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


Queer historians need to widen the definition of ‘homosexuality’ so as to encompass queer culture rather than just queer sex and the laws against it, and then to engage in the task of verifying the authentic features of queer culture. Many features of our heritage have been misinterpreted or unjustifiably rejected as being alien. Queer theorists have made a mistake in subjecting all of queer history to the ‘postcolonial’ analysis. Queers can be trapped by a historical straitjacket unless we appreciate that not all of the forms of our past behaviour are products of colonization, but that some are part of a genuine authentic self or core. Admittedly some of the costumes in the closet of gay history are uniforms handed out by our prison guards, and some are disguises that we donned for protection, but others are our very own clothes which we have allowed to fall into rags. Determining which is which is a central problem for the queer historian. If we focus entirely on the history of the oppression of queers, we will not find the threads necessary to reweave the suit of clothes most proper to us.

Queer history should be the history of queer culture. It should not be the history of specific sexual acts, nor should it be a history of social attitudes towards homosexuality. Queer history is still too much part of the ‘history of sexuality’ – which can lead, for example, to pointless digressions on bestiality because that was prohibited by ‘sodomy’ and ‘buggery’ statutes (cf. Monter 1974, Oaks 1978) – and needs to be resituated within the history of non-sexual culture and ethnic customs. Similarly, although it is important to recognize the (often hostile) environment in which queers fashion their culture, a history of heterosexual prejudice is not central to a history of homosexuality. Queer history should be centred upon queer people, not upon people who hate queers. Queer history is about queer experience, not about straight attitudes. Queer history is about love amongst queers, not about laws against queers. Queer history relies more on information from queers than information about queers. Personal authentic testimony from a queer during a trial for sodomy is worth more than any statistical analysis of executions for sodomy during a given century, and worth far more than the opinions of jurists. The testimony of the oppressed must always be granted primacy.

Social constructionism has its roots in literary criticism associated with linguistic theory (structuralism and post-structuralism), which emphasizes that the meaning of a text is dependent upon those who interpret it. It is felt that nothing can be known about what precedes the text (such as an author’s intention), but whoever reads it will interpret it in their own way in the light of their own prejudices. The professional body that interprets the text establishes the ‘discourse’ within whose terms the text is discussed. There is of course some truth in this, especially when applied to literature, and especially when applied to the body of interpretation applied to it. Because of this bias, social constructionists (who work mostly in what used to be called English Departments) do not look at phenomena which precede the text and which are not part of the discourse – hence the view that homosexuality did not exist until it was created in the discourse about it. But the social constructionists and queer theorists are wrong: queer culture is not simply a text and is not fully enveloped by the discourse about homosexuality.

Within the medical and legal discourses insufficient attention has been given to the testimony of queer witnesses, either as defence evidence given in court or as case studies provided by the queers themselves in their own words. Homophobic discourse may well give an overriding shape to this testimony, but very often we hear authentic testimony that does not directly answer the question and which therefore provides information about the reality that lay outside the discourse, or testimony that refutes the conclusions drawn by the discourse. Deconstruction of the discourse is not enough: recovery of what lay outside the discourse must also be an important part of the political critique. Queer people’s understanding of themselves is shaped by many things outside the psychiatrists’ and sexologists’ counselling rooms and lecture halls.

Events come wrapped in meanings, so we cannot separate action from interpretation or strip history down to pure events. But it does not follow that events are construed exclusively through philosophic discourse or that ordinary people depend on philosophers to find meaning in their lives. The making of public opinion takes place in markets and taverns as well as in sociétés de pensée. To understand how publics made sense of events, one must extend the inquiry beyond the works of philosophers and into the communication networks of everyday life. (Darnton 1996)

The life of the eighteenth-century molly butcher John Cooper, for example, was lived outside of this discourse, and only came to the attention of the courts because in 1732 he unwisely decided to bring charges against an unemployed servant who had robbed him and stolen his clothes. This servant in his defence claimed that Cooper had wanted to sodomize him, for which purpose he had removed his clothes, and defence witnesses were called who revealed that Cooper was what we now call a drag queen who earned money by delivering messages between sodomites. As the landlady of his favourite pub revealed, ‘he’s one of them as you call Molly Culls, he gets his Bread that way; to my certain Knowledge he has got many a Crown under some Gentlemen, for going of sodomiting Errands’. A washerwoman who had overheard Cooper demanding his clothes back from the servant ended her testimony with the startling revelation that John Cooper was commonly known in the district as the Princess Seraphina. The judge was so taken aback by this turn of events that he required the witness to repeat what she had just said. Her story was confirmed by Mary Poplet, the keeper of the Two Sugar Loaves public house in Drury Lane, who astonished the court with her testimony:

I have known her Highness a pretty while, she us’d to come to my House from Mr. Tull, to enquire after some Gentlemen of no very good Character; I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt’sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfaction of dancing with fine Gentlemen. . . . I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Additional testimony revealed that Princess Seraphina was widely known and liked by all the women in her neighbourhood, some of whom loaned their clothes to her to attend masquerade balls, and that nearly everyone referred to the butcher unself-consciously as ‘her’ even when ‘she’ was not wearing women’s clothes. This trial for robbery not only lies outside ‘the homosexual discourse’, but would not even figure in any statistical analysis of prosecutions for sodomy. Nevertheless, it describes a cultural reality that will later be characterized as a homophobic stereotype.

Most historians of homosexuality fail to distinguish adequately between homosexuality and homophobia. Rather than studying queer experience, they take the easier route of studying laws against queers, thus shifting the focus from queers to queerbashers. This may be a useful political strategy rather than a proper historical endeavour. Theories about queer identity or homophobia in the general populace cannot be founded upon a study of legislation, which as an approach to queer history should be relegated to a minor niche or even abandoned. Although Duberman (1986, 1991) feels it is important to document the history of repression, he wryly acknowledges that ‘The initial determination of historians to document repression has sometimes led them to obscure the actual gay/lesbian experience being repressed.’ Duberman rightly feels it is more important in this area to study the history of resistance to oppression, in order to ‘begin to restore the historical agency of gay men and lesbians themselves’.

Attitudes to homosexuality should not be altogether ignored, but in most of the literature they are given a disproportionate amount of space. Such histories amount to little more than a history of homophobia in the heterosexual population. Often they do not even differentiate between attitudes in general and the attitudes of queers towards themselves. The latter is by far the more interesting of the two.

Far too often homosexuality and homophobia are discussed in the same breath, which either fails to note that they are separate entities or all too easily assumes that there is a direct and inevitable link between the two. ‘The homosexual cannot exist without homophobia’ is one of the mistaken dogmas of queer theory. In fact the searchlight has to be focused in two opposite directions in order to illuminate these two subjects adequately. Homophobia has a direct link to heterosexual needs, fears, and ideology. Social constructionists have quite properly turned their searchlight upon this subject, and have concluded that the image of the homosexual that is projected by homophobia is a silhouette originating in heterosexual ideology. The deconstruction of this spotlight has proved so interesting, and so useful for undermining heterosexual hegemony, that they have not proceeded to turn the searchlight around to the other direction. They have simply posited the nonexistence of homosexuals as an independent entity. This is not a sound conclusion.

Greenberg in his introduction to The Construction of Homosexuality (1988) acknowledges that ‘the scope of our project . . . is to understand perceptions of homosexuality, not homosexuality itself’, but throughout the book he conflates the two phenomena, as he has done in his title, which has been repeated in a dozen other titles by social constructionists. For some writers the equation of homophobia with homosexuality is part of a political strategy, but the fact that homosexuality has become totally subsumed within the field of homophobia rather than a separate entity unto itself is also partly the result of an accident arising from the way that the history of homosexuality has been structured. Most historians of homosexuality have been gay men who wanted to reform the law that repressed them. Their lines of research and their findings were determined by this goal. Thus the focus has been upon persecution/legal prosecution.

The Gay Past, a 1980/81 collection of essays written in the late 1970s, edited by Licata and Petersen, is introduced with the statement that ‘the history of homosexuality is largely a chronicle of how society has made the homosexual option unbelievably difficult and dangerous for those who exercised it’.

But the view that anti-homosexual legislation has a significant impact upon queers and that it reflects commonly held views are unfounded assumptions. The deterrent effect of the law is often a subject of argument. It is well known that in cases involving actions inspired by instinct rather than conscious choice such laws serve merely to punish rather than to deter. Andrew Hallidie Smith, secretary of the Reform Society in the 1960s, corresponded with several hundred homosexuals and ‘not one has admitted to be deterred by the law’ (Spencer 1995). A strange outcome if homosexuality is, as claimed, socially constructed! The long ‘history of homosexuality’ under Licata and Petersen’s definition is a history of anti-gay laws that were not rigorously enforced. In fact they were enforced so rarely that we may well doubt that they had any influence upon behaviour at all for several centuries. This is patently not a ‘history of homosexuality’. To study queers and queer sexual and social behaviour is one thing; to study straight people’s attitudes to queers is something quite different. If the only ‘evidence’ we have for a certain period comes from anti-gay laws and satires then I say that we know virtually nothing at all about queer history for the period in question.

The paucity of evidence concerning homosexuals is partly why historians have taken the easier option of studying laws against homosexuality. The social constructionists, being interested in mechanisms of social control, naturally focus upon laws designed to control sexuality. A study of law easily supports their pet theories: thus Weeks (1977) says that ‘the central point [of the Act of Henry VIII of 1533 outlawing buggery] was that the law was directed against a series of sexual acts, not a particular type of person. There was no concept of the homosexual in law.’ But a focus upon acts is characteristic of all legal capital statutes: acts are invariably regulated rather than persons. All laws cite capital crimes rather than capital criminals. Felonies rather than felons are always the subject of legislation. The only practicable way to control people is to control their actions. It is the business of law to define categories of acts rather than categories of persons. This commonplace has been absurdly elevated into an ideology. Foucault in his history of sexuality regularly makes the mistake of treating legalistic definitions as if they were exactly equivalent to social definitions. Of course the ancient and canonical codes deal with sodomy as a category of forbidden acts: legal texts are always scrupulous to identify acts because only acts can be regulated. This in itself is neither surprising nor significant, but really just a trite truth. In no sense does it provide evidence that types of persons susceptible to crime were not recognized in society. Indeed society, lacking the fine discrimination of ecclesiastics and lawyers and queer theorists, quite regularly refers to criminal types of persons. Virtually all ancient and medieval satires were invariably aimed against sodomites and catamites as persons rather than sodomy and anal intercourse per se.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Queer Culture vs. Homophobic Discourse," 2 August 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social24.htm>

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