Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1998

The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: The Search for Cultural Unity, by Rictor Norton

reviewed by Antony Grey

Rictor Norton taught one of the earliest US academic courses on gay studies in the early 1970s, before settling in England where he was a key member of the team which produced the old Gay News. His views on gay history and literature stem from extensive research and prolonged reflection.

This book is one of the most important I have read on gay issues. The theme is the authentic nature of queer culture and history – both of which, Norton rightly says, have been distorted, and in some respects completely denied, by gay academics as well as by homophobes. A major culprit (he asserts) is the “social constructionist” school which blossomed in the 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic in the slipstream of gay liberationist activism. During the past twenty years, these writers’ anachronistic approach to history, compounded by a hidden agenda of Marxist/Maoist dogmatic assumptions about the nature of society and the relationship between economic organisation and sexuality, has forged yet another stereotypical straitjacket which many gay men and lesbians find as ill-fitting as the older negative and libellous labels imposed on us by religious and medical homophobia.

Far from being merely a reaction to the dominant, heterosexist culture, queer culture (Norton maintains) is a deeply rooted social and historical phenomenon in its own right. Notwithstanding historical and cultural differences, same-sex lovers the world over discover their personal identity and historical roots first as individuals, and later in selfcreating communities, with a sense of homecoming. Our queer state of desire DAWNS upon us during our growing-up process. We come to recognise that we are not just the aberrational other side of the mainstream heterosexual coin, but a distinct, authentic and natural human grouping in our own right: we do not require either homophobic straights or theoretically hidebound gays to tell us who we are or what is “politically correct” behaviour for us.

The powerful thrust of this – to me, convincing – argument is richly illustrated with examples drawn from ancient, medieval and modern history and worldwide cultural sources. The inescapable problem of gay history, as Norton emphasises, is the length to which homophobes have gone to suppress and distort the historical record. Yet despite all their efforts, a distinctively gay culture has survived against the odds in most ages and societies, while most of the population who are kept in ignorance of it manifest curiosity, rather than hostility, when it breaks surface.

It’s impossible to do justice to the arguments of this thought-provoking book in a short review. Get hold of it and find out for yourself what a stimulating read it is.

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