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


The 'third sex' or 'intermediate sex' theory (sexuelle Zwischenstufen) was not used in any popular publications until 1907–08, when Maximilian Harden in his political weekly Die Zukunft exposed Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg as the centre of a circle of homosexuals in the court of Wilhelm II. As a result of the series of trials and scandals that followed, the word ‘homosexual’ began to find its place as the word of choice in the European languages, but only slowly. The term was not used in American newspapers until 1914, in reports of a scandal in Long Beach when a group of homosexual men resisted arrest (Legg 1994). The term was used not by physicians or even by ‘sexologists’, but by journalists and apologists for homosexual law reform. It did not gain much headway in psychiatric and medical literature until just before and after the First World War. The ‘medicalization’ of ‘homosexuality’ certainly did occur, but it dates from the 1910s and 1920s. It was relatively unconnected with the specific label ‘homosexual’, and it was unknown to the queer man in the street.

Much of the degeneracy-theory/evolutionary-theory literature on homosexuality appeared in medical journals or in books that were not readily accessible to the public. The more salacious passages of Psychopathia Sexualis were printed in Latin. The first English edition of Ellis’s Sexual Inversion was suppressed, and retail sales of the American edition were at first restricted to doctors and lawyers. Newspaper and magazine coverage was virtually nonexistent. . . . The Lancet, England’s leading medical journal, refused to review Sexual Inversion lest lay people read it. (Greenberg 1990)

In other words, the ‘new’ medical concept could have had hardly any influence on the queer subcultures which had already existed for decades before it became at all likely that their participants could have become aware of such theories. Whatever effect homosexual labels could have had upon the formation of the homosexual identity, it could not have taken place until the 1920s, a good two generations later than the social constructionists have argued.

For example, J. R. Ackerley, who was by no means uneducated, did not hear the word ‘homosexual’ until during the First World War. After being taken prisoner during the war he was interned in Switzerland, where a fellow internee in 1918 asked him if he were ‘homo or hetero’. The words had to be explained to him, after which he knew immediately and exactly where he stood. His compatriot, the ‘hetero’ Arthur Lunn, was better read and recommended several books for him to read, including Plutarch and Edward Carpenter. The label helped a light to dawn, but Ackerley’s queer identity very quickly sorted itself out along the lines of queer sources, not medical ones. Going to Cambridge University following the war, Ackerley remembered being ‘very romantic and talkative; chatty about the Classical Greeks and their ways, inclining to Bohemia, busily acquiring the usual pictures by Flandrin, Tuke, Praxiteles and Glyn Philpot for decorating my room, and ready to respond to understanding and sympathy from any quarter’ (Parker 1989).

Chauncey’s (1985) study of the working-class homosexual (sub)culture investigated at the Newport (Rhode Island) Naval Training Station in 1919 demonstrates that the ‘medical discourse still played little or no role in the shaping of working-class homosexual identities and categories by the First World War, more than thirty years after the discourse had begun’. Only one fairy used the word ‘invert’, which he had heard in theatre circles merely as a synonym for ‘queer’. Only one person – the man who supervised the training of decoys – read any of the medical literature, and then only after his methods were being called into question, and only for the sake of finding legal decisions while ignoring anything that contradicted popular cultural conceptions. No ‘medical expert’ was invited to testify during two years of hearings. Berubé (1990) has similarly shown that gay subcultures and identities (and social attitudes) were well in place before the Second World War when the military authorities first began using the psychiatric model.

The very people who helped consolidate the image of the ‘invert’ were the lesbians and gay men who contributed their case histories to Ellis’s Sexual Inversion, and who had well-developed queer identities long before its publication in 1897, often from their early childhood. The major queer readers of sexological literature were ‘educated inverts’ such as Symonds, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Radclyffe Hall, who all read Krafft-Ebing and were influenced by the ‘third sex’ theory. But even here we should note that Radclyffe Hall was influenced not so much by Krafft-Ebing himself as by the testimony of lesbian women such as Countess Sarolta that he included in his book. Psychopathia Sexualis is one of the books, including some by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, which are shown to be in the library of Stephen Gordon’s father in The Well of Loneliness; Radclyffe Hall and other feminists ‘embraced, sometimes with ambivalence, the image of the mannish lesbian and the discourse of the sexologists about inversion primarily because they desperately wanted to break out of the asexual model of romantic friendship’ (Newton 1984). Radclyffe Hall presented herself as the mannish lesbian – with tailored suit and monocle – that had been a reality, not a myth, since the 1890s or earlier. It is typical of the social constructionists to arrogantly dismiss case history testimonies as ‘the eruption into print of the speaking pervert’ (Weeks 1991).

In any case, educated queers did not create the queer subculture, which is largely a working-class phenomenon, and their educated self-labelling is not relevant to the ‘construction’ of the homosexual identity to be found, for example, in the forty queer brothels (or gay bars) in Berlin noted by George Bernard Shaw in 1914. W. H. Auden, probably more assiduous than Shaw, noted 170 such brothels in 1928. Chauncey’s (1994) impressive collection of historical data documents the fact that doctors did not play a major role in the regulation of homosexuality as they did in the regulation of abortion, prostitution and venereal disease until after the Second World War, and demonstrates the truth of the common-sense view that preceded Foucault’s muddying of the waters:

The writings of doctors . . . represent little more than an (often unsuccessful) effort to make sense of the male sexual culture they had observed or of which they were a part. The medical analysis of the different character of ‘inverts,’ ‘perverts,’ and ‘normal people’ reflected a set of classificatory distinctions already widely recognized in the broader culture. The fairy, regarded as a ‘third-sexer,’ more womanly than manly, was a pivotal cultural figure in the streets of New York before he appeared in the pages of medical journals. . . . The fairy and the queer, not the medical profession, forced middle-class men to consider the possibility of a sexual element in their relations with other men.

Like the doctors, a great many historians have sought a single ‘explanation’ to account for the very existence of homosexuality, rather than concentrate on the more genuinely historical task of chronicalling and analysing the growth and development of homosexual customs and folklore and the historical experience of homosexual peoples. This psychological/sociological/political focus has resulted in the construction of a series of models – which can truly be called social constructs – of homosexuality, many of which do not stand up to historical analysis. In the next few essays I will review the weakness of several of the most common models.

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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 Medicalization of Homosexuality," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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