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


In fashionable postmodernist deconstruction, identity is trivialized as a detachable signifier, rather like a baseball cap. The current dogma is that culture is a commodity. But few of us, unless we are very rich, buy a complete new wardrobe each season: we settle for an accessory that matches our god-given complexion. The ‘style’ we adopt is not picked off the rail at random, but carefully chosen to suit us.

‘Identity’ is a politically loaded word which is too often used with linguistic carelessness. Chauncey (1994), for example, asserts that in large urban centres gay men constructed ‘the multiple public identities necessary for them to participate in the gay world without losing the privileges of the straight: assuming one identity at work, another in leisure; one identity before biological kin, another with gay friends. . . . their segregation from one another allowed men to assume a different identity in each of them, without having to reveal the full range of their identities in any one of them.’ My own view is that people who genuinely possess ‘multiple identities’ are schizophrenics. What Chauncey describes as identity is what I call situational role-playing, which we understand well enough through 1970s consciousness-raising groups or 1990s management seminars.

Chauncey takes the position that work identities, ethnic identities, kinship identities and sexual identities are all relative and more or less equal, and have no centrally organizing identity. But the gay men who lived in the 1930s and 1940s whom he interviewed often referred to ‘my type’ – obviously what they meant by this was not ‘we Italians’ or ‘we bus drivers’ or ‘we mutual insurers’. They were talking about their basic, intrinsic or core identity, which is their queer identity.

Many public identities are really masks, which can be changed to suit the occasion, while the inner identity remains stable. A look at diaries written by queer men (e.g. Parker Tyler and Carl Van Vechten) rarely reveals their work identity, but demonstrates instead that the subject upon which they reflect is a single, coherent queer identity. The fact that gay men and women frequented queer restaurants and clubs where they could ‘let their hair down’ suggestes that their ‘public identities’ were superficial and artificial in comparison with their natural, personal identity. This is what I refer to when I use the word identity – the rest are personae projected for public consumption. It is not strictly accurate to say that ‘closeted’ gay men adopt a straight identity at straight social gatherings. On the contrary, their enquiries about their straight interlocutor’s wife and family can be secretly laced with sarcasm and contempt. Many middle-class gay men and lesbians have relished the delicious ironies in the contrast between the public persona and the private person.

Many practising counsellors and therapists who help people manage identity problems have misgivings about social constructionism because in their experience they see that a damaged identity can be healed by rediscovering an identity that was distorted by negative labelling. Usually the label has to be re-used in a more positive manner – thus coloured people became Blacks, queers and fairies became gays, and deaf people become Deaf people:

As I learn more about deaf people through their own eyes, I can see how the social constructionist emphasis on the processes of ‘identification’ and the development of ‘social identity’ can act as a barrier to self-understanding and the achievement of personal identity in exactly the same way that a pathological view of deafness can, because the direction that these processes takes may be at odds with the person’s structure of meaning. But there is a second view of society or community as a place where we, as individual deaf people, feel comfortable and ‘at home’ with ourselves and which to a large extent reflects who we are and embraces our fundamental values. (Corker 1996)

The problem about labelling is not difference itself – even when it is used as the defining characteristic of a person – but the condemnation of that difference. Viewing difference in a negative light leads to isolation, but labels can also be used to establish commonality, and the solidarity of a marginalized community. Stereotypes hinder self-esteem when they are promoted as universal truths or norms against which people are judged and found wanting, but if this normative function can be resisted, ‘stereotypes and labels can be powerful "reservoirs of meaning"' (Corker 1996).

The major problem for young gay people is that the straight label doesn’t fit them, and they struggle to adopt a system of values and desires that contradicts their fundamental sense of self. The eventual adoption of the queer label, even with its stigma, comes with a sense of relief, and the process of integration begins. A telling argument against the classic labelling theory that a person branded as a queer is likely to fulfil the expectations of the label and become a queer, is the nearly universal experience of modern queers who felt that their queer identity was unique until they discovered the label later in life. There are literally hundreds of testimonies from people who on hearing ‘lesbian’ or ‘homosexual’ for the first time, rushed to their local library to find out about themselves, to confirm and make greater sense of an identity that they already possessed.

The social constructionist position that sexuality could not have become a defining characteristic of identity until the medical/sexological discourse of modern times is simply incorrect. The ‘demon’ of desire has been part of the psychodynamics of identity for many centuries. For example, a monk at the end of the twelfth century writes about a boy left in his care whom he had been raising as a son, who was now ten years old:

I was tortured and overwhelmed by an obscene desire, and the beast of impure lust and a desire for pleasure burned in my soul. . . . I was a changed person and completely in the grip of this unclean passion, and I wanted to have sex with the boy and to be with him, to my shame. . . . [After the boy was returned to the father], I never saw the boy again, but the enemy, knowing this, came after me more fiercely, more hotly, more sharply, and put the boy’s form into my mind and glued his likeness and image and appearance into my heart. (Boswell 1994).

This monk is dominated by homosexual lust – even to the extent that he has become utterly identified with his desire.

At the opposite end of this same continuum we find the archetypal features of ‘platonic love’, notably the identification of the lover and the beloved (‘another myself’). For a non-Western example, the Persian mystic poet Rumi (1207–73) fell in love with and identified himself with the wandering dervish Shams al-Din (ca. 1185–1248). Rumi’s wife forced them to separate, but when they reunited, contemporaries acknowledged that their love was so mutual that no one could determine who was ‘the lover’ and who was ‘the beloved’. Rumi’s jealous pupils murdered Shams, and Rumi’s abundant poetry of lamentation transcended grief through identification with Sham, Rumi being like the moon or mirror to Sham’s sun. This may not be ‘homosexual’, because Sufism had a platonic view of love/friendship, but ‘homosocial’ inadequately describes it. It was obviously passionate and special (i.e. beyond Rumi’s friendships with his other pupils), and the only adequate term I can find for it is: queer.

In between these two extremes of lust and idealism we find a sense of identity based upon ordinary and unremarkable same-sex love. The records of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and Brazil; the police archives of early eighteenth-century Paris; the records of the Officers of the Night of sixteenth-century Venice – all clearly document a preponderance of men who were bachelors and who preferred their own sex. Statistical analysis of the particularly full and detailed Florentine records ‘of the marital status of the men incriminated for sodomy from 1478 to 1483 reveals that fully three-fourths of all such men aged nineteen to seventy were unmarried. The proportion of single men is even higher (81 percent) among men who voluntarily turned themselves in to the sodomy officials to take advantage of an immunity clause in the office’s statutes’; such men had a substantially lower rate of marriage than in the general population (Rocke 1989). Many repeat offenders were arrested by the Officers of the Night over periods of several years, sometimes as the active partners and sometimes as the passive partners.

Nearly all records from all such sources also turn up cases of long-term relationships, including men who lived together in ‘sodomitical sin’ that included intimacy and tenderness. Two Venetian boatmen arrested in 1357 had been together for several years (Saslow 1989). The sodomy court in fifteenth-century Tuscany heard cases in which youths were ‘kept’ (si tiene) by men in ongoing relationships, and men claimed that their fanciullo cost them as much as fifty florins each year. Some men lived together, as the court heard in 1495: ‘Niccolò, son of Brunetto, shoemaker . . . retains Bastiano his apprentice, about sixteen years old. He keeps him at home like a wife. And in fact he isn’t married, so that his wife is Bastiano’ (Rocke 1989). Several men investigated by the Paris police claimed that they sought ‘a relationship which might last’, perhaps like that of the Abbé Candor and the young man who lived with him passing for his cousin. According to a police report of 1748 two men had lived and slept together intimately for two years: ‘It was even almost always necessary for Duquesnel to have his arm extended along the headboard, under Dumaine’s head. Without that Dumaine could not rest’ (cited by Rey 1985).

In Foucault’s famous statement: ‘Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of superior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.’ He ludicrously dates this shift to 1870. But the men discussed in the preceding paragraph had a sense of themselves that transcended both ‘the practice of sodomy’ and ‘temporary aberration’. In fact Dutch sodomites in 1734 were described by contemporaries as ‘hermaphrodites in their minds’ (Boon 1989) – an exact match for Foucault’s ‘hermaphroditism of the soul’. The concepts of masculine homosexual women and effeminate homosexual men dominated the premodern world. The homosexual was considered an androgynous species in Aristophanes, in Juvenal, in all the ancient literature about the transgendered priests of Cybele in the ancient and classical world. It was not a modern construct.

The truth is that a homosexual category existed many centuries prior to the nineteenth century. There are literally scores of fifteenth-century Italian authors who portray homosexual characters rather than homosexual incidents (G. Dall’Orto, ‘Italian Renaissance’, EH), and it is a nonsense to label such sodomites ‘temporary aberrations’ rather than members of a species. In real life there is the famous example of self-labelling, the painter Antonio Bazzi (1477–1549) who was proud of his nickname ‘Il Sodoma’. According to his contemporary Vasari ‘he did not take [it] with annoyance or disdain, but rather gloried in it, making jingles and verses on the subject, which he pleasantly sang to the accompaniment of the lute’.

Queers were perceived as ‘the third sex’ well before Hirschfeld and the sexologists popularized the concept. Lady Mary Worley Montague wittily observed in the early eighteenth century that the world consisted of three sexes: ‘men, women, and Herveys’, referring to John, Lord Hervey, the archetypal pansy. Madame d’Orleans used distinctively ‘modern’ sexual taxonomies to classify the men she knew in the court of Louis XIV: ‘some prefer women, some like both men and women, some prefer men, some prefer children, and some have little interest in sex at all’ (Boswell 1990). Even earlier, in the twelfth century, Bishop Etienne de Fougeres ‘divides the women of his world into three categories: virtuous, adulterous, and lesbian’ (Boswell 1990). One cannot help but feel that Foucault has wilfully suppressed the fact that since the 1730s the favoured and most common French term for homosexual has been pédérast rather than sodomite, which was clearly recognized as a secular cultural identity rather than just biblical sinful behaviour (Rey 1985).

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Homosexual Identities", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social08.htm>

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