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social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z

     
Homosexuality  
 
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The relative propriety of same-sex sexual encounters in non-European societies was frequently determined by context; such encounters might be sanctioned for purposes of initiation rites between men and boys (as was the case in parts of New Guinea as recently as the 1970s, and as was arguably also true of classical Greece) or when one of the interactants had adopted an alternative gender role (as was the case in some Pueblo societies of western North America well into the twentieth century, as well as is currently true in many other parts of the world), but not otherwise.

Scholars of this period, inspired by the radical politics of the time, were faced with a difficult choice when confronted with this impasse and others: concepts such as "race," "gender," and "childhood" were similarly absent from pre-nineteenth-century historical sources and could likewise be shown to be relatively recent developments.

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To argue that "homosexuality" as such did not exist prior to the word's entrance into language in 1869 and that it was specifically a European invention effectively denied contemporary gays and lesbians a link to a past believed to be their birthright, silencing voices from European pre-modernity (as well as silencing non-European voices altogether) who had engaged in some kind of erotic relation with persons of their own sex, even if that relationship could not be readily translated into the terms of contemporary Euro-American societies.

But to suggest that the link between contemporary gays and lesbians and their past was direct, transparent, and unmediated by the particularities of historical and cultural context was highly misleading and, indeed, ran contrary to the available evidence--would it be right to ground this claim to a patrimony on a fiction?

The first argument represented what came to be known as an essentialist position: namely, "homosexuality" is a phenomenon that is pre-social and inheres in a small fraction of individuals who are equally distributed throughout all history and all cultures, and therefore all apparently "homosexual" conduct is related.

The second argument embodies the social constructionist position, which argues that just as "homosexuality" is bound to a specific time and culture, other expressions of same-sex eroticism must be similarly bound to their respective social contexts and can be extrapolated from these contexts for comparative purposes only with great care.

The division between "essentialists" and "social constructionists" came to characterize a whole generation of scholarship in lesbian and gay studies, yet from the inception of the debate the boundary between the two camps was an obscure one.

As the late John Boswell (himself frequently accused of being the essentialist par excellence) once remarked, no historians or social scientists were willing to explicitly identify themselves with the essentialist position, for fear of being regarded as unscholarly; "essentialism" was less a theoretical standpoint that required advocacy than it was a negative definition of what social constructionist scholars believed themselves to be doing--shaking foundational assumptions about the nature of "homosexuality" on which the claims of both gay liberation and its opponents rested.

Radical social constructionists, labeled "New Inventionists" by Joseph Cady, were themselves subject to critique for the unsupportable assumption that has guided their analysis that social identities grounded in sexual behavior are strictly a modern European phenomenon.

This categorical assumption has had the problematic (if unintended) consequence of trapping individuals in the past within present-day hegemonic ideologies, denying them both self-awareness and agency as subjects. There is considerable historical evidence from literature and diaries that at least some pre-modern European men and women who engaged in same-sex sexual activities had a distinct awareness of their "difference" and may indeed have developed sexual identities based on such a difference, even though those identities may have not been congruent with contemporary homosexual identities.

However, if anyone can be said to have "won" the largely spurious debate between essentialism and social constructionism, it is the social constructionists, at least to the extent that there is now virtual scholarly unanimity that sexual categories are always historically and culturally specific rather than universal and invariant.

Yet this scholarly victory has come at a cost to gay and lesbian minority group politics. Emphasizing the cultural specificity and peculiar nature of "homosexuality" as we know it has made connections to apparently related phenomena in the past and in other societies more tenuous and more remote. It has helped heighten awareness of pluralism within an ostensibly monolithic global "gay and lesbian community," but has thus also helped undermine political solidarity in the name of that community.

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