I The Historical Construction of Homosexuality in the United States
The treatment of the history of homosexuality in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America illustrates the social-constructionist interpretation of sexuality. The book, which I coauthored with John D’Emilio, draws upon a materialist or Marx – ist-feminist framework and interweaves the topic of same-sex relations throughout the narrative to support broader arguments about the importance of sexuality in American history, the separation of sexuality and reproduction, the commercialization of sex, and the politicization of sexual identities. Since the publication of Intimate Matters, the study of lesbian and gay history in the United States has expanded to explore regional and racial diversity, discursive as well as materialist constructions of sexuality, and the implications of transgender politics. As the closing section of this essay states, I think we need to acknowledge the diversity of past sexual practices and identities and to see them in their historical contexts rather than to include them all under the modern rubric of homosexuality.
the concept of the social construction of sexuality has become almost commonplace in academic writing and increasingly prevalent in political writing. Set in contrast to either biological or psychoanalytic determinism, which situates sexuality within the individual body or psyche, social construction suggests that every society creates or constructs a set of sexual ideals, rules, and possibilities that determine how individual sexual practices may be named and interpreted. These social constructs change over time and across cultures — they are subject to reconstruction given large historical forces, such as economic and demographic transformations. In short, what we consider “sexual” in our culture is not necessarily what we once considered “sexual” or what is considered “sexual” elsewhere. Thus, in contrast to scholars who assume an ahistorical or transhistorical homosexuality, my approach is based on the view that while individual same-sex
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “The Historical Construction of Homosexuality in the U. S.,” Socialist Review 25, no. 1 (1995): 31 – 46. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
erotic desire may exist universally, homosexual identity is a relatively modern phenomenon.1
Recognizing the variability of sexual categories, however, raises some categorical problems of its own. For example, finding a historically accurate term to describe the various social constructs of same-sex desire presents a serious challenge. The term “homosexuality” did not exist until a little over a century ago, and individuals before that time did not think of themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual — nor do many whom we might so label today. I have found the rubric “same-sex love” useful in categorizing the overall subject, even though this term too has its pitfalls, for at times, lust, not love, is the subject.
When I refer to the historical construction of homosexuality, in this case in the United States, I mean the ways that inhabitants of this country have, since the colonial era, understood, practiced, and regulated sexual or romantic relations between members of the same gender. In this brief essay, my scope is ambitious — from the colonial era to the Stonewall riots of 1969 — and my purpose is to illustrate how sexuality in general is shaped and reshaped historically through the interaction of economic and social contexts and the behaviors of individuals and social groups.