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The Gilded Age Construction of American…

The Gilded Age Construction of American Homophobia

by Jay Hatheway

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Hatheway's short, and far too expensive book is billed as a look at the origins of homophobia in America. However, the real focus of the book is far more narrow, the invention of the idea of a homosexual identity by the late nineteenth century medical community.

Hatheway begins with an overview of 19th century social change and specifically, developments in the medical profession. This information will be familiar to many readers, but it is relevant to the author's argument that the new view of same sex attraction and sexual acts was based on an interpretation of the radical changes ongoing in the culture as a whole.

The heart of the book is a discussion of the views of late 19th century medical and psychiatric professionals toward same sex (or inverted as they called it) attraction. As Hatheway notes, these men continued the age old view that same sex attraction was fundamentally wrong, and many kept with the view that it was a matter of sin and vice. However, a growing and influential group argued that inverted attraction was biological in origin and outside the will of the individual. This was the beginning of the idea that homosexuality was a distinct identity, not simply a set of sinful acts. This biological origin group still believed homosexuality was wrong and elaborated complex theories of the degeneration of modern society which had lead to the creation of degenerate, sexually inverted individuals.

The problem is what to make of this elite debate over the nature of homosexuality. How much did these ideas really impact the broader society? Hatheway gives us some evidence that the biological origin group was influential in trial law and that some of the newly forming gay communities ridiculed the patholigizing of their desires, but the question of impact is never fully explored.

Hatheway's approach strikes me as similar to trying to understand racism by looking exclusively at antebellum "scientific" race theories. I view these race theories as more of an attempt to justify and rationalize pre-existing racist acts and beliefs than as a source of racism themselves. A similar case could be made about the theories of homosexuality that Hathaway dissects.

Revulsion at homosexual behavior has been passed on at all levels of society for ages, with or without scientific theories to justify it. The underlying and unanswered question is, what role does the proscription of same sex desire and love play in our society?

Although Hatheway does not answer this question he does draw one novel connection worthy of note. In the 1970s, gay rights advocates adopted a civil rights strategy for their struggle, identifying themselves as an oppressed group much like people of color and women. This argument is predicated on the idea that homosexuality is a biological identity. But Hathaway has shown us that 100 years earlier this idea of an homosexual identity had been developed not to celebrate the naturalness of homosexuality, but rather to cure society of what was viewed as the most profound symptom of social sickness and degeneracy. ( )
  eromsted | Aug 31, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312234929, Hardcover)

The Gilded Age Roots of American Homophobia is an analysis of the negative response to the discovery of the homosexual in late 19th century America. This book investigates the responses of the emergent medical community to this problem, and concludes with a discussion of how the negative reception of the homosexual impacted the future social conception of gay men and women.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:52 -0400)

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