A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Queerness at an early age is usually recollected as a positive rather than a negative feeling, a suggestion that it is not something constructed by stigma, because the awareness precedes the age at which internalized stigmatization could be activated. However, ‘gender constructs’ could possibly occur at a very early age, and gender roles are often used to support social constructionist arguments. The view that children are wholly conditioned by their parents ignores the fact that ‘children are born with differing temperaments which to some degree determine how they will be treated by parents and others’ (Legg 1994). The 1981 Kinsey Institute studies of possible correlates between homosexuality and other factors such as class, siblings, etc., ‘came up with almost nothing. They very nearly found that the only powerful predictor of adult homosexuality is childhood gender nonconformity, a finding that has been replicated often, both retrospectively and prospectively’ (J. D. Weinrich, ‘Sociobiology’, EH). However, to posit gender nonconformity as somehow ‘causing’ homosexuality begs the question: ‘what causes the gender nonconformity? Researchers have suggested that at some level, the child and family know from an early point that the child is sexually "different"‘ (R. C. Savin-Williams, ‘Youth’, EH).

John Tanner (1780-1847), who lived among the North American Indians for the last thirty years of his life, and who was constantly approached by a fifty-year-old man who had already lived with many husbands and now wanted to live with him, said that among the Objibbeway the berdache ‘are commonly called A-go-kwa, a word which is expressive of their condition’. A common theme is that the two-spirit individual is destined to be the way he or she is. Usually this calling is discovered in early childhood; at one extreme, the infant who picks up a female article of clothing or occupation rather than male articles which have been placed in a circle near it, will be ‘dedicated’ to the two-spirit life, and this has been used to argue for social conditioning. But the ritual could well be a case of retrospective rationalization, of parents’ explaining and justifying their children’s personality, in the same way that the dreams ‘authorizing’ these transformations are often ‘recalled’ after the event. An observer of berdache among the Crow of the Plains in 1903 said ‘I was told that when very young, those persons manifested a decided preference for things pertaining to female duties’; while another observer of the Miami said ‘There were men who are bred for this purpose from their childhood’ from the first moment they are seen picking up a spindle etc., but most of the evidence suggests that they were ‘self-recruited’ (Whitehead 1993).

There also existed the female berdache, e.g. the hwame among the Mohave, though their role seems to have been less clearly institutionalized. Female transvestites, e.g. in the Cocopa, as young girls have ‘male proclivities indicated by a desire to play with boys, make bows and arrows, hunt birds and rabbits’. Among the Yuman the kwe’rhame are rare, but they too ‘realize their character through a dream at puberty’, characteristically dreaming of men’s weapons; ‘As a small child the kwe’rhame plays with boy’s toys’ (cited by Whitehead 1993). In other words, like a good many modern lesbians, they were born tomboys.

Most berdache are described by themselves and their societies as comprising a ‘third sex/gender’, yet modern anthropologists concentrate on culture and custom and generally do not spend much time commenting upon the physiological – i.e. essentialist – characteristics of the berdache: ‘Spontaneous use of female speech patterns, a piping voice, or feminine ways of laughing and walking are sometimes mentioned as identifying the budding berdache’ (Whitehead 1993). There is abundant evidence that the berdache – exactly like most lesbians and gay men – have an innate nature that resists being heterosexually constructed. The Mohave, like many other tribes, explained it thus in 1937:

When there is a desire in a child’s heart to become a transvestite, that child will act different. It will let people become aware of that desire. They may insist on giving the child the toys and garments of its true sex, but the child will throw them away and do this every time there is a big [social] gathering. (Cited by Whitehead 1993)

The berdache were noted for being exclusively homosexual from the moment they took on the berdache identity/role until their death (Greenberg 1988) (though they paired off with non-berdache men). The common view that the berdache wore the clothes of the other sex is an oversimplified stereotype; it is more accurate to say that they wore some clothes of the other sex, which reflects their third-sex (or ‘two-spirit’) status; indeed more recent anthropologists describe such behaviour as ‘mixed-gender’ rather than ‘cross-gender’ or ‘cross-dressing’ (a term coined by Edward Carpenter in 1911), to get away from the simplistic idea of ‘reversal’ or ‘inversion’. Greenberg (1988) points out that the dichotomous view of gender used by anthropologists is inadequate, but he then uses the prejudicial phrase ‘partial or incomplete transformation’ to accord with his view that the ‘core’ of the phenomenon is based upon gender rather than orientation. Whitehead (1993) similarly argues that ‘for Native Americans, occupational pursuits and dress/demeanor were the important determinants of an individual’s social classification, and sexual object choice was its trailing rather than its leading edge’.

This kind of foreground versus background debate obscures the central point, which is that the berdache has a unified sexual/cultural identity in which sexuality is as fundamental as gender. Homosexuality is so closely tied up with the berdache identity that to assert that gender is ‘the important determinant’ is prescriptive rather than descriptive. Homosexuality is the constant in the berdache; their gender behaviour is variable (e.g. ranging from mostly male to mostly female clothing or occupations). Gender dress/demeanour is most sharply marked when a berdache marries a man: what is never adequately considered is the possibility that the other-gender option was chosen after the homosexual relationship was chosen, to allow for the efficient division of labour in ‘husband–wife’ couples. The active/passive roles of the berdache and his husband are not necessarily fixed in private, only in public: a Hupa berdache says of his partner, ‘As far as it was publicly known, he [the husband] was the man. But in bed there was an exchange of roles. They have to keep an image as masculine, so they always ask me not to tell anybody’ (cited by Williams 1986).

Part of the social constructionist analysis of the ‘gender role’ of the berdache depends upon the allegation that the husband of the berdache (and the wife of the female berdache) is simply a man (or woman) rather than publicly categorized into a role, but this is not really true. Husbands of berdaches and wives of hwame were frequently the butt of social ridicule, a ‘kidding’ or ‘teasing’ severe enough to break up such marriages: i.e. a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy clearly functioned here (Williams 1986). McIntosh (1968) paradoxically acknowledges this yet ignores it in her discussion of the homosexual role. The view that husbands of berdaches do not form a pecular category is contradicted by George Catlin’s famous paintings and descriptions in the 1830s of the ‘Dance of the Berdache’, which in fact feature what he called the ‘society . . . of odd fellows’, which consists of those who have had sex with the berdache dancing around him and making a public proclamation of that fact; only the partners of the berdache have the privilege to join the dance and to partake of the feast afterwards. No native Indian term is given for these ‘odd fellows’, but the distinctive category was nevertheless institutionalized by this ritual.

The shamans of Siberia and Central Asia have many features in common with the berdache, though the phenomenon is more closely associated with ritual ecstasy or trance states. Transvestism is important to the role, and there is an institutionalized role for female shamans. The male shamans regard themselves as the ‘wife’ of a supernatural ‘husband’, and they marry men less frequently than do the berdache. It is important to recognize the distinctive religious role of the shamans, but it is also a fact that homosexuals have a professional monopoly on this role. It is by no means a modern gay anachronism to suggest, as did Edward Carpenter, that shamanism springs from homosexual orientation, or that ‘In the whole process the homosexual–transvestite orientation is primary, the shamanic calling secondary’ (W. Johansson, ‘Shamanism’, EH).

The hijras of modern India – who are mostly transvestite or transsexual male prostitutes who perform music and dance at important social festivals – have been reduced to specifically gender phenomena by modern theorists despite the overriding importance of homosexuality in their lives. The hijras are of course ‘constructed’ in the sense that they castrate themselves, but they maintain that their hijra identity predates that castration and is specifically a homosexual identity. Shakuntala, a hijra interviewed in 1981, expressed anger that

In many places men who are perfect men have joined this community only for the sake of earning a living. This is not good. Only men who have not spoiled any lady or got any children should come into the hijra company. You should not have had any affairs with ladies, not have loved ladies, or done any sexual thing with them or have married a lady. We true hijras are like this from childhood. From a small age we like to dance and dress as women. Even when we go away from this world, in our death, we must wear the sari. That is our desire. (Nanda 1993)

The gender of hijras is a specifically queer gender – ‘neither man nor woman’. They deliberately exaggerate or burlesque female dress and mannerisms; their sexually suggestive behaviour and coarse speech and gestures (notably their habit of lifting their skirt to display their mutilated genitals) would be outrageous for women; they smoke the hookah which is reserved for men (Nanda 1993). A modern outrageous queen would recognize a sister in the hijra and his kin. Margaret Mead tells a story demonstrating instant recognition between an Omaha Indian berdache and a modern Japanese homosexual who visited her in the field in 1961. The Japanese man ‘was not a transvestite but . . . had a complete repertoire of homosexual postures. Within an hour of his arrival, the single berdache in the tribe turned up and tried to make contact with him’ (cited by Weinrich 1987).

Queers are as recognizable for their characteristic speech, mannerisms and bearing as are Jamaicans, Italians, Pakistanis or any other ethnic group. The long-running British television series Out on Tuesday (later called Out) demonstrated this to an embarrassing degree for politically correct viewers. Letters to the gay press complained about the choice of ‘obvious gay types’ for respondents/interviewees, unable to accept that we are all obvious gay types. I am sure that an aural analysis of the programme would result in a scientific chart of ‘the gay voice’.

‘Do queers walk funny?’ is a question still half-seriously debated in Internet queer newsgroups, the general consensus being that the walk imitates female prostitutes. But men who lived in the 1930s and 1940s when swishing was especially noticeable felt that the real construct was the exaggeratedly masculine walk of heterosexual men. ‘Men, with their B.M. [Bloody Manly] walk, were so terribly difficult to emulate. The biggest give away was the gay walk. The trouble was, if you were sent up, the camper you walked’ (Skinner 1978). Quentin Crisp remarked upon the Dilly boys in the 1920s: ‘A passer-by would have to be very innocent indeed not to catch the meaning of the mannequin walk and the stance in which the hip was only prevented from total dislocation by the hand placed upon it. . . . The strange thing about "camp" is that it has become fossilized. The mannerisms have never changed. If I were now to see a woman sitting with her knees clamped together, one hand on her hip and the other lightly touching her back hair, I should think, "Either she scored her last social triumph in 1926 or it is a man in drag"‘ (cited by Miller 1995).

However, ‘camp stylization’ can be traced much further back than the 1920s. Grahn (1984) points out that not all ‘femme’ faggotry imitates female mannerisms: ‘Some of it is an independent Gay cultural tradition . . . handed along from faggot to faggot. . . . It is commonly supposed that faggots lisp in imitation of women. Modern women, however, do not lisp . . . But the sweet sibilant faggot speech is peculiar to Gay men, and completely distinctive. For the most part faggots learn their particular manner of speaking from each other.’ Lisping is cited as an affectation in works by Shakespeare and by Chaucer; it is not impossible, as Grahn suggests, that it was once a special courting speech or a ceremonial language of court. The alleged stereotype of the mincing queen has not changed significantly since Adamantios portrayed him in the second century:

You can recognize him by his provocatively melting glance and by the rapid movement of his intensely staring eyes. . . . His head is tilted to the side, his loins do not hold still, and his slack limbs never stay in one position. He minces along with little jumping steps; his knees knock together. He carries his hands with palms turned upward. He has a shifting gaze, and his voice is thin, weepy, shrill, and drawling. (cited by Aldrich 1993)

The real problem is that social constructionists will happily jettison both history and personal experience if they contradict political theory. John D’Emilio saw his first queers during his first visits to Broadway as a fifteen-year-old high school student:

Three young men, thin as toothpicks, with long teased hair, mascara, rouge, and powder on their faces, their fingers fluttering in front of them. . . . As with so many of my other early instances of ‘discovery,’ I wonder now just how I knew they and I had something in common. No one had ever spoken to me about drag queens, or effeminacy, or homosexuality, or the connections among them. Yet I knew. . . . I, and so many of the gay men I met in the succeeding years, would wax lyrical about our sixth gay sense, about the sharply honed ability we all possessed to recognize ‘members of the tribe.’ Now I think that’s all hogwash. It ignores the hundreds of legs that didn’t press back [in subway cars] and eyes that didn’t return the gaze.

In my view this illustrates a politically correct renunciation of a perception that really did exist and which can be documented in the lives of a vast number of queer men and women throughout history. The queer gaze is immediately recognizable, whether one participates in it or just observes it. As a man who cruised Leicester Square during World War Two said, ‘The eyes, the eyes, they’re a dead giveaway. . . . If someone looks at you with a lingering look, and looks away, and then looks at you again’ (Chauncey 1994). Like countless others, I can recognize a gay man at fifty feet, by sight or by sound. I can tell if a man is gay by the way he walks, by the inflections in his voice, by the way he steps out of a car. It is not simply a matter of being effeminate or even camp. As Donald Webster Cory said in the 1950s, there are signs ‘neither masculine nor feminine, but specifically and peculiarly homosexual’. When these features are exaggerated they become the mincing gait, the high-pitched, haughty or ironic voice and lisp, the self-conscious display of the body and the flutter of the fingers. ‘The special language of a queen, or even an ordinary garden-variety faggot, is so distinct I find I can distinguish it even in a crowd of men in a restaurant or on the street, far from any Gay scene’ (Grahn 1984). To assert that various queer gestures and signs are ‘culturally specific’ is to ignore the evidence that a quite limited number of gestures and signs marks out the effeminate/camp man and the butch woman across a very wide range of cultures and across several thousand years. A ‘third sex’ category is almost universally discernible even while the ‘manly’ and ‘feminine’ elements that go into that category differ.

It is very hard to find any evidence of social construction in the memoirs of gay men and lesbians. Gifford Skinner (1978), a working-class man born in 1911, remembers that his father’s pub’s urinal was constantly occupied by queens. He would wander in as an eight-year-old, and he knew instinctively that something interesting was going on which his presence interrupted. He would wait patiently for it to resume, but the occupiers always waited until he withdrew. In summer evenings he would attract the attention of back street children ‘by lifting up my flannelette nightshirt’. He would also dress up and strike attitudes, particularly in an oriental costume made from his sixteen-year-old sister’s yellow blouse, some lace, her stockings and some beads. ‘Dressed in this camp garb I did an undulatory dance to the gramophone record of The Passing of Salome by Archibald Joyce.’ Later, a school friend would occasionally sleep over. ‘I invented a game to play with him in bed whereby we took it in turns to be queen. I think it must have been inspired by Lewis Carrol because the queen was terrifically bossy and insisted on taking the active role in a crude simulation of anal copulation, a thing about which we knew little or nothing.’ His teacher organized a town carnival and she asked Gifford what he would like to go as. Gifford replied ‘A harem lady.’ By the beginning of the 1930s he was self-consciously ‘so’ and ‘musical’, and a very active member of the queer subculture, where he wore suede shoes and make-up and achieved upward mobility by liaisons with better-off, older men.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Gender Nonconformity", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social04.htm>

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