Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Ten

The Eighties

In 1967 Ronald Reagan assumed office as governor of California.  Horrified at this event, my mother expressed her certainty that he could never become president of the United States.

She turned out to be wrong, for in 1980 he did just that.   The event was less surprising than many assumed, for fifteen years of national efforts to address social problems by tax-and-spend policies had on balance been counterproductive. The misconceived welfare programs, for example, tended to create dependency by shackling their supposed beneficiaries to the payments, stifling personal initiative. Finally, under president Bill Clinton, a Democrat, this system was reformed.

 Even in 1980 many of these problems had become evident. In short, the liberal consensus, dominant in the US since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, was crumbling.  Reagan's election signaled a major change in the national conversation.


In addition to the advent of Ronald Reagan, the era was shaped by a development stemming from an entirely different sphere, that of epidemiology. In 1981 reports began to appear concerning the growing numbers of gay men in New York and California who were developing rare types of pneumonia and cancer. Physicians reported these symptoms under different names, including “gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID) and “slim.” Eventually, the condition came to be called simply AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Parallel research efforts in France and the United States identified the agent as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a lentivirus in which progressive failure of the immune system allows life-threatening opportunistic infections and cancers to thrive. Infection with HIV results from the transfer of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate, or breast milk.

From the first days of the AIDS epidemic, its history was one of stigma and aversion as well as science. Even the health officials advising the public didn’t know what the disease was or how it was transmitted. This uncertainty, and the speed with which the condition spread, led to an “epidemic of fear,” together with discrimination against those with HIV and against groups perceived, correctly or not, to be more at risk.

As individuals with AIDS were evicted from housing, barred from attending schools, and continued to die with limited treatment, activists fought for money for AIDS research and an end to discrimination. In New York City the Gay Men’s Health Crisis pioneered in this work. A little later ACT-UP took up the struggle on a national level.

Since I monitored the press carefully, I took note of the danger early on. I knew that it required fundamental changes in my behavior. After a great struggle I accomplished this reorientation in my lifestyle (no more bath-house visits, be careful to use condoms, and so forth).

In the face of the crisis, some of my friends in the gay scholarly community decided to drop their existing research projects, and to concentrate on AIDS. One close friend became an AIDS dissident, and remains so to this day. I believe that he and his allies are deluding themselves, for the etiology of HIV/AIDS is about as well established as such findings can be. At the time, my own conclusion was that, deficient as I was in medical or epidemiological training, I would be best advised to continue with my existing research on gay bibliography, language, and history, leaving the issue of AIDS to those more qualified.


I had received tenure at Hunter College. This meant that barring some major breakdown on my part, which fortunately did not occur, I could continue to teach there as long as I cared to. After an early foray in a course called “Erotic Art,” I decided to keep my research and teaching separate. The field of gay art seemed too patchy and poorly developed, and anyway AIDS research was coming to dominate everything.

For some time I had been teaching Egyptian art at Hunter. This old interest of mine was reinforced by a trip to Egypt in 1974. I was not and am not a professional Egyptologist, but I thought that I had insights that stemmed from affinities with later Western art.  This was the period of the controversy touched off by the Black Athena books of Martin Bernal.  I did not go all the way with Bernal, but still held that there were important ways in which later Western culture owed a debt to ancient Egypt.

Aesthetically, my really big discovery in the eighties - or more accurately rediscovery - had been modern architecture. As a teenager I had been drawn to the work of Le Corbusier. Later I took an interest in the work of Walter Gropius and some other “starchitects.” I had dropped my youthful longing to become an architect, but retained a vague allegiance to the ideals of International Style: “less is more,” as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put it.

At some point in the mid-eighties I came across a book containing photographs of works of postmodern architecture by such figures as Frank Gehry and Ricart Bofill. Their quirky buildings seemed deliberately to violate every accepted principle of good design. But I persisted with my looking and with asking questions. At about this time, the Hunter colleague who had been teaching modern architecture suffered a heart attack and died. I asked if I could teach the course. My first effort was shaky, as I did not know the monuments, and became confused at certain points. But I began to reshape my travel plans so as to see more modern buildings. Eventually, this offering became my favorite, and perhaps best course. I haven’t published much in this area - just one short piece on Le Corbusier--but the experience has enriched my life.

In the spring of 1985 I traveled to Europe to see friends in Paris and Amsterdam. In between these visits I went to Frankfurt, where I took a train for Berlin. As we crossed the border into the German Democratic Republic, the Communist authorities sealed the train. We passed slowly through a series of towns where the inhabitants stared out at us glumly. The whole country seemed shrouded under a pall of black smoke because of the bad coal that was being burned. After arriving at the Zoo Station, I happily settled into a pension in West Berlin, where I was struck by the prosperity and joyousness of this enclave. One days' trip into East Berlin was enough for me. Even though the Communist regime did not fall until four years later, I could already tell that it was doomed.


The main focus of my scholarly activity remained gay studies. In editing the 12 numbers of Gay Books Bulletin aka The Cabirion, I sought to secure contacts with developments abroad, mainly in Europe. In this way I linked up with two scholars who were to become important allies: Claude Courouve and Giovanni Dall’Orto. Courouve was a private teacher in mathematics who had self-published a number of important papers in French gay history. He contributed several pieces to Gay Books Bulletin.

Dall’Orto was a young scholar in Milan, clearly quite brilliant, but as yet unpublished. He subsequently showed enormous commitment to both research and writing, uncovering countless pieces of new information in Italy, where the record is very rich in the gay sphere. Giovanni now conducts an important website, La Gaya Scienza (

At all events, all three of us were interested in the semantics of words designating homosexuality. Dall'Orto published his findings in the form of a major article (accessible at his site), while Courouve created his extraordinary Vocabulaire de l'homosexualité masculine (1985), a landmark work in the study of the subject in France.

In retrospect, my own Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality (1985) was somewhat jejune. This little book reflected our findings in the meetings of the Gay Academic Union Scholarship Committee that had been held in my apartment. Twenty years later I was to produce an electronic version with many improvements: Homolexis Glossary; see Unfortunately for me, the study of gay linguistics took a different turn -towards a kind of sociolinguistics that sought to explore nuances of ordinary usage. Much of this research struck me as trivial, without lasting import.  I chose not to participate in this "Lavender Language" trend.

Far more important in my oeuvre was my major book Homosexuality: A Research Guide (1987). After the collapse of the bibliographical project originally undertaken with W. Dorr Legg of ONE, Inc., I had kept looking, almost obsessively, for some way of presenting my store of learning. This quest had become obsessive.  Fortunately I enjoyed the support of my friend Warren Johansson, whose expertise in several languages uncovered many recondite items. I created a new topical framework using categories of my own devising. In the presentation, I resolved that each entry would have an annotation; some quite short, others longer and evaluative.

The massive amounts of material compiled in Homosexuality: A Research Guide reflected my view, shared by some key friends such as Johansson,  John Lauritsen, and Stephen O. Murray, that the resources of scholarship could be mobilized to attempt a comprehensive understanding of same-sex behavior during all periods and in all parts of the world. To be sure, information was skimpy in some areas, but we were confident that with further work the data could be recovered.

Our idea, then, was to lay the foundation of a new discipline of homostudies, to borrow a useful Dutch term. This aim was not to be realized, because the gay academic world in the larger sense fell victim to a wave of fashionable ideology, relativistic and present-minded.


The Social Construction (SC) approach denied the existence of any "transhistorical" criteria for understanding same-sex behavior. The SC scholars held that sexual behavior is, in all significant aspects, a product of cultural conditioning, rather than of biological and constitutional factors. Thus same-sex behavior would have an entirely different meaning, say, in ancient Egypt or Tang China from what it would have in nineteenth-century Europe.

In the view of some proponents, the "modern homosexual" is sui generis, having come into existence in Europe and North America only about 1880; hence it is vain to conduct comparative research on earlier eras or non-Western societies. This narrowness had - or was meant to have - a chilling effect on many necessary areas of research.

The Social Constructionists contrasted their own approach with that of the "essentialists" (a hostile epithet of SC origin), who ostensibly believe in an eternal and unchanging homosexuality. Yet most critics of social construction, such as myself, are not essentialists, and to label them as such was a caricature. This misrepresentation proved tactically useful for those who chose to wield it, but advanced understanding very little. One should also bear in mind that the SC controversy did not spread to the gay/lesbian community as a whole, but was confined to scholars. Still it was that world that mattered to me and my associates.

To be sure, 
SC was not devoid of value, for it alerted researchers to the dangers of anachronism. It makes no sense, for example, to refer to such ancient Greek figures as Socrates and Alexander the Great as gay without noting that their erotic life was conducted in a framework in which pederasty, the love of an adult man for an adolescent boy, was the rule, and not the androphilia - male adult-adult relationship - dominant today.

Granting this point, Social Construction erred too far on the side of difference: it denied any commonality whatever among same-sex love in ancient Greece, in the Middle Ages, and in contemporary Western society. This occultation of commonality and continuity would deprive scholars of the fruits of cross-cultural study of same-sex behavior. Another consequence of SC orthodoxy was to exclude biological factors from any role in the shaping of sexual desire. Some extreme adherents claimed that the body itself is a mere social construct--implying a rejection of material reality itself. Very odd.

In one sense the conflict between Social Construction and its opponents was another version of the old debate about nature versus nurture, between those who believe that human conduct is largely conditioned by biological forces and those who attribute the leading role to culture (the environmentalists). One's first response is to say that human behavior is the result of a confluence of the two forces, but this compromise is usually rejected by those in the environmentalist camp. In similar fashion, the social constructionists held that culture is supreme, and are little prepared to concede biological constants. The SC debate has also been compared to the medieval philosophical dispute between the realists and the nominalists, contrasting those who believed that the world contained real essences as against those who believed that we know only names for primal qualities. The parallel is inexact, however, since few Social Constructionists would be willing to adopt the nominalist views they are said to hold. Indeed, thoroughgoing nominalism would render the Social Constructionist claims meaningless, since there would be no stable social categories to contrast with the purportedly labile ones of sexual orientation.


The actual roots of Social Construction as a theory are twofold. First is the heritage of German historicism, which (emerging in the late eighteenth century), saw successive historical epochs as each having a distinct character, radically different from those that precede and follow. This trend, which posits a series of historical eras almost hermetically sealed from one another, accounts for the social constructionist belief that there is a "modern homosexual," a type that has existed only since ca. 1880. These antecedents show that the SC approach is not as new as its proponents suggest.

The second source is the tendency of modern sociology and anthropology to attribute human behavior solely to cultural determinants. In some Social Constructionists this tendency is tinged with late Marxism - which may itself be regarded as a sociological doctrine. These two main sources were given focus by the writings of the French social thinker and historian Michel Foucault, who though not self-identified as a social constructionist seminally influenced such SCers as Kenneth Plummer and Jeffrey Weeks. These and other adherents picked up Foucault's ideas of historical discontinuity, of "ruptures" radically segmenting periods of historical development.

A major objection to the SC position is that same-sex behavior existed in Western society during the hundreds of years in which its existence was formally denied by the dominant culture; the authorities imposed obligatory heterosexuality upon the entire population and subjected anyone known for "sodomitical" behavior to economic boycott and social ostracism, if not to criminal prosecution. A curious outcome of these centuries of oppression is that when the first writings on homosexuality reached the general public at the end of the nineteenth century, some individuals revealed to psychiatrists that, although they had responded solely to members of their own sex since adolescence, until then they imagined themselves unique in the whole world. They had "constructed" their own sexual consciousness without any social input--a feat that should be impossible according to Social Constructionist determinism.

Another fact that contradicts the Social Constructionists is the abundant evidence for flourishing gay subcultures in Europe and the United States for at least a hundred years or more before the modern, political phase of homosexuality began--a subculture whose participants, however, merely thought of themselves as members of an erotic freemasonry from whose forbidden pleasures the vulgar mass was excluded. (While the evidence becomes sparser as one goes back in time, in some sense these subcultures can be traced back to the twelfth century in the Middle Ages.)

The "modern homosexual" is a political concept; the phenomenon began when individuals oriented toward their own sex, in the wake of trials such as those of Oscar Wilde and Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, came to regard themselves as part of an oppressed minority cherishing a grievance against late Victorian society and its norms of sexual morality, and demanding their own "place in the sun." This trend was for a long time characteristic of northern Europe (where generally homosexual conduct was criminalized) and was foreign to the dwellers of Mediterranean lands. Since the 1960s, the "gay" identity has had an undeniable component of political activism; it was the badge of the individual who proclaimed his sexual nature openly and campaigned for the liberation of himself and others like him from the unjust prohibitions and discriminations of "straight" society. One can readily grant that in ancient Greece and Rome no one was "gay" in this sense. Such a political stance arose only in dialectical opposition to the Judaeo-Christian attitude toward homosexual behavior and those who engaged in it. Even today many of those who participate in homosexual activity far from the mass meetings and rallies of the "gay ghettoes" are heedless of this political aspect of homosexuality, which they perceive as irrelevant to their desires for erotic gratification.

As has been noted, Social Construction theory made a contribution in warning against anachronism, the tendency to project back into the past one's own familiar experiences and life ways. Yet the idea that cultural climates shift, changing the expression of sexuality with them, is scarcely a new discovery. What proved disappointing about Social Contraction was that it offered no explanation of the grounding of such change. What mechanisms--economic, political, intellectual--cause a society to move from one dominant cultural climate to another? Moreover, social construction went too far in seeking to discourage transhistorical and cross-cultural investigations of homosexual desire. Implied roadblocks of this kind must not stymie the investigator, for comparative studies across time and across social systems are a vital prerequisite to the emergence of a satisfactory concept of human homosexual behavior in all its fullness and complexity.

The most important limitation of the SC approach is that it has tended to narrow its purview to recent centuries of Euro-American society, in effect erasing what transpired beyond these boundaries. This limited focus has in turn been tendentiously exploited by homophobic pundits and politicians in non-Western societies. These individuals deny that the stigma of homosexuality ever besmirched their communities--at least until Western colonialism “forced” it on them. This mistaken view is common in sub-Saharan Africa. It also underlies the categorical statement of Iran’s President Ahmedinajad at Columbia University in 2007 (where I was present), to the effect that there are “no homosexuals in Iran.”



Blogger Stephen said...

Jeffrey Weeks has sought to downplay the clear influence of Foucault on his work of the early 1980s (and to invent one by Mary McIntosh), but Ken Plummer's views were crystallized (in print in SEXUAL STIGMA, 1975) before the first volume of Foucault's HISTORY OF SEXUALITY appeared (in French in 1976), shaped by symbolic interactionist theories and the empiricism of John Gagnon and Bill Simon that was also influence by Chicago interactionism. (Foucault's earlier work on the asylum, etc. does not appear in the bibliography of SEXUAL STIGMA.)

10:21 AM  

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