Posts Tagged With: david halperin

The Lesbian & Gay Studies Reader

Lesbian & Gay studies reader

Abelove, Henry, Michéle Aina Barlale, and David M. Halperin, eds.  The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Subject: A collection of 42 essays meant to represent “some of the best and most significant recent English-language work in the field of lesbian/gay studies” (xv).

Points from the Introduction: Lesbian/gay studies cannot be defined exclusively by its subject, its practitioners, its methods, or its themes.  In this way, it’s women studies, which does not simply add women into the story, but instead urges scholars to look at the central role of gender in defining power relations in history.  In this vein, lesbian/gay studies does for sex and sexuality approximately what women’s studies does for gender.

Some of the essays:

Barbara Smith, “Homophobia:  Why Bring it Up?”

Homophobia, Smith argues, should be recognized as one of the “isms” (sexism and racism) that pervade American society.   Instead, she said, homophobia remains the one ism that is tolerated by people who would be averted to sexism and racism.  This is predominantly due to the fact that we do not recognize that all of these discriminatory “isms” are intricately intertwined.  “Ironically, for the forces on the right, hating lesbians and gay men, people of color, Jews, and women go hand in hand.  They make connections between oppressions in the most negative ways with horrifying results.  Supposedly progressive people, on the other hand, who oppose oppression on every other level, balk at acknowledging the societally sanctioned abuse of lesbians and gay men as a serious problem” (100).

Several misconceptions that help homophobia continue to run rampant:  1) a false distinction between a political vs. private concern, in which homophobia is seen as a private concern; 2) Thinking narrowly of gay people as white, middle class, and male, which is just what the establishment media want people to think, undermines consciousness of how identities and issues overlap.

Martha Vicinus, “”They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong”: the Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity”

In this essay, she traces the pitfalls accompanying some historians’ concern with the origins of individual and group identity – a concern that can limit its possibilities for inquiry by focusing solely on Euro-American instances where identity and sexuality are intertwined and where identity itself is a cultural value.  Ultimately, she argues that lesbian history must be written so as to include not only the dyke, butch, witch, and amazon, but the invert, femme, androgyne, and even the merely occasional lover of women (432).

Another interesting point is that because the “femme” defied the definition of deviant (because they weren’t inverted…they were still “feminine” and normal), the “butch” homosexual emerged before the “femme.”  The prerunners to the “butches” combined the outward appearance of the cross-dressed woman and the inner, emotional life of a romantic friendship (440) – They combined the two main forms of woman-woman desire that Leila Rupp identified (cross dressing/gender inversion and erotic friendship).

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity”

D’Emilio explains that lesbian and gay people have not been present throughout history, that in the United States for instance there was no lesbian or gay identity and subculture until sometime in the nineteenth century, when the development of capitalism made our emergence possible.  Capitalism required a system of labor based on wages, rather than on either a largely self-sufficient household or slaver; and wage gave individuals a relative autonomy, which was the necessary material condition for the making of lesbianism and gayness.   He concludes that a new more accurate theory of gay history must be part of a political enterprise of gay/lesbian studies.

His essay not only explains the rise of the possibility for a gay/homosexual identity (and communities based on that identity) came from the rise of capitalism, but the rise of “the individual” was a result as well. Interestingly, he also concludes that scientific theories of homosexuality did not represent scientific breakthroughs, elucidations of previously undiscovered areas of knowledge; rather, they were an ideological response to a new way of organizing one’s personal life.  The popularization of the medical model, in turn, affected the consciousness of the women and men who experienced homosexual desire, so that they came to define themselves through their erotic life  (470-71).

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How to do the History of Homosexuality – D. Halperin


David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago:  the University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Subject: A theoretical expedition into the workings of “the history of (homo)sexuality.”  Specifically, he revisits the essentialist-constructionist debate.

Research Questions:  How would we experience our own sexuality differently if we experienced it as something historical, as well as instinctual?

Author’s Arguments:  Though Halperin approaches a different theme in each of his four chapters, his main aim in this book (besides defending himself against criticism leveled against his previous book) is to 1) Defend the constructionist/historicist approach to sexuality, 2) bridge the gap between classical studies and LGBT studies, 3) to show that gay studies should be more than just “reclaiming” great homosexuals in history.  He is a defender of Foucault, and says that the claim that there were no sexual “identities” in the pre-modern world is false.  Halperin also argues against the recent tendency to reduce the history of sexuality to the history of classification or representations of sexuality.

One of the foundations of his arguments is that one form of sexuality does not replace the previous one.  Multiple forms of sexuality exist at any given time, and while one gives way to another as the “norm,” the previous form lingers and coexists with the new norm, perhaps never fading away entirely.  He claims that the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of homosexuality is a sign of its historical evolution – absorbing prior understandings of same-sex desires and of sexual deviance, even if those understandings are in direct contradiction of our modern definition. 

In each of his four chapters (which are independent essays), Halperin addresses a pertinent topic, such as 1) how past societies did have notions of “sexual identities,” and not just sexual acts, 2) how lesbianism was more than likely the “first homosexuality,” that is, the first same-sex desiring “identity” to come about, and 3) how the body itself is to be studied as a sign or symbol for sexuality (among many other things).  However, it is in his fourth chapter, “How to do the History of Male Sexuality” that I believe Halperin makes his most useful conclusions.

In it he claims, “Any adequate attempt to describe the historicity of sexuality will have to fix on some strategy for accommodating the aspects of sexual life that seem to persist through time as well as the dramatic differences between historically documented forms of sexual experience. “  This will require us to get past the modern notion of “homosexuality” as a singular distinct formation that pretends to represent all same-sex sexual experiences.

He then offers 5 categories in which to understand male-male sex/gender deviance: 1) effeminacy, 2) pederasty or active sodomy, 3) friendship or male love, 4) passivity or inversion, 5) homosexuality

Context & Methodology:  It is apparent that this work is meant to be Halperin’s answer to criticism of his approach in his previous work, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989).  Therefore the work reads like a conversation (albeit a one-sided one; granted, he lays out what he feels to be the others’ arguments).  The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is an independent essay that can be used for study on its own.  Also, this work is highly theoretical.  There are historical examples given, but they are only provided to substantiate the theory that he is trying to clarify.

Final Remarks:  The book is extremely helpful – though can be very dense and difficult to read at times.  So, it is better, perhaps to read and discuss as a group.  That aside, the volume is slim and rather direct and to the point.  A note on the title:  Halperin states that it is meant to be more of a question (Is this how we should do the history of homosexuality?) than a magisterial handbook (THIS is how you should do the history of homosexuality).  While he acknowledges that there may be criticism of his new theory(ies) to come, he is pretty firm that the approach he outlines here should be followed by future historians of sexuality.

All in all, one of the points that stuck with me the most is that the prior systems of “sexual regulation” were more about gender than sexuality.

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