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


I do not think that queer historians have appreciated the limitations, especially as a tool of historical analysis, of the concept of ‘internalized homophobia’, which is variously called internalized oppression, self-oppression, internalized lesbophobia. It is true that queers during various periods have felt fearful of being captured and hanged or publicly humiliated, but these are reasonable fears. Such fears prompt secrecy and ways of evading discovery, but do not necessarily lead to self-hate. Gay liberation theorists seized upon the concept of internalized homophobia to account for everything which they considered to be politically unacceptable in the ‘pre-Stonewall’ subculture, i.e. virtually anything to do with gender inversion or power roles or ‘aping’ heterosexuality, irrespective of the fact that the very same gender inversions were found in cultures which were not significantly homophobic, such as ancient China and Japan.

The concepts of psychoanalysis were employed to argue that anything considered 'bad' could be accounted for as the product of a tool of repression: be it sublimation – or projection – or displacement – or splitting – or repetition compulsion. The theory has become more sophisticated in the past twenty years, and has even been turned on its head. Today, many theorists are reclaiming aspects of the subculture that gay libbers found repellent by claiming that they are ‘subversive tactics for negotiating space’ in the supra-culture. Thus the transsexual is no longer considered to be a sorry victim of gender hegemony, but its radical challenger. This political use of psychoanalysis is not a great deal more informative than psychoanalysis by itself. Both operate within a purely theoretical framework and ignore historical evidence that does not support this framework.

The precursor to the theory of internalized homophobia is the Freudian theory of homosexual masochism, which was held to be integral to homosexual neurosis vis-à-vis the Oedipus complex. Internalized homophobia is basically a psychanalytical concept taken over by sociologists. It purports to explain how the view of one’s self as being generally ‘sick’ is the result of ‘conditioning’ and an acceptance of the psychiatric view that homosexuals are abnormal and pathological (or have arrested development, or whatever). It is difficult to show precisely how it comes to be internalized to the degree to which it is no longer recognized as an alien judgement: but this is one aspect of the development of the ego according to Freudian theory. Within the black community it is rather easier to show how feelings of inadequacy – as demonstrated, for example, by black children drawing pictures of their fathers with no arms – develop among blacks, by simply citing figures of black unemployment.

The gay and lesbian in the 1950s that ended in suicide or despair are always cited as evidence of internalized homophobia. But the lesbians and gay men who wrote these novels now tell us that they did not personally believe in such feelings, nor were they integral to the novels. They were simply tacked on in accordance with the requirements of the discourse of fiction current at the time. Such novels are admittedly clear examples of ‘self-oppression’ in so far as they connive with the oppressor, but they do not demonstrate the actual existence of internalized homophobia in their authors.

Self-oppression can be seen more in literature and other forms of queer public presentation than in queer life or culture themselves. In this respect it should really be called rationalization rather than internalization. Many gay people, particularly writers and intellectuals, happily seize upon a theory that helps them account for themselves, but far fewer actually adopt a theory that does not already ‘feel right’ to them, which is what a full internalization theory would require. Empirical research into self-esteem in the late 1980s and early 1990s has demonstrated that the self-esteem of gay men is no lower than that of heterosexual men, and that the self-esteem of lesbians is often higher than the self-esteem of heterosexual women. Theoretical speculations about the influence of negative sanctions upon one’s self-image are not only not substantiated by the research: they are contradicted by the research (R. Savin-Williams, ‘Self-Esteem’, EH).

Suicide is regarded as the ultimate act of self-loathing, but although the historical record does show that homosexuals have committed suicide from fear of arrest and public humiliation after exposure, evidence of suicide as a result of self-loathing is hard to find. Suicide is generally regarded as a typically romantic solution to an identity problem, and it has been claimed that Heinrich von Kleist was the first person whose suicide (in 1811) was linked to homosexual guilt. That is possible, but it seems to me that Kleist was born to kill himself (his writings are full of suicidal imagery), and his personality is too complex for simple analysis.

Queer suicides are indeed recorded, from a much earlier period. In 1707, following the arrest of more than forty mollies as part of a systematic series of raids and entrapments resulting in eight convictions, three mollies hanged themselves in prison while awaiting trial, and one molly cut his throat with a razor (Norton 1992). Very similar examples are found in the records of early eighteenth-century Amsterdam and Paris. Shame at public dishonour was the motivation for these suicides, rather than internalized guilt. In the early nineteenth century the suicides of prominent public figures were linked to blackmail (e.g. Lord Castlereagh in 1822). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Hirschfeld collected the life histories of 10,000 homosexual men and women and claimed that 25 per cent had attempted suicide, and many others had contemplated it, primarily due to the threat of legal prosecution. He even found that many men carried poison with them so they could kill themselves the moment they were arrested.

In the historical record, the motivation was fear of public humiliation rather than internal guilt. But in the 1970s, when 40 per cent of gay men and lesbians had attempted or seriously considered suicide, the motivation had allegedly changed from fear of arrest to unease with one’s orientation (W. Johansson, ‘Suicide’, EH). The non-act of ‘seriously considering suicide’ is impossible to measure or assess adequately. But as for the act itself, it is still demonstrably true today that men kill themselves after being arrested for committing ‘gross indecency’ in a urinal. Whatever their inner self-image may be, it is the public disgrace that triggers the suicide. Men do not kill themselves out of disgust at a secret habit of picking up youths at the local cottage – they kill themselves after being discovered by the police use of video cameras and thirteen-year-old rent boys (‘Two gay men die after Scottish cottaging crackdown’, Gay Times, January 1997). This does not fit the model of 'internalized homophobia'.

In so far as any significant degree of self-loathing can be demonstrated in queer lives, I think it is limited to the period 1940–70, when a panoply of oppressive regulations were systematically enforced to a degree perhaps sufficient to prompt internal guilt and shame. Chauncey (1994) has shown that the psychopathological self-image was still a long way from being commonplace in the 1930s or earlier, when men interviewed by psychiatrists were still rejecting the pathology concept. Chauncey provides abundant evidence to demolish the myth ‘that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, and that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it’. <.p>

Queers interviewed by doctors in the 1930s regarded their ‘abnormality’ not as an internal failing, but as a stigmatizing label applied by external authorities. One man told a doctor he wanted to ‘overcome’ his homosexuality because ‘it had made me more nervous [and made] . . . me a social outcast. At work I try to act as a normal person. I don’t think the double life is good.’ Far from being a successful tool of social control, the medical literature shows that men ‘stubbornly’ resisted the doctors’ views about homosexuality, and did not see it as a ‘problem’ as their doctors did. One doctor in 1917 said he interviewed a ‘loquacious, foul-mouthed and foul-minded "fairy" [who was] lost to every sense of shame; believing himself designed by nature to play the very part he is playing in life.’ Another doctor in 1912 interviewed a twenty-six-year-old chorus boy called Rose who had to flee his hometown to avoid persecution and was ‘very busy in arraigning society for its attitude toward those of his type, and was prepared to ethically justify his characteristics and practices.’ Many men interviewed by doctors in the 1930s said they considered their homosexuality ‘natural’.

The only truly successful part of the medical literature was the ‘artistic type’ paradigm promoted by John Addington Symonds – an artistic queer – in his list of great homosexuals contributed to Ellis’s Sexual Inversion, and by Carpenter – an intellectual queer – in his queer anthology Ioläus. A noted birth-control doctor in the mid-1920s said that many homosexual men and women who presented their case to him (as he was a prominent sex reformer) not only claimed they were not degenerate, but that ‘they stand on a higher level than those normally sexed, that they are the specially favored of the muses of poetry and the arts’. The point I am making is that positive models of homosexual identity were much more widely internalized than the negative models fostered by homophobia.

The conspicuous visibility of the gay life in the 1930s provoked a reaction from society, and during the 1940s and 1950s gays were forced into hiding by numerous new laws and local regulations used to suppress them following the repeal of Prohibition. Only then did the gay world become invisible: ‘gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and . . . the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years’. Gay activist Pat Bond remembers being in the WACS when the purge in the 1950s began: ‘They started an incredible witch hunt in Tokyo. Unbelievable! Sending 500 women home for dishonorable discharges. Practically very woman I knew who was in the army has a dishonorable discharge. Every day there were court martials and trials’ (Bronski 1984). But even the self-regulation created by this tremendous fear cannot be called internalized homophobia. Fear of being punished is not the same thing as a conviction that one deserves punishment.

To the extent that self-contempt or self-loathing ever existed on a wide scale, it was probably most characteristic of men who were born in America in the 1920s, e.g. Montgomery Clift (1920–66) who called himself ‘the fag’. Such men were forming their sexual identity just at the time when psychiatry’s homophobic stereotypes were becoming popularized. It was these men, who were thirty to forty years old in the late 1950s, who predominated in the gay subculture. Men born just after the Second World War, who were enjoying their sexual freedom in the 1960s, desperately did not wish to grow up to be like their fathers of the immediately preceding generation – especially their queer role models.

Gay activists in the late 1960s knew only the experience of the immediate past, upon which ‘we constructed a myth of silence, invisibility, and isolation as the essential characteristics of gay life in the past as well as the present’ (D’Emilio 1993). Many of the theorists of the gay liberation generation, who lacked a sense of history and in any case who lacked access to the gay past because of censorship, saw that guilt etc. had constructed these queer personality types, and some tended towards a theory that ascribed all negative (i.e. politically unacceptable) features entirely to the oppressive culture. American life in the 1950s was so insistent in its unitary view of life that gay liberationists saw their status as outsiders in relation to ‘straight’ society, rather than as insiders in relation to queer culture. The mood was ripe for social constructionism, and gay theorists were the first to extensively employ such strategies in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1980s social constructionism had conquered, just as psychiatric homophobia had conquered the preceding generation who were adults in the 1950s. In the early 1970s I thought self-oppression and internalized homophobia explained a great many things, but today I realize that they were used, crudely, to explain too much.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Internalized Homophobia," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social17.htm>

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