Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Myth of the Modern Homosexual

Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity is a wonderful example of using history and historical knowledge to demolish overweening theory.

The overweening theory being demolished being social constructionist views of homosexuality: the notion that the modern identity of the homosexual is an entirely modern construction, with no counterpart in previous or other human societies. Myth is yet another contribution to “Foucault is crap” scholarship.

Norton demolishes simply by building up evidence upon evidence of societies having a concept of same-sex oriented people; of people living out same-sex orientation long before modern times; of the experience of people recognising themselves when hearing of, or reading of, same-sex oriented people; of persistent patterns of behaviour. It is clear that Norton has absorbed and considered an enormous amount of material. (Norton is also the editor of the delightful collection My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.)

Because there has been such a huge amount of suppression of material – on top of normal losses from the passage of time – Norton is particularly explicit about historical methods – about using evidence, working out what it can tell us – and very sensibly so.

Often, simple biographical details or elementary textual analysis is enough to demolish the social constructionist approach, which is (to be polite) not well-grounded in the historical evidence.

While Norton is polite about it, Myth is a further contribution to a burgeoning literature – from Irwin’s demolition of Said’s dreadful Orientalism, William Coleman’s exposure of shoddy research among the critics of “economic rationalism”, Keith Windschuttle’s exposure of outright scholarly fabrication in indigenous history – revealing how, provided one appeals to contemporary academic prejudices, one can get away with (indeed build careers on) almost any amount of scholarly junk.*

Beyond demolishing social constructionism, Norton provides the reader with a very full sense of the variety and persistence of queer life and culture.

Some of the chapter titles are delightful: Queer BC (Before Constructionimsm), It’s Just a Phrase We’re Going Through, The Great Queens of History. Part One (Social Constructionism and Other Myths) takes us through the evidence for homosexuals and homosexual life well before the modern period.
Norton insists we have to read historical evidence carefully but intelligently: all part of the debate about the role of historical imagination. Thus, one can read married men having male lovers on the side (e.g. Alexander the Great) as having a polymorphous sexuality, and that was what was accepted as some sort of norm. Alternatively – Norton’s view – bisexual so often means just “married homosexual”. (That is definitely his view of Alexander.)

We also have to interrogate labels against what actually happens. Thus, the “boy-wives” of various cultures, it turns out, could be older than teenagers (p.87). Norton points out cases of relationships between adult men, in the Classical world particularly, being labelled “pederastic” (p.86ff).

Norton is very much against any notion of the omnipotence of words (p.98) for
[t]he absence of language does not necessarily mean the absence of conceptual thought (p.99).
Words have to be coined in the first place, and many borrowings happen precisely because a new word fills a gap in conceptual labelling.

Nevertheless, words used can be revealing. Norton takes us through neutral terms for homosexual sex/love in Greek, Eastern Roman and Chinese usages (pp 100ff). Both active and passive homosexual roles were labelled in many languages (pp 104f). The Inquisition was concerned with sodomites’s essential nature, not merely acts (p.104).

His discussion is very wide ranging. When he notes the deprecating nature of Norse attitudes to homosexuals (men “letting the side down” by being “womanly”) it is a useful reminder that, while all monotheisms are homo-hostile, not all homo-hostility is monotheistic.

One of Norton’s themes is that the 1940s and 1950s, in the US particularly, were more repressive to homosexuals than the first third of the C20th had been. (Which, one could argue, thereby encouraged activism: many of the pioneering homophile organizations were founded in the 1950s.)

Elsewhere in Part Two (The Nature of Queer History), Norton takes us through the long, erratic, history of legal repressions: a history of intermittent enforcement of laws, with long lapses and a tendency to “clumping” (p.137ff). He constantly makes the point that these repressions revealed the prior and continuing existence of homosexual subcultures. Far from parading such repressions, authorities often clearly wanted homosexuals to be invisible, and frequently engaged in strenuous efforts to keep them that way.

The social constructionist view is that the notion of “the homosexual” was created by police and medical authorities. A proposition the evidence just doesn’t support.

Norton also takes apart tedious attempts to blame “capitalism” for homo-hostility (pp 93ff). As he points out, the rise of modern capitalism led to (or at least coincided with) decreasing severity of laws against homosexuality (p.140).

Suppression of evidence is a major problem for the historian of homosexuality. Pronouns were often changed precisely because of likely (and typically correct) homosexual readings of writings. All part of a long history of suppression, mistranslation or excision of writings, letters, art, artefacts, biographical facts, anthropological data. By the Church, by authorities, observers, families, people themselves.

In Part Three (Queer Culture), Norton sets out his notion of queer culture as being effectively an ethnic culture where family does not provide training in how to handle stigma (p.267).

Again, a lot of material is covered. I was amused to read that St Aelred of Rievaulx stated that Christ and John were married (p.221). But one of Norton’s central points is that the same patterns and comments come up again and again.

There are many nice quotes. For example, from William Beckford on a hanging of a sodomite in 1816:
I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices (p.275).
But, then the Catholic Church had come up with, and propagated, the notion that the Divine required slaughter to Incarnate long before Columbus sailed West and Europeans met the bloodthirsty gods of Mesoamerica.

Norton makes the point that homosexual persecutions don’t come from the general public, they come from specific moral crusader or crusaders (p.248). Reading this, it made me wonder whether various reports of same-sex unions even being blessed by priests likely represent local eruptions – or survivals – of acceptance of human affective variety beyond the reach of more doctrinally pure authorities. (Norton cites various reports down the centuries of same-sex unions being accepted in parts of the Balkans.)

Norton cites Boswell more than I am comfortable with, but none of his arguments rest on Boswell’s thesis or evidence.

Norton also notes, though offers no particular explanation for, the extensive documentation of fairly open homosexuality in Muslim countries. I would argue that Muhammad’s universalising of conquering tribalism produced a layered inequality (male over female, believer over infidel, free over slave) that gave social space for (formally unequal) same-sex relations to persist in a context where women were largely excluded from public space. (In effect, producing similar social arrangements to those of classical Greece.)

Norton argues that historical accounts of large numbers of homosexuals in particular societies should be largely accepted. I am less convinced, merely because of the greater salience of what is different if one comes from a society where such things are much less open.

As Norton points out, the “queering” of San Francisco seems to have started with lots of WWII Navy and Army discharges, which created a “critical mass” which then attracted more queers to a socially friendly environment. Norton argues that migrating and other travelling humanity may be transmitting queer cultural patterns (p.260).

Norton argues that, as queer sex is not reproductive, it is a specifically cultural phenomena (p.271). He argues for same-sex marriage – beyond matters of equal rights – as part of queer cultural heritage (p.287). For supporting it, not because it’s new, but precisely because it’s not.

Myth I found an enjoyable book at many levels. For the mass of information it provided, for its demolition of dreadful 1970s academic fashion and for its sensible wrestling with the dilemmas of evidence and historical imagination. It both informed and provoked. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual is a useful and engaging text.

* The “defend the profession” talk in response to Windschuttle’s revelations, and the focus on methodological questions about historical imagination, gave every impression that, with the possible exception of plagiarism (itself a sin against intellectual property), Australian academic history as a profession recognises no scholarly sins, merely ideological ones.


  1. It sounds like a good book, and a good challenge to the social-constructionist view of LGBTQ history and experience. However, I think that the best approach to the experience is between these two approaches - the evidence-based and the social-constructionist/critical. They both have valid contributions to offer to building the space for exploration of LGBT history.

    1. As long as reasoning is ultimately grounded in evidence, yes.