First published May 11, 2005, in the Chicago Free Press.
Every once in a while you hear some half-educated person announce ostentatiously that there were no homosexuals before the late 19th century, or even that there was no homosexuality before then.
When you hear that you know you have encountered someone who has read one or another of a small group of gay academics called "social constructionists." SC (for short) claims that since our sexual "identity" (watch this tricky word!) is created by our social and linguistic context no one could have been "homosexual" before the term was invented in the late 19th century.
But there is something fishy about saying there were no homosexuals before the late 19th century. It is easy enough to point out that there were people who engaged in same-sex acts. When the SC theorist replies "Oh, but they didn't understand themselves to be homosexual," we can respond that they certainly knew they desired same-sex partners. If the SC theorist replies, "But they didn't have the specific identity of 'homosexual' because the word didn't exist," the response has to be, "Well, duh!"
So what starts out looking like a fascinating claim about the history of sexuality turns out be a much less interesting claim about language. The assertion makes a much weaker claim than it pretends to. It is a kind of bait and switch game. It is as if someone offered to sell you an airplane, but it turned out to be a model airplane.
As sociologist Stephen O. Murray commented in American Gay about SC theorists, "I can think of no other group whose academic elite is so bent on challenging the masses' quest for roots as gay and lesbian historians are."
The late Yale University historian John Boswell was a favorite target of SC theorists because he gave his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality the subtitle "Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th century." Gay!
There are problems with Boswell's effort to exculpate the Catholic church from its responsibility for fomenting homophobia, but some of the criticism centered instead on the objection that there could not have been any "gay" people before modern times since the term "gay" was not widely used for homosexuals before the 20th century.
In two long, later articles Boswell cited copious evidence from classical and medieval sources of widespread awareness that some people had primarily same-sex desires, were fully aware of their predominant desire for same-sex partners and that people were sometimes categorized in terms of their desires.
As Boswell summarized:
"While ... premodern societies did not employ categories fully comparable to the modern 'homosexual/heterosexal' dichotomy, this does not demonstrate that the polarity is not ... applicable to those societies. ... A common thread of constructionist argument ... is that no one in antiquity or the Middle Ages experienced homosexuality as an exclusive, permanent or defining mode of sexuality. This argument can be shown to be factually incorrect."
Although Boswell originally defined gays as people "conscious of erotic inclination toward their own gender as a distinguishing characteristic," Boswell later concluded that not all earlier gay people necessarily saw their sexuality as something that distinguished them from others in their society, so he revised his definition of "gays" to the simpler "those whose erotic interest is predominantly directed toward their own gender."
That is, after all, pretty much what we all mean when we say someone in the past was homosexual or gay. We could add that many such people were surely aware of their desire as a distinguishing characteristic, even if it was not always the primary one.
Historian Louis Crompton agreed with Boswell in his comprehensive gay history, Homosexuality and Civilization:
"Michel Foucault and his followers have argued that the 'homosexual' is a modern invention, a mental construct of the last hundred years. That is, of course, true of homosexuality as a 'scientific' or psychiatric category. But it is a mistake to presume that earlier ages thought merely of sexual acts and not of persons."
We can go further. There is good evidence not only that people knew they had predominant or exclusive homosexual desires and that fact was important to them, but that there were homosexual sub-cultures in earlier times - in the 18th century London, in Renaissance Italian cities such as Florence, and perhaps even in 12th century London. As for someone's having a homosexual identity, the 16th century gay Italian artist Gianantonio Bazzi adopted the nickname "Sodoma." That sounds like a fairly assertive homosexual identity to me.
Academic fads generally last 15-20 years and social construction is arguably on the decline. It was based on a limited knowledge of history and a wildly exaggerated notion of the power of language to control and limit people's understanding.
It inhibited gay historical research because it assumed a priori that evidence for meaningful historical continuity was not there to be found, so no one needed to look for it. As Crompton's own recent book shows, they are beginning to look again.
Author's Note: In response to post-publication queries, the two John Boswell articles the column refers to are:
- "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories," in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, et al. (New York: New American Library, 1989), pp. 17-36. This article is mostly a reprint of an earlier article in the journal _Salmagundi_ 58-59 (1982-83), pp. 89-114, but adds short postscript (pp. 34-36) from which the column quotes.
- "Concepts, Experience and Sexuality," in Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy, Edward Stein, ed. (New York: Garland, 1990), pp. 133-173.