The birth of the queen/the modern homosexual: historical explanations revisited


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    Historically there has been a mutually re-enforcing dynamics between the forma-tion of the conceptual category and the social aggregate of homosexual(s). Methodological considerations and also certain presumptions about the dynam-ics of culture and society help explain why, until recently, most studies have focused on the trajectory of concepts, identities, and social roles, rather than on the experiential, embodied aspects of the social aggregate of homosexual(s). The idea of sexual inversion predicates that homosexual desire is evidence of a faulty combination of body and soul: there is ‘a female soul in a male body’, or vice versa. On the distinctions between sexual orientation and sexual role see, King, 1984.


In this paper I review a number of explanations for the emergence of the modern homosexual category in Western (mainly Northwest European) cultures. I suggest there are four different emphases in respect of the social and cultural factors given priority in interpretations of the formation of the homosexual category. Of course, individual studies have often taken into consideration more than one single factor (most notably, Greenberg, 1988; Chauncey, 1994), and the grouping of previous studies that I here suggest only indicates where the focus of a given study is. The social and cultural factors emphasized in these four approaches are:

1) the effects of competitive capitalism on the bourgeois/middle class political economy of sexuality and sexual morals;

2) the rise of expert knowledges, controlling systems, and modern bureaucracies;

3) tensions within gender order and the struggle over new definitions of gender roles;

4) the rise of free wage labour, the proliferation of urban anonymity, and the unfolding of new modes of existence in the life-world of modern pluralist urban society.

Finally, the article briefly considers the potential erosion of the homosexual vs. heterosexual divide in the light of the historical background. Almost thirty years have passed since ‘The Homosexual Role’, by Mary McIntosh (1968), the first notable contribution to the historical sociology of homosexuality operating within a social constructionist view of homosexuality. Since then, there have been numerous studies of the formation of the conceptual category and social aggregate of ‘modern homosexual’. Researchers have differed about whether the pedigree of ‘homosexual’ and homosexual identities and subcultures in Western societies can be traced back to the late nineteenth century or to the early eighteenth century, and whether or not some notion of ‘homosexual’ was established in the cultural imagery before the last fifty years or so. It might be fruitful to distinguish between the historically older categories of ‘molly’, ‘queen’, and ‘fairy’ on the one hand, and the more recent ‘homosexual’ on the other hand. It can be argued that the decisive feature of the first-mentioned ‘deviant men’ was their status as gender-crossers (which as a side-effect entailed an interest in homosexual conduct), whereas the modern term homosexual does not necessarily suggest gender-crossing or more generic ‘sexual inversion’(cf. Chauncey, 1994). However, allusions to gay men's purported effeminacy and lesbian women's purported masculinity continue to surface frequently also in contemporary culture. Hence, for the sake of brevity, I here use the term modern homosexual, by which I refer to a notion that there is in some people an inherent sexual desire exclusively for persons of the same sex, and that this so-called sexual orientation is to some degree intertwined with a tendency to gender-crossing conduct.1