Gay History

BY JOHN BOSWELL
THE CONSTRUCTION OF HOMOSEXUALITY by David F. Greenberg. University of Chicago Press,$29.95.
ALTHOUGH MANY OF the surviving writings from ancient Greece and Rome—the cultural foundations of the modern West—make casual and frank reference to homosexuality, during the half millennium from the close of the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century few of the scholars who studied this heritage were intrepid enough to write about the subject at all: it was risky to appear too interested in something that could not even be mentioned in polite company (“the unmentionable vice,”"the love that dare not speak its name”), and in many countries censorship would have obviated frank treatment, even if someone had been willing to attempt it.
From the mid-nineteenth century until the 1940s serious writing about homosexuality was largely limited to medical and penal studies, in which it appeared as either a pathology or a crime. The sudden prominence in academic circles of the social sciences in the late fifties and early sixties helped to reintroduce the subject to polite company. Since it was part of their job to study deviants, and since “deviance" could be understood as a statistical observation rather than a normative or judgmental one, social scientists could introduce homosexuality under the rubric of the history, anthropology, or sociology of deviance without displaying either unseemly enthusiasm or unscientific disapproval.
Not surprisingly, these early treatments were somewhat unsophisticated, either presenting homosexuality as a colorful detail of foreign cultures, comparable to initiation rites and foot-binding, or cataloguing the “famous and worthwhile homosexuals" of the Western tradition, often in tacit defense of modern homosexuality. Only in the seventies did a real scholarly literature on homosexuality begin to develop, with its own serious theoretical apparatus and concerns.
But the new approaches brought complications of their own. For nearly a decade the study of homosexuality in several disciplines — notably, history, anthropology, and sociology—has been both stimulated and to some degree paralyzed by an epistemological debate over what exactly homosexuality is. One school of thought, called social constructionism, opposes the general assumption of the twentieth century that homosexuality is a human attribute varying in its occurrence and manifestations from one person or culture to another (a position labeled “essentialist,”because it assumes that homosexuality is an ongoing “essence” of some number of individuals). Rather, social constructionists argue, it is an artifact (or “construct”) of particular social structures that have appeared in only a few times and places. Although, like any school, social constructionism has variations, it most commonly identifies the few times and places in question as the industrial capitalist societies of the modern West and maintains that in premodern cultures (including those of Europe until the eighteenth or nineteenth century) even if same-sex erotic acts were performed, they did not constitute “homosexuality” in the sense of an erotic identity.
Most social constructionists identify themselves as such, but no modern specialists in any field call themselves essentialists, though many remain unpersuaded by the claims of constructionism. Social constructionism is thus not really so much one side of a debate as it is a critique of earlier approaches to the subject of homosexuality, retroactively labeled essentialist, and a reaction against a largely unquestioned popular assumption that the taxonomy “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual" reflects something basic and permanent, or essential, about human beings.
More than epistemological accuracy is at issue: the underlying question is about who gay people are as much as it is about who they were. The idea that there are in all times and places some people who prefer their own gender locates gay people permanently in a minority ghetto, at least numerically and conceptually, if not socially. Positing that human beings are undifferentiated sexually except by particular circumstances and experiences seems more egalitarian and inclusive. In this view, only the particularities of certain societies divide us from one another: underneath we are all the same. And yet constructionism deprives gay people of history and heritage, in ways beyond the obvious. It is not only a question of whether they have a history as a minority—they would lack roots, as it were— if they did not exist in pre-industrial societies; constructionists might well argue that they have as much of a share as the rest of the human race in pre-industrial history, when human beings were not divided into homosexual and heterosexual categories. But if there are special sensibilities, insights, feelings, or experiences particular to gay people—as there might be to women, blacks, or Jews, for example—and if the essentialists are right, then the many gay people who have been prominent and influential in Western culture, from Socrates to Keynes, have introduced something of what is special about their outside status into the mainstream of culture, as “inside” contributors to the cultural heritage of their society. This fascinating inside-outside paradox in the history of homosexuality—if it has a history—is important not only to gay people but also to anyone interested in understanding the components of the culture in question.
BEING AWARE OF the outlines of this controversy will help readers understand the title, structure, and agenda of David Greenberg’s book, which is both an encyclopedic survey of the varieties of homosexuality in premodern cultures and the most elaborate statement to date of the constructionist position. The first half is called “Before Homosexuality,” a title that would certainly confuse readers unaware of social constructionism, since the section’s nearly 300 pages deal with precisely what most English-speakers understand by the word homosexuality. sexual interaction between persons of the same gender. (And Greenberg himself refers to this behavior as “homosexual” throughout. What else could he call it? But how then can it happen “before homosexuality”?) In this section he describes forms of what he regards as institutionalized homosexuality, which he believes to be entirely different from “modern homosexuality.” He divides them into four categories: “trans-generational homosexuality,”“trans-genderal homosexuality,” “egalitarian homosexuality,” and “class-structured homosexuality.”
By the first he apparently means “ageasymmetrical” relationships (a more accurate term employed by other partisans of this approach: a whole generation is not always at issue), in which an older man is involved with a younger man or a boy. He cites, as the classic example of this, tribes in New Guinea among which the older males all engage in homosexual relations with the younger ones as a part of the developmental process of the latter. This is taken as the archetype for ancient Greek, Roman, and Islamic societies, or others in which there is a real or idealized age differential between homosexual partners. (The age differential in literary sources from these societies may be a cliché comparable to that of the country maid’s being debauched by the traveling salesman in modern melodrama.)
Transgenderal homosexuality involves the adoption by one of the partners of some aspect of the social role of the opposite gender—for example, cross-dressing. The archetype here is the American Indians, whose male berdaches often dressed and acted like women. and could have relations with or even marry other males without social stigma, female berdaches dressed and acted like men. Class-structured homosexuality involves, basically, the buying and selling of favors across classes—as when, for example, prosperous Romans had slaves or poor Roman males as concubines.
Egalitarian homosexuality sounds rather like the modern relationships that are not supposed to have existed in the past, involving persons of comparable age and social status. Greenberg tries hard to minimize the similarities by dismissing egalitarian homosexual relationships as “not usually institutionalized . . . not recognized publicly . . . sometimes covert,” and pointing out that they “do not exclude heterosexual relationships or marriage” and “have no implications for gender identity”—all of which sounds to me very much like modern homosexual relationships.
The rest of part one of the book seeks to explain why some societies have these forms of homosexuality and others do not, and why some cultures are hostile to them and others are not. Greenberg sees transgenerational homosexuality as largely a consequence of boys’ being reared by women and needing intense and intimate relationships with adult males to establish male identities. The transgenderal form is explained as related to the high status of women in some cultures and as a part of complex psychoanalytic processes in others: “As the son secures himself against the threat of maternal loss by introjecting his mother, he also incorporates her punitive attitudes toward his own sexuality, so that they become part of his own superego” (of cult prostitutes in the ancient Near East). Class-structured homosexuality is linked to economic factors, and egalitarian homosexuality to warrior bonding and “male competitiveness,”although this position is much qualified in subsequent discussions of the subject.
SOME OF THE explanations are interesting; most implicitly assume that social organization works with exquisite uniformity and that human beings are utterly malleable, both of which assumptions I doubt. The biggest problem is that Greenberg must posit so many different mechanisms to explain the same small range of sexual behaviors in different societies. This leads one to wonder why the most obvious explanation is never considered. Eroticism and sexuality are stunningly absent from all the theories except as they relate to guilt or heterosexual marriage patterns. Would it not be more economical to hypothesize that a percentage of human beings in all societies prefer their own gender sexually, that they are sometimes able to institutionalize this preference, and that the majority of human beings are sufficiently flexible to be able to derive some sexual satisfaction from either gender under institutional pressure, whether or not that gender is their first choice?
Those unaccustomed to the study of homosexuality may think that Greenberg’s taxonomy sheds lighten the subject on its own. They should consider how useful they would find a comparable taxonomy of heterosexual relationships. It would be entirely possible to categorize relationships between males and females in premodern societies along precisely the same lines: most were age-asymmetrical (in ancient Athens the idealized age difference between husband and wife was the same as that between male lovers), nearly all were transgenderal (in sociological parlance gender, a social role, is not the same as sex, a biological category), many were class-structured (not only in cases of wealthy males keeping poor women as concubines or resorting to them as prostitutes, but even in marriage: whether women or men marry “up” or “down” in a given society is a major preoccupation of the history and sociology of marriage), a few were egalitarian. Given the tautological parameters of Greenberg’s schema, every single heterosexual relationship in any culture could be placed in one or more of his categories. Does this show something very interesting or informative about heterosexuality? That, for example, premodern heterosexuality was something entirely different from modern heterosexuality? That it was always institutional and had nothing to do with sexual identity? Does understanding that the white john has power over the poor black prostitute explain heterosexuality, or does it just make clear why this man is able to fulfill his heterosexual desires with this woman?
Of course, different cultures institutionalize human experience in different ways. Some establish major social customs around puberty, or childbirth, or menstruation, or death, or marriage. This does not mean that in cultures where such events are less publicly marked, people are unaware of or unaffected by them. It is interesting that while most human societies institutionalize heterosexual relations in various forms, few institutionalize homosexual relations, though not so few as is often supposed. But to confuse the institutions with the feelings is a gross misprision: the institution of marriage is no more an indication of individual personal involvement in or satisfaction with heterosexual eroticism than the legal grounds for divorce in, say, the State of New York are a reliable guide to the reasons marriages fail.
In many societies everyone must marry; in some every male must engage in homosexual relations. In modern democracies neither is true. In most cultures for which ample records survive, some people appear to prefer their own sex for erotic purposes, whatever the institutions are, and others do not. The former are what most Americans mean by “homosexuals” or “gay people.” Again and again Greenberg dismisses the possibility that there were “modern homosexuals” in premodern cultures by pointing out that persons who appear from the records to have preferred their own sex were nonetheless married or that their interests were not “exclusive”—as if Oscar Wilde had not been married and a father, and as if all surveys did not indicate that a majority of American gay men have had heterosexual experiences.
THE SECOND HALF OF the book, “The Construction of Modern Homosexuality,” describes the emergence of what are, in Greenberg’s view, voluntaristic homosexual subcultures and the creation of modern homosexual identities, chiefly through four mechanisms: “repression,”“market capitalism.” “medical science,” and “bureaucracy.”Each of these is treated in separate chapter. In brief, repression has the effect of causing homosexuals to define themselves by their sexual feelings as against a hostile heterosexual environment. Market capitalism encourages the development of an autonomous individual identity based on sexual orientation rather than the kind of identity centered on membership in a tribe or clan, which is supposedly more characteristic of premodem cultures. Medical science transformed, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what had been in premodern times a mere behavior-pederasty, sodomy—into a defining characteristic: homosexuality.
To this point the ideas in the book are not new, and Greenberg has done little original research, although he does review some of the sources on which other sociologists have based conclusions (with disastrous results, as will be discussed below). Some of these ideas have been in the literature on homosexuality for decades, though under other rubrics— for example, the idea that Greek homosexual relations were categorically different from most modern ones because they were age-asymmetrical. The rest is drawn from recent historical treatments. The “medicalization” of homosexuality, for example, is a common theme of current sexual historiography. Some of what Greenberg says is quite sensible, although I often feel that adherents of the medicalization approach overestimate the influence of scientific discourse on popular attitudes and fail to consider the extent to which scientists, who are brought up to have visceral prejudices of their own, are reflecting rather than shaping vulgar opinion. Some of Greenberg’s specifics in this section are risible: he proposes that hostility toward femininity in males in eighteenth-century England occurred because “little boys typically wore girl’s clothing until they were sent away to boarding school—undoubtedly a traumatic occasion,”as if there were not ambivalence about male femininity in every known Western culture, whether or not boys were dressed as girls, whether or not they were sent off to boarding school.
The one real novelty, the idea that bureaucracy encourages hostile attitudes toward homosexuality, shows up in chapter ten. Bureaucracy is never clearly defined: Weber is cited, but his definition is then discounted as outdated. Whatever it is, the exact mechanism of its impact on attitudes toward homosexuality remained murky to me even after I had read the chapter twice, it has something to do with the impersonality of bureaucratic structures and with the way bureaucratic parents bring up their children. I have trouble imagining a mechanism that would work in American bureaucracies but not in the great civil-service societies of imperial Rome and classical Islam, in both of which homosexuality flourished. The connection is made more tenuous by the mistaken claim that “outside of government, bureaucracy was almost completely unknown” in premodern Europe, by problematic chronology (Greenberg himself shows that American culture was thoroughly homophobic before it was heavily bureaucratized), and by the fact that, according to studies Greenberg himself cites, the working classes tend to be more hostile to homosexuality than the professional classes—the stalwarts of bureaucracy (though the former also have more homosexual experience in adolescence, which may be a clue to their ambivalence).
IT IS EASY TO SEE from Greenberg’s work why social constructionism has been both a stimulus and a hindrance to scholarship on homosexuality. It is thought-provoking and revealing as an epistemological strategy—a way of cross-examining concepts—but when taken fora description of reality, it proves vague, confused, and tautological.
Readers should not, however, equate the cogency or value of social constructionism as a school of thought with Greenberg’s book, which has empirical and methodological defects quite apart from its analytical problems. To do it justice, the bibliography and the range of the material that is surveyed with reasonable accuracy are quite impressive. On the subject of homosexuality itself, I find very few significant omissions of secondary sources for any period of European history, which is quite an accomplishment, given that many are recondite and that this literature has in the past two decades grown to immense proportions. (The list of references is itself more than a hundred pages long, taking up about a sixth of the book.) for nonWestern cultures and history, in many cases the sources are inadequate, as is noted below.
It is very troubling, however, that Greenberg treats all this material as uncritically as he does, especially in a work claiming to articulate a more sophisticated analytical approach. Greenberg is too often indifferent to issues of credibility and authority. Although he acknowledges in an excursus the problem of bias in reporting and reading anthropological findings, he takes this into account only with modern interpretations, and makes few or no distinctions in using older accounts of premodern cultures by outside visitors: if someone wrote it down, it must be true. It does not occur to him, apparently, that someone who describes homosexuality as an “unnatural vice” or “horrid and disgustful crimes . . . against nature” might exaggerate the prevalence of the practice, fail to recognize it, or even deny its existence. (Greenberg himself on the same page as those quotations appear refers to a society as “free from homosexuality” — something one would have expected in an earlier era of writing on the subject.)
His lack of discrimination is even more disturbing in the treatment of modern sources. All points of view, no matter how well or ill informed, are given equal weight, as if People magazine were interviewing celebrities in a divorce case. Greenberg announces that “most authorities think [male homosexual prostitution] was practiced in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem”; “most authorities” turn out to be two popular writers on sex, G. R. Taylor and Arthur Evans, neither of whom is even a professional historian, much less a biblical scholar; C. A. Tripp, a psychiatrist; and Samuel Terrien, an Old Testament expert. The notoriously unreliable study of Roman sexuality by Otto Kiefer is given equal weight with the recent research of noted specialists, like Ramsay MacMullen (and Greenberg never discloses that MacMullen’s conclusions oppose his own). T. Vanggaard’s idiosyncratic and general survey Phallos is juxtaposed with K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, a meticulous and exhaustive study by one of the twentieth century’s greatest classicists. Much of the material in the very poor treatment of Islamic homosexuality is derived from a single article in the newspaper Gay Sunshine, which consisted of extracts in English of several French articles by “Marc Daniel,” the pseudonym of a French civil servant who did not read Arabic and relied entirely on French translations.
It is not particularly surprising that someone who is not a historian should make many factual mistakes in writing about several thousand years of history in many cultures. Doubtless I would make many errors if I tried to write a compendious work of sociology. But it is particularly disappointing that Greenberg should make as fundamental an error about sociology, his own field, as his claim that the Kinsey scale measured only sexual acts—a misunderstanding of the legacy of the most influential figure in the history of American sexual sociology which is startling enough on its own, and doubly so in the context of the work in question. This raises doubts about Greenberg’s understanding of ideas of sexuality other than his own.
It would be jejune to blame social constructionism for the shortcomings of this work, which would appear careless under any ideological banner. But it does not seem unfair to point out that even at its most elaborate, the constructionist theoretical framework engenders as many difficulties as it solves. I look forward to the next stage of conceptual development in the scholarship of homosexuaiity.