How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000) 87-123



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How to Do The History of Male Homosexuality

David M. Halperin *


IMAGE LINK= The history of sexuality is now such a respectable academic discipline, or at least such an established one, that its practitioners no longer feel much pressure to defend the enterprise--to rescue it from suspicions of being a palpable absurdity. Once upon a time, the very phrase "the history of sexuality" sounded like a contradiction in terms: how, after all, could sexuality have a history? Nowadays, by contrast, we are so accustomed to the notion that sexuality does indeed have a history that we do not often ask ourselves what kind of history sexuality has. If such questions do come up, they get dealt with cursorily, in the course of the methodological throat clearing that historians ritually perform in the opening paragraphs of scholarly articles. Recently, this exercise has tended to include a more or less obligatory reference to the trouble once caused to historians, long long ago in a country far far away, by theorists who had argued that sexuality was socially constructed--an intriguing idea in its time and place, or so we are reassuringly told, but one that was taken to outlandish extremes and that no one much credits any longer. 1 With the disruptive potential of these metahistorical questions safely relegated to the past, the historian of sexuality can get down, or get back, to the business at hand.

But this new consensus, and the sense of theoretical closure that accompanies it, is premature. I believe that it is more useful than ever to ask how sexuality can have a history. The point of such a question, to be sure, is no longer to register the questioner's skepticism and incredulity (as if to say, "How on earth could such a thing be possible?") but to inquire more closely into the modalities of historical being that sexuality possesses: to ask how exactly--in what terms, by virtue of what temporality, in which of its dimensions or aspects--sexuality does have a history.

That question, of course, has already been answered in a number of ways, each of them manifesting a different strategy for articulating the relation between [End Page 87] continuity and discontinuity, identity and difference, in the history of sexuality. The constructionist-essentialist debate of the late 1980s should be seen as a particularly vigorous effort to force a solution to this question, but even after constructionists claimed to have won the debate, and essentialists claimed to have exposed the bad scholarship produced by it, and everyone else claimed to be sick and tired of it, the basic question about the historicity of sexuality has remained. In fact, current work in the history of sexuality still appears to be poised in its emphasis between the two poles of identity and difference, which in my view represent merely reformulated versions of the old essentialist and constructionist positions. Nonetheless, it may be prudent to recast the question in less polemical or old-fashioned terms by acknowledging that 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. Current analytic models that attempt to do this by mapping shifts in the categories or classifications of an otherwise unchanging "sexuality," or by insisting on a historical distinction between premodern sexual acts and modern sexual identities, simply cannot capture the complexity of the issues at stake in the new histories of sexual subjectivity that are available to us. 2

The tensions between interpretative emphases on continuity and discontinuity, identity and difference, appear with almost painful intensity in the historiography [End Page 88] of homosexuality. They reflect not only the high political stakes in any contemporary project that involves producing representations of homosexuality but also the irreducible definitional uncertainty about what homosexuality itself really is. 3 Perhaps the clearest and...