horizline.GIF (880 bytes)
<< previous story


next story in depth >>

horizline.GIF (880 bytes)

What's a Modern Homosexual?  An Introduction.

Cultures define and regulate sexual desire differently, and homosexuality is a uniquely modern, Western way of thinking about sex between men.  Modern homosexual subcultures first appeared about 1700 in Europe, but earlier medieval ideas about sexual sin influenced the history of these first homosexuals.  Father Peter Damian, now a Roman Catholic Saint, coined the word "sodomy" around 1050.  For Peter, premarital sex and adultery were serious sins, but masturbation and anal intercourse between men - practices he lumped together under the term sodomy - represented the worst end in a continuum of sexual sins.  He was convinced that sodomy  was increasing, especially among the clergy, so he wrote the pope a book length letter entitled The Book of Gomorrah.  There he argued that God designed sex to produce children, and that any sexual act that separates pleasure from its ordained mission is therefore unnatural, and especially wicked. 

Other medieval theologians weighed in on the subject, and some defined sodomy differently, but they all agreed that it is unnatural and the worst sexual sin.   But where does the human urge to commit sodomy come from?  Again, all agreed:  lust.  They believed that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden made men want to sin in almost any imaginable way, especially sexually.  The only difference between a man who commits sodomy and a man who doesn't, they thought, is that the sodomite has let his lust get the better of him. 

That all changed in the early 1700s when urban subcultures of men who sought each other out as sexual partners emerged in cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam.  People began to perceive these sodomites as constitutionally different from other men and, over time, that's how these men came to see themselves.  The men who participated in these early subcultures were often effeminate and, as one English folk song put it, they were "woman-haters".  They didn't even want to have sex with women. 

150 years later, doctors began to use the word "homosexual" to refer to such men.  Richard von Krafft-Ebing, one of the most influential 19th Century psychiatrists of homosexuality, wrote that people whose genes have degenerated produce mental illnesses in their offspring.  One of these illnesses is homosexuality. In 1905, Sigmund Freud published Three Essays, a book that opposed Krafft-Ebing's theory of degeneration.  Freud wrote that homosexuality probably has nothing to do with genes, but instead comes from mistakes in a child's upbringing.

Freud's view prevailed and even though he had a benign view of homosexuality, his followers, especially the Americans, were convinced that homosexuality is a far more serious mental disease than their master had taught.  In fact, most concluded, homosexuality is a severe personality disorder, not just a sexual proclivity.   Their descriptions of the homosexual personality varied, but they were all bad.   Some wrote that homosexuals are unable to love because their emotions are infantile, others that they are narcissists, still others that homosexuals are injustice collectors who resist treatment out of spite for their doctors. 

It wasn't just doctors who portrayed homosexuals as tragic psychopaths.   Because censors required it, books and movies with homosexual characters depicted them as wounded figures inclined toward suicide and alcoholism.  Medicine, Literature, and the Cinema unwittingly conspired to create the cultural myth of the tragic homosexual, a man sentenced by his mental illness to a loveless life punctuated by unsatisfying sexual encounters with other men just as flawed as he.

Even though some homosexuals agreed with doctors that they were mentally ill, many managed to have a good time anyway in places like Fire Island and Greenwich Village and to build friendship networks in rural areas.  By the 1950s, gays formed activist groups to improve the "plight of the homosexual" which included police raids on gay bars and sometimes public disgrace.  At first, out of fear that they would be written off as members of the "lunatic fringe", these homophile groups kept a timid low profile, but by the mid-1960s, a militant homosexual movement arose to oppose police harassment.  Catch-phrases like "gay is good" expressed the militants' rebellion against psychiatric disapproval.

1973 marked the end of "the modern homosexual" when the Gay Liberation Front effectively forced the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its official list of psychiatric disorders.  Since then books like Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? have expressed our freedom to define ourselves and to enjoy a variety of ways to be gay.  The modern homosexual, born the evil outsider in the 18th Century, transformed into a sexual psychopath in the 19th Century,  and rendered tragic in the 20th, died in 1973.

Dissenting Opinions.  Scholars disagree about exactly how homosexual history unfolded.  Those who strictly follow the insights of the late philosopher Michel Foucault believe that homosexual history did not begin until doctors defined homosexuality as a mental illness (see, for example, Cameron McFarlane's introduction to his The Sodomite in Satire and Fiction).  A few scholars still believe that homosexuals have existed more or less unchanged in all times and places (see Rictor Norton's The Myth of the Modern Homosexual).

topbutton.gif (1140 bytes)

horizline.GIF (880 bytes)
1998, 1999
Andrew Wikholm
All Rights Reserved