Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

4

CHRISTIAN BROTHERHOOD OR SEXUAL PERVERSION?

Homosexual identities and the construction of sexual boundaries in the World War I era 1

George Chauncey, Jr.

“Homosexuality” (as we currently use it) refers to behavior between same-sex partners, male or female. But, as George Chauncey demonstrates, that view of homosexuality is itself a social construction, not a straightforward or inevitable definition.

Historians of sexuality confront special problems of evidence, for sexual experience is private and seldom documented in the kinds of records that historians use. George Chauncey seizes the opportunity provided by a widely publicized 1919 investigation into homosexuality in the US Navy. In the hands of this imaginative historian, reams of testimony become the instrument for gaining a rare glimpse into homosexual subcultures, revealing the prevailing constructions of masculinity that defined both the “queer” and his sexual partner. He finds that his subjects saw homosexuality as a matter of gender roles rather than of sexual partners: men who appeared effeminate or took the “woman’s part” in sex were considered homosexual, but their male partners were not. Chauncey also explores homosexual identities as they are supported and constrained by a distinctive homosexual subculture.

Public controversies often involve disputes over the boundaries of discourse, and in the controversy that followed the investigation, Chauncey traces ministers’ self-image of a masculinity of “Christian brotherhood,” which, led them to challenge the investigators’ methods and their definition of homosexuality. Like Meyerowitz, Chauncey raises questions about the reach of medical discourses: the many voices in his records show little awareness of the sexologists’ views of homosexuality.

* * *

-72-

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