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What does the term gay designate? Is it an identity, an orientation, a preference, a lifestyle? Some scientists, as well as many people who self-identify as gay, insist that there must be a genetic component to sexual orientation. But what are those who claim to have discovered a "gay" gene—or brain—measuring, and how do they determine who "counts" as gay?


Most historians of sexuality argue that what people call gay identity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although people have engaged in homosexual behavior for all of known history, the category of the homosexual is a modern one that initially was specific to nineteenth-century Western culture. In Michel Foucault's (1988) widely discussed formulation, before the nineteenth century the sodomite was a "temporary aberration" in that, on the one hand, any human being potentially could engage in the "sin" of homosexuality and on the other hand, sodomy was a hopelessly confused collection of forbidden acts. The sodomite was thus neither a specific category of person with a distinct identity nor someone who engaged in specific sexual behaviors.

In the late nineteenth century, however, a number of institutions in the West—the law, medicine, the church, and even literature—produced congruent ways of conceptualizing the relationship between sexuality and the self that made possible the "birth" of homosexual and heterosexual identities. Sexuality became a privileged register of human experience, the locus of the "truth" of the subject. Rather than being an activity, sexuality was transposed into an identity that shaped every aspect of a person, including moral character, sensibility, personality, and anatomy.

The new science of sexuality produced various categories of sexual subjects, some defined by their sexual aim and others by their choice of a sexual object. Object choice, however, became the chief means by which people were assigned sexual identities. In the case of homosexuality in particular, there was what Foucault termed a "transposition" of sodomy "onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul" (Foucault 1988, p. 43). Gender "inversion" thus was tied to homosexuality to such an extent that even today, in some contexts, cross-gender identification is equated with a homosexual object choice.

As Foucault insists, the creation of this homosexual personage made possible not only "a strong advance of social controls into this area of 'perversity'" but also "a 'reverse discourse'" by which homosexuality "began to speak on its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or 'naturality' be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified" (Foucault 1988, p. 101). Having become subjects of discourses of homosexuality, homosexual subjects began to recognize themselves as the product of those discourses, which provided them with a means of making sense of their "illicit" desires.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, many self-identified homosexuals were rejecting this identity in favor of a new term: gay. Free of the pathological connotations of sexological discourse, that term placed less emphasis on the purely sexual aspects of homosexual identity. Referring to both men and women, its use accompanied changes in the way some people conceived of sexuality and its relationship to politics. According to Steven Seidman, new thinking about homosexual identity that was produced in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots "contested the notion of homosexuality as a segment of humanity; repudiated the idea of homosexuality as symptomatic of psychic or social inferiority; and rejected a politics of assimilation" (Seidman 1993, p. 111). The Stonewall riots were a series of confrontations between New York City police and patrons of a Greenwich Village bar that has come to symbolize the struggle for contemporary lesbian, gay, and transgender rights. "The new "gay" thinking argued that sexual desire was much more fluid and mobile than the idea of a separate, distinct, and stable homosexual identity that was defined primarily by object choice allowed. In light of the myriad ways in which people experience sexual desire and its relationship to gender, the term homosexual seemed to falsify the lived reality of sex.

As more and more subjects began to identify themselves as gay, however, the most visible and vocal proponents of that new identity category retained only the second position of the three outlined by Seidman. In light of the ways in which sexuality continued to be conceptualized by the dominant culture as an identity, many gay people were convinced that in fact they did constitute a separate segment of humanity, one defined primarily by a homosexual object choice. Although they recognized this identity as "unique," they saw it as legitimate and deserving of state protection.

Sexual orientation thus began to be conceptualized along the lines of an ethnic identity. Like their counterparts in civil rights struggles, gay people organized politically around that identity, demanding the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals, adopting a logic of "we're just like everyone else—except that we're gay—and so we should be free of discrimination in housing and employment, free to marry, free to join the military." How did this happen? Was it simply a ruse of history or the result of the economic and social organization of Western culture?


The relationship of capitalism to gay identity is complicated and contradictory. According to John D'Emilio (1992), the capitalist wage labor system increasingly has allowed some subjects in the West "to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity" (D'Emilio 1992, p. 5). Specifically, the expansion of capital and the spread of wage labor in the nineteenth century drew men and women out of self-sufficient household economies and into wage work.

Accompanying that expansion of the institution of wage labor was an alteration of the meaning of sexuality. Freed by wage labor from the obligations of procreation, sexuality became "a means of establishing intimacy, promoting happiness, and experiencing pleasure" (D'Emilio 1992, p. 7). No longer tied to the family as an economic unit and able to imagine sexuality outside the demands of procreation, an increasing number of nineteenth-century subjects were able to "organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex" (D'Emilio 1992, p. 7). The increase in jobs in urban areas in particular made it possible for communities of like-minded individuals to coalesce around those emerging identities. Those individuals developed shared forms of style in dress, behavior, and language that strengthened their sense of being unique and made it possible for them to locate one another in a cultural and social environment that still was largely hostile to overt homosexuality.

Although capitalism weakened the family unit as a self-sufficient economic entity, it continued—and continues—to rely on families to reproduce the next generation of laborers. Capitalism continues to invest in the family as the chief site of emotional fulfillment, ensuring that sexuality does not remain an end in itself. (The desire of gay couples to have children, for example, thus needs to be historicized as at least in some respects an attempt by capitalism to make a productive use of gay sexuality.)

Like D'Emilio, Rosemary Hennessy (2000) offers an analysis of the relationship of gay identity to capitalism. Hennessy, however, ties the emergence of separate and distinct heterosexual and homosexual identities in the late nineteenth century to a factor not discussed by D'Emilio: the capitalist recruiting of women as desiring subjects. According to Hennessy, the appeal of capitalism to women as consumers—the result of historical changes in the relations of production, including the spread of wage labor and technological developments that increased production and opened up new consumer markets—was at odds with Victorian gender hierarchies and their conception of men as "active sexual agents" and women as "passive or passionless sexual recipients" (Hennessy 2000, p. 99). For women to recognize themselves as desiring subjects, a paradigmatic shift in the construction of sexuality had to occur: the shift "to sexual object choice as the defining feature of identity" (Hennessy 2000, p. 101). Faced with the contradictory pressures of producing women as consumers and maintaining a gendered division of labor, capitalism instituted a heteronormativity that posited "a 'natural' equation between sex (male and female) and gender (masculine and feminine)" (Hennessy 2000, p. 100) at the same time that it instituted both heterosexual and homosexual identities, with the latter being simply the perverse other of the former. According to Hennessy, the category of the homosexual was an attempt by science to "explain and to tame disruptions of the gender system (Hennessy 2000, p. 100): disruptions potentially unleashed by the uncoupling of sex and gender that the production of females as desiring subjects threatened.

Like gender and racial/ethnic identity, gay identity is exploited by capitalism to produce workers whose labor is valued differently. Although gender is the primary way in which labor is differentiated under capitalism (women's biology allegedly renders their labor less free and of less value than men's), as processes of commodification have accelerated and spread around the world, the demand has arisen for an even more finely hierarchized division of labor.

This does not imply that there is always an exact fit between, say, one's sexual identity and one's place in the division of labor. The qualitative differentiation of labor value must be flexible enough to allow for fluctuations in the labor market. The ideology of meritocracy assures that at least some members of cultural minorities will find themselves in privileged positions both as "buffers" between the rulers and the ruled (managers of the workforce) and as token examples of success that help prevent wholesale rebellion. Nonetheless, it is a historical fact that "certain areas of work, e.g. gender typed 'feminine' and/or service work, less free and lower paid, are more accessible to and tolerant of sexual minorities" (Evans 1993, p. 40). Also pertinent here is the fact that capitalism attempts to justify its coding of people into the division of labor through recourse to a naïve biologism that exaggerates physiological differences between individuals of different status groups to maintain a hierarchy. For this reason alone, one should be suspicious of attempts to locate the origin of homosexuality in human biology.


Civil rights struggles such as gay liberation both acknowledge and attempt to redress this production of the gay subject's labor as devalued, for rights-based struggles assume that all labor is of equal value and that all subjects should be able to rely on the state to guarantee them equal citizenship. There is a contradiction at the heart of civil rights struggles, for the fact that identity categories exist ensures their continued use as markers of a person's position in a hierarchized division of labor. To organize around an identity, it is necessarily to reinscribe the validity of that identity.

As David T. Evans has argued, sexual difference does not work in quite the same way as gender or ethnicity in that "it is not overt but has to be declared or exposed, but mainstream market pressures supported by legal judgments discourage revelation and exposure in both production and consumption relations" (Evans 1993, p. 40). These comments, as well as Hennessy's, indicate that gay people in so-called First World economies in particular are not only producers but consumers as well. Gay identity increasingly is experienced as a commodity for consumption. The freeing of sexuality from the obligations of procreation has made it increasingly available for commodification. One of the forms this commodification of sexuality has taken is the marketing of gay identity. The transition from homosexual to gay may be figured as occurring in precisely the historical period in which sexual subjects increasingly were perceiving themselves as consumers rather than producers, a result of the shift in the First World from industrial manufacturing to service-based economies.

As Evans argues, "As consumers we are [according to capitalist ideology] unique individuals with needs, identities, and lifestyles which we express through our purchase of appropriate commodities. If therefore our sexual identities are our imperative, inescapable and the deepest reality with which it is our duty to come to terms, then we must come to terms with sexuality … as commodities" (Evans 1993, p. 45). As a result, gay subjects who purchase goods marketed to them as gay consumers are likely to feel "more" gay than their non-purchasing brothers and sisters. Similarly, they are likely to feel that they are acting against their own political interests if they do not purchase appropriately gay-ed commodities owing to the fact that there is a naïve tendency in the United States in particular to equate increased visibility in the market with increased political equality and power.


As capitalism has extended its reach over the globe, so has gay identity. Western ways of organizing the relationship of the self to sex and gender have spread to non-Western nations, where they have been adopted, adapted, creolized, and transformed. Although some non-Western political regimes have instituted harshly repressive responses to public manifestations of gay identity, those regimes often are located in cultures that have a long history of tolerating homoeroticism. In analyzing this situation, one must keep in mind that the rejection of gay identity cannot be disentangled easily from the fact that any public display of overt sexuality is frowned upon in some non-Western cultures as immodest and the ways in which, in rejecting gay identity, such regimes sometimes are attempting to resist Western influence in general.

This is not to apologize for the brutal conditions under which some sexual subjects live. With the spread of capitalism comes the spread of Western epistemologies, and so non-Western subjects are coming to recognize themselves as gay and to experience as gay subjects the mental, emotional, and physical repression of their desires. However, in attempting to understand and combat the violations of human rights that occur as a result of government-sanctioned homophobia, it is important to recall that the stigmatizing of gay identity and/or homosexuality per se is often part of a larger strategy of resistance to globalization.


Starting in the late twentieth century there has been an increasing rejection of gay identity among some subjects in favor of the term queer—ironically, for some of the same reasons that the term homosexual was rejected some thirty years earlier. That is, the term gay is thought to be too likely to reinscribe an absolute binary division between homo- and heterosexualities and to be accommodating to a politics of assimilation. Queer also is thought to be inclusive of women in a way that gay has proved historically not to have been and to be more open to the violating of gender norms. (In an effort to free itself of the pathologizing stigma of earlier sexological discourse, first homosexual culture and then gay culture sometimes stigmatized "effeminate" men and "butch" women as victims of false consciousness.)

Additionally, the term queer represents an attempt to name a variety of resistances to regimes of the normal, not only the binary organization of sexuality and gender. There is also some concern that gay identity as it has been commodified under capitalism increasingly has reflected the economic and political interests of white middle-class subjects. Like the term gay before it, however and, ironically, for some of the same reasons, the term queer has proved to be available for commodification to the extent that, in the media in particular, it often simply designates a hipper version of gay.

see also Homosexuality, Defined; Lesbian, Contemporary: I. Overview; Queer.


D'Emilio, John. 1992. "Capitalism and Gay Identity." In Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. New York: Routledge.

Evans, David T. 1993. Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. London and New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1988. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Hennessy, Rosemary. 2000. Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. New York: Routledge.

Seidman, Steven. 1993. "Identity and Politics in a 'Postmodern' Gay Culture: Some Historical and Conceptual Notes." In Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

                                         John Champagne