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


The word ‘homosexual’ has acquired such a powerful mystique that Neil Miller’s anthology Out of the Past (1995) is subtitled Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, farcically suggesting that the year 1869 is the watershed. This is one of those shifts or 'ruptures' of which the social constructionists are so fond. Thus Foucault (1976, 1978) slovenly posits the queer moment: ‘Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on "contrary sexual sensations" can stand as its date of birth.’ If the homosexual was born in 1869 (the actual date of Westphal’s article – Foucault got it wrong!), his parent was queer rather than straight: 1869 is the year that Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) first read Walt Whitman: ‘It was not till (at the age of twenty five) I read Whitman – and then with a great leap of joy – that I met with the treatment of sex which accorded with my own sentiments.’ Carpenter wrote to Whitman in 1874 thanking him for legitimizing the ‘love of men’.

Neither Whitman nor Carpenter at this time, and hardly anyone else in the English-speaking world, had heard of the words ‘homosexual’ or ‘Urning’ or ‘third sex’ or ‘invert’. It is inconceivable that a gay consciousness so well developed as Carpenter’s as early as 1874 was not already well-developed before the homosexual labels were invented. It is not credible that only five years after a concept is created, Carpenter can say to Whitman, ‘You have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but, to some, there is that which passes the love of women.’ In this last phrase, Carpenter is alluding to the biblical story of the love of David for Jonathan: one of many models available to gay men long before the label 'homosexual' was invented.

It is argued that ‘Whitman himself stubbornly resisted the notion of a distinctive homosexual sensibility’ (D’Emilio 1993) but it might be more accurate to say that he resisted the stigma that he knew would be attached to this sensibility. Whitman acknowledged to Carpenter that what lay behind Leaves of Grass was ‘concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. . . . I think there are truths which it is necessary to envelop or wrap up.’ Contemporary queers who read Whitman immediately identified with the sensibility that he clearly suggested in his works. He himself talks about ‘adhesiveness’ as a special sensibility intimately connected to one’s self-conception, male-bonding, and generalized eroticism: if that is not queer identity, what is?

The epiphanic moment of reading Walt Whitman is recorded in the diaries and memoirs of countless gay men (his English admirers were called ‘Calamites’, connecting his famous Calamus plant to a pun on ‘catamites’) from the 1860s through the 1960s, and was passed on through intermediates such as Carpenter. Countee Cullen was only nineteen when he experienced self-recognition after reading Carpenter’s pioneering anthology of gay love, Iolaüs, at the suggestion of gay Harvard professor Alain Locke: ‘I read it through at one sitting, and steeped myself in its charming and comprehending atmosphere. It opened up for me Soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it, and thanked you a thousand times as as many delightful examples appeared, for recommending it to me.’

Carpenter’s more polemical book The Intermediate Sex also had a profound impact, upon women as well as men. The second-generation feminist Frances Wilder in 1912 was advocating self-restraint and abstinence in the radical Freewoman, but only three years later Carpenter’s book had helped her to realize that she was not simply a feminist, but a lesbian feminist, as she wrote to him: ‘I have recently read with much interest your book entitled The Intermediate Sex & it has lately dawned on me that I myself belong to that class & I write to ask if there is any way of getting in touch with others of the same temperament’ (cited by Newton 1984). John Addington Symonds’s reading of the Symposium ‘was the revelation I had been waiting for’; E. M. Forster in Maurice says of Clive, ‘Never could he forget his emotion at first reading the Phaedrus’; a century and a half earlier Winckelmann urged his beloved Friedrich Reinhold von Berg to read Phaedrus.

Social constructionists are so obsessed with abstract categories that they seldom pause to examine the lives of real people. If ‘homosexuals’ did not exist until they were invented in the late nineteenth century, then it would be a very useful exercise to look at the biographies of people whose lives spanned the watershed or ‘shift’ that is supposed to have occurred in 1869 – that is, people who supposedly were not, but then suddenly found that they were, ‘homosexual’. One quickly discovers that a host of men and women who straddled this watershed were demonstrably as queer before 1869 as afterwards. For example:

In 1868 Ethel Smyth – at the age of ten – began compiling her ‘Book of Passions’ ‘which included names of over a hundred girls and women to whom, had she been a man, she would have proposed. Ethel admitted, "From the first my most ardent sentiments were bestowed on members of my own sex"' (Collis 1994). Verlaine had numerous homosexual affairs from his teens, consciously defying society’s taboos; he more or less lived with Rimbaud from 1871 to 1873, despite being married, and was a self-conscious queer, in the French pederastic mode, before any sexological label could be applied to him.

In the year 1870 – the year designated by Foucault as the date of birth of the queer – Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, otherwise known as Lady Stella Clinton and Miss Fanny Winifred Park, were arrested in London after a year-long surveillance by the police of their practice of soliciting men in the Burlington Arcade and outside theatres while wearing women’s clothes. It transpired that they and their associates stored vast quantities of dresses, petticoats, gloves and make-up at an accommodation address. A small network of their non-effeminate boyfriends was discovered, in Edinburgh as well as in London. Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton, MP, third son of the Duke of Newcastle, lodged near Boulton, and there are posters showing both men in their theatrical performances in male and female roles. Boulton was accustomed to dressing in girl’s clothes from the age of six; now twenty, as Stella, he was Clinton’s ‘wife’ and wore a wedding ring given to him. Witnesses gave evidence that Lord Arthur paid for a hairdresser to go to Stella every morning, and had ordered from the stationers a seal engraved ‘Stella’ and even visiting cards printed ‘Lady Arthur Clinton’. Lord Arthur, only thirty years old, died allegedly of scarlet fever (presumably he killed himself) before the case came to court. Two years earlier Boulton had lived with a young Post Office surveyor in Edinburgh.

More than 1,000 love-letters and photographs were discovered during the police search of the boyfriends’ premises, and many letters were read out in court. The letters refer to ‘going about in drag’, ‘getting screwed’, growing a moustache in order to pretend to be more manly for the sake of a boyfriend’s mother while staying with him in Scotland, and a great deal of camp behaviour that is not noticeably dissimilar to the behaviour of drag queens in the 1990s. But to the court and members of the jury, the letters were insufficient to convict for conspiracy to commit a felony (i.e. sodomy) and everyone was acquitted. It is clear from the trial ‘that neither the police nor the court were familiar either with male homosexuality or prostitution’ (Weeks 1980). The doctor who examined them, and was criticized for it by the judge, ‘had not heard of the work of Tardieu, who had investigated over two hundred cases of sodomy for purposes of legal proof, until an anonymous letter informed him of its existence’. In other words, not only were queer identities and a queer subculture well-established several years before Foucault’s ‘queer moment’, but society’s ‘construct’ or conception of ‘the homosexual’ had not yet been formed.

The painter Simeon Solomon (1840–1905) sums up his own pre-watershed gay life:

As an infant he . . . developed a tendency toward designing. . . . He was hated by all of his family before he was eighteen. He was eighteen at the time he was sent to Paris. His behaviour there was so disgraceful that his family – the Nathans, Solomons, Moses, Cohens, etc., et hoc genus homo – would have nothing to do with him. He returned to London to pursue his disgraceful course of Art . . . His "Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep" is too well known. After the publication of this [in 1871] his family repudiated him forever. (quoted by Conner 1997)

We think of Solomon as a figure of the 1890s, broken by his arrest in a urinal in 1872, but he had been branded as a queer long before this. And he identified as queer from an early date: his lover from 1868 was the Eton schoolmaster Oscar Browning. Homoerotic love and the androgynous male – all evidence of his culturally queer identification – run throughout his work even in the 1860s: The Bride, The Bridegroom and Sad Love (1865; ‘Sad Love’ being a personification of homosexual love), Spartan Boys About to Be Scourged at the Altar of Diana (1865), Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1866).

Edith Simcox began writing her Autobiography in 1876, containing reflections upon her life from much earlier as well. It is highly unlikely that she was aware of the sexological discourse on homosexuality, yet she seems to have been aware of her own sexuality in very much the same terms – and using the same labels – popularized for ‘the lesbian’ in the 1890s and later: ‘It is a blessing that what was abnormal in my passion caused no pain or grief to her [i.e. George Eliot] – bore nothing worse than mere denial for me.’ She analyzes her own ‘development’, including characteristic features such as a tomboy stage, lack of interest in marriage or men, lack of sympathy in girls’ things: ‘I didn’t care for dolls or dresses or any sort of needlework’, and attachments to older girls whom she used to caress. She felt a ‘constitutional want of charm for men’ and that her love for women indicated that she was ‘half a man’. She is using a common concept that was being reified by sexologists, but it is too early for her to have ‘internalized’ the sexological construct. She may not have applied the ‘lesbian’ label to herself, but she does seem to be aware of her sexual feelings for women and that these feelings place her in a class. In her wooing of George Eliot she even tried to persuade Eliot that she also belonged to that class of women euphemistically described as those who ‘did not like men’ (Johnson 1989).

The word Oscar Wilde used to describe his sexual identity was 'socratic'. His very well-developed sense of homosexual identity was based upon Plato's description of friendship/paiderastia, and upon the cult of boyish beauty in the homosexual pastoral-mythological tradition of classical Greek and Roman poetry and the pagan revival in the Renaissance. His idealization of his desire involved a degree of self-deception, but self-identity and self-deception often work hand in hand (sexual identity almost always entails the idealization of lust). Wilde's homosexual identity was already firmly consolidated by the time he developed an interest in the new psychological theory about 'sexual inversion' (his interest was centred mainly on studying the great queens of history such as Michelangelo who were being identified as 'inverts'), and long before he came to occasionally apply the word 'uranian' to himself (a word he approved of because it came from Plato's theory of paiderastia) – and long before the disaster of his trials.

The importance sometimes ascribed to the Oscar Wilde trials is just plain wrong. No epistemic shift in public consciousness or gay self-consciousness occurred around that date. Wilde was portrayed in the popular media as a mincing pansy well before the trials, drawing upon the single most prevalent paradigm of homosexual identity (including self-identification): the effeminate pervert as satirized by Juvenal. This paradigm was well-established long before Ulrichs and Hirschfeld developed theories about the 'third sex' (indeed these theories were derived from Plato's Symposium) or 'a woman's soul trapped in a man's body'.

During the late nineteenth century, possibly hundreds of men of Oscar Wilde's class discovered their homosexual identity when they read Plato's Symposium. This moment of self-revelation is frequently mentioned in the memoirs of writers and intellectuals from the 1850s onwards. Although the word 'homosexual' was coined and used mostly by German sexologists, educated German homosexuals of this period discovered/constructed their identity primarily through such channels as reading Holderlin's Hyperion (1797), a heady brew of homoerotic neoplatonism. For innumerable gay men in Northern Europe at this time, Baron von Gloeden's photographs of naked youths disporting themselves against a Theocritean pastoral backdrop were far more important in bolstering their identity than any sexological manuals.

If there is any single word that is crucial for the construction of a homosexual identity, it is 'platonic' rather than 'homosexual'. The cultural model of platonic friendship/paiderastia was used by educated gay men since the early Renaissance. The now-familiar gay apologetics by way of Plato's Symposium was used by Heinrich Zschokke in Eros oder über die Liebe (1821) and by Heinrich Hoessli in Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen (1836, 1838). Both men were roused to engage in public debate following the execution of a gay man in 1817. Hoessli was a scholar, milliner and interior decorator – proof enough that he was a self-identified homosexual, though he died a few years before the word 'homosexual' was coined in 1869.

Plato and Whitman and Carpenter and Wilde – the fountainheads of queer wisdom – have had a more profound impact upon the queer self-image than Krafft-Ebing and Westphal. That was still true for my own generation, and true for working-class people as well as intellectuals. Gay liberationist historian John D’Emilio, who was brought up in Jesuit schools and was full of guilt and self-doubt, recalls that a Catholic Cuban emigré, Luis, ‘saw straight through to the heart of my interior struggle and found a way to help. Getting up from bed, after we’d had sex and had talked for a time, he went to his bookshelf and reached for a well-thumbed copy of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, which he gave to me. Later, alone in my room, I read it through in a single sitting . . . . I think it fair to say that it saved my life.’

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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, "A False 'Birth'," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social15.htm>

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