The Charge. In keeping with the findings of Michel Foucault, historians of sexuality have established that homosexuality is a social invention that first arose in Europe as late as 1869. That is when the term “homosexual” was coined.
In all likelihood, same-sex acts, like other perversions, have always occurred in human history. But ours is the first society to have elevated this deplorable behavior to the status of a “lifestyle,” complete with advocacy groups and university courses.
Historical background. The idea that the “modern homosexual” arose as late as 1869 is the thesis of a group of historians known as Social Constructionists. Their leader was the late Michel Foucault, who stressed the fact that the word “homosexual” was introduced in 1869. Referring to this presumed turning point Foucault famously remarked: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.“ (“Le sodomite était un relaps, l'homosexuel est maintenant une espèce.” Histoire de la sexualité, vol. 1, Paris, 1976). Actually, the English-language version of the sentence does not fully capture the nuance of Foucault’s wording, but it is this formula that has been influential.
In fact the first known appearance of the term homosexual in print occurs in an 1869 German pamphlet, Paragraph 143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs und seine Aufrechterhaltung als 152 des Entwurfs eines Strafgesetzbuchs für den Norddeutschen Bund ("Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation") The pamphlet was created by the independent scholar Károly Mária Kertbeny, who wrote anonymously. The author advocated the repeal of Prussia’s sodomy laws. Kertbeny had previously proposed the neologism in a private letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Kertbeny used Homosexualität in place of Ulrichs' Urningtum; Homosexualisten ("male homosexualists") instead of Urninge, and Homosexualistinnen ("female homosexualists") instead of Urninden. In succeeding years the new coinage spread into other languages, including English, prevailing for a long time as the standard term.
Together with Foucault, another major influence was the English sociologist Mary McIntosh. In 1968, she published a paper entitled “The Homosexual Role“ in the journal Social Problems. Opposing the idea that homosexuality was a clinical pathology, she maintained that same-sex relations shifted in meaning and practice according to historical and cultural circumstances. There is no universally fixed homosexual, just shifting historical categories and linked experiences.
Though the Social Construction historians who followed in the wake of Foucault and McIntosh acknowledge that same-sex contacts occurred before 1869, they claim that they were merely acts, behavior that anyone could engage in. There was no distinct category, the “homosexual.” To deny this point, the historians averred, was to commit the mistake of essentialism, disregarding the malleability of human behavior.
Along somewhat similar lines, Alfred Kinsey in his two famous Reports of 1948 and 1953 counseled against using “homosexual” and “heterosexual” as nouns. He held that they should only be employed as adjectives, characterizing conduct not status.
Until recently the main emphasis of the Social Construction scholars has been chronological, as seen in their effort to restrict the span of homosexuality to a mere 142 years. The corollary, its limitation to Western culture, was implicit but not stressed However, Joseph Massad, a professor of Palestinian origin at Columbia University, has taken up this cause, with special reference to the Arab world.
Massad's 2007 book Desiring Arabs offers a highly selective intellectual history of the Arab world and its Western representations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Methodologically, Massad depends heavily on Edward Said’s study of Orientalism of 1979, as well as on the work of Michel Foucault.
Massad maintains that "Western male white-dominated" gay activists, operating under the umbrella of what he terms the "Gay International," have undertaken a "missionary" effort to impose the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy onto cultures where no such binary mentality exists. In this way, he claims, these activists inflict on these cultures the very structures they challenge in their own home countries. Massad holds that "[t]he categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized by the epistemic, ethical, and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by the very international human rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating."
While the book was well received by specialists, some have noted an unfortunate effect on the international human-rights movement. For example, Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a freelance writer living in Beirut, observes that "Massad’s relativism - stemming from his accurate observation that ‘homosexuality’ is alien to Arab same-gender sexual traditions - is so extreme that he refuses to support a call for universal freedom of sexual identity." Writing in 2008 in the periodical Demokratiyya, Al-Shawaf argues that "in postulating the inevitability of (heterosexual) Arab violence wherever there is gay and lesbian assertiveness, Massad pre-emptively exonerates the perpetrators - whether individuals or the state - of any wrongdoing. However regrettable their behaviour, those Arabs who react violently to the gay rights campaign are not perceived by Massad as responsible for their actions, but as caught up in a broader struggle against ‘imperialism,’ to which the gay rights movement is wedded."
The upshot of Massad’s condemnation of the “Gay International” is the admonition that Westerners must never attempt to interfere with restrictions on sexual variation anywhere in the non-Western world. Such interventions would amount to cultural imperialism.
Perhaps the most eloquent refutation of this view is found in a speech given by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva on December 6, 2011.
She noted there is “a question of whether homosexuality arises from a particular part of the world. Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.
“Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The Government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.
“Now, some worry that protecting the human rights of the LGBT community is a luxury that only wealthy nations can afford. But in fact, in all countries, there are costs to not protecting these rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the other, whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Well, that holds true for other challenges as well.”
Response. In its original form, the Social Construction argument rested on the fallacy that assumes that “where there is no term, there is no concept.” Clearly this is to put the cart before the horse.
For example, international relations existed for many centuries before the introduction of the word “international” in the eighteenth century. Similarly, Karl Marx never used the term “capitalism” in his writings (though he did speak of capital). Still, it would be foolish to deny that the concept of capitalism is integral to Marx’s thought. In instances such as these the concept and practice take hold before the label appears. Naming is secondary.
Behaviorally, the Social Construction claim of the invention of homosexuality in the second half of the nineteenth century simply does not hold up. We have abundant information on gay conduct from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Islam, Renaissance Italy, and many other cultures. Historians such as Louis Crompton, Rictor Norton, William A. Percy, Michael Rocke - reputable scholars who reject the blinkered assumptions of the Social Constructionists - have abundantly documented this reality. In addition to his coverage of Europe, Crompton also deals with China and Japan, reinforcing the work of specialists in the history of those countries.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Edward Stein, ed., Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy, New York; Routledge,1992; Rictor Norton, The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search of Identity, London: Cassell, 1997; Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.