Note by HealthWrights Staff

There are a number of important political functions that are accomplished by assigning people labels based on their sexual orientations – none of them positive.

  • It provides a taxonomy that aids in the control exerted by the sex abuse industry.

  • It blocks the full development of people, who do not in fact fit into watertight compartments.

  • It creates artificial communities based on the myth that we can be sorted into neat categories.

  • It provides a target for those who wish to shun, scape-goat and in other ways attack people they see as different.

  • It does not fit the facts.

In fact, each person has his or her own unique pattern of sexual attraction, which usually includes a variety of types of people. The article below helps clarify how this rich diversity gets reduced to a small number of socially defined constructs.

The Main Article

First published in: Social Problems, 16/2 (1968).
Reprinted in: Steven Seidman (Ed.), Queer Theory/Sociology.
Blackwill Publishers: Cambridge/Mass.
Oxford 1996, pp. 33-​-​40.

queer theory

Recent advances in the sociology of deviant behavior have not yet affected the study of homosexuality, which is still commonly seen as a condition characterizing certain persons in the way that birthplace or deformity might characterize them. The limitations of this view can best be understood if we examine some of its implications. In the first place, if homosexuality is a condition, then people either have it or do not have it. Many scientists and ordinary people assume that there are two kinds of people in the world: homosexuals and heterosexuals. Some of them recognize that homosexual feelings and behaviour are not confined to the persons they would like to call homosexuals and that some of these persons do not actually engage in homosexual behaviour. This should pose a crucial problem, but they evade the crux by retaining their assumption and puzzling over the question of how to tell whether someone is “really” homosexual or not. Lay people too will discuss whether a certain person is “queer” in much the same way as they might question whether a certain pain indicated cancer. And in much the same way they will often turn to scientists or to medical men for a surer diagnosis. The scientists, for their part, feel it incumbent on them to seek criteria for diagnosis.

Thus one psychiatrist, discussing the definition of homosexuality, has written:

I do not diagnose patients as homosexual unless they have engaged in overt homosexual behaviour. Those who also engage in heterosexual activity are diagnosed as bisexual. An isolated experience may not warrant the diagnosis, but repetitive homosexual behaviour in adulthood, whether sporadic or continuous, designates a homosexual. (Bieber 1965: 248)

Along with many other writers, he introduces the notion of a third type of person, the “bisexual,” to handle the fact that behaviour patterns cannot be conveniently dichotomized into heterosexual and homosexual. But this does not solve the conceptual problem, since bisexuality too is seen as a condition (unless as a passing response to unusual situations such as confinement in a one-​sex prison). In any case there is no extended discussion of bisexuality; the topic is usually given a brief mention in order to clear the ground for the consideration of “true homosexuality.”

To cover the cases where the symptoms of behaviour or of felt attractions do not match the diagnosis, other writers have referred to an adolescent homosexual phase or have used such terms as “latent homosexual” or “pseudo homosexual.” Indeed one of the earliest studies of the subject, by Krafft-​Ebing (1965), was concerned with making a distinction between the “invert” who is congenitally homosexual and others who, although they behave in the same way, are not true inverts.

A second result of the conceptualization of homosexuality as a condition is that the major research task has been seen as the study of its etiology. There has been much debate as to whether the condition is innate or acquired. The first step in such research has commonly been to find a sample of “homosexuals” in the same way that a medical researcher might find a sample of diabetics if he wanted to study that disease. Yet after a long history of such studies, the results are sadly inconclusive, and the answer is still as much a matter of opinion as it was when Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion was published seventy years ago. The failure of research to answer the question has not been due to lack of scientific rigor or to any inadequacy of the available evidence; it results rather from the fact that the wrong question has been asked. One might as well try to trace the etiology of “committee chairmanship” or “Seventh Day Adventism” as of “homosexuality.”

The vantage point of comparative sociology enables us to see that the conception of homosexuality as a condition is, in itself, a possible object of study. This conception and the behaviour it supports operate as a form of social control in a society in which homosexuality is condemned. Furthermore the uncritical acceptance of the conception by social scientists can be traced to their concern with homosexuality as a social problem. They have tended to accept the popular definition of what the problem is, and they have been implicated in the process of social control.


The practice of the social labeling of persons as deviant operates in two ways as a mechanism of social control. In the first place it helps to provide a clear-​cut, publicized, and recognizable threshold between permissible and impermissible behavior. This means that people cannot so easily draft into deviant behavior. Their first moves in a deviant direction immediately raise the question of a total move into a deviant role with all the sanctions that this is likely to elicit. Second, the labeling serves to segregate the deviants from others, and this means that their deviant practices and their self-​justifications for these practices are contained within a relatively narrow group. The creation of a specialized, despised, and punished role of homosexual keeps the bulk of society pure in rather the same way that the similar treatment of some kinds of criminals helps keep the rest of society law-​abiding.

However, the disadvantage of this practice as a technique of social control is that there may be a tendency for people to become fixed in their deviance once they have become labeled. This too is a process that has become well-​recognized in discussion of other forms of deviant behaviour, such as juvenile delinquency and drug taking, and indeed of other kinds of social labeling, such as streaming in schools and racial distinctions. One might expect social categorizations of this sort to be to some extent self-​fulfilling prophecies: if the culture defines people as falling into distinct types — black and white, criminal and non-​criminal, homosexual and normal — then these types will tend to become polarised, highly differentiated from each other. Later in this paper I shall discuss whether this is so in the case of homosexuals and “normals” in the United States today.

It is interesting to notice that homosexuals themselves welcome and support the notion that homosexuality is a condition. For just as the rigid categorization deters people from drifting into deviancy, so it appears to foreclose on the possibility of drifting back into normality and thus removes the element of anxious choice. It appears to justify the deviant behavior of the homosexual as being appropriate for him as a member of the homosexual category. The deviancy can thus be seen as legitimate for him and he can continue in it without rejecting the norms of the society.

The way in which people become labeled as homosexual can now be seen as an important social process connected with mechanisms of social control. It is important therefore that sociologists should examine this process objectively and not lend themselves to participation in it, particularly since, as we have seen, psychologists and psychiatrists on the whole have not retained their objectivity but have become involved as diagnostic agents in the process of social labeling.

It is proposed that the homosexual should be seen as playing a social role rather than as having a condition. The role of “homosexual,” however, does not simply describe a sexual behaviour pattern. If it did, the idea of a role would be no more useful than that of a condition. For the purpose of introducing the term “role” is to enable us to handle the fact that behaviour in this sphere does not match popular beliefs: that sexual behaviour patterns cannot be dichotomized in the way that the social roles of homosexual and heterosexual can.

It may seem rather odd to distinguish in this way between role and behaviour, but if we accept a definition of role in terms of expectations (which may or may not be fulfilled), then the distinction is both legitimate and useful. ln modern societies where a separate homosexual role is recognized, the expectation, on behalf of those who play the role and of others, is that a homosexual will be exclusively or very predominantly homosexual in his feelings and behaviour. In addition there are other expectations that frequently exist, especially on the part of non-​homosexuals, but affecting the self-​conception of anyone who sees himself as homosexual. These are the expectation that he will be effeminate in manner, personality, or preferred sexual activity, the expectation that sexuality will play a part of some kind in all his relations with other men, and the expectation that he will be attracted to boys and very young men and probably willing to seduce them. The existence of a social expectation, of course, commonly helps to produce its own fulfillment. But the question of how far it is fulfilled is a matter for empirical investigation rather than a priori pronouncement.

In order to clarify the nature of the role and demonstrate that it exists only in certain societies, we shall present the cross-​cultural and historical evidence available. This raises awkward problems of method because the material has hitherto usually been collected and analyzed in terms of culturally specific modern Western conceptions.

The Homosexual Role in Various Societies

To study homosexuality in the past or in other societies we usually have to rely on secondary evidence rather than on direct observation. The reliability and the validity of such evidence is open to question because what the original observers reported may have been distorted by their disapproval of homosexuality and by their definition of it, which may be different from the one we wish to adopt. …

Allowing for such weaknesses, the Human Relations Area Files are the best single source of comparative information. Their evidence on homosexuality has been summarized by Ford and Beach (1952), who identify two broad types of accepted patterns: the institutionalized homosexual role and the liaison between men and boys who are otherwise heterosexual.


The recognition of a distinct role of berdache or transvestite is, they say, “the commonest form of institutionalized homosexuality.” This form shows a marked similarity to that in our own society, though in some ways it is even more extreme. The Mojave Indians of California and Arizona, for example, recognized both an alyhá, a male transvestite who took the role of the woman in sexual intercourse, and a hwamé, a female homosexual who took the role of the male. People were believed to be born as alyhá or hwamé, hints of their future proclivities occurring in their mothers‘ dreams during pregnancy. lf a young boy began to behave like a girl and take an interest in women’s things instead of men’s, there was an initiation ceremony in which he would become an alyhá. After that he would dress and act like a woman, would be referred to as “she” and could take “husbands.”

But the Mojave pattern differs from ours in that although the alyhá was considered regretable and amusing, he was not condemned and was given public recognition. The attitude was that “he was an alyhá, he could not help it.” But the “husband“ of an alyhá was an ordinary man who happened to have chosen an alyhá, perhaps because they were good housekeepers or because they were believed to be “lucky in love,“ and he would be the butt of endless teasing and joking.

This radical distinction between the feminine, passive homosexual and his masculine, active partner is one which is not made very much in our own society, but which is very important in the Middle East. There, however, neither is thought of as being a “born” homosexual, although the passive partner, who demeans himself by his feminine submission, is despised and ridiculed while the active one is not. In most of the ancient Middle East, including among the Jews until the return from the Babylonian exile, there were male temple prostitutes. Thus even cultures that recognize a separate homosexual role may not define it in the same way as our culture does.

Many other societies accept or approve of homosexual liaisons as part of a variegated sexual pattern. Usually these are confined to a particular stage in the individual’s life. Among the Aranda of Central Australia, for instance, there are long-​standing relationships of several years‘ duration between unmarried men and young boys, starting at the age of 10 to 12 years (Ford and Beach 1952: 132). This is rather similar to the well-​known situation in classical Greece, but there, of course, the older man could have a wife as well. Sometimes, however, as among the Siwans of North Africa (Ford and Beach 1952: 131-2), all men and boys can and are expected to engage in homosexual activities, apparently at every stage of life. In all of these societies there may be much homosexual behaviour, but there are no “homosexuals.”

The Development of the Homosexual Role in England

The problem of method is even more acute in dealing with historical material than with anthropological, for history is usually concerned with “great events” rather than with recurrent patterns. There are some records of attempts to curb sodomy among minor churchmen during the medieval period (May 1938: 65, 101), which seem to indicate that it was common. At least they suggest that laymen feared on behalf of their sons that it was common. The term “catamite,” meaning “boy kept for immoral purposes,” was first used in 1593, again suggesting that this practice was common then. But most of the historical references to homosexuality relate either to great men or to great scandals. However, over the last seventy years or so various scholars have tried to trace the history of sex, and it is possible to glean a good deal from what they have found and also from what they have failed to establish.

Their studies of English history before the seventeenth century consist usually of inconclusive speculation as to whether certain men, such as Edward II, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, were or were not homosexual. Yet the disputes are inconclusive not because of lack of evidence but because none of these men fits the modern stereotype of the homosexual.

It is not until the end of the seventeenth century that other kinds of information become available, and it is possible to move from speculations about individuals to descriptions of homosexual life. At this period references to homosexuals as a type and to a rudimentary homosexual subculture, mainly in London, begin to appear. But the earliest descriptions of homosexuals do not coincide exactly with the modern conception. There is much more stress on effeminacy and in particular on transvestism, to such an extent that there seems to be no distinction at first between transvestism and homosexuality. The terms emerging at this period to describe homosexuals — Molly, Nancy-​boy, Madge-​cull — emphasize effeminacy. In contrast the modern terms — like fag, queer, gay, bent — do not have this implication.

By the end of the seventeenth century, homosexual transvestites were a distinct enough group to be able to form their own clubs in London. Edward Ward’s History of the London Clubs, first published in 1709, describes one called “The Mollie’s club” which met “in a certain tavern in the City” for “parties and regular gatherings.” The members “adopt[ed] all the small vanities natural to the feminine sex to such an extent that they try to speak, walk, chatter, shriek and scold as women do, aping them as well in other respects.” The other respects apparently included the enactment of marriages and childbirth. The club was discovered and broken up by agents of the Reform Society. There were a number of similar scandals during the course of the eighteenth century as various homosexual coteries were exposed.

A writer in 1729 describes the widespread homosexual life of the period:

They also have their Walks and Appointments, to meet and pick up one another, and their particular Houses of Resort to go to, because they dare not trust themselves in an open Tavern. About twenty of these sort of Houses have been discovered, besides the Nocturnal Assemblies of great numbers of the like vile Persons, what they call the Markets, which are the Royal Exchange, Lincoln’s Inn, Bog Houses, the south side of St James’s Park, the Piazzas in Covent Garden, St Clement’s Churchyard, etc.

It would be a pretty scene to behold them In their clubs and cabals, how they assume the air and affect the name of Madam or Miss, Betty or Molly, with a chuck under the chin, and “Oh you bold pullet, I'll break your eggs,” and then frisk and walk away. [Taylor 1965: 142]

The notion of exclusive homosexuality became well established during this period:

two Englishmen, Leith and Drew, were accused of paederasty. … The evidence given by the plaintiffs was, as was generally the case in these trials, very imperfect. On the other hand the defendants denied the accusation, and produced witnesses to prove their predilection for women. They were in consequence acquitted. [Bloch 1938: 334]

This could only have been an effective argument in a society that perceived homosexual behaviour as incompatible with heterosexual tastes.

During the nineteenth century there are further reports of raided clubs and homosexual brothels. However, by this time the element of transvestism had diminished in importance. Even the male prostitutes are described as being of masculine build, and there is more stress upon sexual licence and less upon dressing up and play-​acting. …


This paper has dealt with only one small aspect of the sociology of homosexuality. It is, nevertheless, a fundamental one. For it is not until he sees homosexuals as a social category, rather than a medical or psychiatric one, that the sociologist can begin to ask the right questions about the specific content of the homosexual role and about the organization and functions of homosexual groups. All that has been done here is to indicate that the role does not exist in many societies, that it only emerged in England towards the end of the seventeenth century, and that, although the existence of the role in modern America appears to have some effect on the distribution of homosexual behaviour, such behaviour is far from being monopolized by persons who play the role of homosexual.


Bieber, I. 1965. Homosexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Bloch, I. 1938. Sexual Life in England, Past and Present. London: Francis Alder.
Ford, C. S. and Beach, F. 1952. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. London: Metheun.
Krafft-​Ebing, R. Von 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: G. P. Putnam’s & Sons.
May, G. 1938. Social Control of Sex. London: Allen & Unwin.