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The Construction of Homosexuality

The Construction of Homosexuality

by David F. Greenberg, Greenberg

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In a work of unprecedented scope, Greenberg provides a cross-cultural and transhistorical account of the social organization of homosexuality, the ways it is perceived, and how cultures respond to it.


In a work of unprecedented scope, Greenberg provides a cross-cultural and transhistorical account of the social organization of homosexuality, the ways it is perceived, and how cultures respond to it.

Editorial Reviews

A magisterial study that places homosexuality in a cross-cultural and trans-historical context. Greenberg (sociology, NYU) illuminates and accounts for the influence of social factors on sexual preference, the social organization of sexuality, and the ways that societies have thought about sexuality and tried to control it. His comparative approach seeks to confirm that homosexuality is not a uniform phenomenon across time and that social beliefs about homosexuality stem from identifiable features in societies. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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University of Chicago Press
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7.12(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.91(d)

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The Construction of Homosexuality

By David F. Greenberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30628-5


Theorizing the Prohibition against Homosexuality

If you are one who has been caught up in the homosexual syndrome — won't you acknowledge the practice as an abomination in the eyes of God, confess your sin, and come to Jesus in penitence and faith? May God help you to do it today.

Harold S. Smith (n.d.)

Homosexuality ... is a symptom of a disturbed personality.

Dr. Robert Kronemayer (1980)

Two, four, six, eight,

Gay is twice as good as straight.

Picketers chanting outside a church where Anita Bryant was speaking.


Is homosexuality a sin, a manifestation of psychological pathology, or is it healthier than the alternatives? The debate continues. And these are not the only possibilities. For William Blackstone, a leading jurist of eighteenth-century England, homosexuality was a "crime against nature." To some physicians of the late nineteenth century, it was a manifestation of inherited physiological degeneration. In the ancient Near East, male prostitutes were believed to have special supernatural powers.

Each of these conceptions implies an appropriate response — religious penitence, psychoanalysis, imprisonment, sterilization, sacramental intercourse, picketing Anita Bryant. Our goal is to understand these conceptions and responses. Why have some societies invested homosexuality with ritual significance, while others have thought it to be one of the wickedest of crimes? Why did a medical conception of homosexuality emerge? Why is there resistance to gay liberation today?

Our questions originate in developments within sociology, as well as in the larger society. For decades, sociologists have studied activities such as crime and drunkenness which the larger society has deemed deviant or undesirable. Researchers, leaving the harmfulness of these activities unquestioned, focused on their social and psychological causes. For example, sociologists who studied delinquency examined its roots in material deprivation and family pathology. As it happens, very little sociological work on the causes of homosexuality was undertaken, probably because the subject was considered more suitable for biologists and psychologists. Some researchers may have feared that if they studied homosexuality, they would be suspected of it themselves.

Labeling theory, a perspective that became influential in sociology in the 1960s, brought a different emphasis to deviance research. Instead of studying the reasons why someone engages in behavior of which people disapprove, labeling theorists shifted attention to the reasons for the disapproval. Howard Becker summarized the essence of the perspective neatly:

Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an "offender." The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.

It is thus the existence of social prohibitions and the responses that back up the prohibitions, that make a behavior deviant. In a world where no one thought homicide wrong, it would not be deviant, no matter how frequently or infrequently people killed one another, and no matter how immoral or objectively harmful killing is. Deviance, then, is in the eye of the beholder. It is beliefs that homosexuality is evil, sick, or undesirable — and the corresponding efforts to punish, cure, or prevent it — that make homosexuality deviant. Whether or not these beliefs are true is beside the point.

Were social responses to behavior governed entirely by its objective features, this way of looking at deviance would gain us little. Whether we defined deviance as behavior that was intrinsically pathological, or as behavior that happened to be regarded as undesirable, we would still be studying the same behavior. Yet, as the quotations at the head of the chapter demonstrate, behavior does not completely govern responses to it. People can and do disagree violently about which behaviors should be treated as deviant. These disagreements can have practical consequences for social policy. It is critical, then, to know how beliefs about deviance arise and gain acceptance.

In studying social definitions of homosexuality, we extend the concerns of labeling theory into the relatively neglected realm of human sexuality. We will want to know why some societies are comparatively hostile to homosexuality, while others tolerate or even fully accept and institutionalize it. But we will also be concerned with the ways in which homosexuality is conceptualized. It is not merely that some societies are more accepting than others; it is that the kinds of sexual acts it is thought possible to perform, and the social identities that come to be attached to those who perform them, vary from one society to another. There are societies, including some where homosexual acts are frequent, that lack any concept of a homosexual person. As we will see in a subsequent chapter, medieval inquisitors were not concerned with homosexuals, but with sodomites. It was not merely that people of the Middle Ages uttered a different word, but also that their system for classifying sexual actors was not the same as ours. For one thing, the medieval sodomite's partners did not have to be of the same sex.

Even the same word can change its meaning with time. When first coined in the late nineteenth century, the word "homosexual" had biological connotations that it later lost. A psychoanalyst today might refer to someone who has never been aware of sexual interest in someone of his own sex as a "latent homosexual," but lay people would probably not. Changing sexual typologies and images of persons who engage in acts that we classify as homosexual will be central to our concerns. Equally central will be theories that explain homosexuality and actual responses to it.

According to one school in the philosophy of science that is currently in vogue, the objective features of a phenomenon so little constrain the ways it is classified and theorized that these features can be disregarded in trying to understand why a particular classification system or scientific theory has been adopted. By extension this would also be true for nonscientific theories and explanatory schemes. However, this claim is implausible. If it were true, the objective features of a phenomenon could change without any necessity for a corresponding revision in what is said about that phenomenon. Yet surely a chemist who is asked to tell us the composition of an apple will answer differently if a pear or peach is substituted for the apple. An underlying objective reality may not entirely determine perceptions of that reality, but this does not mean that it has no effect at all on perceptions. For this reason, when reconstructing a phenomenology of homosexuality for different cultures, it is relevant to reconstruct, to the limited degree possible, the patterns of actual sexual behavior associated with perceptions of it.


In more ways than one, the gay-liberation movement has made a study of this sort intellectually possible. People rarely study the origins of rules they support, or ask questions about the categories that give structure to those rules. The partial success of the gay-liberation movement's efforts to refute popular beliefs that homosexuality is harmful has done much to stimulate the study of its prohibition.

Like other groups that have suffered discrimination and repression, gays have begun to recover their past, documenting the history of repression and of struggles against it. The very first historical and comparative studies of homosexuality were the products of the earliest wave of the homosexual emancipation movement. As early as 1883, John Addington Symonds compiled materials on ancient Greece in an attempt to show that homosexuality could be noble and dignified when valued by society rather than repressed. Edward Carpenter, who collected reports by travelers and anthropologists about homosexuality among primitive people, claimed that homosexuals tended to have exceptional mental and spiritual abilities that made them superior. Both were lovers of men.

With the destruction of the homosexual-liberation movement at the hands of the Nazis, historical research on homosexuality virtually ceased. By default, most scholarly discussions of homosexuality were medical or psychiatric. The physicians and psychiatrists who wrote of it were primarily interested in its causes, prevention, and treatment and saw little reason to turn to history or the social sciences. Their training led them to view sexuality as presocial and individual, so that the ways it was expressed and the responses it received could not be illuminated by knowledge of their social context. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, who might have approached the subject with other questions and interests, rarely did so.

From time to time, historical treatments of homosexuality did appear, but their concerns rarely went beyond the identification of famous figures of the past as homosexual. Apologetic in tone, they sought to persuade readers that if Socrates, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Whitman were homosexual, then popular prejudices against homosexuality must be unjustified. Possibly these works had limited value as propaganda. Perhaps they helped homosexuals maintain their self-esteem at a time when stereotypes of homosexuality were overwhelmingly negative. But they did little to illuminate such issues as the influence of social factors on sexual preference, the social organization of sexuality, and the ways people thought about sex and tried to regulate it.

The gay-liberation movement of the past fifteen years has vastly broadened the scope of scholarly writing on homosexuality. It has weakened prejudice enough to permit scholars to publish without committing professional suicide, and it has expanded the demand for this research. The result has been a number of histories of the liberation movement, and more general surveys of homosexuality in different historical periods and in different parts of the world. These broad treatments have been followed by specialized studies of homosexuality in particular places and periods.

The conceptual framework of many of the newer studies differs radically from that of the older ones. Mary Macintosh pointed the way in a pathbreaking article published in 1968 that proposed to consider homosexuality as a social role whose origin and changing content could be studied historically. This approach leads to the reconstruction of subcultures, identities, discourses, communities, repression, and resistance.

To understand why perceptions of homosexuality and social responses to it vary, we must examine evidence from a wide range of societies. No scholar working exclusively with primary sources could hope to amass the necessary evidence in a single lifetime. Fortunately, the studies historians have already done make this unnecessary. While these studies could be used to compose a synthetic history, that is not the purpose of this work. Though I will allude to episodes of persecution, I will not recount them in detail; others have already done this. My goal will be to explain why these episodes occurred — and why, at certain points in history they stopped occurring. The specialized histories, which tend to be more descriptive than analytical, furnish the materials needed for our sociological purposes. Ten years ago this sort of analysis would have been impossible, for too little of the primary research had been done. It is the renaissance in homosexuality studies that has made the present investigation possible.


The premise of almost all recent sociological attempts to understand the origins of deviance-defining rules has been the observation that rules do not make themselves. In the words of Howard Becker,

before an act can be viewed as deviant, and before any class of people can be labeled and treated as outsiders for committing the act, someone must have made the rule which defines the act as deviant.

To gain approval for a new deviance-defining rule, those who have strong convictions about its desirability will seek to persuade others of their views. Typically, they will lobby and put pressure on decision makers. Because they take the initiative in trying to change public morality, Becker has dubbed them "moral entrepreneurs." Despite their own certainty that humanity will profit from their efforts, critics often see them as self-righteous and authoritarian, seeking to impose their own moral standards on others.

Moral entrepreneurs are a familiar feature of the political landscape: Ralph Nader, Anita Bryant, and in England, Mary Whitehouse, are contemporary examples. That crusaders such as these can sway and mobilize public sentiment is surely true. Yet in modern societies a multitude of entrepreneurs crusade on behalf of a host of causes. Some gain a following but fail to make a lasting impact, others are ignored, and still others succeed beyond all expectations. What explains these different outcomes? Why do entrepreneurs choose one cause instead of another? Why do they appear at particular moments in history? The concept of "moral crusader" does not answer these questions.

Nor does it tell us whether some people are more likely to become moral entrepreneurs than others. Deviance theorists have attempted to do this by conceiving of society as divided into distinct groups: classes, races, religions, ethnic groups, occupations, sexes. These groups may have clashing interests and diverging moral values. In pursuit of its interests, one group may seek to define the activities of another group as deviant. For example, physicians of the late nineteenth century sought to enhance their incomes through legislation barring midwives from delivering babies.

Clashes among groups can occur over moral values as well as over conflicting interests. As long as a group thinks that its moral code applies only to itself, it will make no effort to impose it on others. Orthodox Jews, believing that the dietary laws of kashrut are binding only on Jews, have never tried to prevent gentiles from eating pork and shellfish. On the other hand, when a group thinks its morals should serve as a standard for others, it may try to persuade or coerce nonmembers to conform.

Conceivably, those whose behavior is the target of a deviance-defining effort could be won over, so that they voluntarily abandon the activities they, too, have come to define as deviant. Often, though, the target group defends its own moral standards or upholds its interests and resists being defined as deviant. It insists that the activities in question are not deviant, but innocuous or beneficial. In resisting the effort to make their activities seem deviant, the target group may criticize the reasoning or attack the motives of those who are doing so. It may engage in a campaign of its own, seeking to influence opinion and gain support. What ensues, then, is a "deviance contest" whose outcome depends on the relative power of the two (or more) groups engaged in the contest.

This general perspective has informed numerous studies of deviance -defining or normalizing legislative acts. The studies have differed in the groups found to be responsible for the legislation and the motives ascribed to them. Chambliss attributed fourteenth-century English vagrancy legislation to landlords who wanted to control agricultural wage-laborers in the aftermath of the Black Death. In this instance the relevant group was a class, and its motive was economic self-interest. Dickson's study of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, and Embree's analysis of the Harrison Act of 1910, which criminalized opium derivatives, also interpreted legislation in terms of material interest, but the relevant groups were government bureaucracies, not classes. Gusfield characterized the Prohibition movement as a "symbolic crusade" by a declining small-town Anglo-Saxon middle class seeking not material advantage, but the preservation of a social status threatened by the growing social and political importance of urban-based immigrants from countries where alcohol consumption was an accepted part of daily life. Humphries found the professionals (doctors, lawyers) who participated in the movement to repeal abortion legislation to be advancing their own occupational interests, while the concerns of feminist participants were partly material and partly symbolic.

Though research of this kind has traced many deviance-defining rules to the interests, moral values, and political power of particular groups, the origins of rules prohibiting homosexuality cannot be so easily uncovered. Since homosexuality is found in all social classes, it is unlikely that a dominant class would seek to repress it to gain an advantage over a subordinate class. Because it is found in all races, nationalities, and ethnic groups, it also seems unlikely that a prohibition could have arisen because one race, nationality, or ethnic group sought material benefits or higher social status by prohibiting the sexual practices of others. In so doing, it would also be prohibiting its own practices.


Excerpted from The Construction of Homosexuality by David F. Greenberg. Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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