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The Formation of a Homosexual Identity: Moving Beyond Essentialism to Constructionism Philip Osteen SOWK 5002: Social Work and

Theory Fall 2003 Professor Walter LaMendola

Introduction Since the coinage of the term “homo-sexual” by the German physician Charles Gilbert Chaddock, Western societies have been debating an essentialist versus constructionist approach to the interpretation and explanation of the homosexual identity (Halperin, 1990). It is argued here that proscribing to an essentialist approach limits the discourse on homosexuality to questions of etiology and normality; where as interpreting homosexuality through the framework of constructionism allows for a dialectical discourse on the control and regulation of human sexuality through systems of polarized binary categorizations. It is further argued that, despite the limitations of Social Construction Theory, the application of critical thinking to a constructionist approach leads to the conceptualization and development of a postmodern emancipatory project. After beginning with a brief explanation of the essentialist versus constructionist debate, this paper will move beyond essentialism to further explore and interpret the social construction of the homosexual identity. A brief historical review of cultural interpretations of same-sex sexual behavior will be provided, beginning with Ancient Greek society moving to the de-moralization of same-sex sexual behavior in Medieval times and then to the vilification of homosexuality beginning in the mid-19th century through the present time. The social construction of homosexuality will be interpreted though the works of several theorists, including Critical Theorists, Horkheimer and Habermas, Poststructuralists, Foucalt and Derrida, Psychoanalytic Theory and Freud, Postmodernists, Fraser and Butler, and the social/cultural theories of Bourdieu and Giddens. The primary focus will be on the ways that sexual identities are constructed in relationship to models of “coming out,” the political and public sphere, capitalism, and the


media. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the strengths and limitations of a constructionist approach, particularly in reference to informing and shaping a postmodern emancipatory project. Clearly, this is an ambitious task, and the constraints of the assignment preclude the level of depth and scope deserved by such an attempt; however, as an initial foray into the social construction of the homosexual identity, this paper attempts to identify key concepts, theories, and theorists as a foundation for further exploration and critique. Essentialism Versus Constructionism British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks (1996) is credited as defining the debate over homosexuality identity as a difference between “essentialism” and “constructionism.” “Essentialism” is defined as the idea that sexuality is a basic and essential part of being human, and the essentialist view of homosexuality can be seen in the various biological and psychoanalytic theories of etiology of the 19th and 20th centuries (Seidman, 2003; Suppe, 1994; Thorp, 1992). “Constructionism” is defined as the idea that sexuality is a learned way of thinking and behaving, and this interpretation is a common concept across contemporary social theories (Seidman, 2003; Hall, 2003; Gergen, 1997). Although generally viewed as mutually exclusive approaches, there is also some consideration given to the importance of a combined theoretical approach, if not in a unified conceptualization, then at least in application and practice (Epstein, 1987). The Essentialist Approach An essentialist approach to sexuality, as specifically differentiated into heterosexuality and homosexuality, assumes that sexual orientation and sexual identity are “naturally” occurring and inherent phenomenon (Seidman, 2003). Primarily based in


in which the male child. result of failed developmental processes (Freud. the essentialist approach equates sexual behavior with sexual identity. and homosexuality. Green. homosexuality can be treated. Sexuality is an outcome of the resolution of the Oedipal complex. Freud posits homosexuality as the natural. 1985). the essentialist approach establishes homosexuality as a “condition” which is inherently inferior to the natural order of heterosexuality. 1994). and it is the personification of same-sex sexual behavior that places its study in the fields of medicine and psychology (Taylor. and Taylor. yet pathological. 1905. 2002). 1994). out of fear 4 . The origin of essentialist psychological theories of the etiology of homosexuality is generally attributed to Freud and psychoanalytic theory (Beard & Glickauf-Hughes. Biological theories of the etiology of homosexuality posit a wide range of beliefs ranging from genetic origins and hormonal imbalances to morphological differences in skeletal/muscular ratios and gender-specific configurations of pubic hair (Suppe. spanning more than one thousand studies. Furthermore. is the result of “faulty” biology and/or “pathological” and “maladaptive” psychological development (Beard & Glickauf-Hughes. Thorp. 2003. at the very least.biological and psychological theories of etiology. A major criticism of biological theories of homosexuality is that a century of research. 1920. 1992. this approach identifies heterosexuality as the “natural” and “normal” human condition. and as such. or. 1994). as discussed in Seidman. 2002). has failed to establish an empirically proven biological mechanism for the cause or explanation of homosexuality (Suppe. in contrast. Essentialist theories of homosexuality originate in the 19th century establishment of sexuality as a field of empirical research (Foucalt. there is no difference between the two. As evidenced here. 1994. 1980). identified and contained.

GLBT activists tend to redefine essentialism as a “doliophysical” theory. 1994). Historically. same-sex sexual behavior has been viewed as exactly that. the view that homosexuality serves an unidentified purpose in nature (Green. men (Beard & Glickauf-Hughes. regardless of their “natural” origins. 1985). that is. and transgender (GLBT) activists subscribe to an essentialist approach.of retribution and castration by the father for the child’s desire for the mother. behavior. The failed resolution of the Oedipal complex results in an identification of the male child with the mother and a directing of libidinal energy towards members of her opposite sex. The use of the essentialist approach by GLBT activists as a strategic political process will be discussed in more depth in a later section. bisexual. as a means of establishing the normalcy and legitimacy of homosexuality (Bernstein. comes to identify with the father and incorporates a libidinal interest in the opposite sex (Beard & Glickauf-Hughes. many gay. The assumption of a planophysical approach is that homosexuals. Although generally interpreted as “planophysical” theories. Although there are different degrees of social construction of sexual identity. 1985). the view that homosexuality is an error of nature (Green. at a minimum. and 5 . all constructionist approaches recognize that physically identical sexual acts may have varying social significance and meaning depending on how they are defined and understood in different cultures and historical periods (Vance. 1997). 1994). lesbian. The Constructionist Approach In contrast to the essentialist approach is the position proffered by Social Construction Theory. are inferior to heterosexuals and incapable of carrying out the predetermined biological and psychological processes of human development. 1989). that is.

behavior could be evaluated independently without value being assigned to the individual engaging in that behavior (Taylor. The complex social. without meaning or identity being assigned to the individual. as an obstacle that can be recognized and overcome. This view incorporates a sense of “predetermination. the noun. The identification of desire and attraction as sexual limits the ways in which these desires and attractions can be expressed and the meanings attributed to these expressions. therefore. instead. but it is important to the theory of constructionism to understand that these categories are not arbitrarily created. the verb. an individual may have feelings of attraction or desire for members of the same sex. The social construction of sexual identity has resulted in the legitimization of binary categorizations of heterosexuality and homosexuality. economic. A confounding element in understanding the social construction of sexual identity is the lack of consensus over what actually constitutes homosexuality and heterosexuality 6 . but it is only through the process of socialization that the individual constructs these feelings as sexual and the signifier of a homosexual identity (Seidman. A more radical interpretation of the constructionist approach views sexual desire itself as being socially constructed (Vance. Within this position. there cannot be a heterosexual identity without a homosexual identity (Wilkinson. Thus. 2003).” not in the inherent and natural confines of an essentialist approach. 1989). specific societies might approve or disapprove of engaging in same-sex behavior. Associated with the social construction of sexual identity is the social construction of gender identity. Identity is established through relationships of contrast (Epstein. 1994). 2002). 1987). but. and political justifications for these dichotomous constructions will be explored in more depth in a later section.

1994). Thus. and even if left “unresolved.” results in a less than desirable life experience. Whether interpreted from an essentialist or constructionist approach. through which socially constructed identities are eschewed in favor of a more pluralistic reality.(Suppe. A review of literature identifies multiple conceptions of sexual identity (Suppe. and personally integrate. there is the possibility of establishing an emancipatory project of critical consciousness. if viewed from the constructionist approach. A historical exploration of same-sex behavior across cultures 7 . However. a socially constructed identity as defined by proscribed patterns of behavior. the dominant discourse on homosexuality has been resoundingly negative. the creation of the label “homo-sexual” in 1892 began the process by which individuals have come to be assigned. As indicated through the essentialist approach. 1994): • biological sex – the anatomical genitalia that an individual is born with • gender identity – one’s basic conviction of being male or female • sexual orientation – a multivariate definition comprised of the following five components: o sexual behavior – patterns of erotic bodily contact with others o interpersonal affection patterns – associations involving various degrees of trust o erotic fantasy structure – sexually arousing patterns of mental images o arousal cue-response patterns – sensory cues that stimulate or inhibit erotic arousal o self-labeling – labels of sexual identity one applies to one’s self This multidimensional research approach for establishing the parameters of sexual identity further illustrates the ineffectiveness and inappropriateness of a socially constructed binary categorization of sexuality. homosexuality as a “condition” may be potentially treated or at least identified.

and the first documented instances of same-sex behavior and relationships appears in the writings of Ancient Greek societies (Halperin. an estimated hundreds of thousands of men were 8 . sex between an older and a younger male (Halperin.illustrates that the way things are isn’t the way that things have always been. however. 2002). the 14th and 19th centuries. suggests that there were men in Ancient Greece who formed and maintained life-long. although these relationships were generally dissuaded because of the lack of age asymmetry (Thorp. 1985). 1992). Thorp. 1990). the word “homo-sexual” did not exist until 1892. based on Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium. same-sex partnerships. It is generally accepted that same-sex sexual behavior and relationships have existed throughout the history of human kind (Adam. One interpretation of same-sex behavior in Ancient Greece situates this practice as an “initiation rite” of pederasty. It is around the middle of the 14th century when writings appear documenting the negative view of the Church towards same-sex sexual practices. 1990. binary categorizations of human sexuality. and there is a concerted effort on the part of the Church to repress same-sex sexual behavior (Taylor. A Historical Perspective on Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Identity As noted above. although it is argued that there were no same-sex and opposite-sex based identities before the creation of these terms. 1990). Between. including those oppressed by the current system. another interpretation. Is this to suggest that there were no instances of same-sex and opposite-sex sexual behavior? Obviously this is not the case. and the word “hetero-sexual” did not come into established use until the turn of the century (Halperin. continue to produce and reproduce a system of polarizing. 1992). This raises the question as to how and why individuals.

” the same discourse which led to the Nazi extermination of approximately 50. but instead on their engagement in cross-dressing behaviors (Taylor. and the institution of marriage.” During the 18th century. its ‘misappropriation’.000 homosexual men and the AIDS hysteria of the mid-1980s (Taylor. many European cities witnessed the emergence of “molly houses. 2002. and this genocide was legitimated by the Church through its positioning of sodomy as an “unspeakable sin” (Taylor. these men who engaged in sodomy and flouted the established gender roles of society were called “inverts. Kristeva (1965. Bray. 1982).executed in Europe and the Americas for engaging in sodomy. and the further blurring of previously delineated gender roles raised the negative valuation of sodomy to an extreme (Bray. and their symbolization of death and decay. The association of sodomy with non-procreative sex and the anus. which served to legitimately establish a stigmatized and transgressive identity as the boundary between 9 .” it should be noted. and later. that their identity wasn’t assigned on the basis of their sexual behavior. 2002). Molly houses were the architectural manifestation of an emerging community of mainly effeminate and cross-dressing men who associated on the basis of “preferred sexual behaviors” (Bray. has fashioned it as a symbol of “disorder. Foucalt (1980) establishes the emergence of the homosexual as a unique “species” towards the end of the 19th century through “pseudo-medical” taxonomy. and decay.” taverns specifically catering to men who engaged in sodomy (Taylor. sodomy was already constituted as an attack on masculinity. patriarchy. 2002). however. disintegration. with homosexuality. 1982). At this time. as cited in Taylor. In America. 2002) interprets the positioning of sodomy and homosexuality in modern society as an “enactment of abhorrence with the anus. 1982). its repellent excreta. 2002).

” and “pathological. stigmatizing. Western societies have prescribed to an essentialist theory of homosexuality. it was discovered that by controlling sex. GLBT activists have also used the essentialist approach to further the political causes of GLBT people by asserting that GLBT people are products of nature (planned or otherwise). in this sense. 1980). and a new emphasis on understanding bodies and procreation emerged. 2003. and identities (Foucalt. as few groups of people have been created for the sole purpose of vilification. 2003). The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City are generally accepted as the origins of the modern GLBT movement in the United States (Hall. 1997). 1980).” and disciplinary control relies on the power of normalizing ideas to control people’s bodies and actions by controlling their sexual thoughts. this view has led proponents of heterosexuality to view homosexuals as “deviant.permissible and impermissible sexual conduct. The link between the social construction of homosexuality. homosexuals are unique. and it this emergence of a collective identity among GLBT people which has provided the foundation for current 10 . migration patterns across Europe were resulting in rapid population growth. As discussed above. Thus. Foucalt (1980) offers two arguments for why a discourse on sexuality would need to be created. For most of the 20th century. First.” “inferior. the homosexual was “invented” for the purpose of defining. feelings.” interestingly though. reproduction. one could also control the behaviors of both individuals and populations (Foucalt. Second. and capitalism will be explored in more depth in the next section. Seidman. the late 1800s were a source of emerging “disciplinary societies. “just like everyone else” (Bernstein. and ultimately regulating “otherness” as a means of establishing and reifying procreative sexuality and the subservient role of sexuality to capitalism.

social and political discourses within and about the GLBT community (Bernstein.” societies. and Siwa. The relationship between the social construction of identity and the role of a collective GLBT political identity will be explored in more depth in the next section. This section seeks to explore social constructs of the homosexual identity as interpreted through different sociological theories. It is through the application of these theoretical frameworks that it is possible to develop a deeper understanding of the impact and implications of 11 . 1997). and each of these assigned meanings meets some specified purpose. One final contrast can be drawn between modern Western conceptualizations of homosexuality and the views towards same-sex sexual behavior among “primitive.” defined here as “pre-capitalist. this behavior was recognized and accepted without any assignment of sex-related identity characteristics. 1985). 1985). These kinship rules prescribe tabooed and preferred categories of sexual combination. including frequent evidence of asymmetrical age-related same-sex sexual behavior and even instances of long-term same-sex relationships (Adam. Amazonia. In societal systems as diverse as Melanesia. Adam (1985) provides an extensive review of anthropological and ethnographic research focusing on the role of kinship codes in moderating same-sex sexual behavior. and within parameters. The Social Construction of the Homosexual Identity There are many ways in which the homosexual identity has been socially constructed. central Africa. kinship rules regulate same-sex behavior the same as opposite-sex behavior (Adam. These examples demonstrate that same-sex sexual behavior occurred across cultures and across historical periods.

there are basic steps common to all models (see specifically: Troiden. 1984).social constructionism on GLBT people. and desires for members of the same sex. Harrison. but it is the sexuality. and internally integrate a homosexual identity and then come to externally represent the homosexual identity (e.g. in and of themselves. It is further argued here that these developmental models are. “Coming out” is generally defined as a two-part process through which individuals recognize. procreation. 2001). 2001). and culture (Elizur & Mintzer. Cass. attractions. 1991. 1984. 2003. Elizur & Mintzer. Cass. geography. social constructions which limit and constrain identities to rigid and exclusionary categories. Although different models contain varying numbers of developmental stages. As suggested previously. Cain. this section will look at the intersection of social constructionism with: • • • • developmental stage models of “coming out” the politics of sexual identities capitalism. Specifically. Coleman.. and gender identity cultural capital and the media Developmental Stages of “Coming Out” Much of the literature on homosexual identities concerns itself with the importance of “coming out” through a series of developmental stages (e. individuals may come to recognize feelings.g. 1982): • a self-description • • GLBT people • • self-concept an increased acceptance of the term “homosexual” as an increasingly positive view towards this identity increased personal and social contact with other a growing desire to disclose one’s sexual orientation the integration of a homosexual identity into overall One of the major criticisms of these developmental models is that they do not take into account other important factors such as history. and 12 . accept. 1989.

1991). the widely-accepted status of these developmental models serves as a tool of social construction as professionals and laypeople alike come to apply these models to reality. Coleman. Kivel & Kleiber. Cass. social. there are also two ways in which these models can be interpreted as the tools of construction themselves. 1984).” and “normative” outcome of these developmental models is the integration and subsequent social disclosure of a homosexual identity (Cain. thus constructing discreet.” “healthy” homosexuals self-identify and disclose their status and “unhealthy” homosexuals do not (Cain. 1982). cultural. First. The “healthy.” “psychologically adjusted. Cass. there were structural limitations in the development tools themselves which precluded responses outside of narrowly defined categories. 2000). The intra-psychic wellness of those who proceed through the prescribed stages is designated as “superior” to the intrapsychic wellness of those who do not proceed through the stages (Troiden.g. 1989. Situated in an essentialist 13 . Second. however.thus the homosexuality. It could be argued that these developmental models merely illustrate the social construction of a homosexual identity. the development of these models was based on respondents’ answers to discreet categorical questions (Troiden. consideration is given to the historical. The social construction of homosexual identities through developmental stage models of “coming out” also creates categorical differences between “healthy” homosexuals and “unhealthy” homosexuals. or even neutral. No potentially positive. Great importance is given to the formative adolescent years in these developmental stage models (e. exclusionary categories of identity.. 1989. of those feelings which is socially constructed. and thus. Harrison. 1991). 2003. 1984. or internal forces which might preclude “coming out.

and at any point. i. There is no consideration given to the possible fluid nature of sexual identity. homosexual.g. formulated around the shared experience of oppression on the basis of a non-normative. 1997). nor is the individual imbued with any sense of personal agency. The essentialist framework of models of “coming out” actually constructs the limited choices and expressions of sexual identity available to individuals. lifestyle. The collective GLBT political identity. The political strategies employed by the GLBT collective can be categorized as “normalizing” or “anti-normalizing” (Meeks. The fight over equal rights and protection and the acknowledgment of a socially acceptable identity is debated in the public sphere on a daily basis (e. 2001). 2003). an individual might come to embrace and portray a different (sexual) identity as evidenced in Giddens’ (1992) account of the 65 year old widower who develops a homosexual relationship even though he has never experienced same-sex sexual behavior or fantasies. and the choice of one strategy over the other is primarily driven by the specific 14 .framework and informed by psychoanalytic theory. has become an increasingly visible force in contemporary Western society. these models emphasize the “inherent” and “concrete” nature of sexual identity that must be addressed and resolved through the formative childhood and adolescent years. The Politics of Sexual Identities The use of the homosexual identity as a centralizing concept in the establishment of a collective political identity can be traced back to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 (Bernstein. and which remains “constant” and “fixed” through out life. Individuals constantly produce and reproduce their (sexual) identities. It is argued here that this essentialist framework is actually a socially constructed view of sexual identity. Sullivan.e..

1997). Second. 1997). and 3) The stigmatized can appeal to normalization for acceptance and tolerance.” in which the dominant culture’s perceptions of the oppressed population are challenged and differences between the two groups are minimized (Bernstein. Advocates of these strategies typically employ an essentialist framework in trying to minimize differences between the dominant and subordinate population along these socially constructed assertions about sexual identity. 2) They use sexual identity as the key means of differentiation between self and the social. 1997). “Normalizing” strategies can be used to meet two specific goals. at a given point in time. on the basis that a unified identity is required for political action to be feasible (Bernstein. 2001). these strategies seek to use “identity for education. “Normalizing” strategies are those which seek minimize the differences between heterosexuals and sexual minorities. A further application of this concept of “normalizing” strategies can be read in Alexander’s (1992) discussion of the establishment of “citizens” and “enemies” through moral codes. that are required to establish and maintain “organizational forms” that promote participation and empowerment (Bernstein. 2001): 1) They position sexual desire as a key marker of the self. First. these strategies seek to use “identity for empowerment.” in which a collective identity is established through consensus in the public sphere of the oppressed population(s) (Habermas.elements. these strategies share three basic characteristics (Meeks. as cited in Meeks. 1992. Alexander (1992) posits that every society has a moral code by which it 15 . It is through the continued production and reproduction of the status quo that the binary categories of sexual identity become further legitimized and solidified.

renegotiation. male/female.” pure and civilized individuals who deserve rights and inclusion.distinguishes between “citizens. 2003. and incoherence (Meeks. values. it is revealed that a sexual identity can be constructed in any way imaginable precisely because it can never mean what it intends to mean and will always be open to “contestation. 1992). These characteristics situate the “anti-normalizing” strategies in line with the poststructuralist theories of Derrida. and “enemies. The function of “anti-normalizing” strategies is to challenge the norms. masculinity/femininity. Regardless of how these categories are constructed. 1997). and pleasure. The only way to cross the citizen/enemy barrier is through normalizing strategies of communicative political action to legitimize the position of the “enemy” as an integral part of the society as a whole (Alexander. “antinormalizing” strategies share three basic characteristics (Meeks. 1970. 2001). seeking to “decenter” these considerations.” 16 . 2001). every contestation between the two groups serves to further affirm the binding character of the moral code. 2000). In sharp contrast to the “normalizing” approach is the use of “anti-normalizing” strategies. and beliefs of the dominant culture (Meeks. and natural/unnatural (Derrida. as cited and discussed in Seidman. desire. 2001): 1) They challenge the dominant discourse on sexual morality and normalcy. and Turner. and 3) They engage in the productive contestation of normative dominance concerning sex. Through the deconstruction of these core concepts. who philosophized about the need and importance of “deconstructing” symbolic categorizations like homosexuality/heterosexuality. 2) They are less concerned about a politics of identity and more focused on a population of multiple voices and desires. reversal.” polluted and uncivilized individuals who are undeserving. Like their counterpart. and this approach hinges on the emphasizing and celebration of differences (Bernstein.

” as formulated in critical theory. Again. they must ultimately give in to normalization because a collective voice is required to reengage the dominant discourse. suggests that there exists along side the modern public sphere any number of “subaltern counter-publics. self-proclaimed poststructuralists and postmodernists. but they imbue their actors with a sense of free agency and even a responsibility to eschew modernistic categories of identification (Butler. 1992). By contrast. and to a lesser degree Derrida. 2001). and this collective voice will inevitably exclude certain identities. First. A major criticism of Fraser’s approach is that regardless of what occurs in these subalterns. Fraser. 2001).” It is through the existence of these subaltern counter-publics that “identity as critique” is carried out. the influence of Derrida is clear. the development of a “critical consciousness. Fraser. 1997). interests. 1997). is a means by which subjects can come to grasp the meaning of their actions and concepts 17 . interests.” which she defines as: “Parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities. categories. as cited in Fraser. and needs. and needs in order to reach a consensus (Meeks. 1997). draw heavily on the work of Foucalt. 1997. and deconstructing restrictive social categories (Bernstein. and practices of the dominant culture (Bernstein. “identity as critique” confronts the values. Smith. Fraser (1992). “identity as goal” is the process of challenging stigmatized identities. Both Butler and Fraser. 1997. drawing on Habermas (1989. 1997. seeking recognition of new identities.“Anti-normalizing” strategies can be used to achieve two purposes. but there is also the presence of the postmodern philosophies of Butler and Fraser and their insistence on “casting off” the identity labels of sexuality and allowing one’s self to be “unnamed” (Butler. Second.

” but instead affirm the multitude of voices and the plurality of identities that exist with a queer community (Meeks. although its meanings and social organization has varied throughout history as is evidenced by the immense social variation in patterns of intimacy. however. there is no need to be motivated to be married or have a family in order to be heterosexual. what does it mean to be heterosexual in modern Western society? Seidman (2003) argues that to be heterosexual today simply means that one exhibits sexual attraction towards members of the opposite sex. Capitalism. Procreation.” which seek to minimize the differences in the socially constructed sexual identities of “heterosexual” and “homosexual. cultural. and it is argued here that in order to move beyond “gay politics. Opposite-sex behavior has always existed. 2003. 2003). 1967). marriage and family (Seidman. and in the case of sexual identity. The question becomes. Only through critical consciousness can one come to an understanding of the historical.” which seek not to affirm “difference” as “different from heterosexuals. and Calhoun. and directly interpersonal contingency of identity. this is essential because without homosexuality. there could be no heterosexuality.” there must be the emergence of “queer politics. 2000). national. This. 1973. its lack of any enduring nature (Hall. and Gender Identity The process of labeling and stigmatizing behavior facilitates the work of institutions in creating bounded categories (Simon & Gagnon. 2001). Identity politics must be considered in the context of an emancipatory project. as cited in Ray. 2003). is not a historically 18 . and therefore.within the historical construction of their social world and establish new ways of meeting human needs (Horkheimer & Adorno.

and it was the creation of the category “heterosexual” that decoupled opposite-sex desire from procreation (Seidman. As noted in the earlier section on History. opposite-sex behavior.supported definition of heterosexuality. the norm of heterosexuality. 2003). albeit small. and the appearance of these cross-gendered communities resulted in a near collapse of the social order as women were becoming more “masculine” and men were becoming more “feminine” (Sediman. Of primary importance to the emerging capitalist society was the need to procure an ever-replenishing work force. which was termed “heterosexual” around the turn of the century. Establishing heterosexuality as the norm became one way of asserting traditional gender differences and the normality of dichotomous gender roles (Sediman. why did this shift in meaning occur? Seidman (2003) attributes this change in the meaning of heterosexuality to something of a gender identity crisis in both Europe and America. a goal that relied upon the strict delineation of gender roles. and the centrality of the family (Butler. the same phenomenon seemed to be occurring in America around the turn of the century. began to radically challenge the previously well-order and delineated gender roles of society (Taylor. Interestingly. not sexual attraction or identity. 2003). In 19th century America. and the primary question becomes. 19 . 2003). for heterosexuality to be the norm. 1997. was centered on the idea of a reproductive drive and the need to procreate. Adam. Because identities are established in relations of contrast. 2002). community of men characterized by their effeminate manners and propensity for cross-dressing. the emergence in Europe of aa. homosexuality had to be deviant. The social construction of sexuality for pleasure not procreation became further substantiated with the rise of psychoanalytic theory in the early 20th century. 1985).

Bernstein. are religious and conservative groups concerned with status. the modern day opponents to GLBT rights are not multinational corporations. Thus. the regulation of gender roles and sexual desire are requirements for the continued existence of the “mode of production (the family). for the first time.” which is the defining structure of a political economy (Butler. Cultural Capital and the Media 20 . It is also argued that the expanding global market has resulted in an excess of workers in this country. have found the freedom to eschew the institutions of heterosexual marriage and family (Smith. 1997). 1997. and it is the release from the societal responsibility and requirement to reproduce that has resulted in the population growth of GLBT communities. Butler (1997) asserts that the family is a part of the mode of production. and men with families had to work to support them. as individuals. By establishing the deviant status of the homosexual and the norm of the heterosexual. whose interests are profits. capitalism was served in two ways. Fraser (1997) argues that modern capitalism has no need or interest in regulating sexuality.” which is the central role of the family in capitalist society. entering into marriage and creating families ensured the continued production of a viable work force. 2001. Fraser (1997) contends that if homosexuals represented an inferior class of menial workers whose continued oppression would benefit capital’s interest.Based in the feminist works of the 1970s. and the production of gender is necessary for the “production of human beings. then Butler’s argument would carry more weight in contemporary society. 1985). Adam. but instead. however. In contrast to this view of early capitalism.

Concerns about gay men’s sexuality. leading to the question of impact invoked by the paradoxical situation in which a market established solely on the non-dominant sexuality of its constituency can only be brought into being through the effacement of that sexuality. 2003) and national corporate sponsorship for GLBT cultural events (Taylor.” and equality is equated with spending power. one in which the acquisition of goods and the pursuit of pleasure are offered as compensation for social inequity and emotional deprivation (Taylor. liberation through hedonism. emancipation through accumulation. and desirable as a target market. Taylor. Sender’s (2003) research on gay and lesbian media raises an important issue. namely the sequestering or removal of sexual advertising and editorial content from gay and lesbian media. and exploited as a consumer-based identity. 2002). The contemporary homosexual has been aggressively constructed. reachable.In shifting the focus of capitalism from producer to consumer. marketed. there has been an explosion in national ad-supported gay and lesbian media (Sender. and possibly pedophilic” gay man and the “promiscuous AIDS victim. 21 . 1998). it is possible to interpret the role of the homosexual in modern day capitalism in an entirely different way. As gay consumers have become more identifiable. the pursuit of pleasure. predatory. 2003. 2002). The collective homosexual identity is therefore constructed as “community through consumption. as embodied in the stereotypes of the “hypersexual. 2002). Sender (2003) identifies two societal preconceptions leading to the cloistering of gay sex in advertising. and through this process have constituted the ideal gay consumer (Sender.” has led advertisers and media producers to adopt strict rules about the visibility of gay sex. and sexual plurality (Bronski.

social. but only if it is done in a generalized. and differentially afford access to. homo-social.sexual. as cited in Sender. Gay and lesbian media attempts to accumulate identity capital by emphasizing the ideal image of the 22 . by means of not advertising sex and sleaze. 2003). as cited and discussed in Sender. beginning with his discussions on “tastes” and how they simultaneously manifest and reassert cultural hierarchies ( consistent with the dominant culture (Cote’ & Schwartz. that homosexual media obtains access to the financial resources of national advertisers (Sender. and artistic way. or otherwise . other kinds of power and privilege (Bourdieu. Sender (2003) categorizes these constraints in the following way: • Advertising can not in any way offer an explicitly commercial exchange. racial. Sender (2003) extends Bourdieu’s conceptualization of “tastes” to include sexual tastefulness and its role in constructing the desirable and respectable image of the ideal gay consumer. Identity capital is a resource of those whose identity . 2003)” and “identity capital (Cote’ & Schwartz. however. 1991. gender. 1986. • Editorial content about sex is limited to the “cautionary tale” of HIV and AIDS. it is possible to add “moral capital (Sender. economic. • Advertising may emphasize sexuality. 2002). To Bourdieu’s four types of capital. 1984.” Moral capital is a resource of both the dominant discourse and self-monitoring members of the gay media. 2002). as cited in Calhoun. 2003) – cultural. 2003). Bourdieu identifies four types of capital (Bourdieu. it is through the accumulation of moral capital. In order to accumulate moral capital. strict restraints are placed on both the advertising and editorial content of gay and lesbian media.” which are signals of.Sender draws heavily on the philosophies of Bourdieu. and symbolic – and capital is reflected and reproduced through these “tastes. 2003).

the limitations of social construction theory should be acknowledged and consumer as “white. and instead. gender conforming. and sexually discreet (Sender. further alienating those who do not fit the prescribed image and reenacting the dominant discourse of social control and oppression of sexual minorities (Taylor. if they are “bodies inscribed by social practices. Criticisms and Limitations 23 . Through critical consciousness. Thus. then how is it possible to achieve emancipation? Before embracing the emancipatory potential of a constructionist framework and setting forth a path of action. and deconstruction” of sexual categories (Epstein. allowing for the “appropriation. gay commercialism becomes the basis for an entire identity. “experience their subordination as autonomy” (Leonard. male. 2003). 1987). if they. thirty-something. then they can also be deconstructed. embrace the fluidity of sexuality and gender. transcendence. through a process of identification. as this image doesn’t accurately reflect either the readerships of GBLT media or the GLBT community as a collective. The Limitations and the Potential of Social Construction Theory Perhaps the greatest potential derived from an application of social construction theory is the development of a critical consciousness in which it is understood that if sexual identities are socially constructed. 1997). if individuals are constituted by the discursive formations which are embedded in the cultures in which they live.” The social construction of the gay consumer in such a way has meant the exclusion of large parts of the GLBT community. However. it is possible to eschew the assignment of socially and historically constructed sexual identities. and. 2002).

” and constructionism is not identical to “freedom. 1987). Another criticism of constructionism is that this approach trivializes sexual identity and implies that. Butler (1994.” Vance (1989) addresses this issue by emphasizing that.” Epstein (1987) argues that constructionism is unable to theorize the issue of determination at either the societal or individual level. A third 24 . only the smallest fraction of these possibilities are realized (Weeks. most people experience relatively fixed expressions of sexual identity (Epstein. because they are socially constructed.The most serious criticism of the constructionist approach is grounded in questions of “determination (Epstein. acts. Every society seems to employ a limited range of sexual scripts. and societal constructs that create that reality (Vance. this criticism posits biological explanations of social behavior as more important than social explanations. 1981). Constructionism also implies a lack of determinism in the sexual histories of individuals. “sexuality cannot be made and unmade. but in practice. and scripts. complex historical and social factors preclude individuals’ access to multiple constructions and constrains their ability to reconstruct themselves multiple times in adulthood. 1987)” and “agency (Vance. although infinite possibilities exist. and discussed in Clough. constructionists reiterate the importance of constructionism in being able to illustrate the paradox between the “lived experience” of a seemingly stable reality and the variable historical. 1989). 1987). 2003. as cited in Hall. cultural. sexual scripts are assumed to be in a constant state of revision. Constructionism predicts an infinite array and variety of sexual identities. Originating in the essentialist framework. 2003) also argues that deconstructing identities is not solely sufficient for change. they aren’t real or important (Vance. and constructionism is unable to address how this range of potential comes to be so limited (Epstein. 1989). In response. 1989). and while this may be true.

In response. and rupture” in behavior and subjective meaning. identity. nor does it preclude the discovery of similarity. is what path of action(s) leads to this transformative and emancipatory project? One action. discontinuity. along an infinite array of pluralistic categories and conceptualizations. if this is true. “change. and parody. It is through challenges levied against the dominant discourse that freedom from historically and socially assigned identities and characteristics is achieved. but instead. Vance (1989) suggests that being able and willing to recognizing differences in behavior and subjective meanings in no way commits the researcher to finding them.major criticism of social constructionism is that this framework is more receptive to the possibility of. for example. and end with an ability to redefine themselves.” leading to “anti-assimilation” through actions such as cross-gendered “drag” performances and sexual plurality (Stein & 25 . the focus is now turned towards the transformative and emancipatory potential of the constructionist framework. The key process is the development of a critical consciousness. The question. in which the individual and the collective “Other” begin with a willingness to engage in a dialectic discourse with the dominant culture over definitions of sexuality. not in terms of their similarity to or difference from the dominant culture. however. originating out of queer theory. the political debates over same-sex marriage. and even implies the likelihood of. then any demonstration of historical or social continuity proves that construction theory is wrong (Vance. 1989). transgression. then. Potential for Transformation and Emancipation Having identified some of the major criticisms of the application of social construction theory to sexuality. and gender. in exchange for a politics of “carnival. is to reject current civil rights strategies.

are means of offering agency to the individual in making and remaking sexual identity as different interperson possibilities arise and new potentials are encountered. a sense of agency is somewhat lacking from the constructionist approach. but it also perpetuates a system of sexuality that sexualizes people’s desires and attractions.” stressing that “rights” are different from “liberation. 2003). 2003). political. this freedom is founded in Giddens’ approach. ” in which sexuality becomes malleable. 1997). 2003) concepts of “plastic sexuality” and “radical pluralism. 1996). Seidman (2003). forces the choice of a mutually-exclusive sexual identity. starting with a critique of modernity and leading to the collective expression of anger over social injustice (Leonard.Plummer.” but instead. challenging the moral. it has not been established and proven that these desires are fixed and foreclosed early in life (Hall. also advocates caution in relying on a “politics of identity.” The attainment of rights may lead to reductions in stigma and social discrimination. Although no one can exert control over the nature of their sexual desires and attractions. and the “freedom to act” is an important part of the emancipatory process. and cultural characteristics of contemporary society and the authority under which they are assigned (Leonard. Giddens’ (1992. As noted. Within this view is an insistence on refusing to identify and appeal to the “monolithic culture of domination. fortunately. 2003). 1997). as cited and discussed in Hall. Any emancipatory project must begin within the non-dominant culture of sexual minorities. and divides sexual behavior into “normal” and “abnormal” (Sediman. As seen in the philosophies of 26 . although it bears recognizing that choosing to alter one’s selfidentification or mode of expression does not necessarily translate into an altered sense of sexuality (Hall.

cultural. Conclusion The ongoing debate over sexual identity as interpreted through essentialist and constructionist frameworks is an important starting point in attempting to conceptualize and realize the potential for moving beyond the contemporary categorical oppression of sexual minorities. The social construction of sexual identities results in rigid. the essentialist approach terminates in the identification and containment of sexual differences. the use of poststructuralism. there is little hope of breaking free of the negative dominant discourse on sexuality. and postmodernism. binary categorizations of sexuality and gender. If confined to the essentialist approach. but instead.poststructuralism. as characterized by psychoanalytical and biological theories of etiology. The means by which sexual identities come to be constructed. postmodernism. and at worst. critical theory. the emergence of a critical consciousness which challenges the historically and socially 27 . structuration theory. as well as the varied purposes behind such constructions. and economic interests of the dominant culture. psychoanalytic theory. and in particular. leads to theories of treatment for sexual difference as evidenced in the reparative/conversion therapies of the religious right. the course of action is not to minimize differences between dominant and non-dominant cultures. critical theory. were explored in this paper through the application of varied theorists and theoretical frameworks. which are then used to support and reproduce the social. At best. to question and challenge the categorizations of difference and at the same time exaggerate and emphasize those differences. and the theory of cultural capital. It is only by exploring a social construction framework of identity formation that the potential for transformation and emancipation becomes possible. However. political.

the possibility of recognizing the infinite array of human characteristics becomes a reality. 28 . Through the deconstruction of dominant categories of sexuality and gender.constructed categorizations sexual identity may lead to the opportunity to reject constricting and constraining identity labels.

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