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


Assertions that the modern homosexual and the modern gay subculture are significantly different from the past are based primarily upon ignorance of that past. Contemporary queers have a very limited historical perspective. In a discussion about the gay press, for example, Bronski (1984) argues that ‘The marketing of gay culture was possible only to gay people and then only after a gay movement had emerged and given the community a more visible and national presence.’ This betrays great historical ignorance about the existence of gay publishing before the 1950s. What about the marketing of the Fortune Press in the 1940s, or the slim volumes of Uranian verse in the 1910s? What about the marketing and distribution of nude photographs of boys by Von Gloeden and others during the 1890s?

During the late nineteenth century many art magazines and poetry journals were owned by and sold to culturally identified queers. They were not blatantly queer – in the same sense that the New York magazine After Dark was not blatantly queer – but they were very easily ‘read’ as queer, and as much a part of the marketing of gay culture as anything in the 1990s. Even distinctive queer ‘lifestyles’ were promoted long before the development of commercial gay subculture and the periodicals that promoted it: culture, opera, theatre, music, interior decoration, art, have notably fed queer consumers for many decades, and even today more of ‘the pink pound’ goes towards these activities than towards disco and drugs.

An astonishingly parochial American viewpoint informs most of the social constructionist arguments, e.g.:

Of all the national histories being investigated, that of the United States most clearly confirms the argument of Weeks and Foucault concerning the emergence of a distinctive gay identity. The peculiarities of North America development meant that only after the American Civil War did the market relations of industrial capitalism finally triumph; only in the late nineteenth century did the United States unmistakably become a nation of cities. These changes coincided with the professionalization of medicine, its seizure of sexuality as a specialized domain of knowledge, and its reconceptualization of homosexuality as a condition. (D’Emilio 1993)

D'Emilio does not fully appreciate the consequences of the fact that the United States is a colonial construct. To draw conclusions from such a society about how a gay identity might emerge in an indigenous or premodern society is ludicrous. The United States developed in a peculiar way, as D’Emilio acknowledges, and it really cannot be used as an ideal model in the essentialist/constructionist debate – it simply did not develop as a society until the modern period, and its features are modern by definition. To claim that features that arose in this modern society are by nature modern is to beg many questions.

Katz’s (1994) straightforward Marxist analysis is similarly based solely upon the American experience. Early colonial documents often mention ‘sodomy’ but rarely mention ‘sodomite’ (fitting nicely with Foucault’s thesis), but this is quite the opposite of the case in all European countries, and arises because the early colonists brought with them to the New World the old laws and jurisprudence of the Old World, but not the queer subculture of the Old World. At the same time Katz nevertheless admits that even in the early colonies ‘sodomy included feeling as well as act’, and early colonial documents refer to it as a ‘propensity’ and ‘habit’ which suggest it was an inborn impulse (requiring restraint). In fact single acts of sodomy were not prosecuted: prosecutions were against those who habitually committed sodomy – i.e. persons who acquired the character of being sodomites. When one is trying to determine the ‘origins’ of homophobia or the homosexual subculture, the American experience is largely irrelevant.

Social Control

Foucault argues that a strict heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy (or ‘binarism’) was established in the nineteenth century, mainly by scientists in the medical and paramedical professions, so as to promote and constitute ‘a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative’. Many claim that the control of sexuality is intimately tied to the rise of capitalism, and is thus subject to an economic-political analysis (as social constructionism is founded upon Marxist, specifically Maoist, principles). In other words, the social establishment wished to control sexuality in order to promote the reproductive capacity of the labour force and to discourage ‘fruitless pleasures’. Parallel with this, doctors increased their power by categorizing and introducing mechanisms of surveillance of ‘peripheral sexualities’. The more perversions they could classify and treat, the greater the prestige of their profession. The higher the number of patients who could be constructed and controlled through medical discourse, the greater the power of doctors. As an analysis of the self-enhancement of the medical profession in the late nineteenth century, this seems reasonable. I would contend, however, that this concerns a fairly sophisticated type of social control, which achieves its aim only within an environment that is already highly controlled. Outside of hospitals and prisons – where measures more forceful than linguistics are employed – medical labelling is far less effective. The idea that the label created that which was labelled has little historical evidence to support it.

Even within these controlled environments, the medical literature is full of reports of clinical interviews in which doctors are astonished by how often the ‘inverts’ reject their ‘help’; a typical case is a doctor who lamented that the working-class ‘fags’ he interviewed in New York’s city jail in the early 1920s actually claimed they were ‘proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured’ (Chauncey 1994). My basic argument is not that this medicalization of the homosexual did not take place (in which a range of homosexual stereotypes were constructed to match various physiological and psychiatric theories prominent at the time), but that homosexuals already existed before they were forcibly laid upon this procrustean bed. In other words, the genuine social construct is paramedical homophobia.

As an analysis of the mechanisms of control and power, social constructionism provides a useful basis for deconstructing various medical, educational, and familial agencies of oppression which serve the economic interests of bourgeois capitalism. A concept shown to be based upon fictions, artefacts and cultural relativism can be undermined more readily than a concept based upon fact and observation, and this is part of the strategy of Foucault’s school. But as an analysis of the origins of identity – for either heterosexuals or homosexuals – the social constructionist analysis is woefully inadequate.

The simple-minded notion that one must create homosexuals in order to have a boundary which creates heterosexuals completely ignores the long history of the suppression and censorship of knowledge concerning the crimen nefandum or peccatum mutum, the mute sin. The legal practice in early eighteenth-century Amsterdam is typical of many periods and cultures: trials for sodomites were secret affairs; when sodomites were executed the trial documents were sometimes destroyed so that no record would remain (Noordam 1989). Most sodomites were executed in secret, rather than in public as were most other criminals. Sodomites who were imprisoned were kept hidden in solitary confinement in the cellars of prisons, and were not allowed to mix with other prisoners or to take part in prison labour. For example, Jan Jansz, convicted in 1741 at the age of seventeen, spent his remaining fifty-seven years alone in his cell, his existence virtually unknown except to modern scholars (Meer 1989). How did Jan Jansz serve as a ‘negative example’ to define or enforce normality? There is hardly any era where we do not find the social authorities desperately trying to keep the love that dare not speak its name a secret from the masses of people rather than displaying it as a public warning. Fear that ordinary people would be tempted by homosexuality by learning of its existence is the overriding concern of the agents of social control. 'The homosexual' is the last thing such authorities would want to 'construct'.

What Foucault regards as the formation of non-procreative sexualities is in reality the warping of pre-existing identities. Natural-born queers were turned into perverts. The subsequent rigidification of such identities into modern, remembered, times – e.g. the terrible 1950s – should not blind us to the historical and archaeological evidence of these identities well before the onslaught of medicalization. The reason why the homosexual identity was so easily consolidated was precisely because it already existed. Many of the other ‘perversions’ never really emerged as identities, e.g. the foot-fetishist is not a very clearly conceived personality type that goes beyond the incongruous images of foot fetishization. Only the masturbator, the wanker in modern British slang, became a personality type, though with a range of characteristics much more limited than the homosexual.

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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, "The Myth of the Modern Homosexual", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social13.htm>

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