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The "Invention" of Homosexuality in the West

Tutor: Natalie Hanley-Smith

Although ‘same-sex’/queer relationships have always existed, the male ‘homosexual’ and the ‘lesbian’ are distinctly modern identity categories. As is the idea that one’s sexual practices and sexual preferences are key to defining selfhood. Halperin’s book explores some of the challenges faced by historians seeking to explore the history of something as unstable and historically contingent as homosexuality. How do we identify gay people in a period in which such a concept/identity did not exist? In the West, the concept of a person being homosexual or a lesbian began to emerge in the 19th and early 20th century (a little earlier for men than for women). Faderman’s ground-breaking history of women who loved women argued that women might have had more freedom to enter into romantic and sexual relationships with other women before sexologists ‘invented’ the lesbian at the turn of the 20th century. In doing so, she wrote, a male dominated medical establishment pathologised and demonised relations between women which might previously have passed unremarked upon. This argument has subsequently been critiqued and nuanced by historians such as Doan and Vicinus, whose work appears on the further reading this week. But historians continue to emphasise the relative plasticity of sexual identities and the significant shifts that occurred with modernity.

Seminar Questions:

  • When, how and why did the male homosexual and the lesbian emerge as modern identity categories?
  • When, how and why did sexual practices and sexual preferences become key to understandings of selfhood and identity?
  • How might historians go about tracing the history of male homosexual and lesbians in periods when these identity categories did not exist?

Core reading:

Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) [esp. Introduction; Part II, A, Ch.1 & 2; Part II, B, Ch.2; Part III, A, Ch.2

David M. Halperin, ‘How to Do the History of Homosexuality’ in D.E. Hall and Anne Marie Jagose, with Andrea Bebell and Susan Potter (eds.), The Routledge Queer Studies Reader (2013)

Further Reading:

Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture (2000)

Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women 1778-1928 (2004)

David Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002) [The core reading is an extract from this longer book]

Jeffrey Weeks & Kevin Porter, Between the Acts. Lives of Homosexual Men 1885-1967 (1990)

Harry Cox, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century (2003)

Jonathan Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)

Robert Beachy, 'The German Invention of Homosexuality', Journal of Modern History 82:4 (2010)

Siobhan B. Somerville, Queering the Colour Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000)

Suparna Bhaskaran, 'The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code', in Ruth Vanita (ed.), Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism In Indian Culture and Society (2002)

Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (2015) [suggests that northern industrial working-class cultures in Britain followed a very different trajectory from the metropolitan homosexual cultures associated with the impact of the Wilde trial]