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


The social constructionists argue that where no words exist, no concepts exist, and that indigenous societies revealed by anthropology have no word for ‘the homosexual’ and therefore no option for choosing such a state. The degree to which language exactly mirrors reality is debatable, but it is quite proper and accurate for a modern historian to investigate a past society using a concept which was given a name only after that society passed away. John Boswell points out that the ancient Romans had no abstract word for ‘religion’, though they obviously had religions including Christianity itself. There is no Classical Latin word equivalent to the modern concept ‘family’, yet the Romans had families of various sorts and we can appreciate the differences between ancient and modern families without abandoning the word itself.

But the fact of the matter is that a great many indigenous societies did have words for ‘the homosexual’. By this I mean that they had words which identified a homosexual personality type, not matching the sexological psychopathological personality disorder (which, baldly stated thus, undoubtedly is a modern social construct), but words roughly equivalent to modern queers – words which demonstrate a consciousness (albeit often contemptuous) of a queer stereotype or gay identity. Here are just a few words for queers from many hundreds: in the Middle East the xanitha plays the receptive role with older or richer men; in Nicaragua el cochon; in Italy the arruso and ricchione, and femmenella, little female, for the transvestite; Loca and maricón in Latin America; the teresita in Argentina; bicha and veado in Brazil; masisi in Haiti; zamel in North Africa. In many languages the generic term for a male homosexual is derived from a female name: Spanish maricón and mariquita derive from María; Italian checca derives from Francesca; Flemish janet derives from French Jeannette; a Portuguese queer is an Adelaida; in England queer men have called themselves Marys, Mary-Annes, mollies, nancy boys, nellies.

Most – but not all – of these labels are derogatory stigma applied to the fucked rather than the fucker. This is also true of most modern non-scientific words for homosexuals. The following sentence runs as a leitmotif throughout Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality (1990): ‘Though there was neither word for, nor a concept of, a homosexual person, an adult man who took pleasure in the anal-receptive role was scorned and thought to require an explanation.’ Of course the ancients lacked the benefits of modern science, poor things. But to say that ancient or indigenous peoples had no conceptual word for homosexuals in general is incorrect: it is just that their concept of the homosexual was primarily limited to the receiver – in exactly the same way that most modern words for homosexuals have that connotation: queer, fairy, pansy, faggot, cocksucker, gay, queen and homo. When ‘Cocksucker!’ or ‘Wanker!’ is spit out at someone – whether in ancient or modern times – it implies a great deal more than a literal sex role, hence the frequency of the contradiction-in-terms ‘You fucking cocksucker!’

Many social constructionists maintain that in ancient Rome, for example, homosexuality in itself was not a problem, but that the problem (i.e. an issue given great consideration) concerned taking the ‘passive’ role in male–male sexual relations (i.e. being penetrated). Thus, for example, there is no term for the active (i.e. penetrating) partner in this relationship; he is simply a man, whereas his passive partner is a catamitus. The salient feature of the argument that before modern times (be it the early eighteenth or late nineteenth century) there were homosexual roles rather than homosexual personality types is that roles are determined by acts whereas personalities are characterized by an orientation towards the gender of one’s partners. Most periods and most cultures have words for homosexuals, but the significance of these is dismissed by noting that the stigmatizing label is almost invariably applied only to the man who takes the passive role, and the passive role is determined by an act rather than orientation or object choice. But I would argue that the passive sexual role arises for the very reason that it formally requires a male–male gender relationship. You cannot have a concept of passivity without a concept of sex-object-choice: the passive partner requires, by definition, a male penetrator. The active partner is not stigmatized because the active sex act does not require a specific gender, i.e. he can penetrate male or female, and is always a man himself. But the passive role necessitates a sexual relationship between two men. In other words, the catamite is a man-desiring-man, which is the basic definition of the modern male homosexual. The social constructionist argument that premodern and indigenous cultures have no word for the more abstract concept of the homosexual, but only a word for the effeminate/passive male, entirely misses the point. To say that ‘catamite’ is not a name for a ‘homosexual person’ is wildly misleading: the homosexual is a politically correct catamite.

The supposed line between role and orientation is not so hard and fast as the social constructionists pretend it to be. From a strictly formal point of view, the passive role is determined just as much by an emphasis upon sexual object choice and orientation as the personality type that is supposed to have arisen in modern times. This (premodern) passivity, non-masculinity especially, is central to the stigmatization of the ‘deviant’ homosexual identity of more modern times. We are playing a semantic game (rather than genuine epistemology) if we insist that the catamite is a problem only because he assumes a female sexual role, and that the modern homosexual is an entirely different sort of problem because of his sexual object choice. The ‘homosexual’ is an over-abstract supposedly neutral ‘scientific’ concept: but surely we all know that the homosexual is a problem because he is a queer, a fairy, a pansy, a molly – because he plays an effeminate role. It seems to have escaped the social constructionist's observation that to be a cocksucker is to be oriented towards a specific gender.

The key feature of any relationship involving a receptive/passive male is its homosexuality rather than its receptivity. To say that the hundreds of labels that have arisen to denote this role/personality arose solely because of sex/gender role rather than homosexual orientation is wide of the mark. The social constructionist analysis of ancient and indigenous words-for-queers is characterized by muddle-headed double-think. A typical example is Greenberg’s (1990) commentary on the temple inscriptions at Edfu, in Memphis, which say that it is forbidden ‘to couple with a nkk or hmw’:

The latter terms, though probably not exact synonyms, have been taken to refer to someone who acts as a receptive male homosexual. Elsewhere, the word hmw means coward; since it is derived from the word for ‘woman,’ it might better be translated as an ‘effeminate poltroon.’ It would be difficult to say whether this was a term of opprobrium applied stereotypically to anyone who preferred a receptive role in homosexual anal intercourse, or only to a distinct, socially recognized homosexual role. . . . As far as we can tell, homosexuality per se was not a category in Egyptian thought. There was no distinctive word for a homosexual person, only composite terms suggesting that gender was the critical category. . . . The negative confessions and temple inscriptions refer to acts, not inclinations or states of being.

It is perverse of Greenberg to cite this example as evidence that the ancient Egyptians had no concept of a homosexual person. It states precisely that there was an ancient concept of the homosexual person, as an effeminate coward, a queer. Greenberg begs many questions of definition and his conclusion is patently incorrect. The temple inscription refers not merely to the act of copulation, but to copulation with a nkk or hmw, words for the homosexual person which are derived from the word for coward. A coward is a personality type characterized by an inclination to run away from trouble, etc. – cowardice is not an act, but a personality trait and a state of being. Greenberg has failed to notice the important distinction between fucking an ass-hole (emphasis upon the act) and fucking a queer ass-hole (emphasis upon a person).

Terms of contempt for homosexuals are common throughout history and across cultures. In Old Norse and Icelandic sagas, and in Finnish and Estonian languages, the most powerful terms of abuse are the words argr, ragr, and ergi, which all connote cowardice, effeminacy, sorcery and (receptive) male homosexuality. The terms probably derive from the archetype of the queer sorcerer (often a religious functionary acting as a scapegoat) found in many ancient societies and indigenous cultures. In modern Germanic languages arg just means ‘bad’. Similarly, the modern English word felon, criminal, comes from Medieval Latin felo/fello meaning ‘evildoer’, but this is derived from fellare, to fellate. In other words, the primal felon was a cocksucker. In fact the modern English word ‘bad’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon term baedling, meaning effeminate/receptive male. In countless languages the basic pattern for the most contemptuous terms of abuse is practically the same: the archetypal bad man is one who performs a shameful receptive/feminine role in sex, i.e. a queer, cocksucker, or cunt. They are all reducible to the single paradigm of the man who takes ‘the woman’s role’ in sex, hence the affinity of homophobia and sexism.

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(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, "Passive Roles", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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