this critique: ‘The Homophile in Search of an Historical Context and Cultural Contiguity’. Though a paid-up member of the Communist Party, Hay took what is now called the 'essentialist' approach, emphasizing the importance of anthropological evidence of cross-cultural unity in variety, e.g. of initiation rituals and transgender persons: ‘all their thousand modifications are facts in a single series, and only ring the changes upon some one impulse or necessity that is implicit in the generic situation.’ Harry Hay had begun promoting his concept of ‘the Homosexual Minority’ in 1948, and under his guidance in 1950 the Mattachine Society Mission and Purposes stated that it was ‘possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work, paralleling the emerging culture of our fellow minorities – the Negro, Mexican and Jewish Peoples’. Charles Rowland, another founder of the Mattachine Society, in his article ‘The Homosexual Culture’ which he contributed to ONE Magazine in May 1953 ‘strongly defended the proposition that homosexuals constitute a minority with a distinctive culture’. During the Mattachine Constitutional Convention on 11 April 1953, and its continuation a month later, ‘the words minority and culture triggered major disputes on several occasions during the proceedings’ (Legg 1994).

But no one seemed to challenge the view that a minority culture has to make a contribution to its ‘parent culture’, i.e. be of value to society at large, as stated in an article on ‘Homosexual Culture’ by Julian Underwood in 1960: ‘Homosexuals can claim to be a distinct cultural minority only as it can be proven that they make a group contribution to the dominant culture which is the specific outcome of the homosexual temperament.’ Most of the discussion since that time has rested upon this fundamental misuse of the term ‘minority’, partly arising from the moral force attached to the ‘majority’ in American democratic philosophy. The truth is that any contribution from one culture to another is wholly irrelevant to whether or not that culture is distinctive. Romany Gypsies may or may not make a contribution to the societies in which they reside, but they are nevertheless a distinctive ethnic culture within society. The three ‘fellow minorities’ originally mentioned by Hay – Mexicans, Blacks and Jews – are not offsprings of a ‘parent’ white American culture. They may be dominated and oppressed by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American society, but they nevertheless have their own culture and their own history.

And queers, like Mexicans, Blacks and Jews, can draw strength from an awareness of their own culture and history. ‘What gives any group of people distinction and dignity is its culture. This includes a remembrance of the past and a setting of itself in a world context whereby the group can see who it is relative to everyone else’ (Grahn 1984). The search for cultural unity in the queer past is relevant even in the age of AIDS when attention is urgently focused upon the immediate present and near future. In Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (1988) a man and his lover who is dying with AIDS visit Greece: ‘Impossible to measure the symbolic weight of the place for a gay man. . . . Ancient places "confirm" a person, uniting a man to the past and thus the future.’

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

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