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Reviewed by:
  • Science and Homosexualities
  • Chandak Sengoopta
Vernon A. Rosario, ed. Science and Homosexualities. New York: Routledge, 1997. ix + 308 pp. Ill. $U.S. 65.00 (cloth), $18.95 (paperbound); $Can. 90.95 (cloth), $Can. 26.95 (paperbound).

Historians have long been aware of the importance of the medicalization of homosexuality, and this anthology brings together some of the best and most recent work on the subject. Vernon Rosario’s introduction (“Homosexual Bio-Histories”) and Jennifer Terry’s concluding essay (“The Seductive Power of Science”) attack the persistent myth that scientific studies of homosexuality have always been used against gays by a hegemonic, heterosexist medical profession. As they show, an enormous amount of research on the biology of homosexuality has been conducted by homosexuals themselves and enthusiastically supported by large sections of the gay community. Rosario and Terry are indubitably correct in interpreting this phenomenon as a search for biological kinship and for the certainty, guaranteed by the magical name of science, that homosexuality is not a vice.

Garland Allen’s critique of genetic research on homosexuality (“The Double-Edged Sword of Genetic Determinism”) places the current obsession with unearthing the “gay gene” in the historical context of mechanistic genetics. The opposing viewpoint is presented by psychiatrist Richard Pillard in an essay (“The Search for a Genetic Influence on Sexual Orientation”) that is so ahistorical and so amorphous that one wonders how it got into this volume! Anne Fausto-Sterling’s contribution (“How to Build a Man”) is equally ahistorical but, expectedly enough, masterful in its incisive analyses of current embryological and endocrinological theories of sex and sexual orientation.

The collection has much to offer to historians who have little direct interest in today’s research or politics. Hubert Kennedy’s contribution, “Karl Heinrich Ulrichs,” is merely a competent recapitulation of his earlier, marvelous biography of that pioneer, but James Steakley’s essay on Magnus Hirschfeld (“Per scientiam ad justitiam”) is a new and finely nuanced study based on extensive research and perceptive readings. The same goes for Harry Oosterhuis’s analysis of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s theories of homosexuality, which establishes how Krafft-Ebing’s work was constantly modulated by the views of his numerous homosexual correspondents, [End Page 148] few of whom were against medicalization in any straightforward sense. Erin Carlston’s essay, “‘A Finer Differentiation,’” develops the same theme in the context of interwar America.

Medical and scientific interest in homosexuality has frequently focused on the relationship, if any, between homosexual orientation and physical hermaphroditism. Men who desired men have always been seen by physicians as psychosexually feminine, but are they also somatically—or physiologically—feminized? In her rich essay, “Hermaphrodites in Love,” Alice Dreger shows how nineteenth-century physicians determined the “true” sex of the person without any reference to external anatomy, sex of rearing, or preferred sexual role: all that mattered was the presence of testicular or ovarian tissue somewhere in the body. Thus, a hermaphrodite who looked feminine, possessed a testicle, but desired men was a conceptual nightmare, and Dreger demonstrates the complicated ways in which homosexuality came to be seen as a kind of hermaphroditism. One classical instance of this conflation was physicians’ preoccupation with the clitoral dimensions of female homosexuals, which is well documented in Margaret Gibson’s piece, “Clitoral Corruption.”

Enlarged clitorises alone, however, were not enough: it was universally acknowledged that genital ambiguities were rare among homosexuals. Physiological hermaphroditism was a more promising concept, and for a while, homosexuality was thought to be caused by aberrations of sex-gland function. In “Who Counts When You’re Counting Homosexuals?” Stephanie Kenen examines American physician Clifford Wright’s research on the hormonal status of male homosexuals, and Alfred Kinsey’s blistering critique of that approach.

Needless to say, medical and scientific research on homosexuality have been shaped by broader cultural forces. In “Normality, Whiteness, Authorship,” Julian Carter attempts to show that Anglo-American sexologists regularly conflated their conviction of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority with their ideas of sexual and linguistic “normality.” Vernon Rosario, in his essay “Inversion’s Histories/History’s Inversions,” addresses the literary construction of homosexuality in turn-of-the-century France, analyzing how physicians as well as the...

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