Skip navigation

Transcending all these issues of lifestyle was the potent question of the gay identity itself. The gay identity is no more a product of nature than any other sexual identity. It has developed through a complex history of definitions and self-definition, and what recent histories of homosexuality have clearly revealed is that there is no necessary connection between sexual practices and sexual identity.

Weeks, Jeffery, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan. Same Sex Intimacies Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. Routledge. London and New York, 2001, p. 50.

Conversely, constructionism interpreted homosexuality as a conceptual category that varied between cultural and historical settings (Troiden 1988). Definitions of same-sex eroticism were viewed as cultural inventions that were specific to particular societies at particular times. It also held that conceptualizations of homosexuality determined the forms same-sex eroticism took within a given society (Greenberg 1988). In other words, the social meaning of homosexuality shaped the domain of emotions, identity, and conduct associated with sex between men.

Levine, Martin P. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone. New York University Press. New York and London, 1998, p. 233-234.

Although same-sex attractions and sexual behavior have undoubtedly occurred throughout history, lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities are relatively new (D’Emilio, 1983). The contemporary notion of identity is itself historically created (Baummeister, 1986). The concept of a specifically homosexual identity seems to have emerged at the end of the nineteenth-century. Indeed, only in relatively recent years have large numbers of individuals identified themselves openly as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual public identities, then, are a phenomenon of our current historical era (D’Emilio, 1983; Faderman, 1991).

Patterson, Charolette J. “Sexual Orientation and Human Development: An Overview.” Developmental Psychology.1995, Vol. 31, No.1, 3-11.

Homosexuality as we know it — that is, long-term relationships of mutual consent between adults — simply did not exist before the nineteenth century, when it was invented by scientists to create a pathological condition out of a rarely practiced behavior (previously known primarily as “sodomy”). The construction of the condition made it possible for increasing numbers of people to identify with it, and eventually to react against its pathological status.”

Schmidt, Thomas E. Straight and Narrow? InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL, 1995

On the one hand, lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in the USA over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what the civil rights movement had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and culture institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag. Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share – the anchor of minority status and minority rights claim – is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethiniclessentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain.

Gamson, Joshua. “Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?” p.516 in Sexualites: Critical Concepts in Sociology Volume II. Edited by Ken Plummer. Routledge. London and New York, 2002.

Yet perhaps the most enabling breakthrough in the study of premodern sexualities over the last decade has been precisely the rejection of easy equations between sexual practice and individual identity. In the wake of Foucault’s famous dictum — “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (1990, 43) — scholars have recently brought to light a vast array of homoerotic discourses in the premodern West that were neither filtered nor constrained by modern sexual identity categories. In the words of David Halperin, “Before the scientific construction of ‘sexuality’ as a supposedly positive, distinct, and constitutive features of individual human beings . . . Certain kinds of sexual acts could be individually evaluated and categorized” (1990, 26). While gay and lesbian history in the 1970s and early 1980s aimed primarily at either identifying, the last decade has seen the focus shift to erotic acts, pleasures, and desires, to homoeroticism itself as a pervasive and diverse cultural phenomenon rather than the closeted practice of a homosexual minority (see Hunt, 1994).

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Lavezzo editors. Premodern Sexualities. Routledge. New York and London, 1996.

The research on identity development documented not only that individuals followed different paths for reaching new identities, but also that identities, once formed, were not always as stable and permanent as people had thought they would be. Golden (1987) concludes “that the assumption that we inherently strive for congruence between our sexual feelings, activities, and identities may not be warranted, and that given the fluidity of sexual feelings, congruence may not be an achievable state” (p.31). Thus, behavior, emotions, and identities do not necessarily develop into stable packages that can be easily labeled as heterosexual, gay or lesbian, or even bisexual, even though the individual or the society or the gay community might desire such consistency.

Heyl, Barbara Sherman. “Homosexuality: A Social Phenomenon.” 333 in Human Sexuality: The Societal and Interpersonal Context. Kathleen McKinney and Susan Sprecher. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Norwood, New Jersey, 1989.