The invention of the concept of the homosexual, the major focus of concerns for perversion in the late nineteenth century, made the sexual significant by making it a powerfully signifying aspect of character. While homosexuality took center stage in a heightened scrutiny of the sexual as emblematic of basic character types, it was also an admission of the problematic nature of sexuality in all guises. As a result of this enhanced role of sexuality, modern homosexuals may be as different from previous generations engaging in same-gender sexual behavior as contemporary heterosexuals are different from previous generations of individuals engaging in heterosexual acts (Halperin 1990; Katz 1990).

Underlying the reconceptualization of the sexual during the nineteenth century was the fact that sexuality had become, in many ways, more a problem of desire than a problem of behavior. Not all who desire behave congruently with that desire, just as behavior is not necessarily immediately congruent with desire. Social requirements, by themselves, cannot create desire; still less can social requirements, by themselves, create the capacity to experience any desire as an endogenous force. Social repression, to be sure, is the attempt to regulate behavior socially, to regulate it not merely by discouraging “deviant” expressions of sexual desire but by channeling as many as possible of the inevitable deviant expressions into forms that conformed to, and thereby validated, still more important discursive practices surrounding the sexual.

Sexual behavior comes to be viewed as an ultimate signified at the end of a signifying chain; desire would be seen as a desire for a kind of sex (homosexual or heterosexual) and there need be no, or very little, concern for what these kinds of sex might additionally represent. Sexual desire is never merely a desire for a specific gender. Similarly, sexual desire is rarely, if ever, just for sex.

Homosexuality and heterosexuality necessarily share an ability to allow the issue of gender to dominate all competing explanations of sexual desire. This, in turn, gives rise to two powerfully signifying, if deceptive, homogeneities. Specific desires attached to the sexual compromise, often happily, with the desire to be part of a larger normality. The pleasures experienced by the validation of gender competence that accompanies evidence of heterosexual competence provided “obligatory” heterosexuality with its encouragements, while institutionalized homophobia provided restraints. The shared plausibility of homosexuality and heterosexuality was their ability to allow a major social significance of the object of desire, i. e. gender, to obscure and dominate other more intrapsychically dependent aims of desire. This is what Freud almost understood when he observed with reference to dreams:

Symbolism does not attach great importance to the sexual difference. If the male or female principle is represented by a symbol of the opposite sex, there is no proof whatsoever of the utilization of the symbol in a specific sexual sense. It is dream representation—that is, the dream wants to express something quite specific.

(Nunberg and Federn 1965-72:157)

And it is Freud, perhaps more than anyone else, who taught us how much of the reality of desire is expressed in dreams and, of equal importance, just how much of reality is lived as if in a dream. To which one might add, the social meanings of desire, as we learn them, are already products of gender coding. Beyond childhood, it is therefore hard to experience a desire without acknowledging its conventional gender coding and significance. As a result, both homosexuality and heterosexuality serve to enhance the primacy of concepts of gender and the patchwork quilt of discursive practices that, in part, rests upon them.

Freud appeared to have understood this far more clearly than many who followed.

[P]erhaps the sexual instinct itself may be no simple thing, but put together from components which have come apart again in the perversions. If this is so, the clinical observation of these abnormalities will have drawn our attention to amalgamations which have been lost to view in the uniform behavior of normal people.

(Freud 1905:162)

If the “fact” of homosexuality created the preconditions for recognition of heterosexuality, the ideologizing of homosexuality also ideologized heterosexuality, but more importantly it reflected a transformation of the role of the sexual in the lives of many, something that, in turn, reflected a transformation in the very nature of those living those lives. The creation of a sovereign individual within the West, while transforming political, religious, and familial behavior, was also impacting upon the sexual on the level of both discourse and experience. Modern homosexuals were different from previous generations of “sodomites” to the same degree that many practicing heterosexuals were dif ferent from previous generations of individuals engaging in heterosexual acts.

By the middle of the present century, homosexuality had effectively lost its status as a perversion, especially in the sense we have used it. In recent years, ironically encouraged by the information and imagery attending the current HIV epidemic, it can be said to have lost its status as a significant deviance (Simon 1994). And there is little reason to anticipate a change in the direction of this trend. Beyond the gender of the desired partner, the specific behaviors associated with homosexuals, oral and anal contact, have become the common practice of large numbers of heterosexuals. Still more importantly, with heightened expectations of reciprocity in sexual exchanges, it has become more difficult to assign specific gender significance to modes of participation in sexual acts. (Being “active” and “passive” widely become alternative and reciprocal modalities rather than consistent postures (Bell and Weinberg 1978; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983).

The diminishing of the perceived deviance of homosexuality does not necessarily imply a corresponding erosion of the viability of homosexual identities. It should be understood that the explosive emergence of gay liberation, mostly contained within the last twenty-five years, rested upon a number of contributing factors, not least of which was the changed role of the sexual in integrating the narrative of the self that occurs precisely when the individual is burdened with greater responsibility for sustaining this integration than was previously the case.

The emergence of the homosexual as a type from homosexual behavior places many engaged in such behavior still more completely in the control of social life. It is a process that creates the “good homosexual”, the “responsible homosexual”, the “community-oriented homosexual”, and so on. From some perspectives, gay liberation resembles nothing so much as an escape from the isolation wing of a prison into the larger prison. Though the achievements of the goals of homosexual liberation need not culminate in the disappearance of the homosexual identity, it would be more than naive to assume that it will remain unaffected (Browning 1994).