Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

In his 1976 four volume study “The History of Sexuality,” philosopher Michel Foucault writes:

“The psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted the day it was characterized – the famous article by Westphal on the ‘contrary sexual sensations’…can be taken as a date of birth – not because of the type of sexual relations but because of a certain sexual sensitivity, a given way of inverting in oneself the masculine and feminine roles. Homosexuality became one of the figures of sexuality when it was downgraded from the practice of sodomy to a type of interior androgyny, of hermaphroditism of the soul. Whereas the sodomite was a deviant, the homosexual was now a species.”

The understanding of homoeroticism and how it functions in any given society has been interpreted in vastly different ways throughout the history of human civilization. Greek and Roman saw it not only as a cultural norm, but as a morale booster in military squadrons. In the Han Dynasty of Ancient China, all ten emperors of the first two centuries of the dynasty openly practiced bisexuality, being married to women but having a customary “male favorite.” The interior understanding of oneself as a queer being throughout history has less to do with an inherent truth about the nature of “sexual identity” but more so where and when you exist across the the plane of human existence. What Foucault is referencing in the quote above is the medicalization of homosexuality as an innate quality of the mind in a certain minority group, a period of categorization starting in the 19th century Western world, continuing to today. While it cannot be understated that homoerotic desire itself is certainly not a social construct, as it has been documented in burial rites of pre-civilized man, as well as an important aspect of building social relationships in non-human primates as well as other highly social animals with high cognition. What Foucault is arguing is the interpretation of these desires and relationships and consequently one’s interior understanding of themselves for feeling and partaking in these desires is wholly decided by the time and place of your birth.

For those of us living in the post-nineteenth century Western world, Foucault deems the birthplace of “homosexuality” as Berlin, 1869. This is when a bombshell article was released by professor of psychiatry at Berlin, Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal. The article in question revolved around a study of a woman he deemed as “sexually inverted” beginning in childhood. The woman has several relationships with women throughout her life, with an indifference to any romantic advancement made by a man. She also partook in “sexually inverted” representation, preferring to wear more masculine attire, something we colloquially refer to today as a ‘butch lesbian.’ The most important claim made by Westphal, one that would change how the medical establishment would view people partaking in queer relationships, was his assertion that her perceived “abnormality” was congenital, not acquired, meaning that it was an inherent trait present in her biological makeup. While Westphal was taking this position from a sympathetic place, assuming that understanding it as congenital prevents the larger world from deeming it as a vice, it cemented an understanding of queerness as a quality only present in a select, predetermined group in the population, rather than a social relationship any one could enter in to at any time, thus, as Foucault said, making the homosexual a “species.”

Foucault’s analysis of this event is part of a larger postmodern idea of social constructions relating to minority groups. Foucault, himself a gay man, obviously had a great deal of experience and interest in society’s treatment of the “homosexual,” but his work stands alongside other theories of socially constructed race and gender. 

The basic idea behind the work of Foucault and other postmodern thinkers such as feminist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, is that we often think of society as repressive, that is to say, there is a population of people inherently different from the others in the larger population, whether by gender, race or sexuality, and the society strips this group of rights. These thinkers however argue that society is productive, meaning society creates categories of perceived differences among people, often through pseudo-scientifically medicalizing these perceived differences, in order to create power hierarchies, often with those creating these social categories at the top of the hierarchy. What often happens is that people contained in these socially constructed minority groups will understand the inherent injustice of the power imbalances yet understand themselves through these socially constructed groups because it is the language of their era. You can see this with the often-sympathetic attempts to find a “gay gene.” The academics looking into these studies are often not bigoted, and many of them themselves occupy queer identities, but their parameters for understanding queer social formations comes from this period of medicalizing queerness, continuing to believe it is an inherent quality in a select population of individuals, rather than a phenomenon of the human experience.

Cultural genealogies like this matter because it informs the way we see ourselves, classify ourselves, and the ways we conceptualize our own feelings and desires. What Foucault would probably tell us is sure the heterosexual/ homosexual binary is probably a creation of the last 200 years, but it does not make it any less real for those of us living in this epoch. The thing about postmodern ideas is that they don’t quite posit a verifiably true alternative, rather they simply point out that any understanding of oneself is a product of the culture and time they live in. I myself identify as a gay man, and while I may know that I wouldn’t have conceptualized myself that way, say, in the 1500’s, it does not make my experience any less real. Our job here is to simply understand the history, and make room for people who don’t easily fall in these constructed categories.

Griffin Deubler is a fourth-year English major with minors in Journalism and Philosophy.

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