Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics: Essays

By Estelle B. Freedman | Go to book overview

6 | The Historical Construction of
Homosexuality in the United States

The treatment of the history of homosexuality in Intimate Matters: A History of
Sexuality in America illustrates the social-constructionist interpretation of sexuality.
The book, which I coauthored with John D'Emilio, draws upon a materialist or Marx-
ist-feminist framework and interweaves the topic of same-sex relations throughout the
narrative to support broader arguments about the importance of sexuality in Ameri-
can history, the separation of sexuality and reproduction, the commercialization
of sex, and the politicization of sexual identities. Since the publication
of Intimate
Matters, the study of lesbian and gay history in the United States has expanded to
explore regional and racial diversity, discursive as well as materialist constructions
of sexuality, and the implications of transgender politics. As the closing section of this
essay states, I think we need to acknowledge the diversity of past sexual practices and
identities and to see them in their historical contexts rather than to include them all
under the modern rubric of homosexuality.

THE CONCEPT OF the social construction of sexuality has become almost commonplace in academic writing and increasingly prevalent in political writing. Set in contrast to either biological or psychoanalytic determinism, which situates sexuality within the individual body or psyche, social construction suggests that every society creates or constructs a set of sexual ideals, rules, and possibilities that determine how individual sexual practices may be named and interpreted. These social constructs change over time and across cultures—they are subject to reconstruction given large historical forces, such as economic and demographic transformations. In short, what we consider “sexual” in our culture is not necessarily what we once considered “sexual” or what is considered “sexual” elsewhere. Thus, in contrast to scholars who assume an ahistorical or transhistorical homosexuality, my approach is based on the view that while individual same-sex

Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “The Historical Construction of Homo-
sexuality in the U.S.,” Socialist Review 25, no. 1 (1995): 31–46. Reprinted by permission
of the publisher.

-107-

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