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Summary Article: Homosexuality
From Encyclopedia of Gender and Society

The term homosexuality emerged in 19th-century expert discourse to refer primarily to men’s same-sex desire; during the 20th century, the term increasingly came to refer to female same-sex desire. Since the 1970s, the terms gay and lesbian have developed to distinguish between male and female identity and experience. The issue of homosexuality is important to theoretical debates about the social construction of sexuality and gender and is often the focus of discussions about the relationship between sexuality, gender, and power. Studies variously emphasize the historical, cultural, and relational nature of constructions of homosexuality in exploring its interrelatedness with gender. Some theorists have examined this interrelatedness as part of broader explorations of the centrality of sexuality to the modern social order. Other theorists have examined this interrelatedness for the insights it generates into gender relations in the patriarchal order. Social and cultural theorists have achieved a broad consensus that homosexuality is, in one way or another, bound up with the regulation of sexual and gender “norms,” and that its study illuminates operations of power and resistance with respect to sexuality and gender. This entry discusses some of the issues, including the language of homosexuality, the construction of homosexuality, gender ideologies, and homosexual practices.

The Language of Homosexuality

Cases of same-sex desire and same-sex sexual relations have been recorded throughout history and across cultures. These are often cited as evidence for the transhistorical and cross-cultural existence of homosexuality. Social and cultural theorists distinguish between these cases and the specific phenomena of “homosexuality” that has been discussed in expert (sexological, medical, psychological, and legal) discourse since the 19th century. In this latter context, homosexuality was assumed to be a pathological condition based on the “abnormal” sexual desire for a person of the same sex. The terminology of homosexuality emerged in European expert discourse about sexuality toward the end of the 19th century. This was initially used in conjunction with ideas about homosexuality as gender inversion—that is, to explain homosexuals as persons whose sexual desires were rooted in innate gender dysfunction. Homosexuality was the dominant way of talking about same-sex desire for much of the 20th century; this discourse contributed to the notion that sexual desire was a defining property of the person. The language of homosexuality was crucial to the discursive construction of morally deviant sexual practices and pathologically deviant personalities. This laid the ground for experts and legislators to define, outlaw, and seek to correct sexual deviance and was crucial to how modern societies defined abnormal and unnatural (homosexual) sexualities as the binary opposite of normal and natural (heterosexual) sexualities.

The power of the discourse of homosexuality is partly evident in the ways men and women themselves took up the language in their own understandings of their desires, identities, and practices. The dominance of the discourse among experts and lay people alike meant that male homosexual experience was often generalized to “homosexual” women. The failure of a female-specific language of same-sex desire to take hold partly indicates the extent to which female sexuality was defined by male desires and lacked autonomy.

The grassroots political vocabulary of gay and lesbian that the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s developed did distinguish between male and female same-sex desires and identities. The emerging terminology of lesbian and gay acknowledged a shared (albeit sometimes uneasy) basis for political solidarity, while recognizing the specificity of gendered histories, cultures, and experiences. Homosexuality remains the preferred language of many experts, legislators, and those who are opposed to homosexual acceptance. However, lesbian and gay movements have been highly successful in popularizing their own empowered discourse of lesbian and gay identity. Indeed, their success has been so profound that homosexuality nowadays seems an antiquated and redundant basis for sexual identity. Indeed, in lesbian and gay cultures, homosexual identity (as opposed to gay identity) is often associated with outmoded or “un-liberated” experiences. The pre-liberation era of homosexuality is also sometimes associated with an uncritical attitude toward gender norms and values, evoked through narratives of pre-liberationist mimicking of heterosexual gendered roles through butch and femme practices. Although one should remain skeptical about dichotomies of liberated and un-liberated experience, the important point is that elements of the gay political movement, under the influence of feminism, selfconsciously sought to promote a more critical understanding of gender relations.

The Construction of Homosexuality

There is broad agreement in the critical social sciences and humanities literature that homosexuality is socially constructed. There is also some consensus that the construction of homosexuality is, in some way or other, bound up with constructions of gender. Viewing constructions of homosexuality and gender as interrelated highlights issues of structure, agency, and power and raises the following questions: What dynamics and processes are at play in the construction of homosexuality, and how do these intersect with the dynamics and processes that underpin the construction of gender? How is power at play in the construction of homosexuality, and how does this interact with gender power? The exact nature of the relationships between constructions of sexuality and gender is the subject of an ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. There are, however, two broad ways to view the debate’s core issues. First, one can focus on homosexual identity and what it reveals about power with respect to sexuality and gender. Second, one can focus on practices with respect to homosexuality and how they involve power—and specifically gender power.

One of the earliest academic contributions to debates about the social construction of homosexuality came from researchers studying the sociology of deviance. The deviance perspective highlighted the issue of power with respect to homosexual identity and pointed to homosexuality as a product of human action and history. Homosexuality, from this perspective, was not the product of innate drives or pathology. Rather, modern society had established the “homosexual role” as a specific, despised, and punished role. Homosexuality, this analysis suggested, could not be reduced to same-sex desires and sexual practices. Rather, homosexuality concerned the behaviors and activities of persons fitted into those that were culturally identified as homosexual—such as camp, butch, femme, and so on. Society, this view suggested, constructed these as innate “traits” of deviant homosexuals, so that participation in such behaviors and activities made identification as homosexual almost inevitable. Drawing on insights from the sociology of deviance, this approach argued that if the treatment of certain types of criminals was essential to keeping the rest of society law abiding, the homosexual role was crucial to keeping the rest of society sexually “normal.”

Several early analyses of the construction of homosexuality came from a different perspective, drawing on Marxist structural frames. These analyses viewed the historical construction of homosexual deviance as part of the broader sexual repression that capitalism enforced. Such repression, theorists argued, was essential for producing the kind of workers, families, and gender roles that were central to reproduction of the capitalist social order. Natural sexuality, for some of these theorists, was defined by multidirectional—or as Freud had termed them “polymorphous”—desires that needed to be liberated from capitalist oppression. The liberation of homosexuality was therefore necessary as part of a broader strategy for transformation toward a freer and more natural postcapitalist way of living. Homosexuality and other sexualities that capitalist cultures had deemed perverse were, from this perspective, potentially revolutionary because they challenged institutions that pathologized sexuality and promoted only heterosexual reproductive sex.

By the 1980s, historical and cultural approaches to the construction of homosexuality began to rely less on overarching structural frames and were instead to be influenced by poststructuralist ideas about identity. Studies from this period often adopted radical constructionist approaches that refuted any claim that sexual identity has any basis in nature. A number of historical and cultural studies developed this approach by arguing that homosexuality is a relatively recent construction. Researchers working in this perspective argued that homosexual, lesbian, and gay identities were fictions or narratives that were the products of historically and culturally specific operations of “power” and “resistance.” Historically, for example, the growth of capitalism, urbanization, and changes in family organization in 19th-century Europe and North America allowed for specific kinds of homoerotic relationships to take place outside heterosexual kinship. Over time, the increasing possibilities for creating meeting places and developing social networks in new urban spaces provided the context for developing homosexual cultures and, much later, for developing lesbian and gay cultures. These cultures and networks formed the basis for a politics of resistance that centered on identity. Such historical and cultural approaches tended to be more sensitive than previous approaches to how the opportunities that certain groups (especially in terms of gender and class) had with respect to mobility and participation in the wage-labor market at different historical times shaped different forms of nonheterosexual identities.

Michel Foucault provided one of the most influential accounts of the construction of modern homosexuality. This brought the issue of power into the center of the frame, and upended traditional understandings of power with respect to sexuality and gender. Foucauldian ideas suggest that sexual identities are the products of strategies of power and resistance, and they have been a fecund source of inspiration for social theorizing with respect to homosexuality and sexualities more broadly. Put simply and briefly, Foucauldian approaches explore the production of homosexuality as an exemplar of operations of bio-power in modern disciplinary societies. In doing so, they seek to illuminate how homosexuality—like other categories such as the heterosexual couple, the masturbating child, and the female hysteric—were historical products of the focus of knowledge-power on the body. This perspective suggests that what had once been viewed as sinful behavior—for example, sodomy—was by the 19th century an identity that was produced in discourse and in “reality.” This view suggests that homosexual subjectivity has a dual meaning: to be subject to external forces through discipline and control and subject to oneself by internal monitoring. Despite their influence, Foucauldian understandings of modern homosexualities are widely debated and contested, and critics have highlighted the circularity that power achieves in the theory—the relegation of homosexual agency to “reverse discourse.” Notably, Foucauldian approaches are also widely criticized for subsuming gender relations under sexuality and for ignoring what some argue are crucial issues of institutional gender power and patriarchy. Some argue that this issue can be better explored through a focus on ideologies and practice than on identity.

Homosexuality, Gender Ideologies, and Practices

Despite the emphasis on identity in debates about the historical, social, and cultural construction of homosexuality, a number of studies argue strongly for focusing on the relationship between homosexuality and gender ideologies and practices. This issue can be viewed in several ways. Historically, some studies argue, modern conceptions of homosexuality are inseparable from gender ideologies and practices. Studies of contemporary gender ideologies and practices have also considered homosexuality in a number of ways. First, a number of studies have explored how homosexual relationships and ways of living potentially “undo” or “queer” gender. Second, studies have also explored how homosexuality is configured by, and configures, heterosexual masculine cultures. Third, there is the theoretical approach that suggests that homosexuality and heterosexuality are now more similar than different, as both are increasingly subject to lifestyle choice.

A number of studies have criticized analyses of expert discursive constructions of homosexuality and homosexual identity on the basis that they underplay the centrality of patriarchal gender relations in the emergence of modern homosexuality. Studies of the 18th-century English “mollies” (effeminate homosexual man) and “sapphists” (masculine homosexual woman), for example, suggest that changing gender relations were central to formation of modern conceptions of homosexuality. The idea of homosexuality as gender inversion, from this perspective, is rooted in the ways in which bourgeois men sought to maintain patriarchal authority in the face of moves toward greater gender equality—by casting men and women as dichotomous others with respect to the rational and emotional, and the public and private. Some studies suggest that masculine status and sexual relations between men and boys was not always incompatible in English culture. However, by the 18th century, some argue, same-sex activity was deemed to compromise masculinity and undermine manhood. The construction of same-sex desire as gender inversion was, in this view, tied to the shoring up of the idea of innate gender differences that the bourgeois patriarchal order depended on.

Studies of mollies and sapphists spoke to male and female homosexuality, and other studies explored modern homosexuality as a specifically male form of existence. From this perspective, homosexuality is not reducible to—nor best thought about as—an identity. Rather, it should be conceptualized as a distinctive modern male experience that comprises particular ways of being in the world. The homosexual life-world, in this view, incorporates particular kinds of urban life spaces; relationships to family, friends, and sexual partners; fashions, and styles; and psychological and embodied experience. Homosexuality is not merely a “trait” or a “personality” but should be conceptualized as a more an all-encompassing mode of male existence. To counter the idea of exclusively male homosexuality, some theorists argue that the economic and sociocultural developments that gave rise to the homosexual life-world would have also been available to some well-resourced and single women. Some such women would have had opportunities for mobility and participation in the male-dominated wage-labor market. This would have potentially freed them from the constraints associated with families and communities who reinforced heterosexuality as the only and inevitable option. Nevertheless, formal and informal sanctions against homosexuality targeted men more so than women (through medicalization, criminalization, violence, ostracizing from family and networks), and this is taken as evidence of relative invisibility of female homosexuality in comparison to male forms.

A number of recent studies have explored the issues of gender ideologies and practices by focusing on how homosexual—or gay male—cultures give rise to “arts of existence” or “practices of freedom” with respect to gender. Some studies of male same-sex relationships, for example, have suggested that they offer distinctive possibilities with respect to “undoing” gender. From this perspective, male same-sex relationships are constructed without access to the cultural guidelines and institutional supports that exist for heterosexual couples. Because of this, studies suggest, gay male relationships generally operate according to the rules of friendship that emphasize mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. They also allow a sense of freedom from gendered roles because there is no biological basis on which to base expectations. Studies of same-sex relationships also generally suggest a key difference between male homosexual and heterosexual relationships is the extent to which the former reject sexual and emotional exclusivity as an aspect of couple commitment and explicitly negotiate open relationships. Studies of caring practices in homosexual families and friendships also suggest these to demonstrate qualities that are often assumed to be incompatible with hegemonic heterosexual masculinity. Studies of gay male caring responses to AIDS, for example, highlight how men participated in the caring, emotion, and “dirty” work that are usually deemed women’s work in European and North American cultures. Some theorists have also argued that in the early days of AIDS, gay men pioneered safer sex strategies as part of an ethics of care. Such ethics tend to be more often associated with femininity, and rarely with heterosexual masculine cultures of relating.

It is nowadays common to assert the relational nature of gender, and a number of studies have adopted a relational approach in exploring the significance of homosexuality to heterosexual masculine practices and cultures. On the one hand, studies of contemporary gender relations have highlighted how homosexualities are constructed and subordinated with respect to hegemonic heterosexual masculinities. Despite the increasing social and legal tolerance of homosexuality in some European and North American cultures, homosexuality is still broadly conceptualized as the other of heterosexual masculinity in such cultures—a fact that is underscored by studies of media representations and practices in everyday life. Studies of boys and young men’s educational and training cultures, for example, consistently reveal the centrality of homosexual subordination and denigration to the formation of hegemonic heterosexual masculine selves and cultures. These studies illuminate how heterosexual male identities are situationally constructed with respect to imagined or ascribed homosexuality, and the extent to which heterosexual masculinity is constructed as the opposite of its “other”—homosexuality. These research findings are at odds with recent social theoretical arguments that suggest that how people construct and “do” gender is increasingly a matter of lifestyle choice for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Although this may be the case for some people, the research suggests the continuing salience of heteronormative pressures in supporting the prevailing gender order.

    See also
  • Bisexuality; Heterosexuality; Lesbian; Sexual Identities and Socialization; Sodomy

Further Readings
  • Altman, D. (1993). Homosexual oppression and liberation. New York: New York University Press. (Original work published 1971).
  • Bech, H. (1992). When men meet: Homosexuality and modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Blasius, M. (1994). Gay and lesbian politics: Sexuality and the emergence of a new ethic. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Foucault, M. (1979). The history of sexuality: Vol. 1. An introduction. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
  • Haywood, C.; Mac an Ghaill, M. A man in the making: Sexual masculinities within changing training cultures. Sociological Review, 27(2) (1997). 261-272.
  • McIntosh, M. (1981). The homosexual role. In Plummer, K. (Ed.), The making of the modern homosexual. London, Hutchinson. (Original work published 1968).
  • Trumbach, R. (1989). Gender and the homosexual role in modern Western culture: The 18th and 19th centuries compared. In International Conference on Gay and Lesbian Studies Altman, D. (Eds.), Homosexuality, which homosexuality? London: Gay Men’s Press/Dekker.
  • Weeks, J. (1990). Coming out: Homosexual politics in Britain from the nineteenth century to the present. London: Quartet. (Original work published 1977).
  • Weeks, J.; Heaphy, B.; Donovan, C. (2001). Same sex intimacies: Families of choice and other life experiments. London: Routledge.
  • Brian Heaphy
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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