Plumb Lines

February 19, 2009

Desire, Stigma, Deviance, Ladies and Gentlemen: I present the 1950s

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 4:23 pm

Andrew Sullivan highlights what I believe to be a crucial distinction in the ongoing arguments about same-sex marriage:

And, of course, much of Christianism today is sadly not about stigmatizing certain behaviors, but about stigmatizing certain groups – non-believers, libruls, gays, etc.

While the idea of the homosexual dates at least to the 19th century, I suspect that the contemporary American understanding of “homosexual” as a kind of people rather than a kind of sex act is much newer. Same-sex attraction was first widely medicalized in the 1940s and 50s, and cataloging and extirpating deviancy by rational-technical means was an important element of American post-war culture. Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a deviant element in society.*

Modern constitutional democracies have an understandable horror of stigmatizing groups, and once homosexuals are a group then of course they must have all the same rights as the rest of us. Blame the 50s for stigmatizing gays, then, but recognize that it was exactly this stigma the set the stage for the Stonewall riots, for gay pride, and on down the line until we arrive at same-sex marriage. Opponents of gay marriage, the reasoning goes, like all those who harbor irrational prejudice against certain groups, can only be bigots or arguing in bad faith. Because we accept that humans can be naturally categorized by mode of desire, arguments in support of same-sex marriage tend to be ad hominem arguments, while arguments against it seem irrelevant or bizarre.

The question is: why should we categorize people by modes of desire at all? If we stopped talking about gays and lesbians and resumed talking about sodomy, would the arguments for same-sex marriage make any sense? If “Christianists” by some miracle stopped stigmatizing non-heterosexuals and started stigmatizing particular sex acts, would Andrew Sullivan concede that they might not be bigots?

(*I advance my cultural history with the caveat that this conclusion follows from a perfunctory survey of medical texts and pre-war “gay rights” movements, as they are anachronistically called, and not from a long-term engagement with the question)

David Schaengold



  1. […] Jump to Comments Inspired by this Andrew Sullivan post, the group blog Plumb Lines launched into an interesting discussion on gay culture and the fluidity of sexual identity: While the idea of the homosexual […]

    Pingback by e”I was chased all over the place and rather enjoyed it” « — February 24, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

  2. […] more on the question next week, but before I do I must return to an old disagreement with Keith. I said: I suspect that the contemporary American understanding of “homosexual” as a kind of people […]

    Pingback by Imagined by Stigma, Actualized by Desire « Plumb Lines — April 8, 2009 @ 10:33 am

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