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


Contrary to the view of some social constructionists, a queer cultural identity can exist without a queer subculture. This is most obviously the case among middle-class homosexuals who identify with Plato and Whitman and Wilde, or Sappho and Radclyffe Hall, before they pluck up the courage to enter the less refined world of the queer working-class subculture. The placing of oneself within the historical queer cultural tradition is an imaginative act that requires only books rather than cruising grounds. Many have agreed with Oscar Wilde that ‘one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer in type and temperament’. Once a gay man or lesbian picks up the courage to go to their first queer bar, there they will learn many possibilities for being queer, but they were already queer before entering its door, and they already carry with them some notion of the precedents and patterns of queer culture.

There has been much specious theorizing to the effect that a queer identity cannot possibly arise in the absence of a queer subculture, which is usually seen as a ‘modern’ phenomenon. Greenberg (1988) argues, for example, that classical ‘transgenerational’ relationships are inherently ‘unstable’ in the sense that an affair ends when the boy reaches adulthood, and therefore no subculture and no concept of self-identity would have arisen in ancient cultures. In fact friendships often continue after the end of the sexual relationship. But Dall’Orto (‘Italy’, EH) has shown that although the basic homosexual relationship in fourteenth-century Italy was adult/adolescent, nevertheless the adult men were accustomed to regularly meet with one another, and a sodomite subculture arose between the adults who had sex with youths. Shared sexual tastes rather than sexual intercourse per se is what cements the relationships in queer subcultures. The pederastic Uranians of late nineteenth-century England, who enjoyed markedly transgenerational relationships, possessed a clear ‘pederastic’ identity and a definite subculture (D’Arch Smith 1970). Similarly there was a pederastic subculture in pre-modern Morocco, as well as a pederastic expatriate subculture in modern times. As illustrated in the works of Frederick Rolfe, transgenerational relationships can give rise to a complex multi-layered subculture (certainly an exploitative one, but that is a separate issue) between the men who share similar tastes, and between the boys when they are ‘off duty’, and these two groups intermingle as the men penetrate the wider world of boys (and transient labourers, etc.) and as the boys are passed from man to man and enter their wider cultural world and develop a taste for the high life. Similarly, in a non-pederastic context, the more recent Italian gay subculture is primarily the subculture of the ricchioni, or ‘fairies’, who think of themselves as very camp men and who do not have sex with one another.

There is no simple one-to-one correspondence between identity and (sub)culture. But we can say with some degree of certainty that queer subcultures are created by queer people congregating with their own kind, not by straight society herding misfits into a ghetto. The argument that society indirectly creates subcultures by negative labelling of its members is not well grounded in empirical history, but arises from a political theory. Social constructionism is partly informed by the interactionist perspective popular in the 1970s which, despite its name, leaned heavily towards the belief that the subgroup has little autonomy and is helplessly moulded by the supra-group. Societal-reaction theory tends to emphasize that nearly all the features and behaviour patterns of a subculture arise in response to hostile stimuli from the supra-culture. Such theories in the queer field draw upon the theory of internalized stigmatization and force sociology back into the confines of personal psychology. The broader historical perspective is seldom broached, and professionals have seldom followed up the grass-roots experience that a homosexual culture resides at the core of the homosexual subculture, and that this core may be quite independent of the heterosexual supra-culture.

Queer historians have inadequately addressed the problems of subculture formation. Evidence drawn from memoirs provides little support for the view that subcultures are ‘constructed’ in opposition to homophobia. If it were true that a subculture arises solely in response to external pressure, then really the queer subculture could never have emerged. Its members were outlaws subject to the death penalty; there has never been any secret admiration for queers as there is, for example, for criminals, who are often glamorized and become models for young disaffected men. The straight world has never held double standards regarding queers equivalent to the Victorian gentleman’s open exploitation of female prostitutes while placing the ‘angel of the house’ on a pillar.

A historical focus upon specific queer subcultures reveals many features that arise organically from within the subculture and serve no purpose of social control that supposedly shape the subculture. What it reveals is an ethnic culture. One can adopt this 'essentialist' position without denying the fact that there is obviously some degree of interaction between queer culture and straight culture, and that the parameters of queer culture can often be restricted by regulations imposed by straight culture. But queer subcultures should be considered as examples of queer culture driven underground, retaining some of their original features while developing others to cope with changing moral climates. The proper business of queer history should be to emphasize the generally unrecognized features that are integral to the subculture itself and not a result of oppression. But during the 1970s it was the fashion to redefine subcultures as 'countercultures', in order to emphasize their potential for subversion and revolution. A counterculture of course does require a dominant culture to react against, to feel excluded from, to try to transform. Since most gay liberationists were part of the student counterculture – they were not actually part of the gay subculture of the city centres – they adopted the minoritizing dogma ‘No counterculture can define itself independently of the dominant culture’ (Bronski 1984) and regarded the subculture as being synonymous with the counterculture. But queer culture, like an ethnic culture, can in fact be quite independent of the dominant culture, self-determined rather than socially controlled.

Queer Geography

The Gay Liberation Front introduced the term ‘gay ghetto’ into its political analysis of the gay subculture, seen largely in terms of sordid or exploitative bars and Greyhound Bus Station toilets. The use of the phrase ‘gay ghetto’ really prejudges the argument in terms of victimology. Historically and objectively the phenomenon is a queer community or queer quarter rather than a gay ghetto. Gay people are not really rounded up and put into an area cordoned off from society with walls and gates locked at night to keep them in, but it was a useful political strategy to encourage the notion that we did not choose our spaces. ‘Ghetto’ continues to be the term incorrectly used to denote what are in fact gay quartiers or colonies, which are no more deplorable than the existence of the Jewish enclave in Golders Green or the Pakistani enclave in East Finchley, London. The poverty of urban areas such as black Harlem is not a feature of ‘ghettoization’ per se, but a reflection of racism. Blacks were not forced into ‘poor’ areas, they chose these areas long before they were impoverished by the withdrawal of white investment.

In the broad historical perspective, and with the exception of prisons, queers choose their own spaces, and tend to thrive in such spaces. The gay subculture that flourished in the naval town of Newport, Rhode Island in the 1910s was ‘neither dark nor secret’ (Chauncey 1985). The gay sailors who called themselves ‘the gang’ had their headquarters at the Army and Navy YMCA, which was common knowledge to everyone in town for many years, where they had dinner with one another before going out cruising. The queers flaunted themselves openly, loudly talking about their affairs while walking together in the street, even wearing make-up while at work in the naval hospital and refusing to conform despite harassment. Everyone knew there were ‘floaters’ who ‘followed the fleet’.

I favour the ‘opportunistic’ rather than the ‘functional’ theory of queer subcultures. For example, cruising areas arise in very clear circumstances, (1) where there is an opportunity for revealing sexual organs, as in urinals and baths; (2) where there is an opportunity of seeing many people in a short period of time or concentrated place, as on bridges, near theatres after they close, and on heavily used paths and roads; and (3) where there is an opportunity for loitering without calling attention to oneself; and (4) where there is an opportunity for making a quick escape if necessary. There is no point in tormenting the data to posit psychological reasons for why men are ‘driven to sex in public places’, and little point in discussing political ‘tactics’ and the ‘subversion of boundaries’, when the obvious fact about queer geography is that queer men congregate wherever they can best make contact with one another, or pick up trade. Specialized homosexual bathhouses are first recorded in the last half of the nineteenth century in France and Germany, but public baths have always been notorious as places fostering sexual contact, homosexual as well as heterosexual. ‘Male stews’ are referred to in sixteenth-century London, and visual evidence suggests that homosexual relations took place in baths in sixteenth-century Germany and Italy.

Queers are not ‘pushed to the margins’ of society, as social constructionists would have it. Gay men do not frequent urinals because there is nowhere else they can go, but because urinals are convenient for the purpose and provide a ready excuse for exposing one’s genitals and sizing up one’s partner’s. Cruising grounds and urinals were features of queer subcultures for centuries before the rise of capitalistic competitiveness which, as wrongly claimed by Chauncey and others, supposedly inhibits intimacy between men and encourages ‘casual or impersonal sexual transactions, such as take place in twentieth-century public restrooms or baths’. Arnold of Verniolle in the early fourteenth century made some of his pick-ups in the portico connecting the dormitory and latrines of the Franciscan convent of Pamiers and the baths of Ax-les-Thermes (Goodich 1979). Partners regularly meet in the ‘privy’ for the sake of privacy, not for the sake of anonymity.

Gay men frequented the bog-houses or public urinals in London from the late seventeenth century. The bog-house in the Savoy had a round hole cut in the partition between stalls as early as the year 1700: the first recorded 'glory hole'. The bog-houses in New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, near the law courts, were known as a ‘molly market’ in the 1720s. The area around Lincoln's Inn Fields was obviously a gay quartier, as were Covent Garden market, West Smithfield market, and Moorfield Gardens to the north, one path across it being known locally as ‘the Sodomites’ Walk’, where men would stand pretending to making water as part of their pick-up techniques (Norton 1992). In Amsterdam in the 1760s many sodomites were arrested in the public toilets that were built under the city’s numerous bridges. The favourite toilets were even identified with special names, such as The Old Lady or The Long Lady (Meer 1989).

Any area where one has an excuse for loitering is liable to become a cruising ground. Queer geography turns around public parks, streets outside theatres in the evening, quays along the waterfront, and bridges (in days when one crossed them on foot rather than in cars). In early eighteenth-century Paris queers looked for pick-ups on the Pont-Neuf and then went to taverns where they hired a private room (Rey 1985). The molly subculture in London was first revealed to the public in 1707, when the members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners set out to entrap the homosexuals who were in the habit of making their pick-ups on London Bridge. It was not long before at least eight men were arrested, and soon the agents discovered that the Royal Exchange was also a molly market, where further arrests were made, and eventually an extensive subculture of cruising grounds and molly houses was discovered. Some forty-three ‘He-Strumpets’ are supposed to have plied their trade in the Royal Exchange in 1707. The dogma that queers are pushed to the outer margins of society has been very much exaggerated. There is nothing ‘marginal’ about London Bridge or the Royal Exchange or St James’s Park, or the main cruising grounds in eighteenth-century Paris, the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens, the boulevards along the former ramparts, or the quais. Nor is there anything ‘marginal’ about the brightly lit self-service cafeteria in the heart of Greenwich Village which was the main meeting place around 1936 for lesbian Lady Lovers ‘Clothed in mannish togs, flat-chested, hair slicked tightly back and closely cropped’, and pansies wearing heavy mascara, rouge and lipstick (Duberman 1986, 1991). This was not a dark corner in the twilight world, but a centre for flagrant exhibitionism and the celebration of homosexual identity.

The alleged ‘birth’ of the subculture

Trumbach and others refer to ‘the birth of the subculture’, but I do not believe there is any particular decade which we can point to and say, ‘before this date the queer subculture did not exist’. We learn of the molly subculture in London in the first decade of the eighteenth century, but all of its features are already fully formed: groups of men met regularly at molly ‘clubs’ where they used ‘maiden’ nicknames for one another, danced together, camped it up, sometimes dressed in drag on special ‘festival nights’, and had a specialized molly slang. These basic features and queer institutions such as the molly house did not change much over the years. Rey (1985) similarly found that the Parisian queer subculture exhibited no real development, for example, the cruising grounds popular in the 1780s had been just as popular in the 1710s when they were first discovered by police agents. As early as 1706 sodomites met at certain taverns in the St Antoine district, in groups having a ‘Grand Master’ and a ‘Mother in charge of novices’. In other words, the queer subculture seems to have ‘emerged’ already fully grown. That, I suggest, is impossible. The molly subculture must have existed in London at least two or three generations earlier, during which it had time to go through various stages of development. There is no reason to doubt Ned Ward’s statement that his History of the London Clubs, first published about 1705, was ‘Compil’d from the original Papers of a Gentleman who frequented those Places upwards of Twenty Years’ – pushing the date of ‘emergence’ back at least to 1685. This date would upset Trumbach’s theories.

It is probable that a queer subculture developed around the theatres of London in the sixteenth century, although the evidence is literary and therefore lacks the kind of precise details revealed by trials (Miller 1996). Ann Bacon was distressed that her (homosexual) son Anthony moved to the theatre district in Bishopsgate, ‘a place haunted with such pernicious and obscene plays and theatres’ which ‘infect the inhabitants with corrupt and lewd dispositions’. Anthony and his homosexual brother Francis Bacon both were keen on the theatre. Philip Stubbes in his notorious diatribe against the theatre complains that after the performances ‘every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse.’ ‘There is a general agreement among the satirists that the theatre is a major haunt of late sixteenth-century gay men’ (Miller 1996). Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, among others, refer to sodomites picking up boy-actors. Edward Guilpin complains of the theatregoer ‘who is at every play and every night Sups with his ingles’. Some of the earliest molly houses in London – where men played the fiddle and danced together and otherwise made merry – resemble the small music halls, the first one of which was built by Thomas Sadler in 1683.

My argument is that the British queer subculture did not ‘emerge’ in 1699 (when a ‘gang’ and ‘confederacy’ of sodomites was arrested in Windsor): that is simply the year when it was discovered and revealed in the public prints. It was not born: it was exposed. What is spoken of as ‘birth’ should really be recognized as ‘public knowledge’. Or, to put it another way, the birth of the subculture is nothing more than (a) the birth of efficient policing and surveillance, and (b) the birth of the popular press. The massive publicity that followed sodomitical trials in early eighteenth-century England, France and the Netherlands – in poems, broadsides, pamphlets – was made possible by advances in cheap printing technology and an increasing public appetite for ‘news’, and by the lapse of censorship laws and licensing restrictions in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Our extra-legal knowledge of the English subculture comes from newspapers, which did not exist before 1702, and from proto-newspapers or pamphlets such as The English Spy in the 1690s. The fact that the subculture is publicly exposed is closely linked to the rise of a popular press at the turn of the century, and the use of investigating reporters – often called ‘spies’ – who actively went in search of sensations and scandals in order to feed that press.

A changing ‘conceptualization’ or ideology of homosexuality has anything to do with this ‘birth’, except in so far as this public exposure is usually connected to the activities of a moral reform movement. It is not correct to infer that around 1700 there was a sudden change either in the roles played by homosexuals or in the social perception of homosexuality. The fact of the matter is that around 1700 there was a sudden growth of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners (there were nine Societies in 1699, and twenty in 1701) and these Societies actively searched out and revealed and prosecuted homosexual behaviour. Our knowledge of molly behaviour exactly parallels the activities of these Societies. These Societies constituted a very specific and limited social movement (e.g. their informers were much disliked by society in general), and cannot be taken as evidence for a ‘homophobic society’ in general. The ‘shift’ is not a shift in homosexual role, but a shift in criminal prosecution. We know hardly anything about homosexual subcultures before 1690 – when the Societies for the Reformation of Manners were formed. Most of the sodomites convicted from 1698 through 1709 were entrapped due to the zeal of one man, Rev William Bray, the leading organizer of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. Most of the raids on molly houses through the 1720s were lead by six members of the Society who infiltrated the molly houses. The founding leaders of the Societies, such as Rev Bray, were dead by 1730, and due to a financial scandal the Societies formally disbanded in 1738. Relatively little is known about the queer subculture after that date: not because queers went underground, but because specific groups of moral reformers no longer worked actively to reveal them.

The widespread appearance of queer subcultures across Europe circa the year 1700 is almost certainly linked not to the rise of capitalism but to the rise of surveillance. Contrary to the view of queer theorists, homosexuality and queer subcultures were not constructed: they were observed. Efficiently organized ‘police forces’ hardly existed before 1700. The subculture was uncovered as a result of new social regulations rather than constructed by some tenuous link with economic structures or ideologies. The discovery of the homosexual subculture of Paris is due entirely to the use of mouches (agents provocateurs) and later by pederasty patrols, patrouilles de péd_rastie, by the police in the early 1700s (Rey 1989). The already-pre-existing queer subculture of parks, streets, and taverns made it relatively easy for the Paris police in 1725 to compile a list of some 20,000 sodomites (W. Johansson, ‘Police’, EH). In the Dutch Republic, the legal system was accusatory, acting on charges brought by civilians, until about 1725 when the authorities acquired an independent role in tracing and investigating crimes, and it is only from that date, as agents began gathering information, that the sodomitical subculture comes to light, leading to mass trials (Noordam 1989).

Early queer subcultures

One problem with tackling he theory that homosexuals are a modern construction is the regular failure to describe what constitutes the modern homosexual. But here is how the modern gay activist John D'Emilio describes the modern gay subculture and gay identities that allegedly emerged in the late nineteenth century – ‘men and women have elaborated complex, diverse ways of living based upon their sexual desires. They have adopted distinctive styles of dress, have evolved an argot of their own, and have carved out social spaces – private friendship networks, public cruising areas, bars, bathhouses, clubs, and most recently, political organizations – that have allowed this sexual identity to take shape' (D’Emilio 1993). But all of these features already existed in London at the start of the eighteenth century with the exception of political organizations. Recognizable queer subcultures in continental Europe can be traced back at least to the early fourteenth century, and there were proto-subcultures, or centres of homosexual activity, in the early twelfth-century Anglo-Norman court of King Rufus, and at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century (Goodich 1979).

The University of Bologna was ‘infested’ by sodomites in 1375; they were going to be denounced, but were forewarned by a sodomite priest and fled – there was clearly an efficiently organized network. Florence and other early-fifteenth-century Tuscan cities had such a reputation for sodomy that Genoa would not hire Tuscan schoolmasters, and boys walking down the streets of Florence were considered to be in greater danger than girls of being sexually assaulted. In Venice, a coterie of homosexual sodomites came to light in 1406 (Greenberg 1988, Ruggiero 1985). There is an enormous amount of information or at least gossip regarding Renaissance queer celebrities: Pope Leo X, Pope Julius III, the writer Pietro Aloiso called ‘the prince of Sodomy’, the painter Giovanni Bazzi who signed his tax returns ‘Il Sodoma’, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci who was arrested for sodomy though the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Greenberg nevertheless maintains, perversely, that these do not suggest the existence of anything analogous to the modern homosexual subculture, apparently on the grounds that ‘Many of the homosexually active men were also actively heterosexual.’ But this was equally true of men in the queer subculture in many American cities during the 1940s–1960s. Gay bars would not have survived during that period without the custom of married men! St Bernardino in a sermon refers to ‘the unhappiness of sodomites’ wives’: surely this is evidence that substantial numbers of men who preferred men married for convenience during the Renaissance just as they did in the twentieth century.

The queer subculture of medieval Florence was so conspicuous that a special court, the Uffiziali di Notte (Officers of the Night), was devoted to monitoring the activity of sodomites. St Bernardino of Siena preached a series of sermons in 1424–27 giving details which clearly revealed a queer subculture: the ‘wild pigs’ had special meeting places at special times of the night, and congregated at taverns, pastry shops and barber shops (barbers often acted as pimps). Machiavelli implied that boys could be picked up in certain locales such as Borgo Santo Apostolo, Calimala Francesca, and Il Tetto de’Pisani. Men were warned by friends that they were under investigation, enabling them to flee to escape arrest, which suggests a stable social network, rather than merely a loose network of sex contacts. Among the adult sodomites there were many bachelors and ‘recidivists’, who enjoyed what can justly be called a ‘deviant lifestyle’ if not a ‘queer lifestyle’ (G. Dall’Orto, ‘Florence’, ‘Venice’, EH). In Venice, in 1488 the porch of Santa Maria Mater Domini was sealed off by the authorities to stop it from being used by sodomites as a gathering place. In Venice alone there are records of about 1,000 homosexual prosecutions during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. ‘By the fifteenth century Venice had a widespread subculture, centring around apothecary shops; schools of gymnastics, singing, music, dance, and the abacus; pastry shops; and certain dark areas’ (W. A. Percy, ‘Municipal Law’, EH; Ruggiero 1985).

By the late fifteenth century there were queer subcultures in major cities in Germany, France, Spain, and most large towns in Italy. In countries such as Spain, Portugal and Brazil the queer subculture was first ‘discovered’ in the late seventeenth century because of the activities of the Inquisition. Luiz Mott has established the existence of a subculture in seventeenth-century Lisbon, consisting not only of street prostitution and a network of go-betweens, but also inns patronized by sodomites, private homes where men could meet one another, a vocabulary of queer slang, special modes of dress, and the use of female nicknames. There was even a transvestite dance troupe, the Dança dos Fanchonos.

Enough documentary evidence has been uncovered by Gert Hekma, Theo van der Meer, Dirk Jaap Noordam, L. J. Boon and other scholars to establish the historical continuity in the growth and development of the Dutch queer subculture from the late seventeenth century through the twentieth century. From the seventeenth century onwards, ‘Brothels and pubs existed in The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Leiden. Special go-betweens provided footmen for gentlemen. Public buildings like the Amsterdam City Hall, the Bourse in Amsterdam, churches, theatres, as well as numerous lavatories which sometimes were specially nicknamed, city walls, specific streets, the underbrush in and outside city walls: all were known to sodomites as places where they either could have sex or find a casual partner’ (Meer, ‘Netherlands’, EH). It should be noted that for Dutchmen in the 1760s the hand on the hip was used quite outside the context of effeminacy, that is, it was a queer signal per se, not an imitation of women. As early as 1703 there were cruising grounds in The Hague where homosexuals recognized each other by special signs, and circles of men who robbed and blackmailed them. Circles of friends met regularly at private houses and inns owned by ‘that sort of people’ (mede van dat volk). In the 1730s, in the provinces of Frisia and Groningen, homosexual men gave each other female names. By the middle of the eighteenth century, in Amsterdam, gay men met not only in public toilets and under the arcades of the town hall, but in molly houses or taverns called lolhuysen, ‘fun houses’. They developed a sense of gay identity supported by the use of special mimicry, love names, and a network of friends and contacts, and some men sealed marriage contracts with blood (Huusen 1989). Female couples, one of them dressed as a man, tried (sometimes successfully) to get married officially (Noordam 1989). In early eighteenth-century France the sodomites revealed by police archives had a well-organized subculture; on certain evenings groups of fifteen to thirty men would meet in taverns with shutters closed, where they ate, danced, and sang and paired up, used female nicknames and rituals (Rey 1985). It is quite simply impossible to subject all of this widespread evidence from different times and different places to a single Marxist analysis of the rise of capitalism.

What needs recognition is the ample historical evidence of a very high frequency of homosexuality in large urban centres in the premodern period for many centuries. And a large queer population is by itself a sufficient reason to account for the formation of an indigenous queer subculture. Because of the social constructionist dogma that subcultures are formed by outside pressures, the notion that queers, like any ethnic group, carry their cultures with them and build it themselves has been largely ignored. Theorists often speak of prostitutes, for example, as if they were simply an economic class, but it is often more accurate to identify hustlers as a specific ethnic class. The hustlers of modern Iran, for example, were specifically young men from the impoverished suburb of Rayy in the south of Teheran, who had their own lutiyy or folk-hero types as their pimps (G. Puterbaugh, ‘Iran’, EH). In the sixteenth century the French observed gender variant men amongst the indigenous Tupi of Brazil, and the Portuguese chronicler Gabriel Soares de Souza ‘reported in the sixteenth century that male "brothels" existed among the Tupis where warriors would go to strengthen themselves by engaging in oral or anal intercourse with other men’ (Conner 1997). Male prostitution was so pervasive in the Portuguese districts of Rio de Janeiro that the Portuguese Consul in 1846 arranged for the importation of female prostitutes from the Azores, Poland and France, which drove male prostitutes and transvestites underground (Trevisan 1986). The importance of migration to the formation of modern queer subcultures also needs to be explored. It has been estimated that as much as 30 per cent of the men in modern Brazil are predominantly homosexual, and unusually high AIDS statistics seem to bear this out. Brazil is the most gay-positive country in modern Latin America, perhaps partly due to the importation of African slaves with native homosexual traditions, or perhaps even the importation of Portuguese colonists. The early queer subculture of Lisbon seems matched by the very early development of a subculture of sodomitas and fanchonos (active and passive queers) in the Portuguese bases of Bahia and Rio de Janeiro (Luiz Mott, ‘Brazil’, EH).

Queer sexual migration – the movement of gay people to city centres – is certainly an important factor in the rise of the queer subculture in San Francisco, when gay men and lesbians were purged from the armed forced in the Pacific towards the end of World War Two, and large numbers, hundreds at a time, were discharged (dishonourably) at that port. ‘Unable or unwilling to return home in disgrace to family and friend, they stayed to carve out a new gay life’ (D’Emilio 1993). During the 1970s the ‘sexual migration’ of gay men and lesbians to San Francisco became even more marked, creating a highly visible gay community having political power. The upheavals caused by the Second World War and subsequent demobilization undoubtedly played a role in the relative ‘explosion’ of queer subculture in America in the 1940s and 1950s. But sexual migration had already been taking place for quite some time. As early as 1910 the Chicago Vice Commission recorded the existence of whole ‘colonies’ of queer meeting places, ranging from the bohemian area called ‘Tower-town’ to the hobo area south of the Loop; and queer subcultural ‘types’ ranging from female impersonators to a queer street gang calling themselves ‘The Bluebirds’, whose headquarters were in Grant Park. The development of the institutions of the twentieth-century gay subculture that took shape on Chicago’s south side ‘was owing largely to the tremendous influx of both foreign immigrants and native-born Americans from rural and small town areas who came not only for economic betterment but also to find personal freedom and anonymity by escaping from a more traditional society.’ (S. L. Lewis, ‘Chicago’, EH).

Exact numbers cannot be determined, but it is clear that very large numbers of homosexuals migrated to New York during the 1880s through the 1930s, where they quickly found jobs and housing and a social circle through their links with other queers (Chauncey 1994). The migration of black people to New York contributed not only to the Harlem Renaissance but to a very widespread black gay culture within the community. During the 1930s as many as 8,000 black drag queens and black working-class ‘flaming faggots’ attended the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball. Drag queens and bulldykes were far more publicly visible in black culture, and the influence of ‘the life’, as queer blacks called it, upon queer white culture is a fact which is generally left unexamined for fear of it being called a racialist slur by respectable African-Americans. The lively gay nightlife of the bohemian subcultures was significantly shaped by migrating lesbians: ‘By the end of the nineteenth century, wealthy and/or intrepid women had consciously migrated not only to Paris, but also to Berlin, Amsterdam, new York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities, where they hoped to find other homosexuals’ (Vicinus 1993).

It might well be possible to find patterns of migration which suggest that eighteenth-century mollies moved to London to express themselves more freely just as twentieth-century working men migrated from Hicksville to New York. Just as it is quite commonplace today to travel to the major British cities on weekends to participate in queer culture, so it was common even in 1810 for men to travel from thirty miles outside London to go to the White Swan pub-cum-gay-brothel on Sunday nights, the most popular nights of queer rendezvous for almost a century earlier. In the Victorian period the public postal service was significantly staffed by boys who gave their services to men – the notorious messenger boys who appeared at Oscar Wilde’s trial were just the tip of an iceberg. It is assumed that these were ‘poor’ boys exploited by middle-class queers, but it is just as likely that already-queer Victorian boys came to London and went to work for the post office because they knew they could have a better queer life there. The distinction I am making is that any significant manifestations of a queer presence might well suggest queer empowerment rather than sexual exploitation. Factors relating to self-expression are more important than factors relating to social construction.

The interrelationship of the queer subcultures of different nationalities is something that needs pursuing in order adequately to account for growth and historical development in any specific queer subculture, because many changes probably come more from the intermingling of queer subcultures than from the interaction between queer subcultures and straight cultures. For example, during the colonial period, immigrant labourers were imported from China to the Philippines, bringing with them their native Chinese queer culture, and, according to the Spanish masters, introducing such tastes to the host population. Many arrests were made in the Chinese enclaves of Manila. ‘Although the Chinese protested that love between men was an accepted custom in their homeland, the Spanish colonial authorities were intractable. Some offenders were burned at the stake, while others were flogged and condemned to serve as galley slaves.’ (Hinsch 1990). In fact an indigenous queer culture has always flourished in the Philippines, and ironically they themselves have become the immigrant labourers stigmatized for their customs. In September 1996 Saudi Arabian authorities sentenced twenty-four Filipino workers to 200 lashes each following their arrest for homosexual behaviour, and to be deported after the sentence was carried out. Gays formed a significant number of the 117,000 Cubans who emigrated to Florida during the boat-lifts of spring 1980; the National Gay Task Force estimated 2,000 to 10,000, but the Washington Post estimated 20,000, at least a significant enough percentage for the Cuban government to use that to discredit the boat-lift. Many of the Cuban gay refugees were resettled through the gay Metropolitan Community Church and a gay rights group in Miami (Miller 1995). Undoubtedly Florida’s modern queer culture now has a large Hispanic element. The point to be made about sexual migration is that it contradicts social constructionist theory that the minority culture is invariably shaped by the dominant culture: it is more likely true that a native queer culture is shaped by another queer culture imported from outside the boundaries of the dominant straight culture.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Queer Subcultures," 24 October 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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