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


The greatest impediment to the accurate history of gay and lesbian people is the dogma that queer culture is an inversion of straight culture and that all of its features arise solely in relationship to straight culture. This parallels the sexological/psychiatric view of the homosexual as always and necessarily an ‘invert’ of the heterosexual. The view that homosexuality is a mirror in which heterosexuality is distorted is a widespread myth. None of the reaction/compensation/inversion theories stand up to critical historical scrutiny. In the 1970s and 1980s many theorists shared Bronski’s (1984) view that

Much of gay sensibility (and the whole range of interests it encompasses) aims to gain entry into, some acceptance by the mainstream culture. . . . The most common version of this legitimization plea is the argument that gay men excel in the innovation and promotion of the arts. . . . Because high culture (opera, classical music) carries with it respectability by definition, many gay men are drawn to it in order to cash in on that respectability.

This is stuff and nonsense. To be known as an opera buff is to be an outsider in most business offices, let alone blue-collar environments! Any man in northern Europe or North America who expresses an interest in opera or interior decoration is marked as a pansy, even amongst gay men themselves. To be interested in classical music is to set oneself outside the boundaries of normal masculine and lower-middle-class interests, not to enter the mainstream. I cannot believe that anyone would seriously think this was a road to acceptance by straights.

Although Chauncey (1994) demolishes the internalized homophobia model for explaining features of the queer subculture, he sets up a ‘strategy model’ for which there also is no real historical evidence. For example, according to Chauncey, the flamboyant antics in fairy cafeterias and other public spaces where the fairies ‘put on a show’ for the normals, comprise ‘one of the central strategies deployed by gay men for claiming space in the city’:

They regularly sought to emphasize the theatricality of everyday interactions and to use their style to turn the Life [name of a Cafeteria] and other such locales into the equivalent of a stage, where their flouting of gender conventions seemed less objectionable because it was less threatening. It lets slummers experience the thrill of seeing the 'perverts,' while letting gay men themselves adopt a style that mocked the conventions of heterosexuality. But Chauncey's notion that fairies behaved in an objectionable manner in order to make themselves seem less objectionable is filled with contradictions, and in any case Chauncey offers no first-hand evidence from the fairies as to what their motivation was. In my own experience of watching fairies ‘put on a show’ for straights in the early 1970s, their motivation may be summed up in the line: ‘So you want to see a pervert? Well, I’ll show you a pervert!’ Flamboyant antics are a mixture of defiance and exhibitionism. Far from being a strategy of assimilation, they comprise a strategy of separation, the performer’s expression of enjoyment at being quite noticeably different from the viewer. It may well be a ‘strategy for claiming space’, but it is the display strategy of all territorial occupations: this is my territory, plentifully marked with my fairy scent – you keep off!

The psychological/sociological position that the ‘self’ creates the ‘other’ in order to define itself might have some truth in it, but exactly how this works in relation to ‘the homosexual question’ is very problematical. The view that normal people defined themselves in relation to queer people is a theoretical assertion completely lacking in historical evidence. Although Chauncey (1994) claims that ‘in its policing of the gay subculture the dominant culture sought above all to police its own boundaries’, in fact his whole book is ample testimony to the fact that the vast majority of ordinary people were either indifferent to or merely curious about queers. Most of the policing he cites had hardly any effect upon queers, much less upon straights.

Court records and the early medical literature demonstrate time and time again that the existence of queers comes as a great revelation to most people – especially to the ordinary members of the juries for whose benefit this ‘other’ has supposedly been constructed. Newspaper exposés of scandalous queer networks or the queer subculture are precisely that – astonishing exposures of things that would be unknown to us but for the activities of our intrepid reporter. In fact, rather than exploit the ‘other’-defining potential of queer scandals, the authorities often attempted to hush them up when they realized how many people, some prominent, would be implicated in them. The ‘policing of the boundaries’ consists mainly of sporadic crackdowns on vice when it threatens to get out of hand or to tarnish the public image of a city when it prepares to sponsor international athletic games or fairs. Contrary to the claim that queers are constructed in order to define straights, queer people and subcultures are actively hidden from view so as not to jeopardize the definition of normal people and cultures.

The claim that the queer subculture was created as a boundary to define the dominant culture is quite false. In the first place many of the features of queer subcultures were modeled upon other subcultures, e.g. the customs of working-class Afro-American, Italian and Irish immigrant neighbourhoods (Chauncey 1994). In the second place the subculture was created by queers themselves as a community or a private refuge where they could be themselves in relative privacy and safety without attracting the notice of the dominant community. For example, at the turn of the century gay ‘sisters’ socialized and danced together and had drag shows in privately rented rooms connected to working-class saloons in New York, and there were secret drag queen societies such as the Circle Hermaphroditus, none of which were set up or meant to be seen as a defining ‘mirror’ by ordinary society.

A key theme of postmodern queer theory is that characteristics of queer culture that used to be considered products of internalized homophobia, notably drag and cross-dressing, are really ‘subversive’. This is a product of the social constructionist view that nothing is inherently queer, that queer culture and identity are constructed entirely in reaction to straight culture. I would say that since the early 1970s certain queer stances such as radical drag are subversive, both in fact and in intention, and interviews with some of the founders of the radical drag movement such as Bette Bourne (Power 1996) clearly document that it was intended to be subversive of straight society.

But when we look at transvestism in most historical periods we can demonstrate that it neither subverts nor reinforces straight culture because not only did it arise from within queer culture, but it also was practised and expressed almost entirely within queer culture. It is only because of raids on the molly houses, and the infiltration of the molly houses in the 1720s, that we know that drag existed at that time. And within the molly subculture its primary function was to cement feelings of solidarity among the mollies. Straight society was completely excluded from viewing the ‘lying-in’ ritual, carnivalesque mock-birth pantomimes which are documented sporadically from the early 1700s through about 1840 in England. It was subversive only in the very limited sense that it may have fostered a contemptuous attitude to heterosexual rituals of childbirth, but this is to deprive the word ‘subversive’ of any meaningful political sense.

The issue of female cross-dressing is somewhat different, but again the historical evidence does not document ‘subversion’. For the most part, women donned men’s clothes in order to gain the independence normally granted only to men, and they tried to prevent it being discovered that they were women. In other words, they reinforced rather than subverted the common expectations of male and female behaviour. They were in a sense ‘secret infiltrators’ in their male disguise, but they did not ‘subvert’ the system itself, they only exploited it for their own personal benefit. The political metaphor of ‘subversion’ really does not illuminate the history of cross-dressing, or the history of queer people.

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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, "Inversion and Subversion," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social18.htm>

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