Gay Identity in Literature Historical Context

Historical Context

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Considerable scholarship has been dedicated to homosexuality in history and culture. One of the main controversies in gay studies has centered on two schools of thought, essentialist and social constructionist. The essentialist position maintains that the characteristics of gay identity have remained constant, so that, for example, same-sex behavior in ancient Greece and in the United States in the 1990’s would have some fundamental similarities. The social constructionist view, on the other hand, argues that particular practices are historically specific; therefore, their meanings change according to the time and place in which they occur. Most of the scholarship exploring gay identity in American literature has emerged out of the constructionist school, and the standard position has been that homosexuality was repressed until at least the end of World War II, when it began to be more in the public consciousness, culminating in the Stonewall riots, an uprising of gay people against a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York in June, 1969.

Historian George Chauncey has expanded and complicated the constructionist reading of gay American history. In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), Chauncey argues that a sharp dichotomy between the homosexual and the heterosexual emerged in the twentieth century, suggesting that same-sex relationships in earlier times should not be thought of in a context that came later. Thus, “homoerotic” texts of the nineteenth century do not necessarily imply that their writers were expressing homosexual identity or that they themselves were what would come to be known as gay. Perhaps the most important implication of Chauncey’s work is that critics should not be making the claim that such “homoerotic” writers were heterosexual, since that identity, like its counterpart, is a twentieth century phenomenon, and since the meanings of both identities are interdependent.