Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Inventing" Homosexuality

For my birthday, a friend gave me a new and highly acclaimed book in the field of gay studies and gay history, Gay Berlin: Birth of a Modern Identity, by Robert Beachy.

The book's title and the book's introduction clearly point to the author's analytical frame, which draws on the "social construction of homosexuality" model that has come to dominate much of the field of Queer Studies. The social construction model seeks to explain why there is no "gay rights" movement before the nineteenth century, not to mention no people identifying as openly "gay," no "gay community," etc. It also conveniently relies on the fact that we simply have no scientific data about sexuality that dates back any further than the late nineteenth century. Social construction theory focuses on discourse. It focuses on social ideas and images, which we can study from the period of ancient history on by examining literature, law and art. Radical social construction theory suggests that there is no scientific basis for "gayness" as an identity. Without discourse about gayness, gayness does not exist. And while social constructionists loudly protest that their work is misused by social conservatives who want to make the case that gayness should not exist, the truth is that the radical social constructionist argument readily lends itself to those uses.

But what I find fascinating about this study -- which is comparable to George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 -- is that in turning a microscope to the "invention" of homosexuality in its historical specificity (not in the abstract, theoretical way in which Michel Foucault discovered it), we always find that homosexuality is not in fact "invented," but "discovered." We would never say that Columbus "invented" America, though one could certainly compellingly argue that the concept of "America" was an invented one, that it posited a mythical "Western" world conceived of as radically different from the "Old World," etc.

Similarly, homosexual people certainly existed prior to 1867 when the German term Homosexualität was coined. A plethora of concepts and ideas have been used to attempt to frame and tame the existence of gay people for public consumption and for a variety of political and social purposes, some beneficent and some maleficent. But gay people have always existed. The recency of a publicly articulated gay identity and gay rights movement is no more proof that homosexuality does not exist per se, than, say, the recency of Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system is proof that the sun actually rotates around the earth. Both are proof, rather, that human understanding is collectively capable of progressing, that we actually know more about the way the universe functions, just as we know more about human sexuality, by applying scientific methods.

I think the best evidence of the falsehood of radical social construction theory in studies such as Beachy's and Chauncey's is how the concept of homosexuality emerged in the modern world from two primary sources: first, from gay people themselves; and second, from the medical and social work professions that were among the first to seriously consider gay people's testimony of their own experience as a source of data about sexuality. Nobody told Karl Heinrich Ulrichs that his attraction to men was innate, natural and immutable. In fact, everybody in his life, his devout Lutheran family, his colleagues in the legal profession (which ultimately disbarred him), the editors of newspapers that derided him, and his political opponents (virtually everybody with power in the nascent German state) all told him exactly the opposite. It was in consulting his own feelings and his experience that he came to know they were wrong. And when he bravely spoke publicly about his experience, he became a laughing stock in German society at large, but a hero to other gay people or "urnings" (the name he coined for homosexuals by drawing on classical mythology), who understood and related very immediately and personally to his account of his experience.

The truth is that "homosexuality" or "gayness" became possible as a modern identity not so much thanks to the scientific professions (though science has validated the identity) but thanks to the rise of modern mass democracy and urban, industrial economies. "Gayness" has not existed till now not because gay people did not exist, but because familial and social structures prior to the late nineteenth century exacted too high a price for gay self-expression. The gay community exists today because liberal institutions allow gay people to express ourselves and to tell our stories, and they allow us to form relationships that make sense to us and communities that support us and our relationships. And the gay rights movement exists because liberal democracy allows us to have a say in the laws that govern us.

Much has been made in the literature on gay history of the "medicalization" of homosexuality.  I remember as a graduate student reading about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs' gay rights activism in Germany. At that time, Queer Studies was barely on its feet as a discipline. (I was one of the organizers of the third national queer studies conferences for grad students.) I remember reading about Ulrichs' quaint theory of homosexuals as a "third sex," an idea that was taken up by Magnus Hirschfeld and the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (based in Berlin), and that was rejected by other German homosexuals, who preferred a more "manly" definition of what it meant to be a man who loved men. At the time I too rejected the notion of gay men and women as a third sex. I felt it played too much to "stereotypes." Of course gay men could be masculine sports heroes, and gay women could be feminine nurturers. That in spite of the fact that as a boy I hated sports and preferred bookish and artistic pursuits, enjoyed playing house with my brother, fell in love with Judy Garland, secretly played with my sisters' Barbie dolls, and snuck into my parents' bedroom when they were gone so I could surreptitiously try on my mother's lipstick and high heels. Those kinds of stories are common enough among gay men and women, it's hard to deny that it points to something. Ulrichs and Hirschfeld were trying to make sense of biographical data that are striking for their consistency with what anybody familiar with gay men and women will still observe today.

What is also striking to me is how eerily similar to present-day understandings nineteenth-century gay rights activists' analysis of the problems gay people face in a heterosexual society and their proposed solutions are. They identified family rejection, social isolation, religious intolerance, refusal to recognize gay relationships, and the specter of suicide driven by extreme rejection. Ulrichs also engaged with religion, with the God of the Lutheran faith he was raised in. God must love gays, he insisted, because He made us.

Of course, ultimately, an "essentialist" view of gay history can't be proven much better than a social constructionist view. To do it we'd need data that we just don't have and can never get for bygone ages. But what we can see of the emergence of public homosexual identities in the nineteenth century to me suggests more of a "coming out" than a creation.

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