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Although the topic of homosexual identity is a complex one, it has polarized activists, theorists, and literary critics into two primary camps: essentialists and constructionists.

The former (usually labeled "essentialist" by their detractors rather than embracing the term themselves) believe that the lesbian and gay sense of "self" is natural, fundamental, and historically constant. Often arguing from a biological, psychological, or other scientific basis, the essentialists emphasize the transhistorical similarities in the experiences of men and women attracted to members of the same sex.

Constructionists, on the other hand, often utilizing methodologies of critical theory, philosophy, economics, and historicism, argue that constructions of identity, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are historically contingent, that homosexuality as it is understood today came into being only in the late nineteenth century, and that prior manifestations of same-sex desire were vastly different from what we today call the gay and lesbian experience of self-hood.

Constructionists constitute a much more self-conscious movement than do the essentialists. Nevertheless, the two camps, with few exceptions, share a common desire: to demonstrate the fundamental amorality of sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Although drawing on vastly different traditions and theories and beginning with very distinct assumptions, proponents of both constructionist and essentialist theories have produced valuable insights into gay and lesbian lives, ones that can contribute usefully to our understanding of the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

Essentialist Cultural Critics

Chief among the cultural critics whose writing has been termed essentialist are Judy Grahn, author of Another Mother Tongue, and Robert K. Martin, author of The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Grahn examines cultural documents, myths, and traditions from around the world, whereas Martin focuses specifically on poetic works from American literature, to emphasize a shared experience that helps us understand the oppression of homosexuals today by looking at contrasts and roots in the past.

For such scholars, gay identity stretches back through time, and though it has always reflected historical circumstances, it has nevertheless hinged upon a sense of difference that has invariably separated the identity of same-sex loving individuals from their opposite-sex loving contemporaries.

Using such an interpretive model, critics examining the works of Sappho or Shakespeare would invariably emphasize the commonality between modern gay and lesbian lives and those of men and women from centuries past, as Joseph Pequigney does in Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Working from similar presuppositions, the French feminist theorist Monique Wittig, in The Lesbian Body and other works, argues forcefully that lesbian identity in particular has an immutable, antipatriarchal core that finally transcends historical situation and cultural context.

Considerable support has been given to the essentialist position by scientists examining biological bases for homosexuality. Researchers such as Simon LeVay have worked to isolate genetic and physiological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Though still inconclusive, preliminary results from examinations of brain matter of lesbians and gays indicate that there may be essential differences in physiology. Similarly, scientific examinations of DNA have revealed possible genetic distinctions in chromosomal patterns in lesbians and gays.

In fact, compelling work on homosexuality in families suggests that sexual orientation may be inherited; the most convincing research has focused on identical twins who, though separated at birth, nevertheless share a homosexual identity in adulthood.

Conclusive proof of biologically based homosexuality would certainly allow lesbian and gay activists to argue effectively that full civil rights are in order for a group of individuals who are as "natural" as their heterosexual counterparts. Some worry, however, that effective genetic testing might lead to selective abortion or genetic engineering in attempts to eradicate homosexuality.

But proof of an essential homosexual identity would clearly affect how we perceive and interpret the works of writers such as Aphra Behn, Christopher Marlowe, Christina Rossetti, Walt Whitman, and others who lived before the late nineteenth-century origins of the term homosexual.

In many ways, an essentialist paradigm mandates a clear designation of orientation, thus encouraging the reader or critic to fix the sexuality of a given writer through evidence from texts and biographical material.

If Whitman is approached from an essentialist perspective and labeled "homosexual," as he is by Robert K. Martin, then much of his poetry appears immediately to engage in oppositional work, reflecting a sense of oppression and difference that may be historically specific, but that is nevertheless accessible to the modern reader.

Similarly, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, when the writer is categorized as "homosexual," becomes a clear statement of lesbian subversion of a male-centered sexual economy. The mention of heterosexual marriage at the end of the poem can then be interpreted as either a capitulation to heterosexism in the publishing industry or a renunciation of the characters' true "selves" in the face of a pervasive social and internalized .

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